Winnipeg Free Press

Firebird gave Camaro run for its money

by Larry D'Argis . Jul 28 2017

The new Pontiac Firebird entered the pony car market in February of 1967 trailing the successful fall 1966 launch of the new ’67 Chevrolet Camaro. Appearing very similar, they shared many body, subframe and suspension systems, but the Firebird did have some differences.

The late introduction resulted in the engine and transmission sitting farther back in the chassis to aid handling and front-rear weight balance.

The Firebird was also available in five models, as opposed to the Camaro’s four, and the theme of being more of a posh touring car came through in its styling and marketing.

Another distinct feature was the powertrain. Pontiac had its own engines, and getting the right amount of punch was as easy as checking the appropriate boxes on the option list. With the late introduction and higher purchase price, Firebird sales lagged the Camaro by over a three-to-one ratio.

For 1968, little changed in styling, other than the mandated side-marker lamps — and thanks to improved ventilation, the vent windows were now a thing of the past. Available models were further expanded to include the new 350-cubic-inch V-8 replacing the 326 V-8. The base Firebird, Firebird Sprint, Firebird 350, Firebird 350 H.O. ,Firebird 400 and Firebird Ram Air 400 were all available.

For Ken Desrochers of Winnipeg, his 1968 Firebird 350 has been in the family for over four decades.

“My mother, Denise, purchased it in 1973 from the Niemela family, who owned Pembina Auto Body at the time,” says Desrochers. “She owned an AMC sedan and didn’t care for it, but she really liked the Firebird and told the Niemelas she wanted it when they were ready to sell.”

When she purchased it, she had Paavo Niemela remove the white vinyl roof and repaint the car baby blue.

Nicely equipped from the factory with the $106 optional, 350-cubic-inch V-8, it features 9.2:1 compression, Rochester two-barrel carburetor, produces 265 horsepower at 4,600 r.p.m. and is backed by the $195 optional two-speed Powerglide automatic transmission.

Further options include power steering, power brakes, tinted windshield, Stratobucket seats, with deluxe centre console, deluxe door panels and electric clock.

Denise continued to enjoy her Firebird until she officially gave it to her son, Ken, in 1984. Ken used the car as a summer driver for many years and tried to keep it maintained, in good running condition. In 2010, he had the 350 V-8 rebuilt by Perry’s Machine Shop. The engine needed little work and still retains its factory bore size today.

In 2016, it was time to give it a serious upgrade. Reg Walker of Walker Auto Parts sourced and installed new blue vinyl interior upholstery and a new steering wheel to replace the sun-baked original.

For the body, it was off to Ground Up Restorations Ltd. Two new floor pans were installed and the car was repainted in a brilliant blue metallic.

Next came new door, trunk and window seals, along with new bumpers and rocker mouldings. Completed in February 2017, the Firebird hit the streets with a new set of 15-inch Rally II wheels turning Michelin radials.

Desrochers says, “I’ve always tried to keep the car as close to its original as I could, and I have to thank Gary Gerbrandt at Dynamic Auto Services Ltd. for the many years of maintenance and repairs.”

The only thing that has Desrochers at odds is that he can’t find an original AM radio to fit the Firebird dash. Not wanting to modify the opening, he had Brian Reimer Audio install an AM/FM, CD player in the glovebox.

In 1968, there were 90,162 Firebird coupes produced. Desrochers’ car is one of the 39,250 standard V-8 models produced with the automatic transmission.

While the first-generation 1967 to 1969 Firebird doesn’t have the draw the first-generation Camaro does, it is still a great representation of the competition between the 1960s pony cars. Where the Firebird would take the stage over the Camaro was in the ’70s with the Trans Am models. Front and centre on the movie screen, starring Burt Reynolds in Smokey and the Bandit — Trans Am would capture the market in sales.

Photos by Larry D’Argis / Winnipeg Free Press

Photos by Larry D’Argis / Winnipeg Free Press