460-cube 1967 Pontiac Firebird

You wouldn’t recognise this Firebird as the one that started with a dead engine and the body full of bog

Photographers: Brendon Thorne

It was either this or a Camaro,” John Kreskas says, admiring the 1967 Pontiac’s tough front end and ground-scraping rear, which handed it the win in the lust-stakes over the Chev. It’s been winning for a long time, too; John picked up the car back in 1986 after falling in love with Firebirds as a keen-eyed kid. It’s been in the family longer than his three children and was part of his life before he said ‘I do’ to his missus.

A stack of long-distance phone calls and $8000 landed John what was then a four-speed, 428-cube ’Bird.

First published in the November 2007 issue of Street Machine

“It was pretty much standard,” he says. “I swapped the original Saginaw four-speed for a T10, then I got sick of problems with gears and linkages — the auto’s less fuss. We put a 2500 stall in it [since upped to 3000rpm], I put nitrous on it and bought a set of Center Lines — back then, they were the thing.”

Then the 428 spat the dummy. “We parked it in 1989,” John explains. “I was just married at the time. With a family and a seven-days-a-week business to run, there wasn’t a lot of time for the car.”

So it was some years before John sent the Pontiac off to Shane Rowe at Southern Rod & Custom and learned the truth. “When we pulled it down, we found a lot of bog and a lot of bent panels,” John says.

Even straightened, the bare shell presented John with another problem: choosing the paint.

“Shane made three colour samples for me and I don’t know why but I picked the lightest,” he says. “But when I saw the painted shell it was far too bright, so we went for a darker red instead.”

He’s rapt with the flawless result: “Quality metal finishing and paint to this standard are hard to come by — that’s what makes this car turn heads.”

Sure, the Pontiac turns heads but it was the other creations coming out of Southern Rod & Custom that had John changing his mind again and again.

“I’m sure I’ll see something next year that I’ll wish was around while we were building the car,” John laughs.

Shane admits John’s not alone when it comes to his customers: “This place is like a lolly shop — we’ve got two or three $100K cars at the moment and people come in, see these sorts of vehicles and think: ‘Whoa, I wouldn’t mind this!’ Then they start adding things to their car. I suppose it’s like a guy building a car at home who sees his mate’s ride or something else in a magazine and wants it.”

John had no such problems choosing to drop a 460ci bent-eight in front of the flat firewall, however.

“I like my big-blocks,” he says.

With help from Kevin McCarroll, the motor was tuned for drivability; GM Performance pistons and cams mean it runs happily on BP Ultimate. The premium juice is delivered through a state-of-the-art Ram Jet injection set-up that became the biggest hurdle in the build.

“It comes with its own computer but it doesn’t allow adjustments,” John says. “The Haltech we chose to run it has a solid reputation and I can’t say enough about the input, research and work that the team at SRC did for me.”

Shane agrees the system was a tough nut to crack. “We hadn’t done one before and we couldn’t find anybody in Australia with knowledge on them, so we were doing our own thing there.”

When we pulled it down, we found a lot of bog and a lot of bent panels

On top of that, John wanted to keep the Firebird’s classic looks. “I didn’t want anything to stand out too much; I wanted everything to stay below the bonnet,” he explains. Which is why the injection has been machined three-quarters of an inch to fit under the hood — it remains a tight fit at about half an inch.

John’s cousin Cohn helped out with the extractors — three-inch mandrel-bent pipes and MagnaFlow mufflers that pass the 3.7:1 Ford nine-inch, four-link rear and Air Ride ShockWave airbag combo. The four-link was bought in kit form, with Shane modifying it to suit.

The airbags are a favourite with John. “I like the idea of being able to lower it. It’s got electronic sensors in each wheel, so if my kids sit in the back it’ll level automatically. It’ll level itself if you lay it into a corner, so there’s no body roll.”

The brakes follow the same practical philosophy: “Brakes are as important as power,” John says. After 12 months of deliberation, Wilwood four-pot calipers with cross-drilled rotors were chosen. They sit inside 17-inch Yokohama-shod Billet Specialties alloys which back up the billet theme throughout the car.

Inside, a billet steering wheel finishes off the Flaming River tilt steering column, while the rest of the interior echoes the original style of the 1967-issue Pontiac: “We kept the standard look when Ryebuck Auto Trim did the leather,” Johns says.

The dash now includes oil pressure, temperature and amp gauges, while the tacho on the bonnet was a factory item on the 400 Firebirds. The facia on the stereo hides an Audio Sound 10-stacker, with a small CD button the only giveaway. The centre console hosts the display for the airbags, which John can also operate from outside the car.

The airbags are a favouite. If you lay it into a corner, there’s no body roll

Shane reckons that John’s measured approach has seen a classic reborn: “That’s why the car’s taken so long to build. I mean my hat’s off to him — I couldn’t stand waiting 15 years for a car to be finished! The last three or four years I just said to him: ‘That’s it — it’s not leaving the shop ’til it’s finished.’ In essence, it’s a restored muscle car — to the nth level.”

That’s exactly what John was after: a classic cruiser to enjoy with the family but one with serious mumbo. And while his daughters, Stephanie and Aimee, have a keen interest in their dad’s Firebird, John’s 11-year-old son, Josh, is showing a passion for street machines as strong as Dad’s. “He never stops polishing it!” John laughs with pride. “He was up until 11 o’clock last night cleaning it!” He did a sterling job too.

“My favourite car is a Cobra,” the fifth-grader says, smiling. That smile’s probably bigger as Dad gave him the day off school for the photoshoot.

Meanwhile, John’s been thinking. “I’ve always thought I’d get a Camaro one day but I don’t know. I didn’t intend to show it; just do a resto and drive it. The Firebird’s just the sort of car I like.”


Colour:PPG custom red
Engine:Chev 460ci big-block
Manifold:Ram Jet
Heads:GM Performance heads
Pistons:GM Performance, 10.5:1
Crank:GM Performance
Conrods:GM Performance
ECU:Haltech E11V2
Injectors:Ram Jet fuel injection
Fuel pump:GM Performance
Ignition:MSD 6AL ignition; MSD cam sync distributor; 10mm Top Gun leads
Radiator:PWR radiator with twin thermo-fans
Exhaust:Custom two-inch extractors; three-inch stainless steel exhaust; quad MagnaFlow mufflers
Gearbox:Turbo 400
Converter:TCE torque converter with 3000rpm stall
Tailshaft:Hardy Spicer Heavy Duty tail shaft; with Ford 9in with 3.7:1 Detroit locker and 31-spline Moser axles
Suspension:ShockWave Air Ride airbags (f); triangulated Four-link with Shockwave Air Ride (r)
Steering:Ford steering box
Brakes:Wilwood four-pot calipers with cross-drilled rotors (f&r)
Wheel:Billet Specialities
Steering column:Flaming River tilt
Seats:Factory, retrimmed in black leather
Gauges:Firebird 400 tacho, oil temperature and pressure, amps
Stereo:Custom Audio Sound 10-stacker, Kenwood amplifier
Shifter:B&M Quicksilver
Rims:Billet Specialities 17×8 (f), 17×10 (r)
Rubber:Yokohama AVS Sport 235/45/17 (f), 275/40/17 (r)

Shane Rowe, Southern Rod & Custom; wife Tina, daughters Stephanie (15) and Aimee (13) and son Joshua (11); Cohn Kreskas, extractors and exhaust; Blue Power; Chris Finnen Trans; Ryebuck Auto Trim ; MerCarroll Engines.