|Questions and Answers on
Second-Generation Firebird Restoration
As presented to DAPA, by David Mars of Texas Trans Am
Service and Restorations
September 9th 2001
DAPA: How did you get interested in Pontiacs?
Mars: I started Texas Trans Am Service and Restorations in my driveway at home. Worked there for about three and a half years. It resulted from years and years of love for Pontiacs. When I was in the fourth grade, we had a lady that lived next door to us, her boyfriend drove a 65 GTO and every time he drove up in that car, Id sit there and just stare at it. To me that was the closest thing to a real life Hot Wheels car Id ever seen. And I just had to have one. I was a sophomore in High School when "Smokey and The Bandit" came out and I paid the movie theater three times to see that. Drug my girlfriend along with me She didnt get quite as much out of it as I did. My cousin rebuilt a '79 TA in '79, it was three months old ... an insurance total. From the day he bought that car to the day he finally totaled it out again I wanted that car. He actually totaled the car three times before the last one. He bought four hood birds for it, three t-tops, three wheels, four hoods, three paint jobs, four radiator core supports. Poor ol car, the last time he wiped it out, he hit a tree with the front end and the side swung over to hit another tree, and I mean it just shattered every bit of Bond-O that was in that car. I honestly did not think he did work like that, but after I saw that, I said "Man, I dont want that thing."
DAPA: How did your business get started?
Mars: Like I said, Texas Trans Ams started out in my driveway at home. I always called it "Nothing but TAs." My dad had a little sideline, he used to work on Mustangs. He called it "Nothing but Mustangs" and I kind of adopted from that. I hooked up with a web guy about three and a half years ago and without any consultation from me he developed a web site and named the place "Texas Trans Ams." So thats kind of what we stuck with. I did it for three and a half years in my driveway at home like I said, fought the city for three and a half years. Almost weekly, they were paying me visits. Finally got tired of hassling with them. I rented a shop downtown Fort Worth, was there for about three and a half years and they shut me down there too. A friend of mine that had five acres out in the county, no restrictions, we built a building, and I grew out of it about a year ago. We just opened up a brand new building, its about 3,500 sq. ft., got six bays, and we do have plans on building a show room and stock all the restoration supplies. Right now as far as the work load, I have about two years worth of work. Word is just getting out, theres a lot of DAPA members that Im working on their cars.
DAPA: What type of restoration do you do?
Mars: I do complete restorations. I prefer to do what I call "Street Restoration." They are a lot more fun than something like a "Concourse." Concourse to me is just really a pain. When you get down to all the little paint marks and all the proper plating and each years individual differences between them, to me that takes all the fun out of it. But I like to build nice clean cars from the ground up. In some cases, I had to build the ground underneath them before I could start the ground up. We can do various parts of the vehicle, we dont have to do the entire car. If you just want the interior done, I do interior work. The paint, bodywork, I do all that. I use Sherwin-Williams automotive finishes and I like to stick with the urethane because to me, it goes on a lot better and lasts a lot longer. Its a lot more durable, the shine is there, it just always looks nice.Modifications, we dont have to build them stock. Personally the way I feel, that was Pontiacs Trans Am. Pontiac made a nice car, they really did. But sometimes we need to personalize it. That was Pontiacs TA, sometimes you want to build your own TA. And with todays technology, there are a lot of new things that can be adapted to our vehicles that can make them better. Thirty year-old technology is not necessarily better. Personally I feel that modifying a TA is okay. I dont have to stick to just TAs. Like I said, I have the love for the GTOs. Every now and then I take in a few strays, Ive got a Mustang in the shop right now. I call it a stray. We also do appraisals. Ive been working on TAs now for about ten years and by all means I dont claim I know everything. I really dont. Every now and then I get something in that just completely blows me away. Like, "Hey, I never knew that they did that." I dont think any one person can know every thing about every single car every year, I just dont see that its possible.
DAPA: What is the cost involved in a restoration?
Mars: On what I call a Street Restoration, most of them are running about $xx,xxx. That will ... buy you half of a new one. In about 5 years that investment should appreciate even more. And in that five year period (a new car) is going to drop down to about half, as what that car is worth. So ... what I call the second-generation Trans Ams are definitely appreciating in value. Not all of them are appreciating as much as some of them. There are a few years ... that havent quite caught on yet. The market value continues to rise. The sources I use, Im just amazed at the prices some of these cars are going for. Ive seen a lot of the second-generations going in the mid-20s. And to me that's a lot of money, especially for a car that didnt cost $4,500 brand new.
DAPA: What is the investment potential?
Mars: I try to talk to my customers, see what it is they want out of their car, what their future plans are. If you want to have a ... Trans Am restored, you are not going to make money off of it. You are not going to make money on having the car completely re-done and then try to re-sell it. Theres too much expense involved. ... If you want to have one re-done, buy it, enjoy the car for a while, eventually it will be worth more than what the cost of the restoration was.
DAPA: What are the popular models of second-generation Firebirds for restoration?
Mars: 70 to 73 are the hottest sellers right now, they always have been. Everybody wants 70 to 73. If you have one of those you practically can name your price on it. 74, 75, 76 Im sorry guys, right now they just have not caught on ... theyre just not real hot sellers right now. I get a lot of calls for 77 78s every body wants to play "Smokey and The Bandit." From my experience in the last couple of years, it would be hard to convince me that they made a Trans Am any other color, because every car Ive got in my shop right now is being painted black. 79 by itself is very popular, but those guys dont mix, 77, 78, they dont like 79. But if youve got a guy that likes the 79, he dont like the 77, 78. You either like it or you dont. 80 and 81, theyre not real hot sellers, most of you know that you can only get a 305 or 301 in them. Between that and the emissions that we have to stick to these days, that kills most of the 80 and 81 market right now.
DAPA: Tell us about parts availability.
Mars: Its scary. Ive got about 40 parts cars right now, but as far as new GM parts, every month they are discontinuing more and more parts. If youve got a project sitting in your garage, and you know that the parts are still available through GM, I would strongly urge you to buy the parts now. One key part in mind is the 74 75 front lower valance. A couple of years ago, a buddy of mine called me and said "Did you know you can still get that?" I said, "No, I didnt." He said, "Heres the part number." So I went down to my GM dealer and I ordered one of them. He said, "Hmm." I said, "What do you mean Hmm"? He said, "Well it has here, in a little notation by it, limited availability." I said, "Whats that mean"? He said, "Well it basically means there are less than 10 left in the entire nation." I said, "OK, so what happens after that"? He said, "Once those 10 are gone, they are going to discontinue it ... theyre not coming back." I said, "Well, shoot, send me two of them then." He sent me two of them, and I had a guy just beg me for one of them. Because right after that another guy found out about it and he bought the remaining eight. Of course he marked them way up. I had a guy talk me out of one, and right now Ive still got one NOS (new old stock), but if I could get my hands on 10 per week I could sell them right now. Its getting real scary out there as far as parts availability.
DAPA: What about reproduction parts?
Mars: Some of them are good, some of them arent. ... I ordered a set of flares for a customer the other day, the wheel spoilers, and you could hold it up to the light and see ripples all down it. It might be okay on a white car, but if you are painting a dark colored car its going to take hours of block sanding to get all those little ripples out of it. You just cant hardly beat GM quality as far as parts.
DAPA: What does the future hold for your restoration business?
Mars: Texas Trans Ams will be adding a showroom inside the building, weve got about 1200 sq. ft. set aside for that. A year from now I want to have that showroom up operating, and have somebody in there staffing it also, ... that can greet people as they come in, ... keep the phones answered all the time. The showroom needs to be kept spotless, and they will be in charge of shipping and receiving. I have two websites, the first website the old Flash net website, its kind of hard to get to if you dont know exactly how to do it. But TexasTransAms.com, thats real easy to remember. Gary Holverson has done a fantastic job on TexasTransAms.com. Eventually I bought the Flash net website and Gary is also handling that one now. We are just now in the process of cleaning that one up and updating the information. (Theres) a restoration that Im doing right now for a guy in Georgia. ... The guy called me, when he talked to me he figured out "this guy pretty well knows what hes talking about." After a couple of days talking with him, he decided to bring the car to me to have it restored.
DAPA: What are the sources for your parts?
Mars: I order through the same people yall do. Year One I like to deal with. The only thing I dont like about Year One is being put on hold and having to listen to "Mustang Sally" for an hour or "Little GTO." Theyre good songs but hey they get kind of old after being put on hold for a while. Classic Industries, ... If I order a part for a car I want it to look and function just like the original. If that part is not available, I want to know before I order that part what to expect. In my mind they sell a lot of what I term as a replacement part, it will serve the same function as the original part, but it looks nothing like the original part. So when you get it in the mail, I mean you open it up and its like: "Surprise! What is this stuff?" I like to deal with AMES. I like to deal with Performance Years. The Paddock, Im just getting into them, they seem to have some fairly decent parts. People are starting to reproduce the parts now, some of them are good some of them are bad. Were still waiting on a Classic Industries' dash, its been in their catalog four years, still no part yet.
DAPA: What advice do you have for someone beginning a restoration on a Firebird?
Mars: I cant tell you how many cars I have bought, or actually even given, that people have started. They get it home in the garage, they tear the car completely apart and then sit back and scratch their head. It sits there in the garage for a year and a half, the wife starts in "Hey, you need to do something with this, get it out of here, do something, either fix it or get rid of it. Id rather you get rid of it." Finally after about a year and a half of fighting with the wife over it, sitting in the garage, taking up room in the driveway, the guy is calling me, "Hey man, just come get it." Its like I try to explain it to them, anybody can take them apart, but not everybody can put them back together. Dont get in over your head. Thats my main advice. Know the limit of your abilities. If not, have an awful big checkbook.
DAPA: Ive noticed ... they have started to put reproduction 79 noses in the catalogs. What is the quality of those noses? Are they as good as the GM products?
Mars: There are several suppliers, of that particular part. I have purchased a reproduction 79 nose and installed it on the car (in the photo album) that just went around. I liked it. It fit well. I have heard of some that have come in and maybe been an inch too short, as far as width. Thats a lot. I had a customer that ordered one, I dont know where he ordered it, he took it to his house, he tried to put it on his car, he said, "man, its an inch short. Its just not wide enough for the car" The one I got, I bought through Garys Classics over in Dallas. Im not sure what brand it was, but it seemed to fit well. The only drawback that I saw on it is the crease just below the headlights where the bumper steps down didnt seem as sharp as the original. It just didnt seem like it cupped in as far as it should. But if you are driving a street car, hey, it looks good on the car. I didnt have any problems with it. So far its holding paint, the paint hasnt spidered or anything.
DAPA: If you have a 79 Trans Am with power windows, are you supposed to get the window up by holding two wires together? Is that how it works?
Mars: No, Ma'am that is not how it works. I have just about got to the point that if a customer calls me and says, "Hey, Ive got power windows on my car and Im having problems with them going up and down," It just makes me shudder. Ive worked on so many of them where Ive spent weeks working on the window tracks, lubricating the window tracks, cleaning contacts on switches, motors, wiring harnesses. And then once you put the door panel on, it will go up about half way and thats it. Theyll eat you up, Im not kidding. What I have found that helps is first off, lubricate the tracks. I was able to get a hold of an old assembly manual from GM and they actually recommend Lubriplate for the window tracks. Ive used everything from WD-40 ... wheel-bearing grease, it works fine, but you get a really nasty smell inside your car. Lubriplate works really well on it, thats what I used on the last one and it seemed to help out a lot. What Ive had to do in some cases is, where you have three window pads on the door that keep the glass from falling too far inside the car, ... Ive had to remove the front one. They did make a window pad that is actually just a clip that just holds the door panel up and it did not have a pad on it, so youve got some extra clearance in there. And in some cases I have had to replace that front pad with just a clip to hold the door panel and that cured the problem. If all that fails try the contacts in your switch. I have had to take the plug apart and take a round file and clean those round contacts in there, not only in the switch but the contacts where the wiring harness plugs into the motor, and where it plugs in inside the door-jam. Its really a pain to do it, but the power windows on those cars werent the best systems.
DAPA: Talk a little about what you do different from a paint and body shop
Mars: Most paint and body shops are production, theyre not going to give you the time, the care, the knowledge that somebody that specializes in this particular field. The production paint and body shop is going to run it through the system, their main goal is to get your car in there and get it out as quick as possible. Me personally, I'm not going to paint your car until it's as close to perfect as that car is ever going to be. This car that is in the book that was passed around earlier, in my opinion should have never been built. This particular car, the man bought without a front clip on it. He bought it wrecked and brought it to me. When he got ready to unload it off the trailer, my landlord looks at him and said, "Hey, normally he keeps the parts cars up on the hill." The guy said, "Wait a minute, this isn't a parts car, he's going to rebuild this for me." The car had obviously been wrecked before that time because the sub-frame that was underneath that car was not the original sub-frame. And that one was bent in three places. The firewall was bent in three places. The brake booster and master cylinder were in at an angle. It had a tree rip the driver side fender completely off the car, including the bracket that welds to the firewall. The tree limb came up and crushed in the cowl, hits the angle on the dash, pops up and hit the corner of the roof, and shoved the roof back towards the passenger side. It rippled the roof in front of the t-top on the driver's side, from the corner to the middle. It kinked it between the t-tops and then at the back corner on the passenger side, it rippled it from where the t-top starts all the way over to the side of the car. Plus it broke both windshield posts. The passenger side swung around and another tree wiped out the passenger side door and half the rear quarter panel. In this particular case I honestly feel we took a sows ear and turned it into a silk purse. The inside was so nasty, I avoided the inside of that car for two months. I wouldn't even open the doors on the car. And finally one day I decided OK today is the day, I've got to do this. I wouldn't do it before lunch. After lunch I got in there and I cleaned out the entire inside of the car, stripped it completely, and as soon as I got through I went home and took a bath. That's how bad that car was. The man is just thrilled to death with it, but it cost him a lot more money than either one of us ever thought it would. And that's another issue I would like to touch on. Personally the way I operate my business, I charge $25 per hour for restoration fees. There is absolutely no way that I or anybody else can tell you how much it's going to cost to fix your car, period. If you want it done right, there is nobody that can tell you an exact figure. Every car I've worked on so far has some form of hidden damage somewhere. What's going to happen if somebody gives you a fixed price for what it's going to cost to fix your car? He's going to take your car apart and when he finds that hidden damage, what's he going to do? He hadn't expected that, he's already made an agreement with you to fix it for a certain price. What's he going to do? He's going to hide it again. Me, I'm sorry, I refuse to compromise on the quality of my work. I'm going to get in there and fix it. I'm not going to cover it up. Anybody that goes in there and tells you that it's going to cost x amount of dollars to get your car re-done you're not going to get what you are paying for. I'll be honest with you, I've been doing this for about 10 years now, and I've got a list of references I'm going to be honest with you and I'm going to do the job right. If I can't do it right, I'm going to tell you, "Look, this is a little more than what I wanted to get into." Can I answer any other questions?
DAPA: Everybody should know David is a (DAPA) member, so try to support him if you can.
Mars: Thank you.