Story and photos by Brian Earnest
One of the best things about the pony cars of the late 1960s and early 1970s was that they could be so many things to so many different types of customers.
Depending on the engine and equipment they were ordered with, the Mustangs, Camaros, Chargers, Barracudas and similar ilk could be everything from muscle monsters, to cool pseudo-sports cars, to tame family transportation. They may not have been great any one thing, but millions of the mid-size pony cars from the era ably served multiple roles will riding a giant wave of popularity in American showrooms.
Take Dan and Joyce Staehle’s 1969 Pontiac Firebird convertible, for example. Joyce wasn’t too crazy about driving Dan’s hairy 1966 GTO, or his sweet 1954 Lincoln Capri, so Dan started looking for something more suitable. “The Lincoln was just too big for her. She didn’t like driving it,” says Dan, a resident of Brownsville, Wis. “And the GTO, well, it’s a GTO! She wasn’t going to drive that.”
It wasn’t long after he started snooping around for a possible third weekend hobby car that Dan stumbled on the sharp Firebird for sale in Kendallville, Ind. The ‘Bird was nicely restored, had only 72,000 miles on the odometer, and carried the friendly drivetrain combination of a 350-cid two-barrel V-8 mated to a two-speed Powerglide transmission. Best of all, it was a convertible — and a darn nice one at that!
“The original owner was a lady who bought it new in ’69. I’ve got every single receipt from her up until 1992. In 1992 she parked in her garage and never drove it anymore,” Staehle said. “There was a fella who’d drive back and forth every day and he’s see the car sitting in the garage that never moved. One day he approached her and asked if he she would consider selling it to him. I’m not sure if it took a matter of time or what happened, but he wound up owning this car.”
From there, it was bit of a good news-bad news story for the Firebird. The second owner of the car got together with a friend and planned to do a thorough restoration, but apparently things never quite worked out and the car sat. Approximately 17 years eventually ticked by before the Firebird would see the road again.
“He bought it in I think ’93 I believe, or it might have been ‘94 — somewhere in there. Then he took it to a friend’s house and they tore it apart and did a rotisserie- style restoration,” Staehle noted. “He was actually an auto upholsterer and he had the engine rebuilt, transmission rebuilt. His buddy did all the body work and the car was just not getting done. They got into some sort of tiff in the mid-2000s maybe and he wound up taking the car out of his buddy’s place in pieces and taking it to another friend’s place. They finally finished the car in 2010.
“He never registered or titled the car. So I am officially the second owner. He thought his wife might like it, but she didn’t want it because it doesn’t have power brakes. It’s got manual brakes and she didn’t want it so it just sat in their garage.”
The ragtop turned out to be exactly what Staehle was looking for — a car that was done, didn’t need a bunch of work, was friendly to drive and would be fun to take to car shows and on weekend joy rides. It checked all the boxes, and then some.
“It’s just a nice little car,” he says with a genuine smile. “I was looking for something smaller to midsize, I wasn’t quite sure what. But I’ve always loved these Firebirds, so when it came up I was like, ‘Yeah, let’s go see it.’ I took the trailer with me, but I left it at the hotel. I didn’t want the guy thinking I was too eager! But we took it for a ride, it drove real nice, and we bought it on the spot.
“We get 18 mpg on road trips… it rides real nice. I love it. The color [Limelight Green] is unusual … It’s got a dark forest green top, which is an unusual combination with the white interior. It had only 72,000 miles on it… It’s got 75,500 on it now.”
Pontiac’s Plan B
Chevrolet debuted its Mustang-fighting Camaro for the 1967 model year, but having a similar-looking Firebird model as a Pontiac running mate was not part of the original plan at General Motors. The initial idea called for a two-seat sports car based on the Banshee concept car created in 1964. The two different Banshee prototypes were both very Corvette-like, with long hoods, short tails and top-notch performance. In the end, GM brass decided a Banshee spinoff would compete too closely with the Corvette, and the new Pontiac offering was instead given the Camaro’s F-body platform.
The first Firebird was made at Lordstown, Ohio, in early January 1967. The new car line was officially released February 23, 1967. External features included sculptured body styling, twin grilles of a bumper-integral design, front vent windows, and three vertical air slots on the leading edge of rear body panels. Bucket seats were standard. Two body styles were offered and came with any of the Tempest or GTO power trains. However, the two body styles were marketed in five “model-options” created by adding regular production options (RPOs) in specific combinations. Production records were not kept according to the RPO packages, but by the number of sixes and V-8s built with standard or deluxe appointments. The model-option such as Sprint, HO, and 400 are described in the optional equipment section below. A total of 82,560 copies rolled off the Pontiac assembly line during the Firebird’s debut season.
For 1969, the car’s body and silhouette didn’t change much, but there were a few tweaks as the Firebirds and Camaros continued to evolve. The ‘Birds had flatter wheel openings, front fender wind splits, new rooflines and a creased lower belt line. The gas filler moved behind the rear license plate and a rectangular Pontiac-style split bumper grille was used. Square body-colored Endura bezels held the headlamps. Big news came when the Trans Am arrived on March 8, 1969, at the Chicago Auto Show The new Trans Am hardtop had a base price of $3,556 and a production run of just 689 units. The convertible cost some $150 additional and only eight were built.
The Trans Am grew out of the Sports Car Club of America’s Trans-American sedan racing series. Pontiac paid the SCCA a $5 royalty per car to use the name. The T/A was originally planned with a special super-high-performance 303-cid small-block V-8 that would have made it race eligible. About 25 cars were fitted with the short-stroke 303-cid tunnel-port V-8s, but these were used exclusively for SCCA Trans-Am racing. Production models could have either a 335-hp 400 H.O. (a.k.a. Ram Air III) V-8 or an optional 345-hp Ram Air IV engine. Quarter-miles times for Trans Ams were in the 14- to 14.5-second bracket.
Standard equipment for Firebirds included vinyl bucket seats, grained dashboards, carpeting, outside mirrors and side marker lamps. The hardtop listed for $2,831 and the ragtop for $3,045. Models included the Sprint ($121 extra), 350 ($111), 350 H.O. ($351-$435), 400 ($275-$358), 400 H.O. ($351-$435) and Ram Air 400 ($832 extra), plus the Trans Am.
From Hoosier to Badger
The Staehle’s lovely green droptop is one of 11,649 convertible Firebirds built for 1969. The coupe was far more plentiful with 75,362 built. The original owner was a woman from Anderson, Ind., who paid a grand total of $3,656.03 for her new Pontiac. It was equipped with power steering, but manual brakes. It carried an AM/FM radio, vinyl upholstery, a manual folding top and not much in the way of options.
What the car did have was a lot of documentation. Staehle has all the Firebird’s paperwork back to the time it left the dealership, so he knows the car’s history from Day 1. “I have every receipt, the original window sticker, original built sheet, protect-o-plate, original warrantee card — all with her name on it,” he says. “It’s pretty cool to have all that stuff, especially all the receipts.”
Staehle says the only thing he has done to the car so far is rebuild the carburetor. The convertible looks great, sounds great, purrs like a happy cat and displays beautifully at any car gathering. This year, the couple showed it off as one of the invited theme cars in the 50th anniversary salute to the Firebird and Camaro at the Iola Car Show in Iola, Wis.
It likely won’t be the last time the Firebird appears in Iola. “I want to hang onto it for a while,” Dan says. “A long while.”
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