1981 Pontiac Trans Am

Project started: June, 2010
Current Status: restored!

Car History

In late April of 2010, I acquired the pictured 1981 Trans Am from  eBay. I purchased it based on only a few small photos and two phone conversations with the owner. I had no real knowledge about the engine, except it was a 301 turbo and it had a “broken upper pushrod”. After reviewing a Car Fax report that most of the car’s 154,000 mile history was in California, I decided to pull the trigger and bid on the car. For the price I paid, I figured that even if the engine is shot, a solid body and solid interior Trans Am would be a good start.

Once I owned the car I ordered PHS documentation. I discovered that this Trans Am was a typical 1981 Trans Am, with the screaming chicken bird decal on the hood, turbo 4.9L engine,  limited slip rear axle, AC, power windows, power door locks, power brakes, t-tops, AM/FM cassette radio, tilt wheel, intermittent windshield wipers, custom vinyl interior, and the standard 7″ snowflake wheels. The car’s original body color was (84) dark charcoal metallic and interior was custom silver vinyl. Somewhere along the car’s life a previous owner decided to swap out the custom silver interior for non-deluxe interior (sadly). The body has since been repainted black, guessing sometime in the 1980’s.

When the car arrived, I quickly discovered many of the cars additional problems. First is the interior, it was obviously a different color than the current tan. It appears that someone had brush painted part of the dashboard a black color, apparently stopping mid-way through deciding that it was a bad idea. Digging deeper, I discovered the center console is actually from a similar year Camaro. To make matters worse, the turbo switch mounted on the center console was wired incorrectly, causing a short (which I discover later on). The turn signal was broken, the steering wheel foam was damaged beyond repair, and the seats were improperly bolted down. Further inspection revealed the heater core was installed by hacking away at the heater box cover from underneath the passenger side glove box.

From the outside, the body was in great shape with nearly zero rust. There were a number of body dents and other damage, as well as the typical drivers door droop, but otherwise the body was solid. T-tops on the other hand are in bad shape. When the car arrived, the T-tops weren’t even locked, I was able to pull them off without opening the door, the latch mechanism was not in the locking position. Luckily they never blew off on their 1,500 mile trip to Ohio!

The suspension needed a lot of help. The bushings were dried out, and in some places gone completely. The tires had a lot of tread on them, though they appeared aged with many rubber cracks. The tires worked for the first 5 years of the restoration luckily holding the car off the ground when needed. Steering was a bit sloppy, but it drove straight for the most part. Brakes worked well, this is one of the last Trans Am’s from the early 80’s to get all wheel disc brakes.

The engine was the real disaster with this project. After driving it briefly to get the “out of state” inspection, I determined that the engine damage had to be much worse than just a broken push-rod. I later discovered it was a broken connecting rod. Had I known I would never have driven it to get the out of state inspection. The engine was a special Pontiac 301 V8 which included a Turbo charger, one of the first American cars to have such technology. Though I have affection for this engine, I have an infatuation with the normally aspirated Pontiac 400 engine.

Restoration Plan

The car sat for the summer until I came up with a plan. At first the plan was simply to “get the car running”, but as I dug deeper that summer into the issues, I quickly determined it was time to learn how to restore a car. I quickly broke the project into phases:

  • Source a replacement Pontiac engine (to use the factory shaker)
  • Front suspension and brakes
  • Interior
  • Rear suspension and brakes
  • Retrofit 77/78 front/rear bumpers
  • Get car painted

This ended up growing after the car was painted with replacing the suspension, changing the transmission, rear gear ratio, Fuel injection with high pressure fuel tank, lots of modern aftermarket mods, etc…

If I knew then what I know now, I would buy a crate LS3 GM engine, Tremec TKX 5 speed, replace the front with aftermarket suspension parts, kept the body parts that originally came with the car (other than a new shaker hood), and lived with the 79/81 bumpers. I learned a lot on the way though and now have a completely different attitude toward restorations and the value of the more expensive aftermarket kits actually being cheaper in the long run both in time and cost.

Engine Build

Acquire a mid-late 1970’s Pontiac 400, rebuild if necessary, and install in Trans Am.

All summer I scanned Craigslist for a Pontiac 400 motor. Only a couple opportunities came and went. I finally put a Wanted posting and got a couple replies. I ended up picking up a 1977 W72 Pontiac 400 engine with transmission, including the exhaust manifolds and carburetor. Once I started cleaning the motor up I discovered one problem after another. First was rust under the valve covers, then I discovered a broken bolt in the head where it appears someone broke while trying to take the exhaust manifolds off. When I removed the valley pan, I discovered even more rust. Once I took the heads off, I found the tops of the pistons had a lot of carbon build up. At that point I decided it was time to take her to a machine shop.

The Machine shop results were excellent, they were able to remove the broken stud in the one head, as well as check the block, crank for damage. Only the crank needed replaced, everything else was in tip-top shape. I had the engine bored 30 over, leaving the heads essentially untouched. They did mill .05″ from the head to true the surface, but no radical machine was done other than that.

With the Keith Black pistons provided by the machine shop and the slight increase of compression with the head milling, I estimate the rebuilt motor will have a compression ration of 8.5:1, suitable to run 87 octane.

Brakes and Suspension

Work planned for Spring of 2012 (was actually done in 2012-2013). All bushings replaced, new springs front/rear with front heavy duty springs rear regular leaf springs (as factory did), Edelbrock ISA shocks, factory brake components, new stainless steel brake lines, reman booster and brand new master cylinder. Sway-bars are factory, 1.25″ in the front and .75″ in the rear, pretty much the same they use in the 4th gen Trans Am.

I also upgraded the wheels and tires, I got 17″ Year One snowflake wheels with Nitto tires. The wheel/tire change alone completely changed the characteristics of the car, it no longer felt like the car floated forward with the steering wheel, after the wheel/tire upgrade the car felt similar to a car like today.

Body Work

Work planned for Summer of 2012 (was actually done in 2016-2017). Painted by DCI Motorsports in House of Kolor Jet Set Black!

Interior Work

Some work planned for Winter of 2011 and remainder planned for Winter of 2012 (I’ve since done interior work off/on since 2012. At one point I removed the map pocket and replaced it with a 3 gauge pod for the water aftermarket temp and fuel pressure gauges. Factory oil and water temp gauges are not accurate as I discovered bench testing them with a potentiometer.

A common issue discussed on 78 TA website is with the power windows being very slow. As commonly discussed, if you connect a battery directly to the power windows they go up and down quite fast, like cars today. The fix, instead of wiring the 14 gauge wire through the power window switches in the center console, convert the system to relays and use 12 gauge wire. The result, the windows in my Trans Am roll up/down fast!

As I started learning more about carburetors I purchased a Air/Fuel ratio gauge as well to fill my 3 gauge pod. The interior is otherwise factory except for aftermarket front seats and a few other little upgrades. When I did the 3 speed automatic to the 6 speed manual swap I did add a few more tweaks such as a USB charging port to the back of the center console.

Restored 2017!

Below is a photo of the car now restored. There are still more work to do, and I don’t think a project like this is ever done as there is always something I can upgrade or improve, but since 2017 the car has a fresh coat of paint and drives great!

Trans Am freshly painted!

But that’s not all! Since the car was painted and road worthy I have been making a lot of changes, including:

  • Hydroboost powered brakes with adjustable prop valve
  • In-tank high pressure fuel pump and new fuel lines with late model corvette regulator with filter.
  • Pro touring F-body GT shocks and springs (way better ride than factory)
  • 3 speed automatic converted to 6 speed manual
  • Rear diff gear changed to 3.73 ratio

Update February, 2020

Restoring this car has been a tremendous learning experience. I have made a lot of good friends in the process as well! Since 2017 I have been able to take the car to a number of car shows, cruises and other events and loved every minute of it. More importantly I have found that the project never ends! Since its been painted I’ve re-done the suspension, brake lines, power brake booster and master cylinder, installed a 3rd pedal tied to a hydraulic clutch, and swapped in a T56 Magnum 6 speed manual transmission! And there is more to come including a new dashboard, aftermarket air conditioning and other little details like electric cruise control.

Update July, 2021

Even though the car is “done”, I have more plans! This summer I ordered (still waiting) for a vintage air kit, while I have the dash out of the car I will also be replacing the dash with a 70-77 style dash, adding a RetroSound Daytona radio that, unless you look closely, looks original and also swapping out the gauges to New Vintage USA gauges which will maintain the classic look of the dash with modern gauges. These changes will give the Trans Am air conditioning, a modern radio that looks period correct, and accurate gauges so I no longer have to rely on the readings from the center gauge cluster auto meter gauges on my oil and water temperatures. I am also going to re-wire the engine bay, adding a whole-car 150amp circuit breaker as well as replacing the fusable links with blade fuses in a tidy Blue Sea fuse panel. A few other details include Rostra cruise control and electric cooling fans

Where are the decals?

As the picture shows, I have yet to put the decals on the car. They are coming, do not worry!

Thank you!

I would like to thank the following:

  • My wife – Thank you for not only putting up with me but also being supportive!
  • Joel – Thanks to your help and confidence I’ve successfully done nearly all of the work myself!
  • Don Johnston / DCI Motorsports – Thanks for all the advice, assistance with rebuilding my 400, and the most brilliant black paint job on a Trans Am!
  • Many parts friends including Roger, Steven, and Doug (Camaro Parts World) to name a few.
  • Friends that have helped with various parts including Tim, Bryan, and BJ.
  • Forum friends from the following forums:
    • Trans Am Country
    • 78TA.com
    • Nastyz28.com
    • Max Performance Pontiac Forums
  • Vendors that have been very helpful including:
    • Ram Air Restorations – Ram air manifolds and down pipes
    • FiTech EFI – Throttle body fuel injection
    • Ames Performance – Best Pontiac parts retailer
    • Tremec – T56 Magnum

And many more!