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Written by Double Dragon
Tuesday, 08 July 2014 15:51

1969 PONTIAC Firebird- Philip


Writing and photography copyright D. S. Brown

69 firebird philip san diego logo

This 1969 Pontiac Firebird has taken on a slightly different personality now that it has been passed on from father to son. Originally Verdero Green with no options after a full life of use the Firebird has been reborn under the stewardship of Philip.

It's hard to imagine now, but this flamboyant Firebird was originally a stripped 6 cylinder, three on the tree dog dish hubcap version of the Firebird. The base stripped models are something we don't see a lot of nowadays, but back in 1969 and deep into the 1980s these were commonly encountered. Many people liked the looks and size of the Firebird but wanted economy of purchase and operation and took the bottom rung Firebird.

69 firebrid philip F

The Firebird was in its 3rd year of production with the 1969 model. This was the final year for the first generation of the Firebird. The second generation 1970 Firebird stayed in production for a dozen years and has overshadowed the first generation cars. Think 'Firebird' and people flash on a late 1970s Firebird Trans Am. This is understandable since enormous numbers of those cars were made. The first year for the Trans Am was actually the 1969 model year but so few were built that it is a major collectible now. Not so rare was the base Firebird.

The base Firebird gave you great looks and a sporty feel in a low cost car. The typical Pontiac extra touches (fatter tires, revised suspension) took the Firebird up a few noticeable notches above its cousin the base Camaro. Pontiac didn't give you a typical inline 6 either. John DeLorean spent all his energy at Pontiac division head trying to break new ground. DeLorean pushed hard for a high performance six cylinder overhead cam engine he named the Sprint Six. In order to absorb some of the cost of this engine the OHC 6 was also used as the guts of the 1 barrel carburetor workhorse base engine.

69 Firebird philip pass front

The base Firebird was very popular when it came out. The Firebird 6 cylinder enjoyed continuous appreciation from owners during the 1970s and 1980s. While new car prices soared and gas became unmanageable the inline 6 Firebird was affordable, got good gas mileage and looked great. Because collectors focused on the second generation Firebird and were more interested in 400 engines and convertibles, the first generation 6 cylinders were basically driven till they dropped.

Philip's 1969 Firebird 6 cylinder seemed to be doomed to follow the same pattern. The original Firebird was rusted out and had a shot interior. Philip performed quite a bit of body, mechanical and interior repairs to the Firebird but chose not to duplicate its stock factory format. He wasn't particularly fond of the Firebirds' original appearance.

When this Firebird was new it was the ultimate stripped model. Philip's mother decided to buy a new car for her husband Duke Nyhus' 40th birthday. Just because it was a present didn't mean that a dealership was going to take her to the cleaners. She was a frugal no nonsense woman. She selected Kasey Pontiac in San Diego primarily because this dealership offering deep discounts due to a closing out sale. The salesman quickly discovered that he wasn't going to pull any tricks during this sale when he showed her a stripped car with a radio in it. Her retort was,

"What do I want with a radio?"

When she said she wanted a stripped model that's what she meant! The Verdero Green Firebird she bought had the base 1 barrel 6 cylinder engine hooked to a manual 3 speed transmission with the shifter on the steering column which was popularly known by the name 'three on the tree'. There were no options, not even full hubcaps. It made do with steel wheels and dog dish hubcaps also known as 'poverty caps'.

The Firebird was driven home and parked a short distance away from the house to await Duke's big day on May 8, 1969. On his birthday Duke was escorted out of the house. As they reached the front of the brand new Firebird she said,

"This is yours."

The momentous first drive turned sour, however. On the first cruise in the car the printed circuit board inside the dash fritzed out. The gauges dropped to zero and the car died. Not wanting the runaround (particularly with a closing out dealership) a stop was placed on the purchase check immediately. With the leverage of a sale hanging in the balance it was possible to get speedy service. After the inauspicious beginning Duke got a 35 year run out of his new car without any special care.

The Firebird proved to be an enjoyable car that was actually economical. Philip recalls that his parents managed to get 20 MPG regularly out of the Firebird in daily city driving. The Firebird also served duty camping on holidays. The Firebird accumulated about 10,000 miles a year when it was in full time use for work commuting.

The Firebird was parked outside all of that time. Even in sunny dry California a car won't survive outdoors for decades. Subjecting a car to nightly temperature changes, road and tree debris and continuous UV exposure results in breakdown of paint and interior. Hidden away in the trunk, the original space saver is still pristine!

On the outside of the car, the hot California sun made itself known. In the 1990s it was necessary to have the Firebird repainted the original Verdero Green. The bumpers were also rechromed soon afterwards. The interior was allowed to slowly deteriorate as the powerful UV rays of the sun worked their magic in concert with over 200,000 miles of use. The engine held up until 229,000 miles around the turn of the century before it was finished. The Firebird currently has a replacement engine and 294,381 miles on the chassis.

When Philip took over ownership of the Firebird it was in desperate need of help. Philip had to redo the car and decided to put it back together the way he wished it was. Rally II wheels replaced the 14 x 5.5 inch steelies and dog dishes. Philip was able to source wide rims. New reproduction companies build wheels that resemble the original factory mags but pack extra width or diameter for a 'day two' look. The rear tires on the Firebird completely fill out the rear wheel wells mounted on the 14 x 7 inch rims. This is a common 'retroactive' switch made to these cars. The widest 14 inch Rally II available in 1969 was actually a 6 inch rim, but the 7s look better. Philip also redid the suspension which was tired after nearly 300,000 miles of driving.

The new color was not Philip's idea. His brother cut out all the rotted metal and did all bodywork and paint under the condition that it be repainted the screaming Carousel Red paint used on the initial run of 1969 GTO Judges. Philip hadn't intended to keep Verdero Green but he also hadn't intended to be quite so 'out there' on the redo! The car needed bodywork and Philip went along with the color choice. Paint was completed in 2008.

69 Firebird philip hood tach

Philip added a hood tachometer on the 400 scooped hood. Now that the car had the performance body, the 6 cylinder needed some extra pep to back up the strong looks. A 4 barrel carburetor was added to the inline 6. This is essentially what distinguished John DeLorean's stormer Sprint 6 from his grocery getting OHC 6. The Sprint 6 also had higher compression, heavier valve springs and a better camshaft grind. Philip added electronic ignition to his Firebird and managed 23 MPG on the highway at a steady 70 MPH.

69 Firebird philip pass rear

Philip was also faced with a totally wiped out interior. He went for black reproduction parts. He installed a new dash, console and new carpeting on the door panels. He found a 1968 vacuum gauge and added that to the car, too.

The Firebird is still a work in progress but Philip already feels that the driving enjoyment is there in spades. Note the California black plate. The license number has been blacked out for owner privacy.

69 Firebird philip rear ca black plate


Last Updated ( Wednesday, 09 July 2014 11:16 )