Gregg Hamilton Has Built Not One But Two of the Coolest Firebirds You'll Ever See

By: Todd Veney | 07/16/2019 < Back to Motor Life Home

Gregg Hamilton's insane all-wheel-drive '71 Firebird is the perfect blend of power and control, with a 600-horsepower V8 engine and a brutishly strong yet intricate one-of-a-kind suspension he designed and built himself. Inspired by Ken Block's radical AWD twin-turbo "Hoonicorn" '65 Mustang, Hamilton's beast of a car is a complete departure from his other Pontiac powerhouse, a beautiful late '70s Trans Am that evokes the famous machine Burt Reynolds drove cross-country in the 1977 film "Smokey and the Bandit." Dubbed "Fire Chicken," it's black, beautiful, and everything the AWD '71 is not. 

"You just don't see many Trans Ams in New Zealand," said Hamilton (@skippyzgarage), a native of New Zealand who's lived in Las Vegas for 15 years. "When I came over, I knew I had to have one." Believe it or not, the '71 AWD Firebird came straight off a Craigslist ad from Sandy Valley, Nev., just south of Vegas, where it had been languishing in a field for a decade, baking in the desert sun. "It was slowly returning to the earth," he said. "It looked like it had been in a flood or something, like a river had run through it. There was mud and rat crap in it and the whole thing just smelled terrible."

The awe-inspiring machine, which Hamilton calls "Formula 400 R" – it even has a faux badge with that name – isn't a no-expenses-spared ground-up build. It's an exercise in automotive artistry with an as-is patina, and many of the components came out of a junkyard, including the heart of it all, a 5.3 LS truck engine he dragged out of a scrapped Tahoe. It's got a new crankshaft, cylinder heads, and connecting rods and is crowned by a 6:71 Weiand supercharger and Enderle injector that protrudes from the hood. "I wanted it to look like it came out of an old Funny Car or dragster," he said, and it absolutely does.

Everything is completely controlled by a Holley Dominator EFI system. "I got a good base map right away, and the whole thing has just been great," said Hamilton, who tunes the car himself. "It just works." Using a mechanical Enderle fuel injector, he machined his own fuel block for the back of the hat, drilled out the hat, and installed Holley injectors. The engine is fed by two brushless Holley fuel pumps, the hand-built wiring system is based on a Holley harness, and even the Spartan, all-business interior has Holley technology – a Holley EFI Digital Dash, which Hamilton relies on to stay abreast of all the vitals in real time.

Hamilton, the lead mechanic for Block's world-famous Hoonigan crew, did some of his finest work under the car. A hand-built rocker-arm suspension and custom shocks just for this application are tied into the frame, which includes a 10-point roll cage. There's a Nissan Q45 rear differential in the front, a Nissan R32 center diff, and a 300ZX rear diff, custom coil-over shocks, and front and rear subframes from a 2008 Corvette. It also has a giant transmission tunnel, and it all looks as if it was built that way 48 years ago at the Pontiac assembly plant in Van Nuys, Calif.

The whole thing just begs for comparison to Hamilton's late '70s "Smokey and the Bandit"-style Trans Am, a Pro Touring take on what a '70s Trans Am should look like, with the same iconic black and gold colors and graphics as the ones the movie made famous. It looks like a 1977-78 Trans Am but is actually a '79 with the earlier-style grille. Hamilton replaced the punchless 403 cubic-inch Olds V8 it had with a 5.3 LS engine and gave the Gen III small-block power that made it a whole new car, one with more get-up-and-go than a C6, and he should know – he has one of those, too. It has a mid-rise Holley intake manifold, Sniper EFI throttle body, ACCEL ceramic spark plug wires, twin 68mm Garrett turbochargers with a custom intercooler, forged pistons and rods, a special LS9 camshaft, and a cool set of sidepipes he whipped up. A ZF 6-speed transmission from a Corvette transfers all the power and torque to a 4.56:1 ring and pinion.

As one of the acknowledged mechanical masters of rally, known the world over, Hamilton knows the importance of braking, and he has C6 Corvette Z06 brakes on all four corners. To make the bigger wheels and wide rubber work, he added custom flares of his own construction and a rear spoiler that really sets the whole look for the car. It's hard to say which one he likes best. "They're two completely different cars," he said, "and I like them for completely different reasons."

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