No offense to my parents or my friends, but I do not remember what presents I got for my 16th birthday. I’m pretty sure John Schwan will always remember that on his 16th birthday his Dad turned over the keys to this 500 horsepower 1967 Pontiac Firebird, that his Dad has owned since high school.
“On my birthday,” John told me, “I came down, and he was pretty emotional. He grabbed the car keys and gave them to me. I was like ‘What are you doing? That’s your car!’ Since the day he gave it to me, it’s been my baby.”
John’s Dad Eric started hot rodding the Firebird from the very beginning. Almost every aspect of the Pontiac 400 engine has been modified. The cylinders were bored out and new pistons installed. The heads have been reworked, including stronger valve springs. There’s an aftermarket cam inside, and an Edelbrock manifold and Holley 4-barrel on top.
John told me the exhaust system includes Hooker headers and Cherry Bomb mufflers. When I asked him if it had an H or X pipe, he said, “It ONLY has headers and Cherry Bombs.” Oh.
I asked John if it was loud. “Yeah, a little bit,” he said. (If you’d like to hear exactly how loud, check out the videos John has posted on Instagram.)
The end result is one very healthy engine that runs great on pump gas. In a dyno session several years ago, it was pushing 550 horsepower and over 700 ft-lbs of torque. As John very wisely said, “You have to watch your speed, you can’t put the entire weight of your foot on the gas pedal.”
The Firebird has the venerable TurboHydramatic 350 three-speed automatic transmission. It’s been upgraded for quicker shifts, and John says “it bangs the shifts in every gear.” The TH350 still shifts automatically, although occasionally John does pull it down into first gear. “I call it the burnout gear,” he said. “That’s all it’s good for.”
An unplanned upgrade earlier this year was a new 3000 rpm stall speed torque converter.
“I was driving it down the road and got to a stop sign,” John told me. “It was laboring the motor. I took off from the stop sign and it was shifting back and forth between second and third. It just wasn’t right.”
John and Eric diagnosed it as a bad torque converter. They had to pull the transmission and tilt the engine to make the replacement. Fortunately, there was no transmission damage, and within a week the Firebird was up and running.
The original solid axle rear end is still in place, with 3.73 gears. Combined with the new torque converter, John reports that the big block spins at 2100 rpm at 60 mph.
The stock suspension is largely still in place. There are new, lower, springs up front and air shocks in the rear, which combine to give the Pontiac a great stance. The front disk and rear drum brakes are manual, but the steering is power assisted.
The interior is mostly stock. The Firebird had bucket seats from the factory, but the current buckets are from a Mitsubishi Lancer. The rear bench seat is original. John’s also added a Monster tach to help monitor the engine.
The Firebird does not have air conditioning or heat. I asked John if that was a problem in Wisconsin, and he replied, “You don’t need heat. It slows you down.” Considering it was snowing up there on the mid-October day John and I spoke, I have a lot of respect for his pursuit of maximum horsepower.
The striking yellow and orange paint had been applied by a previous owner before Eric bought it. A hole had to be cut in the hood to clear the K&N air filter, and the hood scoop was added in the 1980s.
Speaking of striking… John has plans to do some body work on the car, thanks in no small part to the wildlife of Wisconsin. As he told me, “Dad and I were coming home one night, and he was telling me to stand on it. We got up to about 70 mph and I smacked a deer.”
Fortunately John and Eric were unhurt, and the only damage to the Firebird was to shift the front bumper a bit. That’s on John’s to-do list to fix. There’s no word on how the deer made out, but I’d guess not very well.
John got his birthday gift earlier this year, but he was already an experienced hot rodder. “I bought my first vehicle when I was 14,” he told me. “I’ve had quite a few already.”
One of John’s favorites was a blaze orange 1970 ‘Cuda barn-find that he rebuilt. “I bought it for 3 grand,” he said. “It had rust and stuff, but that’s what you have up here in Wisconsin. The guy said it hadn’t been run for 17 years.”
To get it running, John gave it a complete once-over, including all new fluids, rebuilding and tuning the carb, and a full turn-up. Then one day the oil pressure in the ‘Cuda’s 360 went straight to zero during a drive. Turns out there was a pinhole near one of the spark plug holes where oil was actually coming out of the engine. “It was a bad deal,” John said. “So I had to do a motor swap.”
But a blown engine and the resulting swap didn’t deter John at all. “I enjoy working on cars,” he said, “It’s a lifestyle.”
And he enjoys driving hot rods too. He has the Firebird out every weekend, and reports it’s easy to drive.
John knows how much it means to his Dad for him to have the Firebird. “He and I know I’ve got to respect that car,” John said.
No problem there. It’s clear that John respects, and appreciates, the hot rod legacy he’s now a part of.
Photos courtesy of John Schwan
Click here to see more photos of John’s Firebird
You can follow his Firebird on Instagram via @oltaylor67bird