Brought home a 50 year old Pontiac TransAM: Initial impressions

The best thing I heard from the seller was that all the electricals in the car still worked great, and that it was completely rust free.

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I probably shouldn’t have, but did. I’ve owned a few older cars that have been fun to fix up and have fun with. These have included an old Corvette, an old Jeep, and an old Camaro (1987; Third Generation F-Body). The Camaro, however, was not fun. It was a complete nightmare to work on and fix. GM computer systems and electricals from 30+ years ago are not fun to work on, or remotely easy to figure out. Their older stuff is really easy to work with (my 1977 Firebird is a dream to work on), but not so anything that was computerized and filled with sensors.

Anyhow, after the nightmare of working on the Camaro and the constant issues it had, I was happy to see the last of it, and swore I wouldn’t ever mess with a Third Gen again, despite really liking the Pontiac version of the F-body (in their Firebird variants). About 3 weeks ago, I was randomly browsing Craigslist, and a 1988 Firebird Trans-Am GTA showed up for sale. The GTA was the halo version of Pontiacs halo car (the Trans-Am), and was loaded with power everything, and numerous features not seen in regular Trans-Ams, including conforming seats with power side and lumbar bolsters. Regardless of how much I like Firebirds, I still wouldn’t have bothered, but this one actually ticked all the boxes. No T-Tops (those are fun, but leak), a factory digital dashboard, a 350 (5.7 Liter) V8, and most importantly, it was completely stock and hadn’t been hacked or modified in any way, right down to the original tape deck still in the car. And the mileage wasn’t bad at 98,055 miles on the odometer. Anyways, I tried to contact the seller, and never heard back. I figured the car had already sold, since the asking price was quite good for the car. A week later, out of the blue I got an email from the sellers daughter, who let me know that the seller was an older gentleman who wasn’t very good with selling stuff. She suggested I call him again. He spoke with me, and it became clear that he loved the car, but wasn’t really driving it much. He also made it clear that since he loved the car so much, he was being very particular about who he sold it to, since he wanted to make sure it would be taken care of, and not just left to rot. The fact that I already had a 1977 Trans-Am was a big deal for him. The car had sat untouched for most of the past year, and that’s pretty much a death knell for any third generation F-body (the engines and sensors don’t like that). He was upfront that it ran rough, but it ran. The best thing I heard from him was that all the electricals in the car still worked great, and that it was completely rust free, which is a really big deal for these cars. It had a couple of other minor cosmetic issues (rock chip in the windshield, sagging headliner), but nothing crazy. The car had never been repainted and was still in the original 35 year old GM paint. The paint had lost some of it’s sheen as expected, but was still intact.

Since the car was in Anchorage, and I couldn’t get there immediately, I had a friend out there check it out for me. When he corroborated what I already knew from the seller, I made an offer. The seller accepted and the car was mine. He held on to it for a week while I arranged shipping. There’s no road into or out of where I live (you can only get in via ferry or airplane), and the nearest town on the road system is Haines, which is a 4 hour ferry ride away. Haines connects directly to the ALCAN (Alaska Canadian Highway). This is the only route into SE Alaska. Once the shipper picked up the car, they had it on a truck from Anchorage to the ALCAN and to Haines within a couple of days. In Haines, they loaded it on to the ferry, and all I had to do was pick it up when the ferry got here at night a couple of days ago. My buddy gave me a ride to the ferry terminal, where I picked it up and drove it back. The shipper had warned me that the car would be completely coated in mud since the ALCAN this time of year is incredibly muddy, and she wasn’t joking. The thing was coated with mud, and I had to somewhat wipe down the windhshield with wet paper towels so I could at least partially see out while driving. It ran rough as expected. However it drives fantastic. The car handled great on the drive home, with a very tight and responsive steering and suspension, and not even one squeak while driving. Once I looked at it the next day, it was clear that everything in the car worked. The interior was completely clean, original, and not any rips anywhere. I finally washed the car earlier today, and was able to get some of the mud off. The car needs at least a few more washes. Now begins the fun of figuring out why the car runs rough and won’t idle. The OBD1 system gave me a code 36, which is MAF sensor related, and which is know from past experience is a nightmare to figure out. But this car is actually worth the effort. We’re working on figuring out the MAF issue, or if there’s any vacuum leaks that are messing up the idle. But that’s going to take sometime to solve. I started chipping away at other things. We already got in a new distributor cap and rotor. Waiting on access to a friends garage lift to change out the oil, oil filter, and the spark plugs and wires. The plugs in a 3rd gen are a serious pain to change thanks to the way the engine is situated in the bay (which I also found out thanks to the Camaro!). I’ll be changing out the pop up headlights back to the original halogen style. The previous owner put in LEDs which I really don’t care for. In the interim, I figured people would enjoy some of the pics I got today after cleaning her. Because who doesn’t like a black Trans-Am

Always loved that front end. Not as good as my 77, but this one is a close second

The paint looks shinier in the pics than it actually is. But a wax and polishing job, and this paint will be shiny again, since it’s still in really good shape.

The 5.7 Liter Tuned Port Injection V8. Great engine, just a really painful system of relays and sensors

The really cool digital dash I’ve always liked. And this one actually works.

The DIC (driver information center) right next to the main instruments above. The car does a full systems check and flashes any issues to you on the screen. The DIC also fully works.

One more day of trying to diagnose the stumbling/hesitation issue and idle issue. Could possibly be a bad distributor cap or timing needs to be adjusted. Or I could be dealing with two different issues, where the hesitation at slower speeds is just the old bad gasoline working its way through the system, and the unstable low idle is MAF sensor or idle air controller related (both of which would actually be an easy fix if so). More pics after my quick interior cleaning today

Not bad at all for an original 35 year old interior. Not a single rip anywhere. All I had to do was remove coffee stains (at least I hope that’s what it was) from the plastic back portion of the drivers seat.

Driver view. Steering wheel was an option on the order sheet, with stereo controls at hand. Big deal 35 years ago.

Those are the power switches for both the inflating side bolsters and the lumbar supports. They work great, and I could ensconce myself very well in the seat.

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