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.
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 jerry[email protected] —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.
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.