1968 PONTIAC Firebird 400 HO- Haney, BC
Writing and photography copyright D.S.Brown, Firebird brochure pictures courtesy of Bill Nawrot, copyright GM.
The first registered owner of this Firebird acquired the car essentially by accident in similar fashion to the circuitous route the Firebird itself ended up as a last minute production car at Pontiac. Had everything gone according to plan for the original owner of this Firebird he would have been sitting in a modest small block Army Green Frirebird instead of a fire breathing monster. If all had gone according to plan for Pontiac division manager John DeLorean the Firebird would never have appeared in the Pontiac lineup at all. Instead there would have been a 2 seat sports car named the Pontiac Banshee.
Could DeLorean's resistance to having a Firebird in the Pontiac lineup somehow have contributed to the low profile of the 1967 through 1969 Firebirds? Known as the First Generation Firebirds, the first three model years of Firebird are sadly overlooked. Second Gen Firebirds overshadow the First Gen Firebirds for a variety of reasons. Many prefer the styling or cite superior handling and tighter body integrity. The Second Gen also enjoys greater recognition simply from being produced for so long. A huge number of Trans Ams were made, causing the ‘Firebird’ name to be forever linked with the late 1970s version of the Trans Am. That T/A is fixed in the general consciousness as a disco era car that co-starred in the ”Smokey and the Bandit” movie series.
Although the First Gen Firebirds gave us the OHC six Sprints, the HO, the RA engines and the first Trans Am, these models were aesthetically subtle. Unlike the Second Gen cars, the First Gen cars were also available in convertible form. None of these great features can overcome the effect of the spoilers, spats, vents and graphics of the mid 1970s Trans Am which carries an identity that envelops all the models and years of Firebird.
The First Gen Firebirds are not only lost in the shadow of the 1970s Trans Am, they are unsung heroes even among First Gen F body fans. Collectors price 1967-69 Firebirds way below par for a comparable Camaro, much the way the Cougar for those years trails the Mustang in values. Aside from some Buick GS models, the First Gen Firebirds are some of the most undervalued GM performance cars out there. It is ironic that the Mercury, Pontiac and Buick were higher end cars which had higher initial cost and now are the 'bargain basement' musclecars.
The Firebird fought for recognition right from the start. Firebird almost didn't see the light of day. In 1967 John DeLorean, General Manager of Pontiac had lost his campaign to produce a two seat sports car called the Pontiac Banshee. At the last minute, he decided to compromise and got on board with the Chevrolet Camaro project. The Camaro debuted alone for the 1967 model year in September of 1966 as a competitor to the Mustang. At the same time, Mercury released their version of the Mustang called the Cougar.
Since John DeLorean couldn't have his 2 seat sports car the Banshee, he realized that Pontiac needed a pony car, too. General Motors needed volume to sell enough 'F bodies' to realize a profit. Pontiac’s version of the 'F body' could augment the sales of the Camaro. The extra income from Pontiac helped defray GM’s developments costs on the F body. Pontiac released the Firebird six months after the Camaro. The First Gen Pontiac Firebird is a mildly tweaked and refined Camaro shell with Pontiac suspension and drive train.
The Pontiac essence is stamped into the F body despite a last minute attack. Pontiac would have preferred a longer lower hood, but in order to make a profit, the F body cowl was designed to be usable not only in Camaro form, but also for the Chevy II. Unlike the Mustang which took existing parts from the Falcon, the Chevy II got the Camaro’s hand me downs. But the result was the same. In both cases, you can’t create a really low sports car with a cowl that can simultaneously serve as a grocery getter foundation as well as a ground pounder.
Pontiac did as much as they could within the limits of time and engineering. They creating the trademark Pontiac split grille for the Firebird. Pontiac changed suspension rates and put fat tires on the car, even for the lowly six cylinder cars. While Camaro created a sensation with its exclusive use of the newly engineered excellent 350 engine and later in the model year taking the familiar muscle car route with SS, RS and 396, Pontiac used a different approach. Pontiac’s advanced OHC six Sprint engine and 326 HO signaled DeLorean’s interest in a four seat GT style car in the European tradition.
The press release from Jan 27, 1967 announcing the Firebird didn't list just engine options, but instead, five option packages built around the engines. Base 6, Sprint 6, 326, 326 HO and the top of the pack 400 comprised what the ad campaigns called “The Magnificent Five”. This concept worked so well that it was retained and revised for the Second Generation cars where the packages were named base, Esprit, Formula and TA.
The Pontiac Firebird appeared half way through the model year on Feb 23, 1967. The first 1967 Firebird off the production line was a Cameo white 326 convertible. Firebird showcased one of the more interesting new Pontiac engines, the Sprint Six. John DeLorean who created the first factory muscle car with the big engine small car concept GTO was ahead of his time again in pushing for the OHC six cylinder engines in a performance application. Pontiac put a lot of work into finding a long lived timing belt for the engine during a period of USA car history where overhead valves were an exotic European exclusive. The OHC Sprint was available in both Firebird and Tempest form, but in the era of big V8 engines, the well balanced package never caught on. Neither did the small block HO cars in an era of “no substitute for cubic inches” no holds barred 'supercars'.
The short production run of the 1967 ensured that the Firebird remained much the same visually for 1968. The Magnificent Five concept was carried over in the opening pages of the 1968 dealership brochure shown above.
Vent windows disappeared and side marker lights were added, otherwise the 1968 was a carryover of the 1967 model with some suspension tweaking. The single leaf springs and rear traction bars were superseded by staggered shocks and multi leaf rear springs which better controlled wheel hop on acceleration.
The big changes came in the engines. The 230 six cylinder lost the Chevrolet internals to became an all Pontiac engine, as a consequence of a cube jump to 250. A cube increase also hit the 326 which became Pontiac’s version of the 350. The engines had been stroked to assist them in passing emissions standards. The extra cubes also helped offset performance loss due to emissions equipment added to engines. All 1968 engines were fitted with emission controls such as PCV and Combustion Control which required leaner carburetor settings.
As shown above in the 1968 dealer brochure, Pontiac carried over the small block HO and the Sprint despite both packages being ahead of their time in an era of maximum cubic inches. Pontiac kept pushing the envelope in 1968 when they unveiled the 400 HO, which married the 326/ 350 HO concept with the cubic inch race going on at the time. Below is a shot of the 400 HO in the OOCC Firebird.
Towards the end of the 1968 model run Pontiac brought out the new Ram Air engine. The 1968 400 HO filled an interesting niche between the standard 400 and the RA 400. It had the engine refinements of the Ram Airs, but had sealed hood scoops; a plus for the frigid air and frequent rain encountered in British Columbia. Later in the 1968 year, the new Ram Air addressed this issue with a flapper that allowed the driver to open and close the scoops in accordance with weather conditions.
On paper the numbers for the 400, 400 HO and 400 RA don’t look that impressive, but there is a reason for this. Despite the fact that their GTO was the spark that ignited the muscle car era General Motors had a 400 inch cap on Intermediate bodied cars. The rated horsepower was also arbitrarily restricted in GM cars to 1 HP per 10 pounds of vehicle weight. GM's HP to pounds formula allowed the heavier GTOs to carry ratings for the 400 starting at 350 HP. Installation of the identical 400 in a lightweight Firebird necessitated the addition of a carburetor tab to restrict maximum revs and consequently muzzle HP rating to 335. The street crowd back in the day took ten minutes to remove the tab which restored full HP range.
The 400 HO had a hotter cam and better breathing, producing a slightly higher rated HP, but in reality the jump was quite significant. Street freaks sought out this engine knowing that it was seriously underrated.
The 400 HO featured in this story seemed destined to street race its way from hand to hand until it got blown up. The OOCC Firebird escaped this fate through an interesting series of events. The OOCC 400 HO began life as the personal car of a car dealership salesman’s son. Typically, after a few years of fun, the young owner’s access to each year’s hot new models would have impelled him to dump the 400 HO into the used car market where it would be thrashed brutally on a quick track to the junkyard.
The OOCC 400 HO was torn away from one youthful owner and found its way into the hands of another equally young owner who was a student back in 1968. The difference was that the student had an abiding interest in his new car and preserved its top condition despite daily driver status for over 20 years.
The story began when the student’s father agreed to help finance a brand new car. Coming from a Pontiac family, the Firebird was an obvious choice for a young kid. He didn't milk his father’s generosity, making a modest request for an army green 350 Firebird with a three speed manual shift which made for a quick, inexpensive nice ride.
Just as Pontiac was the only brand, Haney Garage Ltd was the only car dealership the family did business with. Haney Garage located in Haney, BC at 22289 Lougheed Highway was later renamed Mussellum Motors, then later Mussallem GM. This dealer was a well known performance car dealership until their closure in 2006.
The city of Haney was absorbed within the larger city, Maple Ridge, BC in later years but preserves some heritage as a tiny bubble of history within the generic malls surrounding it. Across the street from the Mussellum Motors, a remodeled Chevron gas station traces its history back through many more decades than the dealership. Haney has many period buildings still in existence on the main street. To see a story and more photos of this performance dealer see the DEALERSHIPS section of this website under BC/ MAPLE RIDGE Dealers. Here is a picture of the dealership building in 2010 when it was a temporary overflow lot for a Honda dealer.
While the student discussed a commuter Firebird with his father, across the continent on Jan 25, 1968 a loaded non commuter fire breathing Firebird 400 HO was shipped from the Lordstown, Ohio factory to Haney Garage. The car was given to the Haney Garage dealer’s son. Haney's reputation as a performance dealer ensured that the infamous metal tab in the carburetor which restricts top end HP in Firebird 400s was dispensed with immediately unleashing the true muscle car personality of the HO.
This is an excerpt from the GM shipping list. The shipping page directly above this text lists the meaning of the numbers in each column. Below are the codes for the OOCC 400 HO, with VIN significant digits removed, of course. For example first series of numbers 012568 refer to a shipping date of Jan 25, 1968.
The Protect-O-Plate records that the car was placed in service on Feb 16, 1968.
Haney Garage was well known at the time for its sponsorship of local racing. As a performance dealer, Haney was known to bring in muscle cars, including serious iron from the COPO ranks. Haney Garage cemented this image with their head mechanic Buck Kinney, a well respected local racer. The showroom of the dealership was full of his winning trophies. Bringing in a 400 HO Firebird was just a normal event for this dealership. The 400 HO had been roaming the streets for ten days already when the student and his father placed their order for a considerably more conservative Firebird.
On Feb 27, 1968 father and son arrived together at Haney Garage and filled out an order form requesting an Army Green 350 Firebird. Dad pledged the family 1963 Pontiac Parisienne 4 door hardtop as trade-in on the Firebird order. On March 20, 1968 the trade-in was completed, but the Firebird had still failed to arrive.
After waiting for several months, something had to be done. The dealer wasn't willing to try the patience of a loyal longstanding customer. The solution was right in front of them. The Firebird 400 HO was taken away from the dealer’s son. The dealer’s son had his pick of any number of hot cars from the lot, so it wasn't a great loss to him. The gain was in the Pontiac hobby. The HO escaped being sold a year later to enter the usual cycle. Instead of being thrashed, cut up, beaten and totaled we now have one more unrestored, rare collectible HO in our midst.
On April 27, 1968 our young student found himself the owner of the Cameo Ivory Firebird 400 HO. The HO’s whopping price of $4201.00 was reduced with the trade-in of $1250.00. The balance of $2951.00 carried tax of $147.55. After adding license, registration and transfer fees the total was back up to $3122.05. He became the first official owner of the Firebird 400 HO.
The new OOCC Firebird 400 HO was a far cry from the modest Green car that was lost in the production lineup. Instead of a 350, the car was raised up several notches, not just to a 400, but another step above that to the 400 HO. This engine has a radical camshaft and free flowing exhaust manifolds. Unlike the Ram Air 400, the HO hood scoops are sealed shut. Opening the hood, you knew Pontiac meant business. Just like on the GTO, Pontiac outfitted this engine with external identifiers such as chrome air cleaner, oil cap and valve covers. The message was simple: this is a flat out supercar. The engine came with a variable pitch stainless steel power flex fan. Instead of a three speed manual, our student was shifting a Hurst 4 speed. The car came with a mile long option list. Unlike the 350 HO, the car didn't come standard with stripes. Dealers usually added the Rally Stripe option which is what happened to this car.
In addition to the 400 HO, M20 four speed and 3.55:1 Safety- Track differential the Bird has additional performance options such as hood tachometer, rally cluster, electric clock, front disc brakes, capacitor discharge ignition and a handling package with heavy duty springs and shocks. The HO also has power brakes, power steering and the stylish Rally II wheels with F70 Wide Ovals. The white car gains some pizzazz with the red Rally stripes.
The Bird isn't strictly a performance car. It has a radio with rear speaker, rear antenna, and rear control reverberator. The luggage lamp and hood lamp were also specified. The interior is comfortable, with console, custom seatbelts and headrests. The Custom Option upgrades the interior with plusher door panels among other touches on the exterior of the car such as chrome wheel well moldings.
Below is a picture of the original space saver spare tire which was virtually a necessity in a car with such a small trunk. The canister is used to inflate the spare tire for use.
Below are the original jacking instructions and to the right the special procedures to be followed with the Space Saver spare.
The specific Space Saver instructions mentions something that would not be intuitive. You need to mount the tire on the car before inflating it.
The student obtained factory parts for his new car, bringing the rear defogger, chrome door edge guards and floor mats to Haney Garage to install upon his first service visit. This visit marked the start of a determined campaign on his part to have any defects on the car corrected. The dealership investigated a fast idle that wasn't consistent, loose window regulator, a parking light lens lamp that wasn't fitted properly and a left air vent that needed repair. An alignment was needed. A missing Firebird emblem ordered and installed. The hood tachometer wasn't working; a common problem in the day because the force used to close the hood would upset the delicate mechanism inside the tachometer.
Most people take delivery of a new car and in resignation just live with any glitches and problems. Some people don't notice the defects. In fact, the dealership owner's son drove the car without interest in details. Plenty of kids back then thrashed musclecars and never noticed rattles or trim or anything other than how many fenderlengths he had over the other guy. People who took pride in their cars may have noted the nagging problems but were discouraged from taking action. The reason is lack of time to keep returning with the car to the dealership. Too often they give up in frustration with the evasiveness of the car dealership in addressing faults in the car. In the late 1960s, this was usually the moment that the dealer/ owner relationship went sour. Once the sale was made, the dealer typically no longer had time for the buyer’s concerns and would put them off or not properly fix things.
Some dealers went the extra mile to address things, like Haney Garage did. In fairness to the car dealerships of this era, the real fault is traceable to a busy assembly line where workers are hard pressed to keep up. The dealerships usually invested a few hours in post delivery work on a car. Beyond that they saw their profit margin vaporizing anytime the car came back. The typical dealer felt put out in having to absorb the cost of assembly line goofs or oversights. But the dealer’s perspective of being caught in the middle between factory and customer did nothing to alleviate the new car bugs. In the end customers often felt shorted by the dealer. This is a common refrain amongst buyers of new cars in the 1960s that I have talked to.
This same complaint crops up repeatedly in 1960s magazine road tests and owner evaluations. Windows leaked and whistled at highway speed, paint runs or thin spots were the rule and loose knobs and trim were regular occurrences when new car delivery took place. The tradition was still going strong eight years later when another Firebird owner took possession of his 1974 Firebird Formula and discovered missing side chrome and mismatched identity logos. See the story further down in this ONE OWNER section.
Contrary to this typical scenario, Haney Garage sent out this letter to their new buyers assuring them of their continued interest in the customer.
The dealership confirmed their intention to follow up on the purchase as the student whittled away at a laundry list of faults. A regular employed person simply wouldn't have been able to correct all the little details even with a cooperative dealer such as this one. It entailed leaving the car at the dealership all day on several occasions, which as a student he was able to do. He studied in the Mussellum Motors showroom lined with all of Buck Kinney’s trophies while the dealer methodically worked through the list of faults with the car.
Here is a bill detailing some of the quirks that needed sorting out on the Firebird. Some of the items are options that the student added to the car.
The dealership had made repairs to the driver’s door which had been damaged in an accident during the short period the dealer’s son had owned the car. Rally stripes needed to be re applied to the front fender as a consequence of the accident. Several alignments didn't cure excessive tire wear leading to speculation that perhaps the frame may have damage from that accident. The student finally hit the wall when prodding on his part failed to yield a solution to excessive tire wear. The dealer asserted that the tires were not part of their responsibility, but rather the tire manufacturer.
A letter to the Goodyear tire manufacturer solved the problem. Goodyear responded by changing the original factory radial tires with a new set of Goodyear Polyglass F70 tires. The early US radial tires had ride quality issues which led in part to the delay in getting radials on USA cars until the early 1970s. John DeLorean wanted radial tires on his Pontiac performance cars, but GM wasn't ready for them. The USA tire manufacturers were years behind the European manufacturers in radial tire development. Using their enormous contracts with General Motors, tire manufacturers pressured GM to delay the use of OEM radials until they had time to perfect USA radial tires. The student agreed to bring the car in every 1,000 miles so that Goodyear could observe the tread wear patterns on this new set of tires.
The owner’s manual specifies 24 PSI front and back for reduced loads which applies to most driving situations. For major loads, they recommended rear tires be boosted to 28 PSI. The student discovered that the car achieved the best tire wear at 27 PSI inflation rates when riding on those typical bias ply tires.
The student was a meticulous record keeper. One very interesting calculation he performed was an exhaustive list of expenses that reveals the precise annual cost for the car calculated at the point where the car had been driven for exactly 13 years. Here are the total bills accrued as of April, 1982 not counting gas and insurance.
1968 maintenance and repairs cost $210.76
1969 maintenance and repairs were $394.20
1970 maintenance and repairs were $216.16
1971 maintenance and repairs were $411.12
1972 maintenance and repairs were $574.01
1973 maintenance and repairs were $307.93
1974 maintenance and repairs were $540.90
1975 maintenance and repairs were $456.03
1976 maintenance and repairs were $438.96
1977 maintenance and repairs were $506.88
1978 to 1982 maintenance and repairs for the four years totaled $1,764.04
Total cost equals $5,843.49 for 13 years of daily driver status. The average works out to $449.49 per year.
Some other costs, such as insurance deductibles aren't included in those figures. July 5, 1969 the car was hit in an accident and required repairs to the tune of $202.80. Soon after that, thieves gutted the engine for the high performance parts. In fall of 1969 the car received a new replacement crankshaft, bearings and manifold through an insurance claim.
The young student also added some refinements to his car. On Nov 12, 1969 a Muntz stereo system was installed in the car. Typical of systems back then, holes were cut in the door panels for additional speakers while the system was mounted in the glove box. He now regrets having holes in his doors, but back in those days factory preservation wasn't a big concern.
A warranty notice was sent out from GM Nov 21, 1969 to repair a faulty fast idle cam on the Quadrajet carburetor. Interestingly, aside from a safety issue of jamming open the throttle, the usual consequence of this defect was lack of fast idle at cold start. Our student had already complained about this issue and had it fixed when he first took delivery of the car.
Soon after graduation from University the student became a family man. As a family man, he drove his kids and his neighbor’s kids to and from school in the Firebird 400 HO which was a big thrill for those lucky kids.
An interesting option that our family man added to his Firebird 400 HO was one of the first car phones. The 1972 system used a square box with tubes inside it mounted in the trunk. This box had wires running to the radio antenna and to a handset inside the interior. To place a call, the handset was lifted and squeezing a button called the regular telephone operator. Our family man identified himself to the operator with a series of letters and numbers assigned to his phone. He then told her the number he wished to contact. She dialed the call and connected him. To listen you released the button, to speak you squeezed it. Later on, the phone was replaced with a cordless phone that ran from the cigarette lighter. Eventually this phone was superseded by a modern cell phone.
The original early phone had an interesting feature. There was a speaker which allowed the Firebird to become a ‘talking car’. Our family man could use a microphone to call the local kids out to the car when he came to do the rounds for school. The kids loved that talking car.
April 15, 1974 the starter had to be replaced. The car only had 48,574 miles on it at this time. The Pontiac 400 eats starters at a much more rapid rate than other engines do. See the article on Bill Nawrot’s 1972 GTO in the ONE OWNER section of this website for a lot more information on this subject.
The Firebird suffered some chronic problems that were not inherent to these cars. While the starting motors are a Pontiac curse, an indifferent mechanic overtightened one fo the lug nuts on the car with an air wrench and broke it. The lug nut was replaced repeatedly and became a constant nuisance thereafter. The Hurst shifter and clutch needed some adjustment through the life of the car but taking the long view, most of the ownership has been one of pleasure.
When collector plates were introduced around the time the Firebird had been retired from daily driver status the owner launched a campaign to get collector plates for his car. At first, the collector plate program was not willing to acknowledge the car as rare sending a production figure for 1968 Firebirds somewhere around 100,000 cars. They didn't understand that the 400 HO option was quite rare until our indomitable owner put together statistics and documentation to back up his case. The byproduct of this research was that he came to a greater understanding of the 400 HO cars. Not many were built and few exist in original condition like this one. The car is now a pleasure driver only and of course, he keeps on top of it ensuring that no detail goes unchecked as he always has.