THE SUN has yet to rise as we flash past the Perth CBD. It’s cold, it’s dark and we’re still barely awake. Street Machine’s art director Gavin Morrison has had the keys to his ’77 Firebird for less than 12 hours, and we’re about to drive it across Australia, home to Sydney. He’s already gotten the hang of steering on the left-hand side, but is having a hard time sticking to the speed limit. It’s not that he wants to get booked; it’s simply that the car feels content at 125km/h, in its sweet spot.
This article was first published in the August 2013 issue of Street Machine
Gav is clearly happy with his new purchase, if a little dazed by the turn of events that have brought us this far west. He’s dreamt of owning a Firebird since seeing Smokey and the Bandit as a kid, and has been seriously looking for the right car for his budget for the past year. A genuine Bandit-style Trans Am was out of his reach, and he wasn’t in a position to buy a daggy example and restore it. The team in the Street Machine office had heard so much about Firebirds from Gav that we were beginning to think it would never happen.
Ripper car movies: Smokey & The Bandit (1977)
“I was close to giving up,” Gav says, as we do battle with a surprising amount of pre-dawn commuter traffic. “The family car was playing up. Every time I’d fix something on it, something else would go wrong. The sensible thing seemed to be to buy a second-hand Subaru wagon and forget the Firebird.”
With two young kids to ferry around, we wouldn’t have blamed Gav for taking the responsible path, but we would have been crushed for him if he’d had to put off his dream for another year, or even longer.
Read next: 572-cube 1972 Pontiac Firebird
Our gracious host for the first night was Mark ‘Happy’ Williams, the bloke behind the Chrome Bumper cruise phenomena in the West. Drag Week racer and Mopar fanatic Craig Moar popped in for a chat and a beer before Gav dropped from excitement exhaustion
Then fate intervened. Gav had seen this particular ’Bird advertised 12 months before, when he didn’t have the time or head-space to jump in. With fresh black paint, a new 350 Vortec crate motor and TH350 ’box, it looked like the one that got away…until it came back on the market.
Happy’s one-tonner is one tough unit, with 1000hp, F2 Procharged 406ci small-block under the hood, reverse-pattern TH400, and massive M/T street rubber on 18in billet rims out back
The second time around, Gav didn’t hesitate. Thanks to the Queen’s Birthday long weekend, we had a five-day leave pass from work and family responsibilities. Sure, Gav could have shipped the car home, but the fact that it was on the other side of the country was a big part of the attraction. 4279km in a black Firebird? Hell yeah!
Gav put his money down on his car on Tuesday, we bought our plane tickets on Wednesday, and flew out from Sydney on Thursday – no mucking around! While we were in the air, Nathan from Autofix in Armadale, WA gave the Firebird a precautionary once-over
Knowing the recent history of the car, we were fairly confident that she was up to the job, but we had a mechanic mate in Perth give her a quick once-over. Other precautions were limited to making sure we had a spare tyre, a jack and a wheel brace (we were missing the latter), as well as a fuel container, jumper leads and whatever tools I could carry over on the plane.
Accommodation on the Nullarbor ranges from pretty good to a little scary, but after a big day in the car all we wanted was a shower and sleep. In peak tourist times, it pays to book your room in advance. Bear in mind, there’s no phone reception for most of the Nullabor – a bonus in our books!
By the time we stop in Northam to grab some breakfast and a wheel brace, Gav is starting to get his head around the situation. “It is like the beginnings of any new relationship” he reflects.
“It’s all new. You’re learning about her personality, what makes her tick.”
The quirks for this particular Firebird are mercifully benign. It takes us a little while to figure out how to open the bonnet and recline the seats. And, while the clock, heater and central locking are on the fritz, all the important doodads – including the fast glass, stereo and air con – are working fine.
The landscape on the Nullabor changes more than you might think, but the best part is when you are suddenly confronted with miles of water after the WA/SA border. There was surprisingly little wildlife along the Nullarbor, but as we approached Broken Hill, that all changed
A couple of hours outside Kalgoorlie, the 125km/h sweet spot catches up with us and Gav gets nabbed by coppers. We were warned that this particular stretch would be bad for highway patrol, but Gav’s mind was on other things. “I just wasn’t paying attention,” he tells me. “I haven’t really processed that this is really happening!”
The first fill! All up, the ’Bird drank 651 litres of 98 octane for a grand total of $1098. Gross average fuel consumption was 15.1 litres per 100km, but that includes a few hours of 60km plodding. On good straight stretches with the air running, we saw 12.3l per 100km
After lunch, Gav lets me drive and it’s immediately apparent that he’s made a good purchase. The engine pulls strongly, the car rides smoothly, and the coupe body style means lots of leg room for comfortable touring.
As we approach our first night’s stop in Norseman, the list of quirks has grown slightly longer, as blasts of cold air from unseen holes somewhere under the dash begin to nip at our legs. There’s a bit of whine from the serpentine belt at speed, and some clunks when we hit dips, but everything else seems solid.
Heading between Port Augusta and Broken Hill, you’ll come through Peterborough, home of a very cool motorcycle museum. Housed in the old Baptist church, it’s jammed with amazing bikes restored by the proprietor, Ian Spooner. Check it out at www.pbmcm.com
The next morning we are up at sparrow’s fart to tackle the Nullarbor Plain. Some might think a couple of days of virtually straight roads would be boring, but just being in the Firebird is a pleasure, and the landscape changes more than you’d expect. There are a couple of famous place names on the map, but for the most part the road ahead is completely unfamiliar – awesome! The highlight comes as we cross the border into South Australia and are startled to come over a rise and see the Southern Ocean in all its splendour.
Every time we stop, we have no shortage of people to talk to. Some are Street Machine readers who’ve seen our updates on Facebook, others are curious, even incredulous, that we’re driving such an antiquated car across the country. But for every person who’s mystified by the car or the fact that its steering wheel is on the wrong side, there’s another who has either owned a Firebird or knows someone who has. Suddenly, they’re as common as arseholes!
Cruising through Orange, NSW in the fog, we ran into local hot rodder and metal magician Ron Zelukovic grabbing some takeaway in his bad-ass ’34 coupe
We are hoping to hit Ceduna by Saturday night, which we figure should give us a clear run to get to Broken Hill before dark on Sunday. But it’s dark by the time we stop for a bite to eat at a roadhouse in Nundroo. We ask a truckie in the restaurant about the dangers of kangaroos in the area, but he’s more concerned about wombats. “It’s their mating season,” he tells us. “They come out about this time of night. One of those will make a big mess of your front end.”
Suitably terrified at the thought of hitting a speed bump in the shape of a horny wombat at 110km/h, we stay the night in a $90 room. We’re on the road again at 5am, still in the dark, but with all our faculties restored and a big chunk of South Australia still to knock over.
Having made the trek out to Lake Gairdner for Speed Week, I’m already familiar with the way home from Iron Knob, but I’ve forgotten how cool the road is from Port Augusta to Peterborough, with some very welcome corners to test out the ’Bird’s handling prowess.
We’re also enjoying the change in scenery, but the increase in vegetation brings with it an increase in wildlife, both dead and alive. Once the sun sets, there are wallabies at the side of the road every few clicks, so we slow down to between 70 and 80km/h for the last couple of hundred kilometres. Super frustrating, but there’s no way we’re going to bring home a broken Firebird if we can help it!
Equally frustrating were the terrible roads that confronted us once we hit Broken Hill – it’s a great town, but the roads are full of potholes and dips that shake the life out of the poor old Pontiac. We crash for the night and are up before dawn again to take photos at the Mundi Mundi Lookout near Silverton – a real Mad Max location for a car that feels increasingly Road Warrior-like as the trip passes. There’s even an Interceptor-style blower whine from the serpentine belts when we rev past 2000rpm! With the photos done, we are set on making it home by Monday night, but it will be a big haul of 1150km. On this end of the Barrier Highway, the wallabies have swapped places with a handful of camels and hundreds, if not thousands of goats, but at least these seem smart enough to stay off the road.
The sun sets as we pass through Dubbo, and, while this is familiar-enough territory to make us feel like we’re almost home, a super-thick fog develops as we hit the twisty roads around Orange. The wallabies and roos are back, albeit in fewer numbers, but combined with the limited visibility it’s enough for us to back off to a painful 60km/h all the way to Lithgow. Urgh! By the time we hit the M4 from Penrith to Sydney, all three of us are happy to be doing 110km/h again. Despite signs of fatigue, Gav is stoked to be bringing his baby home in one piece and running like clockwork.
“It has been way too long since I’ve had a cool car,” he says. “My first car was an LJ. I had a lot of fun in it and did some great road trips with my mates. Since then it’s just been practical family cars. But I’ve been thinking about this car for a long time. When times have been tough, I’d jump online and search for them, do my research. It’s been a good distraction the last couple of years. I know it’s just a car, but they can be more than just transport, y’know?”
Home! Four days, three nights and over 4000km later, a very relieved Gav had his dream car safely tucked up in his own shed
WHILE Gav’s ultimate dream is the ’77 black and gold Special Edition Trans Am with the targa top, made famous by Smokey and the Bandit. Gav’s car started life as a garden-variety Esprit, with a small-block 350 Chev, rather than the 6.6-litre or Olds 403 engine. While all the parts needed to turn his car into a Special Edition clone are readily available, Gav reckons he’ll tread a line somewhere in the middle.
“The first thing I’ll do cosmetically is fit the Trans Am steering wheel and dash,” he says. “Then, as the budget allows, I’ll swap the brown trim for black. I wouldn’t mind fitting the honeycomb rims, too, if I can find some.” And what about the famous screaming chicken? “Rather than order the sticker kit, if I do it, I’ll get one airbrushed on the bonnet in charcoal and silver.”
THE BEST IN THE WEST
ONE of the reasons we had some confidence in the ’Bird’s ability to make the transcontinental trip was that we knew a little about the history of the car. “The car was picked up locally by one our customers Ben Tuck,” says Alan from Armadale Auto Parts. “It was a brown dunger. Ben got it fixed up and registered. Then we grabbed it, painted it black and fitted the 18in Weld rims. It ended up getting a new 330hp crate motor, TH350 and air conditioning.”
Alan sold the car to another customer, who put it up for sale to fund his hot rod build, and that’s when Gav nabbed it.
Alan and the boys always have something neat on the go. When we dropped past they were getting close to finishing this ’27 Dodge pickup, built as a 60s-style show rod, complete with Blue Flame six power.