I first met Jim Mino at the Muscle Car & Corvette Nationals in Rosemont Illinois in 2016. Jim is a quiet, soft-spoken guy that you could easily pass by in this world of flashy people that demand attention. I really should have taken more time to talk with him, not realizing the decades of experience he has racing and loving first gen Ram Air Firebirds. I think his ’68 Cameo Ivory Firebird is a little like that too, easy to overlook – but that would really be your loss.
In fact, I made that mistake the first time I walked by this plain-looking Firebird at the MCACN show in November, when I excitedly was spending more time looking at all the unbelievable first gen Firebirds that were gathered for the 50th anniversary of the GM F-body display. I’m talking about the most significant and rare first gen Firebirds ever produced, all gathered in one place. The first Trans Am ever produced, the only red, white and blue ’69 Trans Am produced, Ram Air I, II & IV convertibles – cars I have known about but never seen in person – I mean, I was like a kid in a candy store! All the while this plain white, column-shift, bench seat Firebird with poverty hub-caps was just quietly sitting there, with just a little sign announcing its true historical significance. This is the very first Ram Air II Firebird ever produced.
Extremely rare, it is one of only 12 equipped with automatic transmission of the 110 Ram Air II Firebird’s built in 1968. PHS documented as the FIRST Ram Air II Firebird produced, and the only one invoiced on May 20, 1968, first day of production.
Special ordered by Weidner Pontiac in Mansfield, Ohio and campaigned by the dealership owner’s son, Pete Weidner Jr. in NHRA’s B/Stock Automatic class during the 1968 drag racing season. It was raced for only one season.
When I asked Jim if I could do a story about his car for our website, he told me; “A few years ago while searching through on-line ads, I found the Firebird in North Carolina where it had been stored for over seven years. It was advertised as a ’68 Firebird 400, formerly a drag racing car that needed restoration. A request for more information and pictures showed the car to be in good overall condition and a deal was made to purchase. A copy of the billing history was obtained from PHS and it verified the car was an original Ram Air II Firebird, a rare find indeed!”
Jim has raced Ram Air Firebirds for decades, in fact Pontiac author, Rocky Rotella included him and his Autumn Bronze ’68 RAII Firebird on pages 84 & 85 of his 2016 book: “The Definitive Firebird & Trans Am Guide 1967 to 1969”
By the way, if you don’t have this book, I highly recommend getting it, as it is the most complete book on first gen Firebirds ever written.
Jim continues: “Although the original 4 core radiator was still intact, as with most cars used for drag racing, the original engine and drivetrain were long gone. Fortunately, I had accumulated many spare parts from previous Ram Air Firebird projects including an original Ram Air induction system and correct 1968 dated engine components including a #9792506 Ram Air II service replacement cylinder block, #9794054 Armasteel crankshaft, #96 Ram Air II cylinder heads with round exhaust ports and swirl-polished tuliped valves and matching original cast-iron “long branch” #9794037-RH & #9794038-LH exhaust manifolds for a perfect engine swap.”
To complete the drivetrain, I obtained a correct ’68 PQ code Turbo Hydramatic transmission and from my spare parts collection a ’68 10-bolt “Saf-T-Track” limited-slip heavy-duty “N” (nodular iron) rear axle assembly with original GM 3.90 gears. A special effort was made to provide all “numbers and date code correct” parts and little-known items indigenous for a Ram Air Firebird, such as the 4-blade cooling fan and 2-piece speedometer cable. Other hard-to-find items like a rare Ram Air II #7028270 Quadrajet carburetor and #1111941 distributor were located along with an original hood tachometer. After sourcing out the remaining parts need for the restoration, I rebuilt the engine to factory specifications.”
“The standard bore cylinder block was precision honed and assembled with stock replacement TRW forged pistons, Sealed Power Moly piston rings, stock cast Armasteel connecting rods and the crankshaft was reconditioned and fitted with Clevite 77 rod and full-grooved main bearings. The cylinder heads were blueprinted with 3-angle valve seats, machined to provide 67cc combustion chambers and assembled with stock Ram Air II valve springs shimmed to factory specs. The heads were installed with NOS #9790910 .050″ thick head gaskets to provide an actual compression ratio of 10.0 to 1. A Melling stock replacement “068”camshaft (the correct application for Ram Air II with automatic transmission) was installed with NOS #5232265 hydraulic lifters and the balance of the valve train including 1.50:1 ratio rocker arms are all correct stock original components. An original oil pan with stock full length windage tray contain a Melling 60 psi oil pump and heavy-duty driveshaft to complete the engine assembly.”
“In mid-December 2011 the Firebird was delivered to Scott Tiemann’s Supercar Specialties shop in Portland, Michigan for a total frame-off rotisserie restoration, the car had only minimal rust confined to the rear wheel openings and lower extremities in the usual areas. The body was media blasted and repairs were capably handled as outstanding metalwork and incredible attention to detail are the forte of Tiemann’s crew. After the bodywork was completed the car was refinished with PPG Daltron 2-stage (base/clear coat) in original color Cameo Ivory paint.”
“The original bumpers were replated, window molding stainless trim polished to as-new condition and new trim and emblems (NOS and reproduction) installed along with all new date-coded glass to complete the exterior. The frame was impeccably restored and the suspension completely rebuilt with new fuel & brake lines, brake system, gas tank, front & rear springs, shocks, ball joints, bushings, etc. and a concours quality stock replacement exhaust system from Garner Exhaust.”
“The original seats, door panels and dash pad still in excellent condition were carefully cleaned and detailed. New headliner, carpet, package shelf and all seals and new interior trim installed. The dash, steering column, shift linkage, heater and original seat belts were restored to as-new condition to finish the interior. The restoration took approximately 23 months to complete and the car was delivered back to Pennsylvania in late November 2013 in stunning concours quality condition and correct in every detail. This car is certainly one of the best examples of this ultra-rare muscle car and a genuine piece of Pontiac history!”
A History of the Ram Air II Firebirds
On May 16, 1968. the sales promotion manager at Pontiac Motor Division issued a memo proclaiming, “To meet the demand for maximum performance, Pontiac Engineering has developed an all new Ram Air Engine Option. It is designated Ram Air II and replaces the original Ram Air Option. The Ram Air II Option is designed to provide the ultimate in action packed performance”.
Originally developed to be released in 1969, the RAII’s primary purpose was to give Pontiac a competitive entry in NHRA drag race competition. Always a formidable competitor, a Ram Air II Firebird held the NHRA National Record in the heavily contested B/Stock class for three years in a row in the mid 1970’s and won the overall Stock Eliminator crown at the NHRA U.S. Nationals in 1977! Still competitive today, a 1968 Ram Air II Firebird C/Stock automatic was the number one qualifier for Stock Eliminator at the 2014 NHRA Winternationals!
The most important feature of the Ram Air II engine were new cylinder heads that Pontiac claimed were “re-designed to effect maximum engine breathing”. They have 36% larger exhaust ports re-shaped to a round configuration and revised combustion chambers with a spherical undercut to provide a relief around the valves. Other new features include a stronger “Armasteel” crankshaft, a specific harmonic balancer, lighter forged aluminum pistons, longer duration high-lift camshaft (w/ manual transmission), stronger pushrods, dual (inner & outer) high-rate valve springs and lighter “tulip head” swirl-polished intake & exhaust valves. The cast-iron Intake manifold, intake ports and valve size (2.11″ intake & 1.77″ exhaust) remained the same as previous L67 engines and cast-iron streamlined “long branch” exhaust manifolds were re-configured to accommodate the round exhaust ports.
Horsepower rating for the Ram Air II engine in the Firebird was listed as 340 HP at 5300 RPM although the identical engine in the heavier GTO was rated at 366 HP at 5400 RPM. Both engines were purposely under-rated, supposedly for insurance purposes to maintain a horsepower to weight ratio of 10 to 1. As was the practice on previous Ram Air equipped models, the cars were shipped from the factory with closed non-functional hood scoops and a standard 4-BBL air cleaner installed. The Ram Air Induction components were packaged in the trunk for dealer installation after delivery.
A total of 110 Ram Air II Firebirds were produced in 1968, of which 98 were 4 speeds and 12 equipped with automatic transmission. All were delivered with a heavy-duty nodular iron 3.90 to 1 ratio rear axle. This is the very first Ram Air II Firebird produced on May 20, 1968 – and the reason why this Firebird should never be overlooked.
(Story by Jim Mino, Ken Pitcher and Rocky Rotella. Photos courtesy Thomas A. DeMauro, Jim Mino, Rocky Rotella, Pete Weidner, Ken Pitcher & Dave Sullivan.)
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