Survival of the Luckiest - What drives a man to take a garage-kept, low-mileage all-original '77 T/A survivor and rejuvenate it into a 400-point show car? By Jesse Freeman Photography: Thomas DeMauro Most of us would strongly consider doing borderline illegal acts to get our hands on an 8,000-mile garage-kept, California-native Trans Am. Many others would reconsider to what extent they really needed their limbs or loved ones to make the acquisition. But what question is often left on the table for debate is what would you do with said T/A once you got it? Fortunately for 39-year-old electrical engineer, Jon Limes, both came easily. Believe it or not, this is a Trans Am owner who was not totally inspired to own one because of Smokey and the Bandit, but rather his own father, who bought this Buccaneer Red 185-horse 403 Olds-powered T/A in 1977. While visiting his dad in California at the impressionable age of 13, Jon and his father cruised through sunny Palm Springs. Limes, hailing from Swanton, Ohio, recollects, "I remember my Dad driving around Palm Springs and everyone was giving him the thumbs up. That summer he let me drive the T/A, and [by now] I had seen Smokey and the Bandit and knew I wanted one. By the end of my senior year in 1981, I had saved up enough money to buy one with help from Dad matching my savings. I started looking for a T/A locally but could not find one with low miles that was as nice as my dad's." As Jon's high school graduation was rapidly approaching, desperation was kicking in. Luckily, dad wanted a new Bandit T/A so he sold the '77 to Jon for $2,000. The younger Limes was also fortunate enough to have access to a dry 2-car garage. Can you guess the number of items in this photo that weren't there when this T/A was new? The answer is 2--the carpet and the brake pedal. Thankfully, Jon had the foresight to appreciate what he had, and decided to keep his T/A as a "special occasion" ride--you know, sunny days, car shows, and dates. Good fortune smiled upon him again as he saved up to buy mom's '73 400 4-barrel LeMans Sport Coupe (with factory sunroof and buckets) for his daily driver. Like father like son, Jon reflects upon his moment of Zen, "There weren't too many T/A's in my color combination around and people really gave me compliments on the car, which was great! That was my inspiration to keep the T/A in top shape and the miles low." Not even the hustle and bustle of the late '80s, college, and the purchase of a house, with 2-car garage of course, could make Jon forget his T/A. After a few years, and despite reading only 38,000 miles on the odometer, Limes realized his T/A now had that, well, not-so-fresh look. " I had parked the car on jack stands, while I worked on the house and I got the idea to detail the engine compartment. The original paint had check marks on the hood, doors, and deck lid. The marks looked like little bubbles that had burst. After all, they were mass-produced--my T/A even had a drip by the right rear rocker panel." Though built as a performance car, this T/A places the driver in the lap of luxury, sporting such amenities as AM/FM/8-track, tilt steering wheel, deluxe lighting, floor mats, power trunk release, windows and door locks, and A/C. In 1999, after a 5-year tour of the stunning displays at the T/A Nats, Jon was pressed into the decision to restore the '77. What could have easily been a nice low-mileage survivor car was instead given a concours makeover to become a 400-point show car. Jon muses, "I started asking questions about how people detailed their Pontiacs--probably too many. My inspiration became a particular red '73 455 T/A owned by Joe Gieger" As luck would have it, Jon's good friend, Lou Makula, who had his own paint shop offered to help him restore his baby. As the Buccaneer Red T/A had never seen foul weather, being a California car and never needing undercoating, the original factory markings were all there, as were the shocks, belts, and hoses. With that being known, only the best would do. Aside from the Ames Performance rear package shelf and spoiler weltings, Year One carpet, and Quanta Products gas tank, most of the T/A either retained its well-preserved factory parts or was treated to NOS pieces. The detailed restoration of the exterior is nothing short of amazing. Due to the gentle use of the deluxe white vinyl interior (the seats always had seat covers on them), Jon simply had to carefully remove them to replace the carpet. As many parts as possible were replated and/or clearcoated. Factory Fit reconditioned Jon's wiring harnesses. The torquey Olds 403 gets the job done and can still leave a nice burnout--as those at the 2002 T/A Nats may recall. Although barely visible to the average eye, show judges were treated to Electric Limited's perfectly matching black print on gray silicone spark plug wires. Jon took the extra step to date code them! Under the shaker, the original Oldsmobile 403 motor (California car remember) replete with a Q-jet on a cast-iron intake, a 250/264-degree cam with .400/.400 lift and HEI was treated to cleaning, new gaskets and valve seals. 1,200-degree primer and proper GM/Olds blue paint from Bill Hirsch were applied. "I matched the valve cover before painting and it was a perfect match," Jon said. Jet Hot applied a gray coating to the exhaust manifolds, while Carbs Unlimited rebuilt the Q-jet. All brake and fuel lines were wisely upgraded to In Line Tube stainless steel. The Turbo 350 transmission and factory optional 3.08 Posi rear axle were externally detailed and the driveshaft was sanded and buffed to the original steel finish. All were--you guessed it--clearcoated and accented with the factory inspection marks, as was the rest of the undercarriage. Perfect in every way according to POCI show judges, Jon's engine bay probably looks better than the January day it was built in 1977. Factory overspray was reapplied to the cowl. Although a light overspray mist should be on the front, side, and back of the hood, Jon chose not to reapply those touches. Fortunately many of the original decals were good so he took them to Erd's Specialty Graphics screen-printing (Toledo, Ohio) to have them duplicated based on the codes on the build sheet." Jon was a points judge for all Firebirds at the 2003 T/A Nats. To date, his T/A has achieved a Champion Plaque at the 2003 POCI Convention and 400 out of 400 points at the 2002 and 2001 POCI Conventions. Competing in the '77-81 class, Jon's T/A garnered a Best of Show and First Place at the 2001 T/A Nats, and Second Place at the 2000 T/A Nats, 2 First places in 2002 and 2003 at Ames Performance Pontiac Nats, and a First Place at the 2003 Pontiac Southern Nats. Happily Limes says, "Now I can drive it again". Some guys have all the luck. Even the seldom-seen rear console was checked off on the options list. BODY RESTORATION DETAILS It would be best to describe his recipe for gorgeous paint using Jon's own words: 1) We disassembled the entire car including the frame, front and rear suspension down to just a shell and stripped the T/A down to bare metal although it needed no bodywork. The only thing we did was smooth out any high or low areas with block sanding using various grits. I left the metal in original form simply because I wanted to obtain an original look. Firebirds were not known from the factory for straight upper door skins or smooth body panels. 2) After the body was as flat as I could get it, I applied an etching primer, Dupont Euro primer, then came a guide coat and block sanding with 320 grit until more high and low spots were found. 3) 3 more wet coats with Euro primer were followed by a guide coat and wet sanding with 800 to 1200 grits until any high and low spots were again removed. All urethane bumpers and spoiler weltings were stripped and we started with DuPont adhesion promoter. 2350 Flex Additive was put in the primer, sealer and clear. None is required in the base. I used this same technique on the spoiler welting--you can even tie a knot with them. 4) The underside was refinished in the correct brownish-red color. When it came time to paint the body, we applied the sealer (a value shade), let that cure and then blocked it. Next we applied the basecoat using DuPont Chroma Premier. 5) A few hours later, we took care of any dust or imperfections, and then applied 3 wet coats of DuPont Chroma Premier clear. That was given time to cure (about a week). 6) I wet sanded with 1200 grit to remove any imperfections, then used a 220/222 Adhesion Promoter and gave it 3 more wet coats. This is what I call a double clear (for depth). 7) I started wet sanding very carefully with 1200, 1500, 2000, and 2500 grits, changing directions with each grit. 8) After that I used 3M Perfecting It 3 Micro-Finishing Compound and Glaze on a foam pad. Then I put on as many of the inspection marks and part decals as I could find. Jon received a great deal of valuable information and assistance from Joe Gieger and strongly advises other novices to follow DuPont's recommendations to insure good results. Finally the T/A was reassembled and ready for the show circuit. "I'm seeing a lot more interest in restoring later model T/A's like the earlier cars. It's exciting to see." Jon is finishing up a project '84 15th Anniversary T/A that should be ready to wow the judges at the 2004 T/A Nats.