Thursday, May 15, 2014

An ode to my 4-cylinder Iron Duke Pontiac Firebird

It's a little known fact that just after Pontiac retired the screaming chicken in 1982, they replaced it with the only upgrade they could: a 4 cylinder engine ripped straight out of the Chevrolet Citation. Yep, for the introduction to the third-gen F-body, Pontiac's base model "muscle car" now came with an engine designed for maximum fuel economy rather than power. I owned one of these. I loved it. It was my first car.

The motor was an "Iron Duke", a 2.5 liter lawnmower engine that was really a 301 V-8 chopped in half. It developed 90 horsepower.

But I'm here to tell you that that thing was fun. Don't let anyone tell you different. Mine was a 5 speed stick (it was actually a late-year '84, so after they'd added the extra gear), and I am being completely serious when I say that in the first two gears, that thing would press you back in your seat. It had a beast of a clutch - I remember stalling out 12 times in a row the first time I tried to get over the 2 degree hill out of the parking lot at my job at K-Mart. But once I got used to it, I was able to throw that car around like it was the business end of a whip. It was a very different experience than a V8 Trans Am, but just as much fun.

It felt light and sporty - think more Mini Cooper than modern-day Camaro (its closest current brethren). One of my most vivid memories with it is going airborne (by mistake) somewhere on I-80 between Chicago and New York at about 3AM one night. I nearly bought it that night, as just beyond my landing point was a sharp turn to the right. I barely made it, fishtailing a bit just inches away from the median as I let the car coast to a safer speed, but the lightness of the car let the handling kick in when I needed it.

The car fit me perfectly. To this day - nearly 30 years later - I still measure every car I test against the comfort and ergonomics of my '84 Firebird. The seating, pedal, and shifter positions were all just right for my 6'4" frame, and I can't say that about many other cars I've ever tried, of any size or type. My hand naturally rested on the stick; my feet naturally rested on the pedals. Visibility was great. It was the least tiring, most relaxing, most comfortable car I've ever driven. And I'm not just saying that through rose colored glasses - I thought so at the time too. Why do you think I bought it??

I don't have any interior shots, but a quick Google image search should point you in the right direction.

I did have one pretty major mishap, rear-ending a poor elderly fellow in his (wait for it!) Chevrolet Citation while attempting to race one of my friends in his 4 cylinder Mustang. Kind of a hilarious thing all around when you think about it. I hit the guy from behind going about 30mph but surprisingly, he had no damage at all. The Firebird's front bumper was long and soft, though my car did end up with a spiderweb of paint cracks, as well as pop-up headlights that would no longer pop up because the bumper had been pushed back into them. I ended up shaving the plastic down so the lights would clear it again.

Sadly, my car had one of those problems no mechanic can figure out until you've sunk all your money into it. It made a ringing sound going over bumps - after $500 spent on a new suspension to cure its "bottoming out" problem, the noise was finally identified as metal shavings in the differential. (Remember when hatchbacks had differentials??) With no more money to fix anything else, I had no choice but to sell the car. I don't even remember what I got for it. I was too broken up about it to care. There was nothing else I could do.

Sometime next month, my new Mini Cooper should arrive. It probably would surprise most people if I told them I expect it to be the most like my Firebird of any car I've owned since. That'd be one of the highest compliments I could pay it. (Update: nope!)

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About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.


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