TIRE BIRD

Muscle Car Review - - Contents - By Jerry Heasley

Find­ing this rare promo car was a dream come true

Bruce John­son says he’s giddy to have bought a real Tire Bird, the only one known to ex­ist of the six that BFGoodrich com­mis­sioned T/G Rac­ing to build for the 1971 model year. “In 1970, BFGoodrich wanted to pro­mote its new Ra­dial T/A,” he tells us. To make a splash with mus­cle car buy­ers, BFG ran the new street tire in the pop­u­lar SCCA Trans-Am road-rac­ing se­ries. If a street tire could beat or even run in the pack with race cars shod with sin­gle-pur­pose rac­ing tires, what an im­age boost!

BFG’s ob­vi­ous tar­get in the Trans-Am se­ries was a Pon­tiac Trans Am, fea­tur­ing an all-new and cur­va­ceous body style.

The new Pon­tiac and the new BFGoodrich Ra­dial T/A re­sulted in a Trans Am race­car in the Trans-Am se­ries—very cool.

Prior to the tire deal with BFG, T/G Rac­ing was al­ready com­pet­ing in the Trans-Am se­ries. In Fe­bru­ary 1970, T/G Rac­ing’s crew chief, Doug Innes, drove the com­pany hauler from South­ern Cal­i­for­nia to Pon­tiac, Michi­gan, to pick up the first two Trans

Ams that had been built (mi­nus the in­te­ri­ors, which weren’t quite com­plete by this early date). The third and last Trans Am that T/G Rac­ing built into a race­car came from a lo­cal Pon­tiac dealer.

These three Trans Ams were built for the 1970 Trans-Am sea­son and cam­paigned by Jerry Ti­tus and Milt Min­ter. Ti­tus, al­ready fa­mous as Car­roll Shelby’s num­ber-one driver on his Ter­lin­gua Rac­ing team in the 1966, 1967, and 1968 Trans-Am sea­sons, had switched to Pon­tiac in 1969 and formed T/G Rac­ing with Terry God­sall. The team fin­ished a re­spectable third place in

the highly com­pet­i­tive 1969 sea­son.

Ti­tus was the star driver but trag­i­cally died dur­ing a prac­tice ses­sion on July 19, 1970, when a steer­ing gear fail­ure sent his Trans Am into a bridge abut­ment at Road Amer­ica. At that time, BFGoodrich had not yet be­come in­volved.

Doug Innes be­lieves a mem­ber of BFG’s ad­ver­tis­ing team was an am­a­teur racer and pic­tured him­self driv­ing one of the race cars. To make his rac­ing dream a re­al­ity, his pitch was to pro­mote BFG’s new street ra­dial tire in the pop­u­lar Trans-Am se­ries.

“I be­lieve we went through 20 sets of tires that day”

Hold Its Own

Ini­tially, BFG asked God­sall to try the new Ra­dial T/A tire in a race. The first time out for the new tire was a Trans-Am race in the fall of 1970 at Mosport Park in On­tario, Canada. BFG print ads later boasted, “Two gru­el­ing hours, over 160 miles of as­phalt, at speeds up to 130 mph. Could a street tire hold its own in this kind of com­pe­ti­tion?”

The an­swer was yes. Driver John Cordts (not the ad exec) fin­ished “a strong third” in his rac­ing Trans Am shod with 60-se­ries BFG Ra­dial T/A tires.

The deeper truth, per Innes, was that the tires were “slow but de­cent” in prac­tice, and started “chunk­ing” when the race started. “I be­lieve we went through 20 sets of tires that day,” he says.

None­the­less, the race proved a good first out­ing for a tire BFG had not tested. At the next race at Watkins Glen, BFG Xrayed the tires and shaved the tread to a “much re­duced depth” to lessen heat buildup, says Innes. With John Cordts again be­hind the wheel, the Trans Am won its class on Satur­day on a hot day,

and won its class on Sun­day “in the rain.”

Innes says that these early suc­cesses set the stage for a BFG con­tract and a mag­a­zine ad cam­paign. Part of the con­tract was for T/G Rac­ing to build six BFG “Tire Bird” show cars, a play on the Firebird’s name. They would be pur­chased new from Royal Pon­tiac in Los An­ge­les and mod­i­fied in the T/G shop in Tarzana, Cal­i­for­nia.

With most of 1970 pro­duc­tion fin­ished, BFG started with 1971 mod­els. The six Trans Ams were built to look like T/G’s Trans-Am race car, fea­tur­ing the spe­cial blue and white paint scheme and “92” on the doors

“Could a street tire hold its own in this kind of com­pe­ti­tion?”

and hood. But they were strictly for show. Though T/G stripped the Pon­ti­acs of their stock in­te­ri­ors and in­su­la­tion and in­stalled one race seat and a fire ex­tin­guisher, their “rollcages” were made from ex­haust pipes. The “fuel cell” in the trunk was a mock cover.

Each promo Trans Am was equipped with an H.O. 455 big-block backed by an M21 four-speed trans­mis­sion. BFG Ra­dial T/A tires mounted on mag­ne­sium Minilite wheels were com­mon to both the race car and the show car, as were hood­pins and rear-win­dow brac­ing.

BFG dis­trib­uted the six promo mod­els to tire stores around the coun­try to put on dis­play and draw at­ten­tion to the new Ra­dial T/A. When the rac­ing pro­gram ended af­ter the 1971 sea­son, BFG sold off the promo cars.

Miss­ing

Bruce John­son has spent years re­search­ing these cars and to date be­lieves that two of the six promo cars were sold, the one in Cal­i­for­nia, seen here, and one in Ohio, which along with the other four cars is miss­ing and not known to have sur­vived.

Tom Sen­ter bought this par­tic­u­lar Cal­i­for­nia promo Tire Bird from BFGoodrich when he was ed­i­tor of Pop­u­lar Hot Rod­ding mag­a­zine in Los An­ge­les in 1972. John­son says, “They gave him a crate that had the orig­i­nal in­te­rior parts. He took all the in­te­rior out—the rac­ing stuff—and put the reg­u­lar in­te­rior back in, and made a street car out of it.”

The H.O. 455, still in the engine bay, had al­ready been burned up when some­body in the shop drove the car with no engine oil. Sen­ter sold the H.O. 455 for $300 and

used his con­tacts at Pon­tiac to try to ac­quire one of the new Su­per Duty 455s. This was late 1972, and the 455 SD was not avail­able.

Sen­ter con­tacted friends at Berger Chevro­let in Michi­gan to buy (for $750!) a Chevro­let LS6 454 with 11.25:1 com­pres­sion. He doc­u­mented the build in PHR as he trans­formed the car into a high-speed road racer. True to his hot rod back­ground, Sen­ter re­moved the graph­ics and painted the dark blue body Fer­rari Fly Yel­low.

John­son was about 10 years old in the mid 1970s and re­mem­bers read­ing those is­sues with great in­ter­est. Sen­ter, who passed away in 1979, was more than a mag­a­zine ed­i­tor. He was a well-known engine builder and dry lakes racer, voted into the Dry Lake Hall of Fame in 2004.

“He had an as­sis­tant named ‘Land­speed Louise’ Noeth. She con­tacted me by email. She re­mem­bers rid­ing in the car [with Sen­ter driv­ing] at 110 to 120 mph up and down the Pa­cific Coast High­way.”

In 1978, Sen­ter sold the pro­mo­tional Trans Am to a friend, who sold it to a real es­tate agent in Fresno, Cal­i­for­nia. The agent cut off the back two bar­rels of the Hol­ley four-bar­rel and re­placed the M21 with a Turbo 400 so that his daugh­ter could drive the Pon­tiac to high school.

In 1983, the car sold to Tom Ge­je­lan, an al­mond farmer in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia who mostly stored the Tire Bird.

In 2004, John Motroni was look­ing through the clas­si­fieds of a small daily news­pa­per in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia when he read “1971 Trans Am, 454, LS6,” which he thought had to be a mis­take. In­trigued, he drove from his home in San Fran­cisco to where the farmer lived. When he looked at the car he re­al­ized this Pon­tiac was

Tom Sen­ter’s PHR project car that he read about in the 1970s. Motroni was ec­static to pur­chase the Pon­tiac, but he couldn’t stand the yel­low paint.

“He had an in­ex­pen­sive, dark blue paint job put on it for like $800,” John­son says. “He drove it a lot and to car shows around Cal­i­for­nia. In 2006, Motroni pulled the 454 and fit­ted the cylin­ders with deep-dish pis­tons to knock the com­pres­sion ra­tio back to 9.5:1.”

In 2017, Bruce John­son spot­ted Motroni’s auc­tion ad for the Tire Bird on the Bring a Trailer web­site. Im­me­di­ately, he rec­og­nized the car from those PHR and Car Craft ar­ti­cles he had read 40 years ear­lier.

“I bid on it un­til I got it. John Motroni called me a few min­utes later and said, ‘You’re the lucky win­ner.’”

John­son did not know the car even ex­isted, and now he owned one of the dream cars of his child­hood. What could be bet­ter?

“Every­thing was in pretty good shape, but dark blue was the wrong color, and the body didn’t have the graph­ics.”

John­son ap­pears to be the car’s soul mate and end-point user. Be­fore run­ning across this car, he had even con­sid­ered tak­ing his son’s 1974 Trans Am and in­stalling and paint­ing a 1973 nose like the Tire Bird.

“Then, to come across the real one and be able to buy and re­store it has been a dream come true.”

If you know of an­other Tire Bird, please write to jer­ry­heasley@gmail.com. —Ed.

“They were strictly for show”

n This orig­i­nal BFGoodrich mag­a­zine ad re­veals the mar­ket­ing logic be­hind rac­ing a street tire in the Trans-Am se­ries.

PHOTO COUR­TESY OF CANEPA

n Canepa in Scotts Val­ley, Cal­i­for­nia, has one of the orig­i­nal Pon­tiac Trans-Am race­cars (a Trans-Am Trans Am, if you will) for sale on its show­room floor.

n The Tire Bird was a novel idea that cre­ated a street le­gal ver­sion of the race car, at least in looks.

n BFGoodrich still makes the Ra­dial T/A, so there was no prob­lem get­ting a new set, which are P255/60R15s front and rear. A pre­vi­ous owner re­moved and sold the orig­i­nal mag­ne­sium Minilite wheels to Mark Moun­tanos, the re­storer, who put them on the orig­i­nal No. 92 race car dur­ing its restora­tion.

n John­son re­searched and found this old clas­si­fied ad made by Tom Sen­ter in the late 1970s. It’s in­ter­est­ing to com­pare that view of the car, without the graph­ics and painted in Fer­rari Fly Yel­low, to how it looks to­day.

n John­son is hav­ing fun driv­ing his Tire Bird. He re­mem­bers read­ing ar­ti­cles about Sen­ter’s Tire Bird build, called “Trans Rat,” and he has de­cided to keep the car as built by Sen­ter when he was ed­i­tor of Pop­u­lar Hot Rod­ding.

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