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This Wild 1000HP Home-Built Trans Am Will Soon Be Coming To A Toy Store Near You

Author: Bradley Iger | Photographer: Larry Chen | 01/08/2021 < Back to Motor Life Home

For Folsom, California native Riley Stair, the fascination with all things V8 started long before he could even reach the pedals. “Probably the earliest memory I have is riding shotgun in my dad’s Chevy LUV when I was about five or six,” he tells us. “He had a 327 in it, and I remember doing a burnout down the street in front of the house right after he finished putting the motor in it. Mom wasn’t super stoked on that one!”


By the time he was 14, he was already taking on projects of his own. “My first vehicle was a ’72 Chevy C10,” he says. “That was sort of a basic restoration project and it’s got a carbureted 434-cube Dart small-block in it, so it wasn’t really an ideal daily driver growing up. That led me to do a little stint with BMWs, and I ended up putting V8s in all of them. Those engine swaps kind of started the fabrication aspect of it.”


And as his skills and experience increased, Riley continued to challenge himself with more and more ambitious projects. “Around 2013 I got a Datsun 260Z and dropped an LS into that one. I didn’t use any swap kits or anything like that – I built the engine mounts, trans mounts, and fabricated my first roll cage in that car, learning a lot along the way. And that just kind of progressed into this no-holds-barred Trans Am build.”

The project originally got underway back in 2016 after about eight months of scouring on Craigslist. “I had something specific in mind, and I was struggling to find one that was rust-free,” he says. “And as I was hunting for one, they seemed to be getting more and more expensive right in front of my eyes. I found this one up in Chico, California and decided to go check it out. Once I got there I discovered that the car was definitely rusty, but it had big-block in it, which was odd for a ’70 Firebird Esprit. Either way, I knew that it was close enough to what I wanted that I could do something with it, and the price was right. And right around the same time, I found a guy in my area that had a wrecked ’70 Trans Am that I could use as a parts car, so I figured I could combine the two and make one car.”


Considering the ambitious scope of the build, you get the sense that the condition of the Esprit was actually just a relatively minor obstacle in the overall journey. “I wanted it to be overwhelmingly visceral and really just embody everything that I am into. I wanted the engine to be a certain way, I wanted the way it sits to be a certain way, and I wanted how I sit in it to be a certain way. I wanted to create something that isn’t just a car, it’s an experience.”


From a conceptual standpoint, Riley nailed down some important guidelines early on. “I knew it was going to be a road race-oriented car,” he says. “So there were some key features I wanted to put in – independent rear suspension, I wanted to build my own IFS up front, I wanted to put push the motor back in the car, and I felt like the proportions of the car are kind of funky without flares on it because the nose is so long. So widening the track would serve a performance function while also fixing the proportions of the car for me. And considering the fact that I knew I wanted a cage in it, I kind of realized pretty quickly that a tube chassis was really only way to achieve my goals.”



More than anything else, the idea was to challenge himself with the build. “I wanted to do every aspect of the build that I possibly could – that was the plan from the beginning, to test myself and my skills, and learn as much as I could from it. I wanted to see if building an entire car essentially from scratch was something I was capable of doing.”


The result is a bonafide masterpiece of machinery. The chassis itself is a TIG-welded one-off space frame that he put together to meet the various requirements he had for the car, while the bespoke suspension system was another massive undertaking on its own. “I got the basic structure of the chassis built and from there I had decided on the set of wheels I wanted for the car,” Riley says. “And that allowed me to visualize the ride height that I wanted. Once I knew what I wanted that to be, I sort of worked my way inward from there, doing the math and geometry to make sure that the suspension was going to function correctly at that height.”


It’s important to note that accomplishing that isn’t simply a matter of slamming the car on some coil-overs and calling it done. “I needed make sure the roll center front and rear was within an acceptable range, and also that the roll couple between the two was acceptable, along with anti-dive and anti-squat. All the due diligence was done because I wanted this car to handle well, and that was probably the longest part of the entire build. The system isn’t based off of anything that previously existed. At the time I started on this project, I had no experience designing this stuff, but I read a couple of books on suspension design and discovered that in the days before CAD, suspension systems were designed with string. So that’s what I did – I had string all over my side yard to find the roll center, anti-squat, and all that stuff. It looked like one of those pin boards in a detective movie.”


The engine is another stunning aspect of the project. Built by Motor Machine Super Shop and hooked up to a NASCAR-style four speed manual gearbox, it’s a methanol-fed, naturally aspirated 400 cubic-inch Dart LSNext 2 mill with 16:1 compression that’s derived from an Australian Pro Stock motor and revs to over 10,000 RPM.


“It was one of those things where, if I was going to spend the money to build my ideal car, I knew the engine would be such a large part of that,” he says. “So it needed to be naturally aspirated, high compression and super high-revving. That’s what gets me going.” Outfitted with a billet Callies crank, GRP rods, custom JE pistons, a custom ground camshaft from Cam Motion, Jesel valvetrain components, a Dart intake, and Dart’s 368cc 10-degree canted cylinder heads, the high-winding mill makes roughly 1000 horsepower at the crank without the aid of any power adders.


After some deliberation about how he could keep such gnarly power plant happy, Riley decided to turn to Holley for Dominator EFI system. “I had to figure out how to run this thing – this isn’t a stock ECU deal,” he says with a laugh. “And we knew the Dominator could do basically everything. One of the things I really like about this system is the amount of memory in it. I can data log a twenty-minute session and have plenty of memory to spare. It’s been great.”


The build took Riley roughly 18 months to complete and originally debuted at SEMA back in 2018 shortly thereafter, but the Trans Am also recently re-entered the limelight thanks to the Hot Wheels Legends Tour. “I actually wasn’t aware of the Legends competition until the folks at Race Service in Los Angeles hit me up about it and suggested I submit my car,” Riley says. “I figured what the heck and decided to go for it. They had some very specific criteria that they wanted to know in the submission, and from there it was a couple of rounds of judging to get to the finals.”



The judges eventually pinned the blue ribbon on the Trans Am, and that means we’ll be seeing a 1:64 scale die-cast version of it in retail stores in the near future. “It’s such a cool honor. I don’t think there’s a car guy or gal out there that didn’t play with Hot Wheels as a kid, so for my car to become one of the toys that could inspire someone out there is just a dream come true.”


In the meantime, Riley says that there’s still some more work to be done in order to extract all of the Pontiac’s performance potential. “The car is constantly progressing – I never stopped working on it. I’ve taken it to the track a couple of times, and right now I’m just focusing on developing it and getting some speed out of it. When you build a car from scratch on the side of your house, there’s going to be some things that work really well and other things that don’t work quite as well, and the only way to really sort that stuff out is to beat on it and test it. I refuse to be one of those people that says, ‘I built it and it works – it’s perfect.’ I want to find out what I can do better so I can continue to learn.”

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