Close this search box.

Daily Grind: Terry Whitehead’s 1979 Pontiac firebird Trans Am

16 December 2016


Here at NZV8 magazine, we also look at cool daily drivers too! If you’re passionate about it, and you drive it to work every day, we can showcase it. We recently caught up with Terry Whitehead about his 1979 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am.

NZV8: Hey, Terry. That’s a pretty unique choice of daily-driver. Why the Trans Am?
Terry: Well, like a lot of kids growing up in the late ’70s, seeing Smokey and the Bandit — I was eight at the time — was a life-changer! I loved cars and had seen Mustangs, Falcons, Monaros, Statesmans, Broughams, Chargers, and Camaros; I had uncles with cool stuff, and their mates had cool or cooler stuff; I’d been to a few shows and the drags, and as a kid living in Auckland, had seen some mean machines … but seeing that Firebird [in the film] — black, gold, and with that bat kind of front and the chook on the bonnet, it was the coolest thing I’d ever laid eyes on. 

So, from then on, it became a life goal to own one? 
Yep — other mates dreamed of Ferraris, Lambos, top-dollar American muscle, or Harleys, but I swore that one day I’d be like the Bandit! Of course, life can deal a lot of strange hands, and, if being long-term unemployed made me anything, it made me appreciate every cent I ever had. Having kids, losing loved ones, and not making a lot of money even when working can be a barrier toward a lot of goals in life, but finally, in my late 20s, I bought my first ’Bird! 

And that was the beginning of your life as a Trans Am owner? 
Yep; that one was a rusty ’76, with a blown head gasket, and it wouldn’t change gear, but man it looked good! I had two more after that, but neither was better, and I soon realized that maybe the way to go was to accumulate as many good parts as I could, and I eventually found a silver ’79 T-top for sale on the North Shore that had been in a prang but was mostly complete. Eventually, the internet came out and blessed us with info and auction sites, and I found a mostly complete Trans Am — less motor and trans, but with live rego — for $3k on Trade Me in 2007. 

And was that the one you built into your current car? 
Well, the shell wasn’t beyond saving, but more than my apprentice welding skills were capable of! The real bonus was the parts that came with it. After five more years of buying, importing, dealing, and swapping bits, as well as getting a long-term job, everything fell into place. The icing on the cake was finding a great guy over Edgecumbe/Whakatane way  — who imports a few Yank tanks and just happened to have an Arizona car for the right price. Between him and John at Muscle Car Parts, I had everything to build my dream car. After watching and following Americarna on my back door since it started, I made a goal to be ready by 2015, no matter what. 

Having owned so many Trans Ams over the years, the build must have been pretty straightforward for you?
Yeah, sort of. It was ready by 2015, but, having no WOF and rego, and a major overheating problem, I could only park in the New Plymouth city line-ups. So I made a new goal of 2016 to be in the full event, and was all legal by January 5, 2016. It wasn’t as plain sailing as I’d hoped, as the transmission needed reconditioning, which NP Automotive sorted, and, despite being from Arizona, the body did have some rust — some in weird places; the Yanks may build the best-looking cars, but build quality leaves a lot to be desired! All the rubbers and some suspension needed sorting, but [it was] nothing I wasn’t capable of. My mate Nigel Halliday finished the panel and paint, and, with a lot of love and help from my sons Tane and Tyrone, and my wife’s permission, it all came together. 
I already had a great interior, carpet, mint mechanical doors with tinted glass, better spoilers, a gauge cluster, and a dashboard; stripping it out and putting all the good shit into it was pretty straightforward and only took a few weeks!

We saw you at Americarna 2016! What are you currently running in the Trans Am?
It’s running a 350 Oldsmobile V8, GM Turbo 350 transmission, and a 10-bolt Chev diff with a 2.41:1 ratio — it’s a Californian-highway cruising ratio! It sounds all right, with a Magnaflow exhaust system, and I treated myself to some 18×8- and 18×10-inch PDW alloy wheels for my birthday. 

Sounds like a reliable little combo, and the Olds V8 is a cool touch. Thanks for showing us your car, Terry, and hope to see you at Americarna again next year!

This article originally appeared in the July 2016 issue of NZV8 (Issue No. 134). You can grab your print copy or digital copy of the magazine now: