Mystique of a left hand drive Firebird

By Jacqui Madelin

Jacqui Madelin turns back time in a DeLorean-designed muscle car

There are around 300 Pontiac Firebirds of any engine size registered in New Zealand. This one is a 6.6-litre V8.Pictures / Jacqui Madelin
There are around 300 Pontiac Firebirds of any engine size registered in New Zealand. This one is a 6.6-litre V8.Pictures / Jacqui Madelin

Richard Snow bought this 1968 Pontiac Firebird HO 18 months ago, and he clearly loves his left-hand-drive muscle car with a passion, for he happily tooled out to Piha for a photo shoot via some of Waitakere's narrower lanes.

1968 Pontiac Firebird. Photo / Jacqui Madelin
1968 Pontiac Firebird. Photo / Jacqui Madelin

It's just celebrated its 46th birthday - the invoice (US$3555.49, label price US$4410.78) is dated April 9, 1968 - but it arrived in New Zealand in 2002, brought here by a chap who spent a six-month "holiday" in the US searching for one, and spotted it on a trailer at the Pikes Peak hill climb event. He apparently didn't know it was a matching numbers car (with the body and engine pairing it left the factory with) or quite rare.

He spent two years completing a full engine-out rebuild, then sold it after six months to return to America to work. The next owner pretty much stored it for eight years, then Richard bought it.

He loves his cars, and always liked the 1968 Chevy Camaro, "Which is the same body, Pontiac personalised it.

I liked the styling of the Firebird and that they were built in significantly smaller volumes."

In 1968 some 320,000 Mustangs were manufactured, and over 235,000 Camaros, compared to 90,000-odd Firebirds of all types. But Richard's matching-numbers HO Turbo 400 three-speed auto is rare, with 684 built in total, plus 1415 manuals. Today just 304 Firebirds of any engine size are registered in New Zealand.

There's a 6.6-litre V8 under this Firebird's bonnet (or 400 cubic inches), packing 246kW at 4800rpm, and 583Nm at 3300rpm, considerably more than Ford's 2015 V6 Mustang and with more torque than last year's HSV Clubsport V8. Hubba, hubba.

The car remains fairly standard, and certainly the engine's original - though since Richard bought it it's had a new carburettor, a high energy ignition system, some new rocker covers and air filters, but "I kept all the original stuff'.'

The transmission's had an overhaul and the suspension's been lowered, "with new front KYB shocks, new bushings for the top and bottom A arms and sway bar, new ball joints and steering arms, all done in 2002, but it could easily be returned to original", and the first Kiwi owner also swapped the front drum brakes for 300mm vented discs with PBR twin-piston callipers, braided lines and a new, larger master cylinder.

The Rally II wheels are standard, though it originally sold with whitewall tyres which Richard will return to when this rubber wears out. He does have some big, chrome 20-inch rims which transform the look, and a set of rears for fun-runs down the the drag strip.

1968 Pontiac Firebird. Photo / Jacqui Madelin
1968 Pontiac Firebird. Photo / Jacqui Madelin

The chrome was redone, the bumpers and badges replaced and a repro 70-litre fuel tank fitted in 2002, when the luscious-looking black paint was applied in place of the original Autumn Bronze and Cameo Ivory two-tone, "we have a paint protection that fills all the little recesses in the clear-coat", and the central console was once woodgrain, now protected under a carbon fibre wrap applied by the previous owner. Richard fitted the eight-ball door-lock buttons. The seats and steering wheel are original - as is power steering - though the gear-shift is aftermarket and the sound system "sadly" is modern too. "I'd have preferred the original. It'd look more in keeping, and getting a repro with Bluetooth is on the list."

Originality is part of the appeal.

"It had done fewer than 2000 miles [3219km] in the eight years before I bought it, and in 18 months I've done 5000 miles [8047km], so I'm using it," Richard says.

He's been from Auckland to Ohope Beach and Whangamata in it, "I'd like to use it every day but I'm a car cleaner at Nanotek as well as general manager, so my daily-driver's a Hyundai iMax van."

Richard's family loves the car. "My daughters are 5 and 9 and want to drive it some day. There's a whole different feeling to jumping in a daily driver, it's the sound of the motor, the left-hand drive, and interacting with people."

When he's in the Pontiac he sometimes leaves the music off and just listens to the throaty engine growl, barely idling on Waitakere roads and burbling down the steep hill into Piha, turning heads at every scenic overlook it passes. "Driving a left-hand drive car in a right-hand drive world, you stop at the lights next to another driver and get lots of comments," but that's not the clincher for Richard's love of his car. "I was really a Chevy man, but when I was making my decision I Googled Pontiac, and the development engineer was DeLorean.

"My car was designed by a time traveller!" he laughs.

- NZ Herald

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