Words and Photos: Steve Holmes | Photos: Gord Reilly, Graham Moran, Perry Drury, Mike Feisst, Ross Cammick & Warwick Clayton
At the wheel of his 1967 Camaro, Rod Coppins shared the 1970 NZ Saloon Car Championship title with Red Dawson, but the following season saw him at the wheel of an ex-T/G Racing Pontiac Firebird.
In Round 7 of the 1968 SCCA Trans-Am Championship, quiet Canadian driver Craig Fisher finished a fine fourth in his Pontiac Firebird, behind the factory Penske Racing Camaros of Mark Donohue and Sam Posey, and Peter Revson’s factory AMC Javelin.
Meadowdale marked the very first appearance for the Firebird in the Trans-Am series. Only, it wasn’t really a Firebird. It was a 1967 Penske Racing Camaro, masquerading as a Firebird. Indeed, it was still fitted with a Chevrolet engine. The Fisher Firebird was entered by Canadian businessman Terry Godsall, who had close ties with General Motors, and he was ambitious. He convinced the Sports Car Club of America that in Canada, it was possible to order a Firebird with a Z-28 Camaro engine. It wasn’t, of course, but the SCCA was eager to get more manufacturers into its series.
The Fisher Firebird wasn’t a Pontiac-supported effort. Regardless, Fisher recorded several strong results in the remaining races, including second at Continental Divide and third at Riverside, before the team debuted a second Firebird in the final round at Kent. Much like the car Fisher drove, the new Firebird was a reconfigured 1967 Camaro, this one built by the talented Jon Ward. It was to be driven at Kent by former Shelby American driver Jerry Titus, who’d parted ways with Shelby after a troubled 1968 campaign. In his Kent debut in the hashed-together Camaro/Firebird, Titus duly slapped it on pole, and led the first half of the race before its Bartz-built Chevy engine broke.
Following the Kent race, Titus and Godsall established T/G Racing, and sweet-talked Pontiac into supporting them as a factory squad for the 1969 Trans-Am series with a fleet of the latest face-lifted Firebirds. Pontiac was enthusiastic, and not only did it produce a homologated version of its Firebird street car aimed at Trans-Am racing success, it agreed a deal with the SCCA to use the Trans-Am name on its new racing-focused Firebird. For every Firebird Trans-Am built, Pontiac paid the SCCA $5. It was a lucrative arrangement that worked well for both, and continued on the Firebird model until its eventual demise in 2002Working with a smaller budget than its rivals, T/G Racing produced a batch of Trans-Am Firebird race cars to sell to customers, to help fill the coffers. Around six cars were built in total, three of which T/G Racing kept for itself.
While the SCCA conveniently overlooked the Chevy engines in the low-profile 1968 Firebirds, for 1969, correct power units were required. Indeed, special new 303ci (Trans-Am maximum engine size was 5000cc/305ci) Pontiac motors were developed with tunnel-port heads. The 1969 Firebird Trans-Am looked spectacular; bristling with scoops and spoilers, all homologated by Pontiac. But when it emerged that not enough of the 303ci motors had been produced (1000 production engines were required for homologation), the T/G team had to backpedal. The SCCA agreed to let them fit the cars with Chevy engines, as per 1968. But to do so, they had to retrofit the cars with 1968 front sheet metal, and rear spoilers.
The time lost in development, as well as the bodywork changes, and the pressure to build the required customer cars, left T/G Racing on the back foot from the outset.
Regardless of their appearance, the T/G Firebirds were things of beauty beneath the surface. The workmanship and fabrication was the equal of anything produced either at Penske Racing or the factory Ford squads.
When the series kicked off at Michigan International Speedway in May 1969, Titus finished a strong third behind Parnelli Jones in a Bud Moore Engineering factory Mustang, and Mark Donohue in the latest Penske Camaro. But the Michigan race was an anomaly. The weather was insane; with rain and even snow falling throughout, most teams switched back and forth between wet and dry tyres. Titus’ other podium finishes were third in Round 4 at Bridgehampton, second at Circuit Mont-Tremblant, third at Kent, and third at Riverside. Given the challenges thrown at the team before the season started, this was a good outcome, but probably fell short of its own ambitions.For the 1970 Trans-Am, the T/G Racing team updated to the latest second-generation Firebirds, and the remaining 1969 cars were sold off. Some of the 1969 fleet were converted into Camaros by their subsequent owners. Craig Fisher appeared in early 1970 Trans-Am races with a T/G Racing Firebird fitted with all the correct bodywork, and powered by a Pontiac engine. This car was entered by the Todco racing team from Canada which was in the process of building a new second-generation Firebird. Over time, all of the 1969-model T/G Racing team Firebirds vanished from trace, either through being wrecked, or scrapped. All, that is, except one.
In late 1971, American racing all-rounder Ron Grable arrived in New Zealand to contest the annual Bay Park New Year event, held December 27/28. The Bay Park promotional team, headed by the effervescent Peter Hanna, focused on big-banger sedan showcases to coax punters through the gate. These popular events boasted several international teams, shipped in to tackle the best local hot-shoes, and sparks invariably flew. For the 1971 encounter, Allan Moffat and Ian ‘Pete’ Geoghegan brought their Mustangs from Australia, as they were joined by Brian Foley with his rapid Alfa Romeo GTAm. Ron Grable was the fourth international, driving a red/white/blue 1969 Pontiac Firebird, originally built by T/G Racing for the Trans-Am series.
The exact history of the Grable Firebird was unknown. Whether it was a car run by T/G Racing, or one of its customers, wasn’t important in 1971. Grable was instructed by the Bay Park team to source a Trans-Am race car and from there, the crew in New Zealand would ship it down-under, and prepare it for local competitions. Interestingly, the Firebird sported the correct 1969 bodywork, plus the rear spoiler and scoops developed by Pontiac for the 1969 Trans-Am campaign, all of which the SCCA forced them to remove.
The Firebird arrived in New Zealand without an engine. Once here, a 302ci Chevy was installed; indeed, the V8 that originally resided in the Joe Chamberlain 1969 Trans-Am Camaro which raced in (and stayed in) New Zealand the previous year. Ian Rorison owned the Camaro (and funded the Firebird), which was raced by Dennis Marwood after Chamberlain returned to the US. For the 1972 season, the Camaro was fitted with a larger 355ci engine, to better exploit the local 6000cc regulations.
The Grable Firebird was painted red/white/blue in reference to sponsor American Airlines. It looked superb, but Grable struggled against the more powerful New Zealand and Australian cars with their wider 10-inch wheels. Grable contested both the Bay Park and Pukekohe (New Zealand Grand Prix event) sedan races, and then flew home. The Firebird, however, stayed in New Zealand, and after being advertised by Rorison, was purchased by Rod Coppins.
Coppins famously shared the 1970 NZ Saloon Car Championship title with Red Dawson. He was driving the same 1967 Camaro imported by Spencer Black in 1968. While the Camaro was the equal of anything in the 1969/1970 season, a year later, it was already showing its age, and by late 1971, was largely outclassed. Recognising this, Coppins duly purchased the T/G Racing Firebird, and made his debut with it (painted in Winfield gold) in Round 6 (of 10), at Bay Park. Engine issues stunted its debut, but several podium finishes followed in the remaining rounds, as Coppins got to grips with his new steed.
Over the winter of 1972, Coppins shipped the Firebird to Australia along with a small team of NZ sedans, as part of a highly anticipated Trans-Tasman team’s race at Calder Park. The event was a let down, however, when several of the Kiwi cars suffered mechanical failures. Coppins’ Firebird wasn’t one of them.
British American Tobacco, which had sponsored Coppins for the past three seasons, withdrew in 1972, but new support came from PDL Electrical Products. The Firebird was repainted white with black lettering. A new 6-litre Chevy was built, and wide Minilite wheels were fitted, to truly put it on equal footing with the top local cars.
The 1972/1973 campaign got off to a strong start with pole position in the opening round at Ruapuna. Coppins was leading the first heat when suddenly his brakes locked on and he skidded to a halt. However, he won the second heat. He also took pole position new Holden Torana L34, and contest the 1974 Bathurst 1000, with his good buddy Jim Richards sharing the driving. The pair finished an impressive third.
The Firebird made few appearances during the 1974/1975 season, and was sold in 1975 to Robin Tanner. Tanner raced the Firebird into 1976, before selling it later that year. Its new owner kept it briefly before it passed to speedway racer John Scott, who removed the engine (for his Pontiac Firebird speedway car) and sold it to Alan Stacey. Stacey fitted an engine and converted the Firebird into a road car, retaining all the racing componentry, including the roll-cage. After passing through a couple more owners, the Firebird was purchased by Bruce Thompson in 1983. Thompson owns the car to this day.
Although Thompson’s plans were to keep driving the Firebird on the street (indeed, he installed a 396ci big-block Chevrolet V8 and TH400 transmission), eventually, he began researching its racing history, and the more he dug, the more the significance of this car revealed itself. Eventually, a sympathetic restoration was undertaken, stripping the body and repainting it in Coppins’ 1973 livery while retaining the purity of the car. It now has a correct small-block Chevy, topped with a quartet of Weber carburettors mounted on an ultra-rare McKay intake manifold. It is completely period correct, and a showcase as to how a historical car should be presented.
The Firebird will eventually return to the track, but strictly for historic racing duties. Historic Trans-Am cars are now highly desirable in the United States, and command substantial price tags when they come on the market. Top factory cars sell for in excess of US$1 million.
Bruce Thompson’s Firebird is the only known survivor from the batch of cars built by the factory Pontiac squad, T/G Racing, for the 1969 Trans-Am. Its exact Trans-Am history, and who drove it, remains unclear but certainly, this is one of the most significant race cars of any kind currently on New Zealand soil. Truly a one of one.