Some of my favourite collectable cars are those I like to call noble failures, cars that were ahead of their time and no-one realised. The #1935-Chrysler-Airflow / #1935 / #1934 / #Chrysler-Airflow / #Chrysler is a good example. Call it the shock of the new, because the 1934 model with its #Art-Deco streamlining and waterfall grille was so different from the previous model that people just couldn’t take it in, especially the long-wheelbase Imperial version. Luxury cars were supposed to have huge imposing radiators with prestigious-looking hood ornaments like the Rolls-Royce flying lady or the Packard cormorant. They learned their lesson. After that first year they switched back to a more traditional front end.
The car I’m writing about today is not so much a noble failure as a forgotten one. I have been after one for years, but I could never find quite the right example until recently. By the mid- ’60s the pony-car craze was in full swing. Ford had the Mustang, Chevy the Camaro, Pontiac the Firebird, Chrysler the Barracuda.
Common to all was a V8. Sure, you could get a six-cylinder if you wanted, but that was a base model which was primarily a grocery- getter. Except for the Pontiac.
John DeLorean was the engineer behind the Pontiac GTO. He enjoyed thinking outside the box.
Of all the button-down engineers at GM he was probably the most European in his thinking and his lifestyle. He was the guy who put the big honking 389ci V8 into the smaller-bodied Tempests and Firebirds, but he was also enamoured with the Jaguar E-type. Why not develop an American version of the classic European straight-six?
The engine grew from the standard Chevrolet six- cylinder but had its own cast-iron block and head castings. Only the valve cover and camshaft carrier for what was America’s first mass-produced overhead- camshaft engine were aluminium. It also featured a reinforced glassfibre belt to drive the camshaft, which was considered quite advanced back in the day. With a one- barrel carburettor and a mild cam this 3.8-litre engine put out I65bhp, and was mated to a three-speed manual gearbox as the base powertrain package for the Firebird.
DeLorean then added high-compression pistons, a hotter cam, dual valve springs, a split dual-exhaust manifold and the new-for-’66 Rochester Quadrajet four- barrel carburettor. This took power to 207bhp, increased to 215 for 1968. Some guys convert their engines to Weber carburettors, which look a lot sexier but don’t seem to give any more performance than the Quadrajet.
So, instead of a heavy V8 pony car with its 60/40 weight distribution, would Americans go for a European- style pony car with lower horsepower but better handling? The answer: not so much. Pontiac built 108,000 Firebirds for the 1968 model year, of which just 4662 were six- cylinder Sprints. And only 1025 of these had the high-performance engine package.
The car I have finally found is a 1968 Firebird Sprint with this engine, the very desirable four-speed gearbox, the Safe-T-Track 355 rear end and the hood-mounted tachometer. This combination cost as much if not more than the V8 when new and in America, where bigger is always better and performance was measured in quarter-miles, why would you do that?
Americans didn’t much cotton- on to six-cylinder engines, and still don’t. When the latest Ford GT was introduced with a six-cylinder, howls of protest were all over the internet. It took the 2016 Le Mans win to overcome all the scepticism.
But as a teenager I was intrigued by this hopped-up six because it was so different from everything else coming out of Detroit. Overhead camshafts, especially back in the ’60s, were things that came from Europe and were to be seen on the autobahn, the Stelvio Pass or Silverstone. Not Woodward Avenue.
Over the years I came close to finding the right Sprint. I looked at one but it was an automatic, another had the three-speed. Finally, a friend called to say he’d found the perfect one, a convertible in Caribbean blue with a blue interior, a white top and all the right options. It was a three-owner car, never restored but well maintained. For its first 25 years it had been a daily driver. It had just over 100,0 miles but ran nicely.
After driving it for a while I have decided to give it a full restoration. The great thing with cars such as Firebirds, Camaros and Mustangs is that every single part is available, many of them new old stock.
The best part will be when it’s finished and I take it to a Cars and Coffee, park in the Pontiac section next to a couple of Trans Ams or 455 HO big-blocks, open the hood and hear guys go ‘What is that? A six? Cool!’
That’s my dream, anyway.