Car shows can be dangerous places for red-blooded guys with gasoline in their veins and money in their pockets. Although your local show and shine are one of the great automotive pleasures when the weather warms up, it is also where the classic car sirens sing their most alluring songs.
Little did I know, when attending the 2018 Murrieta Rod Run in Riverside County, California, said sirens would lure me in and hitch me up (all starry-eyed and gullible,) with a two-owner, low-mileage LS-powered 1999 Pontiac Trans Am.
I saw the voluptuous old F-body parked just outside the perimeter of the show, and I snapped a picture of the phone number on the sign and followed up with the owner. The car was a fairly workaday Trans Am coupe, with T-tops, beige interior, and only 43,000 original miles.
It was purportedly a one-owner car, but the former shepherd was in ill health and the Firebird sat dormant for some time. The current seller inherited the car and had plans to give it to his daughter, but that fell through, and so on the market it went.
The paint was hazy yet presentable, the interior above average, but the motor had a slight miss. Nonetheless, it pulled like a freight train, and the body was tight and accident-free. Overall, it was tired cosmetically and saw much off-road use, as the driveway to the original owner’s home was unpaved.
The seller and I agreed on a price and I took possession of the car. I drove it for a few months to “listen” to what it needed. I’ve owned a bunch of cars, and this has always been my game plan when I buy a new ride, i.e., get to know it before you do any mods or maintenance.
Speaking of mods, unmolested fourth-gen Firebirds are about as rare as hen’s teeth these days. They are arguably the last true high-performance Poncho made in the USA and a fitting tribute to the legendary yet now extinct Pontiac marque.
So while my Trans Am was stone stock and admittedly boring, it had the integrity that only a factory car possesses and I wanted to preserve that as much as possible. The value of this particular car was its low miles and originality. Spending tons of money that squanders the value of a low-mile vehicle is a really dumb equation. In fact, most project cars, unless skillfully executed, end up being worth significantly less than a stock version.
The conundrum was how to take the car’s look up and notch and breathe on the suspension and rolling stock for more capable performance while not mucking up the pureness of the car. After much thought, I decided to update the car as follows: a full paint correction, a suspension kit from Chris Alston Chassisworks, Year One snowflake rims, and beefy Falken Azenis rubber.
The goal was to use the best components available and gently nudge the whole car up a notch with a scalpel, not a hatchet. The stock LS1 with its 345 horsepower is more than enough for me around town. After a tune-up to remedy the aforementioned miss, the LS1 ran super strong.
The last thing I wanted with this car was to cobble together a series of half-baked mods. The goal was a fast little Trans Am with a good ride, sharp handling, and impeccable cosmetics. All of the mods I talk about here apply to 1993-2002 Camaros, as well.
Here’s how I achieved the goal.
First, even though the car had only 43,000 miles, it sat idle for an extended period of time. I wanted to replace the shocks and bushings as they rotted and at the end of their life. Lowering the car was on the docket, and I started to do some research and fell in love with Chris Alston Chassiswork’s 1993-02 GM F-Body gStreet shock and anti-roll bar package.
The gStreet line of suspension products from Chassisworks includes a simple-to-install front and rear suspension upgrade package for popular GM muscle cars and related models that offers excellent seat-of-the-pants handling improvement without a ton of effort. The kit includes front and rear anti-roll bars matched with VariShock direct-replacement shocks. Front bars include billet-aluminum chassis mounts and urethane bushings. Rear bars are adjustable-rate or control arm-mounted with a fixed rate. VariShock billet-aluminum shocks are included in the package and available as factory-valved or 16-position single- or 256-setting double-adjustable versions to fine-tune ride quality and handling performance.
While the job requires mechanical chops, it was essentially a bolt-in affair and took roughly six hours to complete. First off, we soaked the old nuts in penetrating oil and let it do it’s chemical magic and then got to work. We disassembled the front suspension, removed the old front shocks, sway bar and tie-rods and cleaned up any dirt and crud.
Then we installed the shocks and new sway bar with new links, bushings, and fresh hardware. Chassisworks recommends replacing the factory mounting hardware with new fasteners of an equal or better grade. Follow standard torque specifications for fasteners used at solid mounts such as crossbar tabs. Urethane-bushed mounts, such as stems, should be tightened to slightly preload the bushings without over-tightening.
At the rear, it was a tad more complicated. We had to remove most of the interior panels from the B-pillar rearward to expose the rear shock tower mounting points behind the rear seat backrest.
With that out of the way, we turned our attention to tearing down the rear suspension. We removed the old shocks, sway bar and bushings and set them aside. Again, we cleaned up the site and got to work swapping in the shiny new gear.
The Chassisworks gStreet components offer a fairly soft street set up on one end of the spectrum, and the ability to tighten down the dampers and hit the road course on the other. I opted for a reasonably mild street setup, and we reduced the front ride height about 1.5-inches. I opted to drive the car for a bit via the “seat of my pants” to get an idea of how firm I wanted to go.
Even with the easy street setup dialed in, the result was a taut but not harsh compromise that rode well and felt considerably sharper than stock. I’m very happy with the result and it’s nice to know I can tweak the settings firmer if that’s the direction I want to go. We really dug the quality of the Chassisworks kit. The company is your go-to source making your car run faster, brake harder and look it’s best. Go here for a full list of specs and install instructions.
Next up was trying to choose a wheel upgrade appropriate to the spirit of the car. After extensive web and forum searches, we chose 17×9 inch snowflake rims (with five 1/8-inch backspacing) from YearOne. We weren’t going for a sport compact look here…we wanted ample wheel well clearance as well as day-to-day drivability. Besides, a fourth-gen F-Body with wheels over 18-inches can veer off into hooptie Instagram territory in an instant, and that was not the look we were going for.
We chose the light gray spoke finish with gold, screaming chicken center caps, and they looked fantastic. Even though this era Firebird was never offered with snowflake wheels, they fit perfectly here and really compliment the car. The 17-inch wheels look plenty big and fill the wheel wells nicely. We really love YearOne wheels, not just their F-body offerings, but the company’s wheels for most all classic American cars as well.
The rims were so beautiful, they were begging for some serious rubber, and we went with the aforementioned Falken Azenis FK510s. According to Falken, “Our latest generation ultra-high-performance summer tire, the Azenis FK510 is designed for drivers of premium vehicles looking for excellent grip and outstanding performance. The 4D Nano Design enables Falken engineers to optimize new high-performance compounds at the molecular level, enhancing both wear and wet weather traction. The hybrid under-tread materials delivers confidence-inspiring handling and stability. The FK510 covers a wide range of today’s luxury sport vehicles, including staggered applications, and is available in sizes ranging from 17 to 22-inch.”
We went with the 275/40ZR17 size all the way around and liked the ride and handling combination. They quieted up the droning tire noise we experienced with the previous set of tires, yet stuck like glue with a bonus of a sharper feel through the steering wheel.
Last but not least, we gave the car a complete paint correction, and this proved to be the cherry on top of the-sundae. I called my detail guru, Glover over at Rise To Shine Mobile Auto Detail and booked an appointment to correct the paint. The process is a five-step sequence. We started with washing the car, then a thorough claying of the paint to remove contaminants.
Then we went over the whole car with a fairly aggressive compound to remove 20 years of towel marks and swirls. Then we followed up that with a polishing compound and then a protective coat of wax for the finale.
For readers who have followed my builds over the years, I’m a huge proponent of paint correction. We used Meguiar’s products because we love the ease of use and the results we get. The paint correction’s true test was evident with a colleague at Power Automedia who gave me “the business” about buying the car…when he saw the finished ‘Bird with shiny paint and cool wheels, he changed his tune, saying, “Hey, if you ever want to sell the car, let me know.” ‘Nuff said.
A key part of the transformation that seems insignificant yet had big dividends was balancing the rims and tires. We sometimes forget that an older car that has been sitting or had curb altercations can be running on out-of-balance tires, and that can translate into a tired wobbly feel through the steering wheel. With everything trued up, our new Chassisworks suspension had less to compensate for and allowed the new parts to work harmoniously like the car was rolling on ball bearings.
The end result was exactly what I envisioned. The components we added were super high quality and had great synergy. As I touched on previously, if you’re going to mod an increasingly rare fourth-gen Trans Am, using the highest quality components is the perfect recipe for having fun with the car while safeguarding its drivability and value. That’s exactly what we got with Chassisworks, YearOne, and Falken Tires.