*photos by: the author
Whether or not you’re an F-body owner, you’ve more than likely have heard the name Hawks Third Generation. Located in Easley, South Carolina, Hawks Third Generation is the mecca of third- and fourth-gen F-body hardware and accessories. Specializing in brand new and used parts and even complete vehicle builds, over the last seventeen years owner and founder Bruce Hawkins has turned his homegrown business into an F-body empire.
Utilizing 12,000 square-feet, thirteen employees and five buildings, if there’s anything you ever need for your 1982-2002 Camaro/Firebird, Hawks more than likely has it. His selection of parts and accessories is a cumulation of brand new parts of his own design, shared product from other manufacturers and a vast inventory of used parts he’s sourced from parts cars over the last decade and a half. Some of the most well-executed F-body builds we’ve seen are of his own work, and there’s no end in sight.
Being highly-passionate about cars and F-bodies in particular, Mr. Hawkins houses some of the most interesting and collectible 3rd- and 4th-generation Camaros and Firebirds on the planet. His personal garage is home to ultra-rare, low-production examples from the ’80s and ’90s and anybody who loves late-model Camaros and Firebird, would surely enjoy his collection.
Wanting to get to learn more about the man and his business, we hopped a jet over to South Carolina at the end of January to take a tour of his facilities and to get to know Mr. Hawkins a bit better. Below is a cumulation of a face-to-face interview we had with Bruce on that chilly Winter morning.
“I think in many ways, a lot of companies see the third-gen F-body platform as a vehicle that not many car owners really spend a lot of money on. I don’t really like that way of looking at it; I think it’s wrong.“ -Bruce Hawkins
GMEFI: So tell us, how did Hawks come to fruition?
Bruce Hawkins: “Back in 1999, I had a particular ’84 Camaro Z28 that had an automatic transmission. I wanted a manual for it, but after looking around I realized that nobody offered a conversion. I ended up buying a parts car, took what I needed from it and parted the rest of it out. Word quickly spread that I was selling used Camaro and Firebird parts; we started doing a lot of swap meets and car shows, and as time went on, we had become known as having the parts and products that 3rd-gen enthusiasts needed. We eventually expanded into performance and interior work, started building cars for customers and the rest is history!”
GMEFI: Very cool! Adding to what you were saying about your project car and starting your business; was it something that you had planned as you grew or did it just happen organically?
BH: “A little bit of both. Some of it happened organically as you’ve suggested, but parts of it we planned along the way. We had a third-gen, and nobody in the market really focused on it. I think in many ways, a lot of companies see the third-gen F-body platform as a vehicle that not many car owners really spend a lot of money on. I don’t really like that way of looking at it; I think it’s wrong. I feel that most car guys, from the [early days of hot-rodding] to the present, never really had a lot of money to spend on a car and I think that the third-gen F-body platform is a lot of car for the dollar.
Obviously with the introduction of the LS-series engine platform and the conversion parts, it just becomes so much more. Again, it started off as a car that I owned that I couldn’t find anything for, and I felt that I really wanted to make change there. At the time, I was a manager at a local grocery chain and I think that experience had given me the drive, focus and the discipline that I needed, and helped convince me that I had what it took to make it happen.”
GMEFI: As a result of the LS-swap craze, have you noticed a resurgence in third-gen popularity?
BH: “I think so. I think that the one thing the third-gen platform has always lacked was performance, and we all know what the LSx market has done [for the hobby] as far as performance. For lack of a better term, it’s almost a given of what you can expect from an LS-series engine swap in any car. The third-gen with the MacPherson front suspension and the Panhard bar torque-arm suspension, it’s a really good car; it handles well, and it rides well. With an LS-series engine, there’s no question about, ‘Oh, I hope this combination is going to work right,’ it’s simply going to be there. It gives you the performance you need.”
GMEFI: Where do you see the car market going in the future?
BH: “I think that the earlier model cars have a hit a plateau in what people are willing to spend on them and what they’re doing [in the market]. In my personal opinion, I think some of the late-seventies and early-eighties Camaros aren’t as popular [as their predecessors]. I think the third-gen platform is probably the next up-and-coming popular vehicle that the enthusiasts are really going to start paying attention to. I’ve already been seeing it in my business, and I see it in the request of what the customers want to do with their cars – which is getting up into the different pricing level. Which tells me that there’s more people paying attention to them and more people are willing to spend money on them.”
“The third-gen platform is probably the next up-and-coming popular vehicle that the enthusiasts are really going to start paying attention to.” -Bruce Hawkins
GMEFI: I agree. We’ve actually just picked up a third-gen project car ourselves; an ’84 Trans Am hardtop with the LG4 305 and a 5-speed from the Southwest. While we were searching for a suitable project car prior to the purchase of that vehicle, we were shopping around on eBay, Craigslist, Auto Trader and other sites, and we’ve seen some examples that were clean with lower mileage going for $15,000 to $20,000, when those very same cars in the same condition were only bringing in around five grand just a few years ago. We found it mind-boggling. What are your thoughts on this?
BH: “I think there’s a big range in the cars. Obviously they made that body style for ten years between 1982 and 1992, and there are models that will bring a lot of money. There’s models that are cheaper; it’s just a matter of what you really want. With you having a manual transmission hardtop car, I think that’s the best platform to start with in my opinion. A clean, ’84 Southwest car? You’ve struck gold. I’ve seen those cars come in through here with tons of rust, and they’re only getting older. A lot of us guys who remember these cars from high school or college, I mean I hate to say it, but look at the age [our generation] is approaching. I mean, these cars are 20-30 years old now and as a result, they’re coming back [in popularity]. I think there still are affordable platforms you can start with in that ’82-’92 range, but there’s certainly examples out there that you should be willing to spend the money on to get a better car.”
GMEFI: What’s the ratio of your customers; from those simply buying restoration and performance parts to guys bringing their cars to you for builds?
BH: “We’ve always focused more on the parts. When I say “restoration,” I don’t necessarily mean doing the restoration work but the restoration side of it. I would definitely say that the parts side is a bigger part of what we do. Of course we stay very busy in the install segment, simply because we diversify and do installation work, general repair work, and we do custom motor work; performance modifications, supercharger installs, turbo installs, nitrous, transmissions, rearends… I mean, anything you want to do to an ’82 and up GM vehicle, not only in the 3rd- and 4th-gen Camaro and Firebird market, but the Gen-V Camaros, GTOs, Corvettes, CTS-Vs – we do pretty much all of it. We do keep ourselves busy on both sides of the spectrum.”
GMEFI: Out of all of your customers, who’s your core audience? Are they hardcore drag racers, pro-touring aficionados, street/strip guys or more of the casual enthusiast who just wants a quick, nice driving, well-balanced car?
BH: “We do some drag racing stuff, but that’s probably where both my shop and my company differs from others. I know there’s shops out there that focus more on quarter-mile performance and there’s shops out there that strictly focus on autocross/road race performance. We focus more on the daily-driver, the real-world customer that wants to enjoy his car, and he wants it to perform great when he take it to the dragstrip.
Does it perform as fast as the car could perform at the dragstrip? Probably not. But it also rides well, it handles well, and he can attend an autocross event and compete competitively, then enter it in the car show if he wants. Think of events such as the Holley LS Fest, where enthusiasts can participate in a variety of challenges. We focus more on the all-around customer, rather than just one particular aspect.”
“We focus more on the daily-driver, the real-world customer that wants to enjoy his car…” -Bruce Hawkins
GMEFI: So in other words, a well-balanced machine – an all-arounder?
BH: “If I had to put a term on it, I’d just say pro-touring. That’s basically what it is, and that’s what’s hot right now.”
GMEFI: If a customer were to bring a third-gen Camaro or Firebird to you for customization, do most of them tend to sway to the LS-swap or do many of them stick to the TPI setup?
BH: “The majority of the engine work that I have done on them are generally LS1-swaps. The customers that typically want to stay TPI right now are one of two customers; they’re very sentimental to the car, meaning they bought it new or bought it very young in life, and just want to leave it true to the original platform. Or they’re more budget-minded, and don’t want to spend the money that it takes to do the engine swap.
One thing that I do find ironic in the 16-17 years that we’ve been in business, is the majority of the customers that want to get serious about a modern pro-touring car have all been Firebird Formula owners – all of them. I’ve done engine swaps in third-gen Trans Ams and I’ve obviously done them in Camaros, but the guys that really spend the money on full-on, high-end custom builds, apart from a few customers, have all been Firebird Formula owners. I think it’s a little bit odd, but completely understandable at the same time.
Back in the day, let’s just say in the mid-80s to early-90s, the guys that were real serious about performance, to them, the Firebird Formula was the fastest car. It offered everything the Trans Am did, mechanically, from the engine, brakes, steering and “big dog” WS6 handling package. It was also less expensive and lighter than the Trans Am/GTA and IROC-Z, since it didn’t have the ground effects and the standard luxuries of those cars. The Formula had the fastest trap speeds, the lowest quarter-mile times and everything else you wanted in a performance car at the time. So it makes sense, if you think about it.
I just think it’s neat that 20-30 years later, those same customers from back then are the same type of customers we get today – they just want to raise the benchmark of what was considered “fast” back in the day to today’s modern standards of performance. And they’ll do whatever it takes to get there.”
GMEFI: Do you think that the pro-touring market will remain vibrant for years to come or do you see something new coming up on the horizon?
BH: “I believe [it will be]. If you think back, what was the in-thing to do before pro-touring? It was pro-street. Who really wants a pro-street car when you can have a pro-touring car? We have pro-touring cars today that’ll run 9-second quarter-mile passes. If you could do that, then change the program in the computer and your wheel/tire setup, and go autocrossing, why would you go back to a style of car that can only do one thing well? I think that as time goes on, you’ll see pro-touring get better and better and better…”
GMEFI: What are your thoughts on the new Gen-V engines? Do you see the new LT1 as the next big thing or as the next engine swap icon?
BH: “Based on my experience with them so far, I think GM has obviously done their homework and they’re really going to do well. There are two things to keep in mind with that. For example, just like when the TPI came out in the mid-eighties and when the [GEN-II] LT1 and LS1 were released in the ’90s, at first, there’s not going to be a lot of acceptance because people don’t have experience with them.
I feel that once people get the experience and become more comfortable with [building and tuning] them, we’ll get to see the engines for what they really are.We’ve already been seeing crazy numbers coming from the GM camp and it’s really neat – it just takes a little while for people to come around.
Secondly, I do think that the days of seeing 60-, 70- and 80-rear wheel horsepower changes with a mild cam swap are going to fade away. I don’t think that you’ll see the same power increases as you would have in the earlier engines and in the old days of the ’98-’02 LS1. Let’s face it, with those engines you can change the cam and heads, and make 550 crank horsepower. That was pretty special, I think.”
GMEFI: So you’re saying as a result of the increased technology, the higher-flowing heads, and the overall improved design of the engine, it’s going to be more difficult to make more power?
BH: “In terms of horsepower/percentage increases, yes.”
GMEFI: Do you plan on doing any LT1 swaps or have you performed any for customers, yet?
BH: “I do have plans to do a revised (GEN-V) LT1-powered, (GEN-II) LT1-era Camaro or Firebird build, although we haven’t locked down a car yet. I’d love to do a GEN-V LT1 into a GEN-II LT1 car, it’s something I really want to do. I just don’t think the market is quite ready for it yet. As time allows, I do want to market GEN-V LT1 [swap and performance] parts for the 3rd- and 4th-gen F-body platform, but again, we’re not ready to do that just yet. I think that may be coming late-2015/early 2016.”
“I’d love to do a GEN-V LT1 into a GEN-II LT1 car, it’s something I really want to do. I just don’t think the market is quite ready for it yet.” -Bruce Hawkins
GMEFI: You’ve recently launched your 17-inch GTA wheel, what’s next in terms of new product?
BH: “I believe on the restoration side, we’ll have ’85-’92 Firebird complete counsels and counsel parts coming. I think radio pods are what’s really needed right now for those cars, too. It’s been a really tedious process to get the tooling done on some of those parts. That’s going to be a big thing for some of our third-gen customers. As far as the 17-inch GTA wheel, we may have an 18-inch version coming down the line. At this point it’s just conversation, but we’re seriously looking at it. It’s just not set in stone, yet. We’re watching the sales of the 17-inch wheel, and it looks great so far.
As far as the 4th-gen cars, we don’t have a lot coming up at the moment although we are looking at improving our Magnuson TVS 2300 kit that we have for the 4th-generation platform. It has done very well for us. We’re looking at launching more restoration products for the LT1-era Camaro and Firebird. We’ve done some of that stuff thus far. We’re just trying to diversify that platform and expand on it, because that’s who we truly are.”
GMEFI: Obviously you’re a very passionate guy, particularly in regards to F-bodies. Is it solely your passion that drives you? You’ve stated that you have since branched out to other cars like ‘Vettes, GTOs and CTS-Vs, but what makes you stick to F-bodies as your core focus?
BH: “I’ve been watching the market on the later Corvettes, GTOs and CTS-Vs. Although there’s definitely interest there, I don’t think that they’re quite ready for the restoration side of it yet. I am an F-body guy, through and through. Always have been, always will be. In business, I think you have to continue to look forward as time goes on, and that as new product comes out you need to diversify. But I’m always going to stay true to who I am, and my heart is with 3rd-generation F-bodies. As long as I can continue to make a living doing what we do, I think I’m always going to stay true to that. We will continue to grow with the market, but I will always stay true to the platform.”
GMEFI: In the sixteen years that you’ve been in business, there have been a lot of shops come and go over that time. How have you remained so vibrant, what’s your secret to success?
BH: “You always have to look forward, you always have to stay passionate, and you have to have the right team of people. You need to have quality leaders and a quality team. One thing I always see in a lot of shops is that they’re focused on their race car. We all know that racing is expensive. You have to keep your focus on the business aspect of it. You have to take good care of your people and you have to take good care of your customers. I’m sure every shop out there has had a customer that they couldn’t make happy, but you really need to work hard keeping your customer base happy. Remember, you’re a customer sometimes too, and you need to keep in mind how you want to be treated. I can’t say it enough; always make sure your customer base is happy and always take care of your employees.”
“You always have to look forward, you always have to stay passionate, and you have to have the right team of people.” -Bruce Hawkins
GMEFI: In closing, is there anything you want your customers or business partners to know?
BH: “Yes, over the past 16-17 years we really appreciate all of the customer support, and I appreciate all of the manufacturer support we’ve received. I’d like to say ‘thank you’ to all of the manufacturers who’ve supported us over the years (you all know who you are). Thank you to all of the customers we’ve had over this 17-year run, we really appreciate your loyalty and your business – we love seeing you come back and continue to support us. That’s what keeps us in business, you spending your money with us versus another company allows us to stay here, and we appreciate that!”
Rick Seitz is the owner and founder of GMEFI Magazine, and has a true love and passion for all vehicles. When he isn’t tuning, testing, or competing with the brand’s current crop of project vehicles, he’s busy tinkering and planning the next modifications for his own cars.