Violetto Customs 1978 LS3 Firebird Trans Am Restomod Takes Flight

We love rubber bumper, second-gen Firebirds.

Your humble author owned a 1979 Formula back in the day and remember it fondly. Sadly, as the years went by, 1974-1981 Firebirds were not the pick of the litter, passed over for their free-breathing, semi-chromed cousins. Every year after 1973, horsepower wavered, and eventually, F-Bodies became a (very successful) sticker and decal, GT car.

Commensurately, many late-era, second-gen Firebirds were left for dead, especially in California where state laws require any car built after 1975 to be smog checked every friggin’ two years.

This is what the car looked like before transformation. Already LS3 powered with updated suspension, the build was solid, but pushing ten years old.

With the advent of the restomod movement and GM’s LS V8, the F-Bodies of the disco-era got a reprieve. While some could argue 1970 1/2 through 1973 are the purest expression of Bill Mitchell’s Ferrari-inspired Poncho pony car, time has been kind to later iterations — especially 1977 to 1981 models.

While not high-horsepower barnburners, late-era second-gen Firebirds did get useful suspension refinements, four-wheel disc brakes and some very resourceful styling updates that kept them climbing the sales charts for years.

The 1977-78 models were especially attractive with new, front end styling that leveraged quad rectangular headlights resulting in a beaked face that looked like a cross between a bird of prey and a Polynesian war canoe. Sales went through the roof.

Which brings us to our featured 1978 Trans Am built by Violetto Customs out of Bradenton, Florida. We met Telly Violetto last year in Las Vegas at 2018 SEMA when he showed off a wicked, restomod Mustang named “Cerberus.” Telly is an affable and talented craftsman who cut his car-building teeth with the famed Ring Brothers and recently ventured out on his own.

He told us of his personal 1978 Trans Am he was working on, and it piqued our interest. The story of the car starts in 1992 when Telly bought the car at the wee age of 16 years old. “The car is a rare gold package, Y88 WS6 car that originally came equipped with a Pontiac 400 V8, a four-speed manual gearbox, four-wheel disc brakes and stiffer suspension.” Telly recounts.

He continued by saying, “With the Y88 package, you got gold tinted T-tops, gold screaming chicken, and special trim. There was a black version of the Y88 as well. They only made 1300 or so of the gold version with the 400/four-speed.” Other than a paint job back when Telly was in high school, this was a very original car.

Photo – General Motors

Although Telly had the car for years, the first metamorphosis came about in 2010 when the car got an LS3 V8. A 5-speed Tremec transmission was swapped-in and a set of Year One 17×9 snowflake wheels all the way around were added as well. Jared Zimmerman, a buddy from Telly’s Ring Brothers’s days, and Lou Zantiago installed the LS3. Telly then massaged the motor and got it running right. Along the way he added a Pro-Touring F-Body front spring kit with tubular upper control arms, stock rear end and brakes from a C5 Corvette.

The car remained in the aforementioned guise until a few months ago when Telly signed the car up to compete the OPTIMA’s Search for the Ultimate Street Car, in Daytona, Florida. “When I realized I had a car that wasn’t in shape for the event, that’s when I got the gumption to upgrade the car again with the latest and greatest performance goodies from some of the best manufacturers in the business.” Telly recounted.

 “I thought, why don’t we make this a 48-hour build?  It was the best way to add urgency to the project, get all my talented wrenches in one room at the same time, and knock the thing out.”

Shiny, beautiful 3″ MagnaFlow Exhaust system

Then, literally, the clock began ticking. With no time to spare, the old LS3 was yanked out and sold off. Telly and his crew shoehorned in a brand new, LS3 built by Reds Racing, with a Grand Sport bottom end, COMP Cams lifters, cam (#54-00-11,) pushrods, and valve-springs retainers.

Topping off the motor is an MSD Atomic fuel injection unit that’s like the cherry-on-top-of-the-sundae. The new 500hp motor is backed up with a Bowler Tremec TKO 600 5-speed manual gearbox, Magnaflow 3-inch Exhaust, and stainless-steel Ultimate headers. Transferring the power to the rear wheels, is a Currie 9-inch rearend with 3:50 gears.

Next up was a heavy-hitter suspension rethink, via RideTech. Telly went with the company’s “StrongArm” tubular A-arms up front, with adjustable coilovers and a four-link in the rear. Then he added a RideTech Tru-Turn steering system, and Ride Tech’s MUSCLE bar sway bars to round out the package. Telly recounts, “This is a very complete, uber-capable system that was a breeze to install.”

Baer and RideTech play well together...

The “whoa” on this brutal T/A is provided by binder gurus, Baer Brakes. Telly chose a set of its six-piston, 14-inch drilled and vented discs all the way around. They threw in a billet master cylinder and proportioning valve as well. “This is a gorgeous system, and the quality of the components is top notch,” Telly extolled.

With the suspension nailed down, it was time to turn to the unsprung, rotating components aka, wheels and tires. Telly went with 18×10 Rocket Racing Attack wheels, wrapped in Bridgestone RE-71Rs gumballs, 275/35/18, at all corners. The bronze finish really compliments the gold Y88 package and Telly swears they fit in the wheel wells with zero modification.

Inside, the car runs a roll cage, AutoMeter gauges, and Braum racing seats. Other than that, the Tran Am is mostly stock inside, even retaining its OEM three-spoke steering wheel. The late-great Burt Reynolds even left his  “John Hancock” on the plate where the HVAC once was.

When the build wrapped, it was off to Daytona, with only five miles on the car. Telly says, “Driving the car on the big-banked oval was exciting. It was a thrill to run the car flat-out. The car performed admirably. The RideTech suspension glued the car to the track and the Baer brakes were smooth and powerful.  We got up to 135 mph or so and then the car’s late-’70s aerodynamics caught up with us. We sort of couldn’t overcome the brick-like shape of the car. We ultimately had a mechanical issue when we blew a clutch throwout bearing, but overall we were thrilled with the car and the mods.”

Stay tuned to Power Automedia as we will do a deeper dive on the suspension and brake installs in future segments on this Trans Am. Also, keep your eye on Telly Violetto Customs for its next superstar build, this time a 2nd-Gen Camaro.

Render – Andreas Wennevold 

Photography – Super Sport Design

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About the author

Dave Cruikshank

Dave Cruikshank is a lifelong car enthusiast and an Editor at Power Automedia. A zealous car geek since birth, he digs lead sleds, curvy fiberglass, kustoms and street rods. He currently owns a '95 Corvette, '76 Cadillac Seville, '99 LS1 Trans Am and big old Ford Van.
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