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Pontiac Prizefight: Restoring a 1969 Firebird (Part 1)

1969 Pontiac Firebird restoration

Getting this old ‘bird back on the road will be a free-for-all cage match with willpower, rust, and a venomous spider all vying to claim ownership of this first-gen F-body. (Image/Steve Baur)

If you’re into cars, then there’s a good chance that at some point you have wanted a muscle car. Unfortunately, the days of picking up a popular model on the cheap and driving away with it are long gone.

Still, the lure of rolling down the road in muscle-car coolness is a powerful motivator. What you get these days for cheap money is almost always full of holes and hiding a multitude of rusty sins, but tetanus be damned, we’re going to fix the bare minimum and get to making some internal combustion ASAP with this 1969 Pontiac Firebird.

Unfortunately, turnkey, first-gen F-bodies usually bring $10-20k or more depending on condition, and “fixer-up” examples go for just a little less. So when you come across a smoking deal on a roller for just a fraction of that, there’s a good chance that it’s full of holes and probably in far worse condition than you can see just by looking at the exterior.

We have worked with enough classic restoration shops to know that nearly every car that comes in needs work, and most need far more than expected.

Now, we wouldn’t be the first to slap something together and throw on shiny paint, but the important part is to not misrepresent the vehicle’s condition.

There’s nothing wrong with admitting that a car has a lot of body filler and that shortcuts were taken to get it on the road—as long as those shortcuts don’t affect safety.

Moving on to the heap at hand, this particular 1969 Firebird was a base V8 model originally colored Crystal Turquoise.

When we got our hands on it, it was largely covered in a heavy build primer that couldn’t quite cover what appear to be some vintage stripe decals down the car’s sides and C-pillars, nor could it hide the heavy pitting we found on the passenger-side front fender, door, rear quarter and part of the roof.

The previous owner mentioned that he had purchased it off of a co-worker who had it sitting in a Florida field for a few decades. In Florida, sitting out in a field usually means sinking into the sandy soil and becoming a home for a variety of critters.

With a purchase price of just $1,500, the Pontiac also came with plenty of rust and/or shoddy rust repair, but that was okay, because the most difficult parts to replace like the rockers and frame rails were in great shape.

With the car parked in the driveway at home, we get to look at those awesome body lines every day for inspiration, which is important, because this whole thing is going to get way worse before it gets better.

It’s going to be a battle that tests one’s resolve, and questions one’s decision about the whole endeavor. And this will happen from the moment you pull out the first tool to perform the first task on the car. You may want to quit. You may think that this isn’t fixable. You may wonder what you got yourself into, and you may have the thought that you simply can’t finish it, but just remember two words—press on.

Often with projects like these, what seemed at first to be a few easy jobs can cascade quickly into a multitude of laborious tasks, but the key to progress is to just break them down into small, manageable bits, and press on.

Encounter stubborn bolts? Press on.

The fender that you’re not working on suddenly falls off the car? Press on.

What looked like a semi-solid trunk floor turns out to be Swiss cheese after running the vacuum cleaner? Press on.

If you haven’t gathered the theme here, it’s about pressing on when adversity steps into your path—and it will, repeatedly.

When this fight is over, you’ll be better off. Your car will be better off. It’s a character-building endeavor that will eventually end with you cruising down the road in a classic, collecting smiles by the mile and creating memories that last forever.

With a whole lot of help from Summit Racing Equipment as well as the many restoration and performance companies that make the parts Summit Racing provides, we’re going to win this Pontiac prizefight. Let’s get started.

1969 Pontiac Firebird restoration

This is what we came upon when we first laid eyes on the Firebird. Aside from the missing front-end body parts and four flat tires, it had pretty good 50-foot appeal. To make sure we hadn’t completely lost our minds, we brought along our most savvy restoration buddy to assess the car’s condition. (Image/Steve Baur)

 

1969 Pontiac Firebird restoration

The driver’s side revealed a factory front fender that needed some body work toward the bottom, but it was in much better condition than the passenger side of the car, which had quite a bit of rust pitting from the front fender back to the quarter panel evident under the primer. (Image/Steve Baur)

 

1969 Pontiac Firebird restoration engine bay

Things looked a bit worse under the hood, and while the primer hid what was going on with the rest of the body, the firewall offered up all of its dirty secrets. The firewall had several severely rusted spots (horrendous gorges, really) along the factory seam. The 1969 Firebird also has a pretty complicated frontend assembly, and it was evident that some parts were missing and the rest were rusty. (Image/Steve Baur)

 

1969 Pontiac Firebird restoration

Look closely and you can spot the striping beneath the primer. It’s all going to have to come off, unfortunately, and that will likely reveal more problems, but it’s nothing body filler and some sanding can’t solve. Keep in mind your end goal of driving the car and stay positive. Negativity will get you nowhere in a restoration. (Image/Steve Baur)

 

1969 Pontiac Firebird restoration

It was evident that the taillight panel would need to be replaced, as large portions of it were smashed and parts of it around the tail light lenses were rusty. The trunk also looked a bit rusty, but later on after cleaning the debris out, we realized it was much worse and should be replaced if we plan on putting anything in it of reasonable weight. After all, the gas tank is right below it. (Image/Steve Baur)

 

1969 Pontiac Firebird restoration

Getting the Firebird onto our trailer was a struggle in and of itself. One tire had blown completely apart, so it offered no hope of holding air. Two of the others would deflate within minutes, and the final tire actually held air for 24 hours. Once we got it home, we needed it to be more mobile, so we searched craigslist for a used set of suitable wheels, and found a set of Trans Am GTA wheels with tires that hold air for just $175. Getting the old steel wheels off, however, would involve a large hammer and lots of neighborhood annoying pounding on metal. They had sat in the field so long and the rust was so bad that a few of them started to break apart. That rust holding the rim onto the car, though, simply refused to give up, but eventually we prevailed. (Image/Steve Baur)

 

1969 Pontiac Firebird restoration

Now that looks a whole lot better, and look at that awesome body line of the First-Gen F-body—simply inspiring. Even with the 4×4 suspension look, the car still looks cool, but like we said previously, it’s going to get much worse before it gets better. (Image/Steve Baur)

 

1969 Pontiac Firebird restoration

Taking a look under the car, we needed to remove the stock exhaust that was still dangling under there, and it was immediately apparent that the floor had been “repaired” with some foil tape and fiberglass. It was a no-brainer to think that the fuel lines and brake lines all needed to go as well. There’s no telling how long the lines have been rusting, and it’s simply not worth the risk. (Image/Steve Baur)

 

1969 Pontiac Firebird restoration

One of the scariest parts of the car is the major rust issue plaguing the firewall. With some help from some POR-15 and some of the company’s Power Cloth, we’re going to give it a quick makeover that will hopefully prove waterproof. If the strength of the metal where the brake booster becomes an issue, we may have to go back in and actually have some metal welded in there. (Image/Steve Baur)

 

1969 Pontiac Firebird restoration

When we first saw the car, the seats were missing, but luckily the owner had the original front buckets and rear seat, the latter of which was important because the ’69 Firebird seat is a different size shared only with the ’69 Camaro convertible. This car was also equipped with the optional headrests, and while none of the upholstery is worth saving, it’s good to know the bones are still there. (Image/Steve Baur)

 

1969 Pontiac Firebird restoration

The bell had been rung and Round 1 is underway in this Pontiac prizefight. We took our lumps in this round as nearly every nut and bolt was rusted solid to whatever they were fastened to. The Firebird spilled a lot of rust, but beat us up pretty well. It had us staggered, but we pressed on and finally succeeded in removing the front sheet metal. The nose assembly was removed as one piece from the front subframe, and we’ll have to decide if it’s worth struggling to pull it apart now, or if we just knock the rust off, hit it with more POR 15, and bolt it back on. The prizefight continues in Round 2 of our Pontiac restoration. (Image/Steve Baur)

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2 Comments

  1. Pingback: Pontiac Prizefight: Restoring a 1969 Firebird (Part 2) - OnAllCylinders

  2. Marcel Joseph Bellemare says:

    I bought an almost identical 69 FB 4 yrs ago. Came with seats, steering colomn and cluster, everything else was not there. Steering, susp, brakes – toast. Restored what little i had, replaced everything else. Did floor pans and dash pan. Huge challenge, not much info available. If you have any questions just ask. I am almost finished. I have a friend with a 69 FB and it helped but he wouldn’t let me take it apart to see how it goes together.

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