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SilverFleet SuperDork
5/28/14 8:52 p.m.

I've been meaning to post a build for this car for years now. I have had the car for 12 years next month, and there’s a lot of emotional attachment with this one. As some of you may know, I’m a bit long winded. It is a tale of one man’s journey (or stupidity) in the automotive realm. It is in sad shape these days, but I aim to fix that!

First, some history.

Back in 2002, I was commuting every day to college in my '89 Maxima SE, and I used to pass by this silver 1979 Trans Am on my way to school. I owned a 1983 Z28 project at that point, and I knew since I was a kid that I required a 2nd or 3rd Gen F-Body when I grew up. That Trans Am ended up with a For Sale sign on it, so I stopped with my buddy to look. After seeing the price of $5000, I laughed and drove off. It appeared solid, but definitely not a $5000 car.

2002 was a rough year for me. I lost my grandmother who played a large part of bringing me up in February, and I lost my Maxima in a car accident in March. Then, I discovered my Z28's 305 was the most broken motor that could still idle around April/May (That was actually pretty funny, but I digress...). I received my insurance payout of $2300 on the Maxima in the beginning of June, and started car shopping.

Remember, this was before the days of Craigslist, so car searching locally for a cheap daily driver or project consisted of picking up the Want Advertiser every Tuesday for $2 at the corner store, thumbing through the tiny little ads, and calling random people hoping to arrange a time in which you hoped to meet up. I called on all sorts of cars and trucks. I recall looking at another Maxima with an outlandish price and a bad throwout bearing, a few 3rd Gen Camaros, XJ Cherokees, a S10 Blazer, and more. But all fell through for whatever reason, and I was bummed. On the last weekend of June, I received a phone call from my uncle. He knew my situation, and was also into cars and keeping an eye out for anything interesting. He was out running errands and he stumbled upon a silver 1979 Trans Am for sale. Sound familiar? Yep, it was the same car. Except this time, it was $2500. At that price, I had to check it out again, so off I went. It was an Olds 403/TH350 car, and it was a hard top. It was silver with a red interior, and it had the charcoal, black and red decals. It clearly had some cosmetic defects, like peeling paint on the nose and an obviously-replaced quarter panel and door skin on the driver’s side. It was a WS6 car, which on a ’79, means 15x8” Snowflake wheels, bigger sway bars, a tighter steering box, extra subframe bracing, a limited slip differential, and 4-wheel disc brakes. But why was it half the price than when I saw it about a year earlier? A look inside offered clues. It was now “equipped” with some Taz floormats, cheap gray seat covers, a chrome skull shift knob, and one skull lock knob, and the guy who owned it was your typical trashy, possibly-addicted-to-meth guy. He was a tiling contractor and he used this as his “work truck”.

I started to talk to him, and immediately got the sense that he had no clue what he was talking about, and it had lived a hard life under his ownership. He popped the hood and fired it up. The 403 Olds ran ok, but had a sizable exhaust leak. It had a cheap air cleaner with the shaker just resting on top, and an Edelbrock Performer RPM intake and Performer carb on top. He told me that the original carb and intake were “in a dumpster, because that E36 M3 makes it slow”. Then, there were the stories of him beating the snot out of it. The transmission kickdown cable snapped because he was “doing a wicked burnout”.

Another look at the car, and I started to see some non-standard bits and pieces that made me think that this car was something special. For instance, the car had a Hurst Dual Gate shifter, some non-stock fender braces made of aluminum, and a weird 170mph speedometer that said Trans Am Specialties on the face. I was conflicted by the sheer awesomeness of one of my childhood dream cars within my reach and the strange parts attached to it and the fact that it was owned by this crack head. I told him that I would sleep on it and get back to him in the morning.

After researching the Trans Am all night and realizing that it was a WS6 car and some of those parts were SUPER rare (more on that later), I went back with my dad to strike a deal. I got there just in time. There was a crowd of people there looking at the car again, including a guy with his teenage daughter that wanted to buy it for her. She was going on and on about painting it purple and reupholstering it with leopard skin, so I pulled the owner aside and offered him $2k on the spot cash. He told everyone that it was sold, and the crowd disbursed. I was pumped, and a little scared, because this was going to replace my Maxima as a daily driver. Little did I know what kind of commitment I made, as this car would take me on a journey in automotive insanity, both good and bad.

Stay tuned for more.

SilverFleet SuperDork
5/28/14 9:12 p.m.

Now after all that reading, I suppose you want some pics, right? Let's start at the beginning. Please keep in mind that these pics may not be the best, as a lot were taken with 2002-era digital cameras.

Here, you see the previous owner on the day I picked it up. Yes, he's wearing a TEAL MESH TANK TOP.

I still have the skull shifter somewhere. I named him Frank.

The Olds 403. The most frustrating motor I've ever dealt with. More on that later.

A few days later after a bath and some new front tires...

A cleaned-up interior. "Frank" got replaced with a proper Hurst T-handle. Those stupid gray seat covers are still on the car.

And a couple shots from a quick photo shoot years ago at an old WWII-era shipyard in my hometown that is now town houses and yuppie shops.

Let's fast forward to today.

This is the car as it sits now in my driveway. I just resurrected it from a two year slumber on Memorial Day. It now sports a .060-over Pontiac 400 with some goodies with only 1100 miles on it since the rebuild (performed in 2008), but life and other projects have gotten in the way. I need to get going on this.

I have a lot more pics, and I'll post more as soon as I can.

Rad_Capz HalfDork
5/28/14 10:31 p.m.

Good to see you're back at it! Will be watching for updates.

Trans_Maro UltraDork
5/28/14 10:50 p.m.

Nice, the Dual Gate shifters are getting hard to find for those cars.

At least he didn't screw the shaker to the hood.

Glad to see you ditched the station wagon engine.

I've got a VSE seat recline kit still in the package for those cars if you're interested.


David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
5/29/14 12:00 a.m.

Trans-Am, what's your pleasure?

That car rules. My dad had a '78 Camaro, but it was just a regular model-305 w/auto, light blue with pimptastic white interior.

Dusterbd13 Dork
5/29/14 6:19 a.m.

Im happy to aee this. Especially the mesh shirt meth head guy.

Keep it on the road this time. Looks pretty solid and isable the way it it, but pictures only tell part of the tale. What's all needed to be safe and reliable?

Gasoline SuperDork
5/29/14 6:52 a.m.

Shoot ya! I'm aboard. Subscribing!

solfly Reader
5/29/14 7:40 a.m.

SilverFleet SuperDork
5/29/14 7:54 a.m.

Thanks guys for the nice comments and motivation.

Let's go back again to when I first bought the car. The 403 was tired, and had an exhaust leak. The former owner tried to install Pontiac 400 headers on the OLDS 403, and in the process, he snapped almost all of the manifold bolts in the heads. I had to have the heads drilled and tapped to accept new bolts. At that time, I installed headers and a true dual exhaust with 40-series Flowmaster mufflers.

I spent a lot of time correcting the sins of the teal mesh tank top guy. As I worked on it nearly every day in the summer of 2002, all sorts of issues were arising. One time, the car caught fire after doing a tune-up. I had installed a new coiland ignition module I had lying around from my Camaro project, and afterwards, the car backfired and caught fire. Two plug wires arced out on me. Let me tell you, there's nothing like driving down the road and seeing flames come out of the shaker scoop on your Trans Am. Luckily, it happened in front of a friend's place, and between him and a good Samaritan with a fire extinguisher, the fire was out in minutes with minimal damage. I had the car up and running the next day. That is how I learned that Chevy HEI coils and modules were different than BOP ones, since the distributors spin the other way.

After driving it all summer, and wrenching on it nearly every day, I realized that it probably wasn't the best daily driver, so it got relegated to project car/summer car status. I really didn't do much to it in 2003 or 2004 except fix small issues with the car.

A couple summers later in 2005, I was driving it around, and a kid in a Thunderbird Super Coupe was egging me on, and I took the bait. I won the race, but I spun bearings on the 403. That sidelined the car for a while. At this point, I decided I was going to pull the 403 and see how bad the damage was and re-build it over the winter. The crankshaft had a few egg-shaped journals, and my machinist laughed at it because it was so bad. I really wish I had pics! For Christmas that year, my new girlfriend decided to find and buy me a re-manufactured crankshaft for the car. Yeah, I kept her. I was surprised to find that the block was standard bore, and fellow GRM'er Pseudosport and I honed it, installed all new bearings, a Melling "RV" cam, and put it all back together. I also bought it a new Holley Street Avenger 670cfm carb at that time.

Here I am all proud of the rebuild. Little did I know that it wasn't over.

In the summer of 2006, I got the engine back in the car.

I drove the car with the refreshed engine all summer, and it seemed to be doing better, but there were still some issues. I kept having an off-idle tip-in issue with the throttle, which I attributed to installing the cam or timing set incorrectly. I messed with timing, and I think I went as far as pulling the cam and re-installing it, and to my surprise, it was installed correctly. The issue never disappeared. Also, it developed an issue with the TH350 where the transmission would puke fluid out of the dipstick tube.

Then came the last straw. In 2007, the 403 developed a mysterious oil leak on the passenger side, leaking right onto the header. At first, I thought it was the oil filter housing. I pulled it and re-installed it numerous times, but the leak was still there. After running one of those UV-dye tests, I discovered that it was leaking out of the block/head mating surface. Either the block deck or the heads were warped, and it was seeping by. I was done with the 403.

SilverFleet SuperDork
5/29/14 8:19 a.m.

A few years earlier when I was slinging auto parts, I befriended a guy that also wanted to see the 403 get tossed from my engine bay, and he donated a 1974 Pontiac 400 short block to the cause. He said he didn't know much about it, other than it was installed in a 1970 Ram Air III Trans Am he just picked up, and he also had the car's original engine, so he didn't need it. The motor was weather seized, and was absolutely disgusting. I know I have pics of what it looked like, but I will have to dig them up.

I disassembled the short block and found that it had a 1968 Pontiac 350 H.O. nodular crank and rods, and that it was bored .030 over at one point. The goal for now was to find a decent set of heads, drop it off at my engine builder and hope for the best. 1974-up Pontiac blocks have thinner walls than the earlier ones, so I knew that .060-over was as far as you could go safely. I decided that that this would be a fun street engine with a goal of about 400hp, if the builder could clean up the block. A trip to a local junkyard resulted in finding a set of 1971 Pontiac 400 #96 heads, which were perfect for this build. They are really sought after by the 455 guys, as they offer a perfect compression ratio and combustion chamber size with decent pistons on today's gas.

I dropped it all off at my builder, and he miraculously got the engine cleaned up. He treated the heads to a 3-angle valve job, and machined the crank. We ended up going with domed forged pistons to achieve around a 9.3:1 compression ratio. I ended up going with a Comp Cams Xtreme Energy X268H cam, which was aggressive but ok for street use. The rotating assembly was balanced in the past, and the builder said that it was still balanced enough not to have to do it again, so we went with it.

More pics:

Out with the 403...

And the 400 in.

And later on with tall valve covers to clear the Harland Sharp roller tip rockers I installed.

dj06482 GRM+ Memberand Dork
5/29/14 8:23 a.m.

Enjoying this thread so far!

SilverFleet SuperDork
5/29/14 8:34 a.m.

The 400 fought us hard. It went in and out of the car numerous times for stupid reasons. The major reason was the oil dipstick tube. Pontiacs have a two piece tube, and I was flying blind and I didn't realize that. I was trying to press-fit one of the tubes into the block, and it dropped into the pan. I ended up buying a stainless steel replacement, and pulled it all out to install it BEFORE it went back in the car.

Other notes about the engine:

-I ran a Performance Products Crosswind intake. It is like a Performer RPM, but has provisions to add port nitrous or EFI. I am not doing power adders, but the ability to run EFI was appealing.

-I installed a 2300rpm stall torque converter to help it launch, especially with the cam I selected.

-Harland Sharp roller tip rockers were installed a few months after the engine was installed. I read somewhere that they were worth 20hp, so I figured what the hell...

We did all the work at Pseudosport's place, and it was stuck there all summer. And fall. At that time, he helped do some rust repair on a used passenger side fender I picked up.

And today...

It took me from June 2008 until December 2008 to get the car running enough to bring home.

SilverFleet UltraDork
5/29/14 9:04 a.m.

During the summer of 2009, I discovered that the tip-in issue that I had with the 403 was still happening with the 400. That meant that either I didn't know how to use the gas pedal, or there was something up with the Holley Street Avenger I installed years ago.

Some research turned up an issue that Holley products of that era had with the plating they were using. The plating would flake off and clog the channels of the carb.

Sorry for the bad pics, but you can see what I'm talking about here.

I called Holley about it, and they instructed me to pack it up and send it to them. They offered to replace it free of charge. Now, mind you, I bought this carb years before, and they replaced it no questions asked. Talk about a stand up company. After getting the new one, the tip-in issue was gone forever.

Around this time is when life got in the way. In the summer of 2009, I got engaged, and started saving for a house and wedding. That fall, I went to my first GRM Challenge, and my whole automotive outlook was turned on its head. In 2010, we bought a house, and I stupidly bought a 1987 Shelby CSX to hopefully one day compete in the Challenge. The Trans Am came here and sat.

I drove it enough from 2008 to 2011 to put about 1000 miles on the engine. It was running great, but it was having a few issues like hot start problems that would leave me stranded and a strange oil smoke out the driver's side tailpipe.

Let's talk about that oil smoke.

I pulled plugs on the driver's side until I got to the #5, and it was covered in oil. Uh oh. I pulled the valve cover...

Oh, wonderful.

Then, I pulled the intake.

Yeah, you think that might be the issue?

I even made a meme out of it:

SilverFleet SuperDork
5/29/14 9:13 a.m.

After I noticed that issue with the valvetrain, I went in and re-attached the rocker arm, but they all need to be checked now.

Fast forward to last weekend. The car had been sitting for two years, and my neighbors were giving me a hard time about how close it was to their fence, so I had to move it. I went down to the parts store and got a new starter and battery, installed them, and it fired right up! I moved it to the center of the driveway, and started coming up with a list of what I need to do to get this thing back on the road.

Some current pics:

Javelin GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
5/29/14 9:17 a.m.
SilverFleet wrote:

Wicked berking awesome. Also, your shot at the seller's house is totally this:

SilverFleet SuperDork
5/29/14 9:28 a.m.

As you can see, the car is rough around the edges.

There are some definite areas of concern. Inside (I will get pics later), the front floors need to be patched, but otherwise they are solid. That trunk floor is just surface rust; it is solid. I have another nose, trunk lid, driver's side fender, front spoiler, and deck lid. I also have a driver's quarter patch cut from another car and a ton of other parts. Back in 2009, I tossed on a set of meaty 255/60/15 Radial T/A's, and they are still like new. The oil looks like a sludgy medium iced coffee with cream and sugar from Dunkin Donuts, but that is likely due to condensation and assembly lube in the crankcase. The valvetrain on the driver's side is a bit loud, but I believe that is due to things being loose or out of adjustment. I am amazed that it started and actually idled on two year old gas. The fuel tank has some crust around the pinch welds, so that is going to get replaced before it goes back on the road.

For now, I just want to get it back on the road, so here's my plan:

-Change the damn oil!!! Maybe even twice.

-Chase down a small coolant leak. I think it's from when I pulled the intake for the valvetrain issue.

-Replace the fuel tank

-Make and install patches for the floor, doors, and quarters

-Re-adjust the rocker arms

-gut the interior and re-paint floor, rebuild driver's seat track

-disassemble and clean up brakes

-concoct homemade shaker base for the shaker scoop, sick of it resting on the air cleaner

And more. I miss driving this car, and I can't wait to get it back on the streets. It turns heads even with how ugly it is in it's present state. People love the thing! And I hear ratty muscle cars are in right now.

SilverFleet SuperDork
5/29/14 9:29 a.m.
Javelin wrote:
SilverFleet wrote:
Wicked berking *awesome*. Also, your shot at the seller's house is totally this:

When I saw that scene in Old School, I had bad flashbacks.

Trans_Maro UltraDork
5/29/14 10:00 a.m.

"I took the restrictor plate out of the Red Dragon, it's not exactly street legal so keep it on the down-low"

SEADave Reader
5/29/14 12:32 p.m.

I really like where this is going. There is a place that will make custom shaker bases, you just tell them what engine/manifold/carb you are using but it's not cheap.

I want to see a pic of that speedo. Apparently pretty rare, I never heard of one until today.

Sky_Render Dork
5/29/14 2:34 p.m.

It has a flaming chicken on the hood. WINNING.

Woody GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
5/29/14 8:54 p.m.

I've been waiting for this build thread!

MadScientistMatt UberDork
5/30/14 8:04 a.m.

Thanks for posting! The picture of the seller made me chuckle - if you asked a Hollywood casting agency to send you somebody to play "The guy our protagonist buys a beat up Trans Am from," they'd send someone who looks exactly like him, down to the teal mesh tank top.

Cotton UltraDork
5/30/14 9:42 a.m.

I love Trans Ams. I need to drive my 78 more. Pic in my profile.

Rusted_Busted_Spit GRM+ Memberand UltraDork
5/30/14 9:51 a.m.

Very cool, I have always liked those cars. Have you watched Longmire by any chance? One of the deputies on that show drives a blue TA like yours as his "work" car.

conesare2seconds HalfDork
5/30/14 8:49 p.m.

Cotton: nice Solar Gold. Silverfleet: really liking this thread, moar pls. Even with its needs, you got a buy.

My first PG movie was Smokey & The Bandit, in the movie theater, first run, aged 10 years. Talk about an indelible impression, lol. To this day I want a 2nd-gen Trans Am of my own. With WS6 and t-tops, please. One of my lottomobiles is a Meacham Macho T/A 'coz I'm totally cool with my inner redneck, m'kay?

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