What It Is: '74-'81 Esprit/Firebird
Why it's a great choice:
Debby Manning's '77 350 four-barrel...
Debby Manning's '77 350 four-barrel Sky Bird is an excellent example of the breed. Though the low 20,000 miles and outstanding condition mean that this one would cost a bit more than our proposed budget, another Sky Bird with higher mileage and some more road wear, but described as a great driver, recently sold on eBay for $3,500.
Kinship to the T/A gives Firebirds instant respect on the street. They can be easily built for T/A performance or much more. Parts are easy to find at reasonable prices, and interchangeability within the four lines over its 12-year run is excellent. Also everybody loves Second-Gens.
What it's not:
A Trans Am, so don't expect Trans Am money when you sell it.
What it probably has: 250 L-6, 231 V-6, 265 two-barrel Pontiac; a 301 two-barrel, 301 four-barrel, 305 four-barrel Chevy; a 350 four-barrel Pontiac; a 350 four-barrel Chevy; a 350 four-barrel Olds; or a 400 two-barrel Pontiac.
Low-buck upgrade: Rejet the carb and recurve the distributor for the four-barrel engines; upgrade to true dual exhaust.
What it probably has: 1.00-inch or smaller front swaybar, stock type replacement shocks and stock springs; no rear bar
Low-buck upgrade: Used T/A swaybars 1.25-inch front 0.750 or 0.875-inch T/A rear for about $30-$60 each ('79-and-later Formulas also have the T/A suspension); KYB gas shocks
Some great things came out of the '70s, and the vast majority of Pontiac's model lines are among them. With the economy what it is and many of the '70s Pontiacs at very affordable prices, HPP thought it timely to offer up five models that you can purchase as clean drivers for $4,000 or less that we think are worth your consideration. Sure they may not be all that quick in stock form, but they can still be cool cruisers that can become faster and better looking as your budget recovers.
More than just a "hey, go buy this car, we saw it cheap" story, we will also offer a few pointers on how to avoid the pitfalls of purchasing a used 30-some-odd-year-old car, and we'll even suggest a few low-budget upgrades to get your machine looking presentable and performing well.
Though we're presenting five Pontiacs here, there are plenty more from the era that fit the bill. Even if you don't see your favorite "me decade" Poncho, you can still apply the buying and upgrade suggestions to your ride, be it a '70-'76 Big Car, '73-'80 GP, or '78-'81 LeMans.
Set goals for your Pontiac and be realistic about how much you can handle. The mantra of low-buck is that you do as much of the work yourself as possible. Evaluate your wrenching abilities honestly. Do you consider an oil change difficult? Do you love to do bolt-ons? Are engine swaps your preference?
If you've never turned a wrench before and want a solid reliable Pontiac, you'll have to hold out and pay near the high end of the budget for a moderate-mileage, well-cared-for example.
If you're handy with doing bolt-ons, but not into swapping engines and transmissions, then find a Pontiac that has at least a 350, or better, a 400 Pontiac engine. If it's a two-barrel, a swap meet-sourced aftermarket aluminum or even a stock iron four-barrel intake and Q-jet, paired with a true dual exhaust system will result in a smooth and more powerful cruiser. Just make sure the rest of the engine is mechanically sound when you buy the Pontiac.
If you aren't shy about swapping engines, then you may consider a low-cost remanufactured long-block. If so, it opens up more possibilities in the buying process. You may want to seek out a '70s wonder that has a tired 350 or 400, or one with a Chevy or Olds V-8 powerplant that is ready for a rebuild. The purchase price for the car will be lower, since the engine is ailing. This is an advantage to you because you are planning on yanking it anyway.
If you are doing a Pontiac 350 to Pontiac 350 swap or 400 to 400, you're gold, because everything should match up on the new engine, such as the motor mounts, pulleys and accessory brackets, carb, intake, ignition, and exhaust. And you have a proper long-block core to turn into the engine remanufacturer to get some cash back.
However, if swapping to a Pontiac 400 from a Chevy or Olds motor, you'll lose the core charge, which isn't too big of a deal, but you'll also have to find motor mounts, a carb, intake, distributor, water pump and housing, exhaust manifolds, and all the pulleys and accessory brackets. If the trans has a Chevy-only bolt pattern, purchase the $57.99 adaptor from Jegs (www.jegs.com) to mate it to the Pontiac engine.
Should you decide to go the remanufactured engine route, you may want to check out Rebuilt Auto Car Engines (www.rebuilt-auto-engines.com). This company can provide myriad 350, 400, and 455 remanufactured Pontiac long-blocks from the '70s that range in price from $1,657.95 for '68-'79 350s, plus a $249 core charge, to $1,511.95 with a $399 core charge for '67-'79 400s, to $1,765.95 with a $649 core charge for '70-'76 455s. The company even offers extra-cost performance upgrades.
Though HPP has never purchased an engine from this company one of our contributors has bought engines regularly for years and has had very positive experiences. The engines also come with a 7-year, 70,000-mile warranty.
If you desire a high-performance engine, Len Williams (www.lenwilliamsautomachine.com) has been building 400s and 455s for Pontiac hobbyists since 1977. A 400 long-block capable of approximately 385 hp (when using your compatible induction, ignition, and exhaust) is $3,495, and the 455 with approximately 425 hp costs $4,095 with no core required.
Make a concerted effort to buy a Pontiac with a properly working Turbo 350 or Turbo 400 transmission then all you have to do is add a B&M or TCI shift kit for about $38 from Jegs.
Be aware that the lighter-duty Turbo Hydramatic 200s back six-cylinders, and some 301 and 305 two-barrel engines from '77 up in Ventura/Phoenix and Bonne/Catalina models.
But should the trans end up needing rebuilding or replacing, and you want to do it relatively inexpensively, Rebuilt Automatic Transmissions (www.rebuilt-auto-transmissions.com) offers rebuilt Turbo 350s and 400s for Pontiacs for $660, plus a $200 core charge and a 1-year limited warranty. The trans comes with a new torque converter as well.
Most of the Pontiacs discussed in this story will come with a 10-bolt rear. However, it could be a Buick rear (B), a Chevy (G) from Detroit gear and axle, an Olds (O) Chevrolet-Buffalo Gear (C), or GM of Canada (K) unit.
Since the C-clip equipped 8.5-inch ring-geared Chevy 10-bolt is the most common, and has the best parts availability we'll discuss that one. Most Pontiacs of the era will come with 2.41, 2.56, 2.73, or 3.08 gears. If you enjoy highway driving with low revs and want to save the cost of an overdrive trans, then keep those gears. If you want more punchy performance, 3.42s or 3.73s will help.
The 2-series carriers accept 2.41 and 2.56 gears and 3 series carriers accept 2.73 to 5.13 gears. To use 2.73 and up gears on a 2-series carrier without swapping out to a 3-series, you'll need a ring gear spacer. Jegs has a Mr. Gasket spacer for $34.99.
Also, chances are the rear will be open, not a posi. Finding a used posi unit for a Chevy 8.5-inch 10-bolt for about $150-$200 shouldn't be too difficult, or you may want to look into a used Eaton or Auburn posi, as new Eatons run about $490 and the Auburn is about $340.