10 years ago today I purchased my Trans Am. I was the ripe old age of 16 and didn't even have a license yet due to state laws requiring 16yrs + 6mo to get your full license. The deal with my parents at the time was I could buy anything I wanted as my first car as long as I could independently afford to buy, fix, gas, register, etc. it, a tall order on a high school teenager's lifeguard salary. Clearly the best course of action was to follow my childhood dream and buy a 2nd gen Trans Am like was on Smokey and the Bandit. So that's what I did.
When I determined I had enough cash to buy a car, I printed out every craigslist ad for 2nd gen F-bodies within a 250mi radius of where I lived. Sorted them by cost vs benefit and went calling around negotiating until I found something that would work. Here's the photo of my car from from the sales ad:
Ended up working out a deal with a redneck woman named Missy who lived in transitional housing in a bad part of New Albany, Indiana to buy her running and driving 1981 Trans Am for $2500. She was selling it because it used too much gas and wanted to "upgrade" to an early 90s V6 Camaro. Being in school at the time, my dad went down to do a test drive and bring it back if it met his standards.
The car was powered by a 1978 Chevy 350 and a th350 3-spd automatic, it sounded awesome with rusted out Flowmaster 40 series mufflers running through true dual pipes.
The interior was a shit show of 4th gen F-body bucket seats, a severely broken steering column, a center console with blown out speakers cut into it and some sort of GM window switch from the 90s, an absurdly cracked dash, tattered base model camaro door panels, an Autozone special Grant GT steering wheel. One door was electric window the other had a crank window. The body was painted purple in Missy's back yard by her boyfriend "Bubba" (that's what she called him, no joke) and friend Don, a shitty paint job with mosquito bodies under the clear coat and a very clear evidence of body filler throughout. The shaker was glued to the hood since the original engine was long gone.
Of course the moment we got it off the trailer the car broke and wouldn't run so I couldn't drive it. The broken steering column above had some sort of internal fault and the key wouldn't turn and you could move the thing in all directions like an airplane yoke. Not a bad start when this is the your first day of ownership:
First order of business after purchase was getting it in good enough shape to be my daily driver. I had to make it to the school and back every day which meant it needed to be reliable, I lived in the midwest which means the heater needed to work (it never really did though), and I was a teenage boy so I had to make it in my mind appealing to girls of course. I made a parts run to a massive 2nd gen F-body dismantler I found on craigslist and he cut me some great deals since who doesn't have a heart for a 16 year old into muscle cars?
Out came the 4th gen buckets and in went some base model black vinyl seats out of a late 2nd gen, the towels are there to protect my legs in the hot sun. Note the black and gold stripe velour rear seats, a 1981 only interior option that is so rare that they don't reproduce the fabric today. Also out came the dash for HVAC repairs. A new (used) steering wheel out of a tan late firebird went in as well, it was cheap and looked way better than the Grant GT garbage Missy installed. That wheel is still in the car today but spray painted black. I also threw a dash cap on to cover the cracks, for the $100 that cost it's held up well. The center console was replaced with one from a different car and the window switch changed to a factory piece. The guy also sold me a new steering column that wasn't messed up so I could actually get the car running. While everything was out new carpet was installed too since it was relatively cheap and didn't smell like Missy's Marlboros.
Over time I learned more and more about the car and F-bodies in general. Turns out I had accidentally purchased a relatively rare version of Trans Am. My car was originally a black and gold painted Special Edition that had a turbo 301 motor, they only made 2500 or so of these cars. Learning that made me happy since I had accidentally bought essentially the 1981 version of the smokey and the bandit car. The summer going into my senior year I decided to take on a restoration/improvement project and it's safe to say that snowballed a bit...
I ripped the 350/350 combo out of the car and bought a dirt cheap Pontiac 400 motor from a '76 LeMans and 700r4 4-speed automatic out of a 90s Caprice. Also note the change to black deluxe velour seats, I got tired of burning my thighs on the vinyl. Being an absolute dumbass I installed what I was told were matching 6x heads that had had some machine work done and this was the biggest mistake I have ever made with the car. The heads were not matching, one was a 6x-4 and another was a 6x-8 which had different compression ratios. They were also machined wrong and the geometry was screwed up causing an incredible vacuum leak. Parts are/were so expensive for Pontiac motors that I coudln't afford to properly fix or replace the bad parts.
Got that package installed and running in a few months. I learned so much in that process but didn't realize at the time how much I had yet to learn. Mistakes I made building that motor haunted the car for 7 years until I did my LS swap last year. Hard starts, poor idle, overheating issues, etc. were the norm.
I then began body work since having a purple Trans Am isn't cool when you could be rolling around in a black and gold stickered out car. There was so much rust, hail damage, crash damage, 70s GM panel messups, etc. I think being so poor I had to learn to do bodywork myself is one of the best things that has ever happened to me. The skills I learned doing all the sanding, welding, sanding, bondoing, sanding, panel fitting, sanding, priming, and sanding have been incredibly useful in my life since for both automotive and non automotive work.
My entry application to engineering college was entirely based around how working on the car drove me to want to be an engineer because the problem solving and figuring out why things on the car were designed the way they were and how they worked was basically who I had become as a person. Here's a montage of 6 months of work.
Then in typical Motortrend Channel fashion, I got the car back from the paint booth and completely reassembled in one night so I could drive it to my high school car club's autoshow the next morning.
I got the decals installed just before college began and then the car effectively sat unused for four years of engineering school, only getting started every few months when I went home.
Talking about my adventures with the car along with all the cool stuff I did in college landed me an automotive engineering job with an automotive engineering salary after I graduated. As far as the car was concerned that's the best thing that has happened to it. The car got driven a ton more and even went to a car show for the first time since senior year of high school. Oh yeah I put on e46 M3 CSL reps at some point because the original snowflakes were getting ratty and had 12 year old tires, I've since outgrown them and want to go back to some wide snowflakes soon.
I blew up the 700r4 on the way home from work one day and had to make my usually 30 minute commute with only 1st and 2nd gear. Luckily, my new at the time friend @K-Roll-PorscheTamer allowed me to sucker him into doing a manual swap in his driveway. Took a couple days but after that the car had its shitty Pontiac 400 backed up by a super T-10 4-speed.
After a while longer I got tired of the Pontiac 400s issues and during the worst of Covid I temporarily moved back to my hometown and did an LS swap, all documented on the hyphen. Still has the ST-10 4-speed.
9 years after that first paragraph up above and I decided the best way to get ready for my wedding was a suspension rebuild. So last year the car finally had its original suspension and steering parts replaced after 150k+ miles of service.
So here we are today, a full decade later into a project car that unintentionally has steered me down my current life path from college degree choice into my full time adult career and has given me endless practical skills and taught me more about problem solving than any textbook could. After a decade of storage in less than ideal conditions, my willingness to treat the car as a daily and not a garage queen, and an ever present mindset of "just keep the dang thing running and driving" things are starting to need attention. The paint is starting to bubble in places, there are plenty of scratches, the panel gaps have gotten worse, the interior made of all second-hand parts is getting ratty, and I've never even thought to open the rear diff to do a fluid change... I have a feeling this project will never be done and will continue to evolve, just like me.