Car Feature: A 3rd-Gen Trans Am That Pays Homage to the Tuner Cars of the ’70s and ’80s

photos by: the author

This Third-Gen Trans Am Incorporates the Perfect Blend of Multi-Decade Performance Machinery 

If you’re like us, you’ll find it hard to believe that it’s been nearly 30 years since the final third-generation F-body had rolled off of the assembly line in 1992. At the time, it was finally putting to rest a body style that had been in production since late-1981, and with it, the last time that a GEN-I V8 would reside between the flanks of a Camaro or Firebird.

The third-generation would leave behind some iconic trim levels, such as the IROC-Z and GTA, as well as the less-appreciated Berlinetta and Firebird SE. With a new body style, would come new powerplants that would quickly overshadow what was once was the norm, and it wouldn’t be long until third-gen cars were dismissed altogether, apart from a few loyalists.

Fast forward a few decades, and we’re seeing a reemergence of the car that starred in cult classic TV shows like Simon and Simon, and of course, Knight Rider. Call it nostalgia, call it what you will, but these cars are making a comeback in a big way, and if this strikes you as news, then you haven’t been paying attention over the last few years.

Once relegated to the back section of Auto Trader classifieds and trailer parks, enthusiasts with plenty of disposable cash and a proper vision to create what should have been, are coming to the forefront of this resurgence of 3rd-gen popularity. They’re taking these used donor vehicles, keeping the few things that still “work” today, but then discard the rest of the components that have been the car’s Achilles heel since they were new.

In a word, the drivetrain. Out goes the the underpowered small-block, weak transmission and rear axle, and in goes modern LS and LT powertrains, a stronger manual 6-speed or electronic automatic gearbox, and usually, a rearend that can sustain the abuse of modern power levels. We’ve covered cars like these time and time again right here on these pages, but each one was approached a little bit differently than the last. With Fred Putman’s ’88 Trans Am, that’s certainly true.

As Fred tells us, he’s always wanted to take on this project, and with the availability of the donor engine and transmission at the ready, thanks to his friend Jim Haller, it couldn’t have been more meant to be. Jim also happens to be friends with Matt Adams. Who, as it should be noted, is the son of retired GM engineer, road racing legend and founder of VSE, Herb Adams.

In case you’re not aware, Herb built tuner Trans Ams in the late-70s through the mid-80s, and each car would have beefed-up suspension, increased horsepower output, and specific decals — including a one-off “bird” adorning the hood, fenders and C-pillar, where the usual Firebird logos would go. Known as the Fire-Am, it would pave the way for efforts from Mecham, SLP and others throughout the ’80s and into the ’90s.

Wanting to create his own Fire-Am, who better to work with than a descendant of the racing legend? Jim also helped Matt build some of the machines that Adams’ are cranking out today, including Jim’s own ’78 Trans Am that sister publication, Timeless Muscle ran a feature on a few years back.

Looking to get the haggling and dealing out of the way, Fred offered Jim up an old 1929 Ford pickup that Jim always wanted, as a trade for the labor and the GEN-V LT1 engine out of a 6th-gen Camaro SS, as well as a 4L60E transmission from a 4th-gen F-body. Matt also stepped in and supplied VSE 3rd-gen Trans Am suspension and graphics, to give it better handling in the corners and additional attitude.

Turning our attention to the Trans Am, the 305 that lived under the hood was pulled for the GEN-V, and apart from E3 spark plugs and MSD wires, it has been left completely unmolested. On the other hand, the breathing capabilities have been improved substantially, thanks in part to a 5th-gen Camaro cold-air intake from Speed Daddy.

The factory intake manifold is sufficient enough for a stock engine, but the exhaust is another story. The Firebird’s OEM pipes weren’t simply up to the task, and nor would they direct to the LT1’s exhaust manifolds. Furthermore, a 6th-gen Camaro exhaust system doesn’t exactly bolt up to the 3rd-gen underpinnings, obviously. So a set of Speed Engineering long-tube headers, Magnaflow mufflers and 3-inch diameter exhaust tubing went into the mix.

Balancing out the air/fuel ratio is easy, thanks to a Walbro pump and an adjustable Racetronix fuel pressure regulator, that were sourced from Hawks Motorsports, they were able to make them work with the factory Firebird fuel lines. The LT1 conversion ECU and engine harness were sourced from Howell EFI, which utilized a F.A.S.T. fuel injection, and an EZ-TCU. To help keep the electrical system charged, a Powermaster alternator went into place.

Working down the driveline, and we find the 4L60E has been fortified by A-Plus Transmissions in Brighton, Michigan, that’s paired with Coan Engineering high-stall torque converter, that helps put the internally-stock LT1 in its needed power band, when called upon. A Coleman Racing 3-inch aluminum driveshaft sends the power from the built gearbox to the factory 10-bolt, that’s equipped with 3.42 gears. In our experience, we recommend that Ed swaps that out for something more substantial in the near future.

Underneath, VSE front and rear sway bars, front end links, Panhard bar and rear lower control arms were thrown into the suspension mix. As was a UMI K-member, front tubular A-arms, Monroe shocks and struts, modified stock springs and a torque arm from HHR — Jim and Matt’s company. HHR also supplied the 3rd-gen specific Fire-Am decals.

In addition to the Fire-Am callouts, the car’s aesthetics have largely been left factory stock — the only deviations that are remotely noticeable, are the Hawks rear spoiler, as well as the YearOne 17-inch Honeycomb wheels. You normally wouldn’t think it, but they look amazingly at-home on an ’80s car with their ’70s styling, but ’90s OEM dimensions. They’re currently wrapped in Nitto NT55G2 rubber, which are sized in at 275/40/17 on all four corners of the car.

With over 465hp on tap, and a pretty much unassuming demeanor, it may be safe to call this one-off Fire Am tribute car a sleeper. Or would that be reaching? Either way, if cars like Ed’s Trans Am are the new benchmark for the way third-gen F-bodies are built, then we welcome the growing trend of restored ’80s-era muscle with new arms.

Tech Sheet:

  • CAR:
  • OWNER: Fred Putman Jr.
  • DISPLACEMENT: 376 cubic-inches
  • CRANKSHAFT: Stock, LT1
  • PISTONS: Stock, LT1
  • CAMSHAFT: Stock, LT1
  • ROCKER ARMS: Stock, LT1
  • IGNITION: MSD wires, E3 plugs
  • INDUCTION: Stock LT1 intake manifold, Speed Daddy 5th-gen Camaro cold-air intake
  • OILING: Stock oil pan and lines, and relocated a stock Corvette dry sump oil tank to the front passenger side, near the core support
  • EXHAUST: Speed Engineering long-tube headers, Magnaflow mufflers, 3-inch diameter exhaust tubing
  • FUEL DELIVERY: Stock, LT1 injectors, Racetronix adjustable regulator, Walbro fuel pump
  • TRANSMISSION: 4L60E; sourced from a ’97 LT1 and built by A-Plus Transmissions
  • CONVERTER: Coan Racing; high-stall converter
  • DRIVESHAFT: Coleman Racing; 3-inch aluminum
  • REAREND: Stock, 3.42 gears
  • SUSPENSION: VSE front and rear sway bars, front end links, Panhard bar, rear lower control arms, UMI K-member, front tubular A-arms, Monroe shocks and struts, modified stock springs and torque arm
  • BRAKES: Stock; disc front, drum rear
  • WHEELS: YearOne; 17×9-inch Honeycomb (front and rear)
  • TIRES: Nitto; NT55G2 275/40/17 (front and rear)
  • HP/TQ.: 465/465

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