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Building a Trans Am With a 303-Based Ram Air-V Engine - High Performance Pontiac
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Ram Air Justice
Building a '69 Trans Am the Way Pontiac Intended, With a 303-Based Ram Air-V Engine

By Thomas A. DeMauro , Jesse L. F. Freeman III
Photography: Peter S. Linney

If you found regular Firebird styling too bland for your tastes in 1969, then you needed to order the Trans Am option (WS4), which included, among other things, specific front fender engine-air extractors, distinct rear deck airfoil, and Cameo white paint with blue stripes. Unavailable on other Firebirds, T/A's came standard with this special steel Ram Air hood. But this T/A has another surprise; notice the engine callouts.
While many Pontiac fans are first attracted to a specific model by its style, others choose a different path. More specifically, they are drawn in by the promise of spine-compressing power or the cachet of running an engine, which is so rare that SDs and lesser-number Ram Airs would be forced to bow in its presence. Such is the case for 59-year-old Tom Schlauch who found and built a very rare engine and then sought out the perfect Pontiac model in which to showcase it.

It appears that living the life of a sporting goods company VP in beautiful Long Beach, California, is not only great for the spirits and skin, but is also advantageous for locating exceedingly rare Pontiac parts. Around 1999, Tom discovered an ultra-rare set of parts at local Reath Automotive. He recalls, "Joe Reath told me he had an old Pontiac motor that he was supposed to build for a customer about 10 years ago, but he never heard from the guy again. There was an iron R/A-IV SR block, cast-iron R/A-V heads, a Velasco 4.125-inch stroker crank, and Venolia pistons on early SD rods. I made the purchase and replaced the rods with Carillos." That engine was built up to a 446-cid fire breather soon thereafter.

With a '64 GTO, a '63 421 SD LeMans clone, a '63 LeMans ragtop with an all-aluminum Pontiac motor, and a '63 aluminum-nosed Catalina 421 SD clone already in the stable, Tom pondered the Pontiac vehicular possibilities for his new engine and concluded, "Right then I decided I needed an era-correct Pontiac to put the new engine in. Not really being a GTO guy, I decided to search for a '69 T/A."

It's a Ram Air-IV under that Ram Air system right? Well no it's a V! This short-deck engine was intended to be 303 cubes for Trans Am racing back in the day. Currently, it displaces 391 ci to make a potent, albeit expensive and rare, street package.
"I called Scott Tiemann from Supercar Specialties (Portland, MI), and he told me about a nice, complete T/A with an older restoration that was for sale," Tom shared. Having a 10-year-old paint job on a complete and running T/A was a great basis to start a mild restification. Schlauch also found out that the T/A had the Ram Air-III engine that had been rebuilt by Dan Jensen for a Muscle Car Review article, and Scott Tiemann had just done the brake system. With Pontiac Historic Services validation in-hand, Tom became this T/A's fourth owner.

The older restoration meant that the T/A was a perfect candidate for an occasional street driver. Therefore, it stopped short of a full detailing on the underside, as it was already in good shape. Though Tom chose to forego a frame-off on the rare Pontiac, the '69 was hand-sanded down to bare metal. And after some metalwork around the rear quarters, this Bird "received an etching primer coat, epoxy primer, and then basecoat DuPont Cameo White (code 50). It was color-sanded, and then the stripes were painted on. Finally clearcoat was applied and also wet-sanded," Tom informed HPP. This not only ensured a smooth finish, but the stripes now had the edges protected by clear and there was no ridge.

A rare Pontiac coupled with an even rarer engine combination and 463 hp under your right foot equals serious smiles per mile.
Inside, Stewart Warner gauges and tach are the only non-stock concessions to regular driving. The remainder of the cabin retains a factory appearance and features a code 200 Blue Standard Morrokide upholstered interior. A headliner and carpet were all that needed to be replaced to prepare for the arrival of the new powerplant.

The finished 446 engine and T/A were finally united, and Tom drove the Pontiac and enjoyed it for a while. Then Schlauch located an aluminum Ram Air-V standard-deck block and decided to have the 446's engine internals installed in the alloy wonder. "After many dollars and much work to get the block in running condition by Gene Ohley from Evans Speed and Machine in El Monte, California, we got the aluminum R/A-V block/cast-iron R/A-V headed engine running and in the car," Tom explained. Incidentally, it produced 555 hp at the flywheel.

Here you can better see the induction system that consists of an aluminum intake and Holley carb. Even the distributor is specific to this engine.
"I took the T/A to the Pontiac Heaven Drags & More event in Phoenix in April 2003. About that same time, I found a 303 R/A-V short-deck cast-iron block on eBay and bought it with the hopes of putting a complete SCCA engine together for the T/A. I later found a large cache of R/A-V parts in the Monterey area of California and worked out a deal to buy it. There were blocks, heads, a rare 4.00-inch stroke 3.00-inch main Kellogg forged crankshaft, and an even rarer set of cast-iron exhaust manifolds for the First-Gen. Bird. Along with that there was a 303 single four-barrel intake and a one of about six 303-cid cross-ram 2-4 intake. Well, I finally had enough parts to try and build the 303 engine."

Since large ports (i.e. R/A-V heads) and small cubes (i.e 303 cid) do not make a good engine combo for the street, Tom decided upon a stroker motor combo and to reduce port volume to increase flow velocity. "I used a stock 3.56-inch stroke '57 Pontiac forged crank (4.180 bore x 3.56 stroke = 391 cid) and cut it down for the short-deck block. Henry Velasco (Velasco Crankshaft Service Downey, CA) cut the main journals to 2.500 inches and the rod journals to BBC size." Tom consulted with Nunzi Romano of Nunzi's Automotive in Brooklyn, New York, before deciding upon 5.974-inch long BME aluminum connecting rods. The pistons are JE reverse-dome forged aluminum units with Total Seal rings.

Comfort options in this T/A are limited to Custom Sports steering wheel (wood-appearing plastic wheel), remote mirror, and AM/FM stereo. Stewart Warner dials count revs and monitor engine vitals.
When Gene Ohley started to prep and machine the block, he found it had a bad cam tunnel, so it was bored out for a set of roller cam bearings and a tight lash solid roller cam from BOP Engineering (ground by Bullet Cams). After conferring with Nunzi, who was instrumental in determining the engine parameters, and Pontiac engine expert Tom Vaught, the specs were finalized: 231-/240-degrees duration at .050 and .513/.663 lift with 1.65:1 ratio roller rockers from Harland Sharp.

Up top, Juan Mendoza of Flow Tech in Garden Grove, California, performed the previously mentioned port work. Reducing port volume by using epoxy on the intakes resulted in flow numbers of 370 cfm at 28 inches. The valves measure 2.19/1.73 and are stainless steel. The chamber volume of 56 ccs combined with the bore size, piston design, and piston-to-deck height results in a 9.5:1 compression ratio.

Ken Crocie at H-O Enterprises (visit www.hoenterprises.com) worked through quite a few bugs before getting the engine together. The correct 780-cfm Holley carb, aluminum intake, and distributor (with a Pertronix system under the cap) were installed as were the R/A-V-specific exhaust manifolds. With the engine assembled and run in, and with little tuning and a lean 14:1 air/fuel ratio, it put out 463 hp at 6,600 rpm at the flywheel on the dyno.

Long gone are the factory 14-inch steel wheels and bias-ply tires. Universally cool 14x7-inch aluminum American Racing Torq-Thrust wheels and Goodyear P245/60-14 Eagles improve road manners. Yes, this T/A is a driver.
Unfortunately, Tom got caught up in the process of moving into a new home soon after the engine was completed. So with no place to perform the work, Ed Walker at Walker Automotive rose to the occasion to execute the engine installation. After this, a custom 2 1/2-inch H-pipe exhaust system leading to DynoMax performance mufflers was bolted up to the manifolds. Delivering torque to the wide-ratio M20 trans is a McLeod billet flywheel and a heavy-duty clutch and pressure plate. At the far end of the driveshaft is a 3.55 Safe-T-Track rear.

Flying in the face of fashion for most collectors, Tom actually enjoys driving this ultra-rare and valuable R/A-V-equipped T/A. To that end, a set of 14x7-inch aluminum American Racing Torq-Thrust wheels and Goodyear P245/60-14 Eagles complement the factory HD suspension featuring quick-ratio power steering and a 1.00-inch front stabilizer bar. Braking is handled by factory power front discs with drums out back.

As proof that good news travels fast, the Pontiac was barely on the road when word got to HPP about this special Trans Am. Tom expresses, "I only had the car on the road a week when I got a call from Tom [DeMauro] to do the article."

"I am happy to be able to have such a rare car, 1 of 697, and an even rarer engine to share with the Pontiac community," says Schlauch. Even the most jaded purists will surely crack a smile when they realize what a rare combination this actually is. And besides, that's the way Pontiac intended them to be built in the first place.

Editors Note: A more detailed analysis of the short-deck Ram Air-V engine in this T/A can be found in the engine buildup article elsewhere in this issue.


 


   
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