Car of the Week: 1976 Firebird Esprit

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By Brian Earnest

Jack Kuhlman figured at the time that having a company car to drive around every day would help him keep some miles off his new 1976 Firebird Esprit. But even his most optimistic projections probably didn’t have his Firebird happily rolling along and almost all-original 37 years later.

Kuhlman, a resident of McHenry, Ill., has managed to put just 57,000 miles on his Firebird since ordering it new from the factory in ’76. The car has been preserved well enough to become an unusual conversation piece at hobby gatherings and still hasn’t strayed far from its original purpose — to be a fun driver for Kuhlman, a longtime Poncho lover.

“Back in those days I was going to school and I worked summers at a Pontiac dealer. I was a porter and a clean-up guy and I just fell in love with the GTOs, but in ’76 there were no more GTOs, and the closest thing was the Firebird,” recalled Kuhlman. “I was working at the dealer in Blue Island, Ill. — Borek Pontiac — and I got to drive all these cars — Firebirds and GTOs. I got to put 5 gallons of fuel in them and drive them after they got off the transport truck. That’s how I got hooked on them.

“So when I decided to buy one, I built it up and ordered it with the idea that I was going to hang onto it, but no, I didn’t know I’d have it this long. When I got a job as a salesman, I got a company car [a 1979 Ford LTD], so other than my wife driving it a little here and there, this car just sat in the garage. It was our only car for a couple years, but then it just sat. We only had a 1  1/2-car garage at the time , so obviously it stayed inside and the company car stayed outside … That’s when I think realized that, ‘Hey the styling on this is different, this is the first year of that style of headlights … and the last year of split grille styling,’ and I think then that I decided it was worth keeping.”

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Kuhlman never took the Firebird off the road or put it in storage, he just maintained it a little bit and drove it when the spirit moved him. Somewhere along the line the car was elevated to collector car status, and Kuhlman is having as much fun with it now as he ever has, especially because he sees so few Firebird Esprits from the same era. Ones that are this original are particularly scarce in northern climates. “I think most of them, and I even hate to say it, they were looked at as women’s cars,” he jokes. “A lot of them had six-cylinders and they just weren’t the car to be seen in. You saw a lot of Trans Ams and a lot of Formulas, and you still see them, but you don’t see a lot of Esprits. It’s not something you see every time you turn the corner, even when they were new.”

Aside from some period Crager SS wheels and white-letter radial tires, the Firebird looks pretty much the same as it did when Kuhlman took delivery. He’s replaced the water pump a couple of times and the rear leaf springs had to be re-done, but that’s about it. “The seats, carpeting, interior — that’s all original,” he said. “The interior is nearly perfect. It needs a headliner. The adhesive kind of fell out of that, which is pretty typical of a car that old… And I can hear a wheel bearing making some noise now, so I’m going to have to attend to that.”

The Esprit was a trim package that first appeared on Firebirds in 1970 and ran until 1981. It took the place of the departed Sprint option in the Firebird lineup in ’70 and was designed to be a slightly more refined machine than some of its ’Bird siblings. In 1976 that meant a custom interior that was a little different than the base Firebird.  “I choose the Esprit over the base model because they came with Grand Prix bucket seats, which where higher in back than the other cars would have had,” Kuhlman said. “I just liked those higher seat backs.”

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Other standard equipment on the Esprits included a 250-cid/110-hp inline six-cylinder engine or 350-cid/160-hp V-8, three-speed manual transmission, radial-tuned suspension, power steering, sport mirrors and deluxe wheel covers. All of the Firebirds had new body-colored urethane bumpers — the chrome bumpers were a thing of the past. In front were new square, single headlamps recessed into the front fenders. The traditional Pontiac split grille had a mesh pattern insert.

The Esprit resided one rung above the base Firebird in the Pontiac pony car hierarchy and carried a base price of $4,162 with the base six under the hood. Above it were the Formula Firebird, Trans Am and Trans Am Limited Edition. The Trans Ams were the most popular with buyers, with more than 46,700 built for the model year. The Esprits were next with 22,252 assemblies, but only 9,405 of those actually carried the base six-cylinders. The rest had either the 350-cid/160-hp two-barrel, the optional 350-cid/165-hp four-barrel; 400-cid/185-hp four-barrel; or 455-cid/200-hp four-barrel.

Kuhlman ordered his Esprit in Polaris Blue, which turned out to be a one-year-only color for the Firebirds and adds a bit to the car’s unique character. “It’s got all the things that were going to make it a comfortable car to drive,” he said. “It’s got air conditioning, the 350 V-8 [and Turbo Hydra-Matic], tilt wheel … It’s got a radio-delete because I wanted to put my own stereo in. It still has the original eight-track player! It’s got the roof stripe package, gauge package, power steering, power brakes … I ordered it the way I wanted it, but I had a figure in my head that I wanted to stick to, so I got the things on it that were the most important to me. If I could do it all over again, the only thing I’d do different is I’d just put a bigger engine in it.”

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Not that Kuhlman has ever thought his car was a weakling when it came to performance. It won’t ever win any stare-downs with a Hemi Mopar, Shelby Mustang or LS6 Chevelle, but for a product of the mid-’70s, it isn’t bad. “I was gentle to it at first and treated it as you should when you break it in, but after that I pretty much drove it hard,” he laughs. “Because, heck, a Firebird has a big V-8 and even though it’s only a two-barrel, it was pretty fast … It didn’t seem to take off of the line very quickly, but once you got going and dropped it back into first, it would fly … I wasn’t mean to it, but I didn’t baby it.”

Kuhlman has so far resisted any temptation to have his Firebird restored. An extensive remake at this point would be overkill anyway, given the car’s wonderful original condition. “I try to drive it every year, even during the winter when the weather isn’t horrible, and it’s got the rust to prove it, if you look close,” he said. “It’s a 20-footer. If you get up close, you can tell it’s a driver and that it hasn’t been restored.”

“It’s only original once, but if I ever get serious about showing it I would at least do the bottom half of the car … There is a rust spot, which is typical of ’70s era GMs, behind the front wheel. If I’m going to do it, I would actually like to get the body professionally re-done.”

At one point, Kuhlman offered the car to his daughter, Ana, but she didn’t have the same affection for it that her dad has. “I think she was kind of afraid of wrecking it,” he joked. “She didn’t want it. She drives a Volkswagen.”

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Kuhlman says the one thing that he has done to the car — a wheel swap — has done more to get the Firebird noticed than the fact that it is an original survivor. He still has the original factory hoops, but the Crager SS wheels and raised-white-letter tires are not coming off. “I put those on about four years ago, and it just transformed the car so much,” he noted. “Now I get thumbs up at stoplights and kids on school buses yelling at me. I know it’s an old-fashioned wheel, but it’s an old-fashioned car.”

He belongs to the Pontiac-Oakland Club International and often drives the Esprit to events “within 50 or 100 miles.” That keeps the car exercised regularly in the summer, as do some weekend joy rides and short trips around town. “I’ll go to shows and park it and have fun looking at the other Pontiacs,” Kuhlman said. “I drive it work on Fridays, when the weather is nice. On weekends I’ll take it out and make the rounds. I’m definitely not afraid to drive it, but I’m a lot more conservative in my driving style now. The insurance agent likes that, and so does my wallet because this thing is thirsty. I think it has a 25-gallon tank, and when you fill up, you better bring your credit card.”

“But knock on wood, it’s never left me anywhere. It just keeps running.”

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