By Brian Earnest
Like a lot of guys who got their hands on a used 1968 Pontiac Firebird Sprint, the first thing Scott Wegner was thinking to himself was, “I’ve got to pull that six-cylinder and get a V-8 in that thing.”
Of course, that was before he drove the feisty overhead-cam six, and before he became enamored with the convertible 'Bird just the way it came from the factory.
“The plan was to pull the engine out and put a 350 in it,” Wegner recalled with a laugh. “But it was running so good, I thought, ‘We’ll go until it blows!’ And here I am.”
If Wegner had dropped in a V-8, he would have robbed the Pontiac of a big part of its against-the-grain personality, not to mention its rarity. There were more than 91,000 Firebirds built for the 1968 model year, but only around 1,200 (exact figures are elusive) of them were Sprint models, and ragtops are certainly on the scarce side.
Wegner’s convertible Firebird appears to be particularly unique because of its color combination of Primavera Beige paint with an Ivy Gold vinyl interior. It’s a classy look that seems understated for a car that was built during the height of the wild and crazy muscle car era.
“They are very unusual colors,” Wegner noted. “I went to the Pontiac Historical Society and they can’t break [production numbers] down into options, but I’ve never seen another one like it. A couple of years ago I met a guy that had pictures of one, but it wasn’t a Sprint. It had a 326 in it and it was a rust bucket.”
Wegner was in the market for a droptop Firebird back in 1989, but the idea of a Sprint never crossed his mind until he saw one. Even after he bought it, it took him a while to warm up to the car. “It was sitting on a used car lot, and when I saw it I whipped around and went back, and the guy there was consigning it for the original owner,” Wegner recalled. “I looked at it and said, ‘Overhead cam six, yuck!' But then I saw it was the Sprint and it had the four-barrel on it, too, and I went and made the guy an offer and he took it. And now, 22 years later, I’ve still got it.
“I actually put it up for sale two years after I got it and didn’t get any bites on it. Now, I don’t want to sell it. I’ve grown accustomed to it. I’d have to cry if I sold it now.”
Pontiac exec John DeLorean was marching to his own beat in 1966 when he hatched the idea for a new six-cylinder engine for the Tempest and LeMans lines. A year later, when the Firebird debuted as a companion to the Chevrolet Camaro, buyers could get either the six or several different V-8 options. The base six-cylinder used a Mono-Jet carburetor and was rated at 165 hp for 1968, but the Sprint package stretched the pony output to 215 with 10.5:1 compression, thanks to a four-barrel carb, high-lift/longer-duration cam, dual valve springs, high-flow intake manifold and dual exhaust manifolds.
The six cylinders didn’t resonate with enough American buyers to make the Sprint a long-term sales success, but the cars got high marks for their driving manners and surprisingly frisky performance. DeLorean’s dream had been to make a car with a European style and flair that didn’t need a V-8 to be fast and fun to drive. Although it didn’t last, he seemed to succeed with the Sprint-package Firebirds.
“She’s got plenty of snot,” Wegner said. “At 60 mph you can shove it down to the floor, and it goes. I finally found the kick-down switch for it again; a guy in Georgia sent me one. Now she’ll kick down into low when you punch it. She just screams!
“I didn’t know a lot about them. The Sprints were high-performance and you had to put premium gas in them. And I knew a lot of guys pulled [the engines] out and threw them away. That was my plan, too.”
Base Firebird fixtures for 1968 included bucket seats, vinyl upholstery, simulated woodgrain dash, 14 x F70 tires, sidemarker lights and an outside rearview mirror. The $116 Sprint package added 40 horses under the hood, a heavy-duty suspension and “3.8-liter” emblems on the hood. A three-speed manual with a floor shifter was standard, but buyers could get a four-speed, or opt for the two-speed automatic, which is in Wegner’s car. Rally stripes were a popular option. So were Rally wheels and a hood-mounted tach.
The Sprint convertibles carried a base price of $3,112. The coupes listed for $2,987.
Only 2,525 Firebirds carried the “big six” for 1968 and it’s believed about 1,200 of those were Sprints. The Sprints that have survived — particularly those that have avoided engine transplants — have a loyal following among early Firebird enthusiasts. “Yeah, I’ve had people who want to buy it,” Wegner said. “In fact, I’ve got a card in the car right now from a guy who wants it. I’ve had it for about two years now, I’ve guess. I should probably throw that away.”
Wegner’s Firebird had about 72,000 miles on it when he drove it off the used car lot for the first time. He’s rolled that number up to 94,000 over the years, and the original engine and drive train are still unmolested and going strong. “I’ve put a new timing belt on it, new drive belts and stuff like that. The other stuff is all original,” he said. “It had some rust holes in the quarters and we put the new fenders on it, but the doors are all original and the interior is all original. The floors were all good.”
Wegner replaced the Pontiac’s front fenders and fender wells not long after he bought it and did some bodywork on the rear quarter panels. He had the car repainted its original color in 1991, and eventually had the convertible top replaced. “I had the original top on it until about three years ago when the mice got me,” he laughed. “Actually, they really didn’t get the top, they got the well. When we got it fixed, they told me I might as well replace the whole thing, so I said ‘OK, let’s go.’
“I also put the Rally wheels on it [which were optional in 1968]. I originally had the dog dishes on it, then I put a set of full wheel covers on it… I had to bug the guy for three years for the Rallys, and he finally gave ’em up. I got them right off a ’68.”
Wegner said he might eventually let his nephew rebuild the Firebird and get it ready for another 94,000-plus miles. He figures he’s gotten a lot more than he ever bargained for with his beautiful 'Bird, and he sees no end to the top-down fun anytime soon.
“I love to drive it,” he said. “I take it out whenever I want, and go to the car shows I like.
“I never thought I’d have it this long, no. I thought it was just another car, but I’ve really enjoyed it.”
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