Finding a vintage Pontiac with modern radial tires is commonplace in today’s hobby. Who can blame an owner for using them? After all, they’re new and tend to ride and handle better than most vintage units, particularly original bias-ply examples, and they’re usually commercially available in a variety of sizes for a rather reasonable cost.
So what if you’re a Pontiac purist and want to retain the factory look? The square-shouldered bias-ply Goodyear Polyglas GT or Firestone Wide Oval have been reproduced for a number of years and certainly preserve the original appearance of any early-’70s GTO or Trans Am. Kelsey Tire redeveloped the late-’70s Goodyear Polysteel Radial a few years ago -- originally used on Trans Ams equipped with the WS6 suspension package -- and it’s been a welcome addition with that crowd.
With Kelsey covering Goodyear tire offerings for early and late Second-Gen Firebirds, it left a noticeable void for the mid-’70s cars. While many of those from ’75 forward were fitted with tires featuring GM’s infamous tread design, the number of examples of the era treated to high-end restos is rather low and doesn’t yet substantiate a redevelopment investment for tires of that type. Fortunately, for ’74 Firebird owners, it shares its tire offerings with mid-’70s Corvettes, and that helped fuel the need for accurate reproductions.
Follow along as we preserve our ’74 Trans Am’s appearance with a set of reproduction Goodyear Steelgards.
Pontiac’s first foray into radial tires on its production cars was during the late ’60s. It then introduced a GR70-15 option for the Grand Prix in February 1972. Radial Tuned Suspension (RTS) was made available the following model year, and consisted of springs, sway bars, and bushings specially designed to maximize the ride-and-handling qualities of the radial tires it was teamed with.
The Trans Am was among those ’73 Pontiacs that GR70-15 radials were available on, and surprisingly the tires were first only available with white lines before white letters were introduced later in the model year. RTS was back for the ’74 Firebird and as standard equipment on the Trans Am. A black-wall GR70-15 was the base tire while raised white letters added just over $40 to the price tag.
While we admit to driving the Trans Am sparingly, we weren't comfortable driving it far on
Kelsey Tire in Camdenton, Missouri, reproduces a number of vintage Goodyear tires. The com
We securely positioned the Trans Am on jack stands to prepare it for its new rubber.
Midwest Tire in Omaha, Nebraska, dismounted the Honeycomb rims from the modern BFGoodrich
Balancing the new reproduction radials wasn’t any more difficult than any other modern rad
Once home, we thoroughly washed the tires with soap and water to remove the water-soluble
The decorated tires commonly found on ’74 Firebirds were generally the Firestone Steel Radial 500, General or Uniroyal Steel Belted Radials, or the Goodyear Steelgard. It’s likely such tires would have been used on other Pontiac models that had white-lettered GR70-15 tires available. There’s seemingly no definitive pattern as to which tires a given Trans Am was originally equipped with. Ours is one such example fitted with Goodyear Steelgards from the factory. With just 16,000 miles on its odometer, they remained on the car when we purchased it in 2010.
With the ornamentation installed, it’s difficult to tell which original Honeycomb and Good
Driving on 35-year-old tires -- even to nearby shows and for photographs -- was nerve-wracking. They were old and hard, but remarkably not flat-spotted, so the temptation to run the car up to speed was great, but we weren’t willing to take a chance on one or more separating and destroying the original paint on a fender or quarter.
To enjoy our Trans Am and the powerful SD-455 nestled under its hood, we installed a modern set of 255/60R15 BFGoodrich Radial T/A tires with restored Honeycomb wheels. As expected when replacing a nearly-40-year-old tire, the Firebird’s ride and handling improved substantially, and we could drive it at any speed up to the tire’s speed rating without concern. What we lost, however, was the look of an unrestored, low-mile car. We could reinstall the originals any time we desired, but that would rekindle the concerns negated by the modern tires.
Kelsey Tire in Camdenton, Missouri, and its president, John Kelsey, are no strangers to the tire trade. In its 44 years, Kelsey Tire first sold and serviced original tires on new vehicles over the years before expanding into redeveloping the wide array of modern reproductions it has brought to market for purists.
The Corvette hobby is known for its high-end restorations and stringent judging rules. Therefore, owners and restorers will only settle for the most correct and accurately reproduced components, and that includes tires. Kelsey secured a specific agreement with Goodyear to use its trademarked names and logos, and the original mold drawing for a given tire. By interfacing that with the sample of an actual vintage tire, Kelsey was able to redevelop a faithful reproduction mimicking the minutest detail.
Over the years Kelsey Tire has introduced reproductions of many Goodyear tires originally installed on Corvettes. Since some were subsequently used on Pontiac models, our hobby’s owners have been able to equip their vintage rides with reproduction Goodyear tires, too, and the Polyglas GT has likely been the most popular. “We took it upon ourselves to redevelop the Goodyear Steelgard. The Corvette market led the parade as the tires were available on that model from ’73-’77, but we knew full well that it had other applications during that timeframe,” says Kelsey.
The Steelgard redevelopment process was treated just as any before it, and the reproductions debuted in late 2011. “Any radial tire produced today, whether a completely new design or a reproduction of a vintage original, must comply with DOT 139 standards. That requires critically testing it to ensure its safety. Today’s Goodyear Steelgards are safer than any before it,” he proudly adds.
The lettering of the reproduction (left), both molded into the tire and the raised white letters, are exactly like our original (right).
We found the spacing of the GR70-15 lettering to be grouped slightly tighter on the reproduction (left) when compared to our original (right). Such variances are common to original vintage tires, because as tire molds wore and were retired, manufacturers reintroduced replacements that could vary as well. Kelsey Tire’s reproductions are produced using the original mold drawings, so such variances will apply.
While the tread design between the original and reproduction is exact, the new Goodyear Steelgards are produced using modern rubber compound, which is lightyears better than the original. In optimal conditions, by treating the Steelgards like any modern production passenger-car tire, they can last 40,000 miles or more. Don’t expect that life if you have a heavy right foot and/or like to plant your Pontiac deep into the turns!
Making The Purchase
When we learned that reproduction Steelgards were available, we were immediately interested. Familiar with the quality of Kelsey’s Polyglas GT reproductions, we expected nothing less than perfection. While perusing the Kelsey Tire booth at SEMA 2012, we found the new Steelgard prominently displayed and took the opportunity to look it over and visit with John at length. Amazed at the tire’s accuracy and confident in John’s word, we purchased a set for our ’74 Trans Am. The tires retail for $350 each directly from Kelsey Tire and were delivered to our doorstep in just a few days.
Through the mid-’00s, federal law required that DOT compliance information be displayed on
After our initial driving session, we returned home and ensured the lug nuts remained tigh
We briefly considered removing our Trans Am’s original Steelgards from the original Honeycomb wheels, but ultimately decided against it for fear of tearing the 40-year-old tires’ brittle rim seating grooves during the dismounting process. We also reasoned that since the reproduction Steelgards were new tires, constructed of modern rubber compound and meeting all current safety standards, there wasn’t any reason we couldn’t treat them as any other radial tire commonly available today.
We decided to shelf the modern BFGoodrich tires for another project and install the new Steelgards on our restored rims. On a lazy Saturday morning, we securely supported the Firebird on sturdy jack stands and removed all four wheels and tires, loaded them and the new Steelgards into our pickup truck, and headed for Midwest Tire in Omaha, Nebraska, to perform the swap. Within an hour we were on our way back home to install the new rubber.
With the wheels and tires fully installed, the lug nuts tightened to 65 ft-lb, and the tires pressurized to 30 psi, we first backed the Trans Am out of the garage to marvel at how the GR70-15 reproduction tires completely restored the T/A’s original appearance. Elated with the visual effect, we ventured out onto the streets to determine how they might differ from the modern 255/60 radials in various conditions.
We found the Trans Am to ride smoother and softer when compared to the wider BFGoodrich tires, and that’s something we expected to see. What we didn’t expect to find, however, was no noticeable loss in handling ability. While we admit that we didn’t push our unrestored Super-Duty–powered car to its limits, in normal turns at higher-than-normal speeds we realized that Pontiac engineers perfectly combined the suspension and tire combination to let each independent system work in concert to maximize the effect.
What can happen when you try to drive your vintage Pontiac on original tires? As the rubbe
Kelsey Tire reproduces a number of vintage Goodyear tires, including the bias-ply Polyglas
If giving your Pontiac a vintage look and feel is important, reproduction Goodyear Steelgard tires from Kelsey Tire will certainly let you accomplish those goals. While they may not be correct for all years, they’re absolutely correct for the ’74 Firebird Trans Am, and will look period-correct for Firebirds in following years, at least until more accurate reproductions arrive. Considering they’re made with modern materials and comply with today’s strict safety standards, there’s no reason they couldn’t be considered anywhere new radials are desired!