Contessa—the Italian word for countess; given as a title to the wife or widow of a count in the nobility of Continental Europe or a woman having the rank of a count or earl in her own right

No matter how amazingly Pontiac's two-seat sport coupe concepts and show cars have captured the imagination of America's public (the Bonneville Special, XP-833, Banshee, and Piranha are a few examples), or how Pontiac's production two-seaters have provided driving excitement and fuel for the soul for America's new-car buyers (the Fiero and Solstice), there have always been upper management regimes at General Motors who cancelled the projects for no other reason than "Pontiac shouldn't have a two-seat performance car because it would compete with the Corvette."

But what if a former Pontiac engineer and first-string player in the Division's high-performance development team continued to follow Pontiac General Manager John Z. DeLorean's prime directive to his employees—"Show me the best car you know how to do."

"That was the philosophy of the Trans Am way back in '69," says Herb Adams, Pontiac's former Special Projects Engineer and owner of Passion Motors. "What is the lightest, fastest, best-handling, and best-looking car we could build? If we had kept working toward a better and better car as DeLorean always demanded from us, we'd have something like this Contessa."

Adam's Contessa is a low-volume, hand-built, made-to-order, two-seat sports car that carries Pontiac passion and performance into the 21st century with an image that embraces the '60s. Unlike other Pontiac-inspired concepts and production cars—like the Jim Wangers Signature Edition GTO, the Burt Reynolds Edition Trans Am, or the myriad Fifth-Generation Camaro-conversion Trans Ams that have been produced—the Contessa does not rely upon a GM body shell or chassis for its build. And if the opportunity was ripe, the Contessa is already designed to be a high-volume, assembly-line vehicle that would give Pontiac hobbyists a viable ultra-performance alternative to the Chevrolet Corvette.

The Contessa features a lightweight, hand-laid fiberglass body, a Herb Adams-designed custom frame, a choice of engines, and two trim levels—Touring or Track. "We focused on the elements that are needed for a great car—appearance, acceleration, and handling," Adams says.

Appearance
According to Adams, "The Contessa is one of the most beautifully shaped exteriors to come out of Detroit in the last 40 years. My team and I were inspired by the Jaguar E-series. We took that voluptuous '60s styling, but harmonized our application of those visual cues by eliminating awkward spots."

To get from paper to production, Adams sketched a rough side-view drawing of what he wanted the Contessa to be. Then he called upon the model-building skills he learned when he competed in the General Motors' sponsored Fisher Body Craftsman's Guild as a teenager half a century ago. "Since I'm not a very good artist, I learned over the years that it's better for me to put my ideas into a 3-D model and create the shapes I like," he says. He took one of his Cobra chassis, stretched it 5-inches longer and 5-inches wider, and mounted a Daytona Cobra body onto it. "I knew it wasn't going to be very accurate, but at least it gave me the general shape," he says. Then, he took the car to prototyper Randy Wittine of American Design Group in Sterling Heights. "Let's fill in the blank spaces," Adams recalls saying to Wittine.

"Though that sounded pretty simple, by the time we got done a year or so later, we had a clay model and every surface on the car was different than the Cobra. We used existing doors and windows because you can't afford to make that all new. Then we made temporary molds off of the clay," he says.

Adams took one temporary mold to Pasquale Palombo of Pasquale's Paint and Performance in New Baltimore and signed him onto the project for surface development. "There were a lot of surfaces that needed to be integrated. He spent most of a year making it perfect. Everything is the shape we want. The surfaces and the highlights are all true," Adams says.

According to Palombo, "Herb wanted a body that came out of the mold as close to perfect as humanly possible. We spent nearly 2,000 hours perfecting the exterior surface from the temporary mold and created the master." From that, Adams ordered a production mold, from which ready-to-paint body shells and panels were manufactured.

During Palombo's time with the Contessa, the car earned its name. Adams tells how: "When we were refining the clay model, Pasquale's dad, Antonio—a first-generation Italian—came by to see what we were doing. He asked, ‘What did you name it?' I replied, ‘I call it my mistress because it took all my money, gives me a thrill once in a while, and made my wife leave town.' He said, ‘You call it Contessa.' So I asked, ‘Does it mean count or sister?' He said, ‘No, in Italian today, it means kept woman.' Perfect."

Adams hand-built two fully functional Contessas for marketing and testing—a Touring Edition, which we feature in this story, and a stripped-down track version, which he uses for advanced, high-performance development. Let's look at how he put together the Touring Edition; except where noted, the processes used in creating the Track Edition are the same.

Paint
When the fiberglass body and bolt-on panels (front end, hood, doors, decklid) are made in the mold, they're treated to three surface coats of epoxy vinylester. Palombo assembled the body, removed the parting lines with 320-grit sandpaper, and applied PPG Evercoat Glazing Putty to smooth out the very few imperfections he found. Using PPG products, he primed the body with K38 High Build Primer, block-sanded with 400-grit, applied a single coat of K36 Surface Primer, wet-sanded with 600-grit, and laid down a coat of DP90 sealer. Then he sprayed 11 coats of paint—three of DBC Blue, four of PRL 68 pearl, and four of Concept 2042 clear, followed by color-sanding with progressive grits from 600 to 1,500 and polishing with the 3M Perfect-It system. (Note: Track Editions come unpainted with vinylester gel-coats only.)

Interior
Adams decked the Contessa out in leather-wrapped Recaro seats with matching door panels; RJS four-point harnesses; a custom cast-aluminum dash; Gaffrig gauges (speedometer, tachometer, voltage, oil pressure, water temperature, and fuel); a Flaming River stainless-steel tilt steering column; a Grant steering wheel, custom cast-aluminum pedals; and light-absorbing aircraft-grade fabric for the headliner, reveal moldings, and dash cap. A Vintage Air A/C system keeps the occupants cool.

Its cabin's most unique feature is its built-in racing helmet holders in an area behind the front seats, which were designed by Wayne Wolf of Atlanta, Georgia. "I had almost forgotten how much work doing a street interior was. It took nearly as long to build the interior as it did the clay model," he says.

The Track Edition interior is a whole lot simpler. It features the same parts as the Touring Edition, but without the seats and upholstery. Customers choose the race seat of their choice; a speedometer is not standard.

Power
The Contessa Touring Edition was recently fitted with a '74 Pontiac 455 two-bolt main engine with a stock crank, connecting rods, and pistons; 6X heads with Speed Pro stainless-steel 2.11/1.77 valves; a Comp Cams Extreme Energy XE262H hydraulic, flat-tappet cam (218/224-degrees duration, 0.462/0.470-inch lift); Comp Cams Magnum roller-tip 1.52-ratio rocker arms; an Edelbrock Performer intake; a Holley 750-cfm carburetor; and a R.A.R.E. cast-iron exhaust manifolds.

A manual valvebody Turbo 400 mated to an American Axle 8.5-inch rear-axle assembly stuffed with 3.50 gears and a limited-slip differential put the power down. Exhaust gasses pass from the engine through a Borla stainless-steel system featuring an X-style pipe, dual straight-through mufflers, and stainless-steel tips.

At press time, Adams was in talks with Butler Performance of Leoma, Tennessee, to furnish customer-order Contessas with a stroked 400/467 or 455/467 engine featuring a 4.25-inch stroke; a 4.181-inch bore; 4340 H-beam forged-steel rods (6.800-inch length); Butler Performance/Ross pistons; a Comp Cams custom-grind hydraulic-roller camshaft and valvetrain; Butler Performance gaskets; Edelbrock Performer D-Port (87cc) or Performer RPM round-port aluminum heads (ported and assembled by Butler Performance); an Edelbrock intake (port-matched); a Holley 850- or 870-cfm carburetor; and an MSD ignition. Estimated horsepower is 550-600 hp. Options will include an AllPontiac.com/Butler Performance aluminum block displacing 505 ci (estimated 600 to 650-plus horsepower), and F.A.S.T. fuel injection.

Chassis
It is constructed of mild steel, wire-welded by a NASCAR chassis builder, and then powdercoated. The front and rear suspension consists of steel, double A-arms with aluminum knuckles and ProShock lightweight aluminum coilovers with preset valving (250-lb/in front spring rate and 150-lb/in rear spring rate).

Up front, a Flaming River rack-and-pinion power steering unit (2.7 turns lock to lock) gives the Contessa its agile response, while a 32mm, non-adjustable hollow sway bar controls the roll angle and makes front end response precise. Out back, a 24mm, non-adjustable sway bar minimizes understeer and balances handling characteristics.

A set of four Brembo brakes provides on-a-dime stopping power, thanks to 12.8-inch rotors and four-piston fixed calipers fore and 12-inch rotors and four-piston fixed calipers aft. The track version of the Contessa is fitted with Sierra Racing Products Grand National Billet calipers.

Wheels and Tires
The Contessa includes Passion Motors' exclusive wheels, which are constructed with a magnesium outer casting and a spun-aluminum inner half. They come in 18x9 (front) and 18x10 (rear) sizes, wrapped in BFG g-Force T/A KDW-2 245/40ZR18 and 275/40ZR18 rubber for the Touring Edition or 18x10 (front) and 18x12 (rear) sizes wrapped in Hoosier A6 275/35R18 and 345/30R18 rubber for the Track Edition.

Conclusion
Though Adams has not conducted performance tests yet on the Contessa, he has used his engineering skills to speculate the car's potential. Based upon a 500hp Pontiac powerplant, he expects the 3,200-pound Contessa Touring Edition to run the quarter-mile in 12 seconds flat, with handling performance of 0.90 g on the skid pad (limited by tires), and an estimated top speed of 200 mph. He also says the 2,600-pound Contessa Track Edition has an estimated 11.4-second quarter-mile e.t. and achieves 1.1g lateral force on the skid pad. He plans on conducting performance tests on both cars in the summer of 2011.

Adams will debut the Contessa with the Butler Performance-built 455 at the 2011 Trans Am Nationals, scheduled August 26-28, 2011, in Dayton, Ohio.

Federal law requires that Passion Motors sell the Contessa without a drivetrain, however Adams supplies the vehicle ready for a drivetrain drop-in. Contessa Touring Editions start at $140,000, including the price of a drivetrain and installation. Contessa Track Editions are priced at $79,000, without paint and drivetrain, but with electrical, cooling, and exhaust. Build time ranges from three to four months depending on options.

For more information on the Contessa, contact Herb Adams at (586) 268-4443 or visit Passion Motors official website at www.passion-motors.com.

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