A Ferrari Engine in a Pontiac Firebird Makes The Ferraribird

Back in 1971, the year Apollo 15 astronaut David Scott became the first man to drive on the moon and the first Starbucks coffee shop opened in Seattle, the 4.4-liter, 352-hp V-12 in Ferrari’s rakish, thrusting, 174-mph Daytona coupe was one of the most exotic and expensive engines in the world. So naturally you’d want to stuff one under the hood of a Pontiac Firebird. Ummm, well, OK. In 1971, Spiro Agnew was the vice president of the United States and Keith Richards stayed conscious long enough to record “Exile on Main Street.” Some things cannot be rationally explained. But the Ferraribird exists. It’s real. And we’ve driven it.

rdks-150044-ferr-13-hr

Bill Mitchell had the best job in the world. As head of General Motors Design from 1958 to 1977, he led a team that created some of the best-looking American cars ever built, including the split-window Corvette Sting Ray and the ’63 Buick Riviera, as well as the first Olds Toronado and the original Chevy Camaro, to name a few.

But that didn’t mean sitting shuffling paper and holding meetings in his lush office at GM’s Tech Center. To keep the creative juices of his stylists flowing, Mitchell traveled the world’s auto show circuit, bringing home souvenirs such as Ferrari Daytonas, Lamborghini Miuras, and Maserati Ghiblis to serve as inspiration. He also had GM production cars customized to try new styling tweaks or powertrain combinations, and then personally drove those million-dollar babies to and from work to evaluate them.

When Mitchell died in 1988, we hope he didn’t find heaven a disappointment.
Some of his GM-built customs are pretty well-known—the Corvette-based Mako Shark and Manta Ray, his Corvair-derived Monzas, and the three Riviera Silver Arrows—but the Pontiac Pegasus (as the Ferraribird was officially called) was never publicly shown to the media. Yet it was such a favorite of Mitchell’s that when he retired it was the one he chose to take with him after negotiating a deal to will the car back to GM upon his death.

rdks-150044-ferr-11-hr

At first glance, the Pontiac Pegasus just looks like a long-nosed ’70 Firebird filled to brimming with Ferrari V-12 drivetrain hardware and gauges, finished in a gallon of candy-apple red paint and two gallons of gold-tone pinstriping. And chrome. Look past the lowrider decor, however, and you’ll see styling details that appeared in later GM production cars.

Although a Pontiac, Pegasus actually had its genesis in the Chevy studio, where stylist Jerry Palmer was working on ideas for a refresh of the Camaro. One caught the eye of his boss: “I did a 4-by-2-foot sketch early on with a [1958 Ferrari 250] Testarossa front end on it,” Palmer recalls. “Then Bill Mitchell broke my heart and took it down to Pontiac.”

The Pontiac studio further developed the design, adding the marque’s signature center divider bar to the grille. Palmer’s simple round headlight rings were modified to jut out at the bottom like those that would appear on the ’74 Firebird and Camaro. The wraparound rear glass previewed an F-car restyling for 1975, though the production cars lacked Pegasus’ subtle boat-tail contouring of the decklid below. The pinched-profile tail end treatment was adapted to Pontiac’s 1973 LeMans/Grand Am A-bodies.

rdks-150044-ferr-05-hr

But why a Ferrari engine? Former design veep Chuck Jordan, who died in 2010, recalled Mitchell wanting to show the engineers at Pontiac—a division that had dabbled in overhead cams before—what a high-revving, low-torque Trans Am would feel like. Or maybe it simply seemed like the obvious thing to do in a car wearing Palmer’s Testarossa face. GM Design staffer Dick Henderson remembers Enzo Ferrari offering to contribute a 365 GTB/4 (aka Daytona) V-12 engine to the project, which surely sealed the deal.

Details of the original installation are sketchy. Henderson recalls GM’s in-house mechanical assembly folks mating the engine to a GM Turbo-Hydramatic, only to find the three-speed was ill-suited to such a highly strung engine. A Ferrari five-speed, likely from a 365 GTC/4, was eventually installed instead. Other accounts suggest U.S. Ferrari importer Luigi Chinetti’s North American Racing Team had a hand in installing or setting up the 4.4-liter competition motor with high-overlap cams and big-bore Weber carbs. Finally, Pontiac engineers reportedly sorted the car, installing Corvette four-piston rear brakes and making other modifications.

rdks-150044-ferr-16-hr

Fast-forward 45 years: Opening the forward-hinged hood reveals a clean, uncluttered engine bay framing the gorgeous red-headed four-cam Ferrari V-12.

With the air cleaner mounted to the hood, there is an unobstructed view of 12 gleaming velocity stacks. The front two are shortened for hood clearance, which compromises the breathing balance somewhat. Similarly, snaking the 12 exhaust header pipes past various chassis obstacles means the runners are no longer of equal length, so exhaust-pulse timing is not as Enzo’s boys originally intended, though Ferrari mufflers and Anza tailpipes ensure the exhaust note is precisely to spec.

At first glance the engine appears to fit remarkably well, considering the wheelbase has not been stretched. Then you notice the firewall has been moved 9 inches rearward, elbowing out the air-conditioning system that might otherwise have helped fight the heat radiating off the exhaust system. Bill probably didn’t rack up many miles in Pegasus during July and August.

rdks-150044-ferr-02-hr

rdks-150044-ferr-01-hr

Interior space appears uncompromised, though little of the original Firebird trim remains. The leather-covered dash is modified to accept the Ferrari-spec Veglia Borletti gauges. A new wood-trimmed center console houses the Ferrari shifter (without the iconic clanging chromed shiftgate), and the handbrake is moved down to the side of the tunnel. Custom leather bucket seats—sans headrests—are sewn to look like those used in Ferraris and Maseratis. A Ferrari fuel iller is mounted to the rear deck, which doesn’t open. A spare gold-chromed Borani wheel and tire reside in view beneath the rear glass, relegating any luggage to the rear seat area.

But Mitchell never planned to go touring in Pegasus. He preferred to spend time in quieter, more comfortable transportation and to use cars like this to make a splash at events, especially at racetracks. He’d set up a show car corral in the paddock and drive a few demonstration laps but never race. Leaving the track at Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, one rainy afternoon, he clipped a bridge support while wiping a fogged-up windshield. Mitchell used the occasion to restyle the nose without the divider in the grille.

rdks-150044-ferr-09-hr

Slipping behind the wheel of this mongrel beast is a surreal event. The seats and dash look and feel Italian, but the heavy doors, brittle switchgear, and ultra-light power steering scream Yankee Doodle. The fenders bulge upward like those of a vintage racer. The engine fires instantly, and the clutch takes up smoothly near the top of the pedal travel. Without proper plates and insurance, we dare not probe much of the 200-mph speedometer, but thanks to a 4.10:1 axle ratio, we get ample use of the shifter and clutch at reasonable speeds. At 3,834 pounds, Pegasus accelerates like a Daytona with an extra passenger aboard, and the short gearing causes the tires to scratch at modest throttle openings even in third gear. Not surprisingly, it handles like a leaf-sprung live-axle Trans Am with a linebacker onboard. But the best part is the sound, which will ring familiar to anyone who’s watched the short film “Rendezvous” with the volume cranked up.

rdks-150044-ferr2-004-hr

IT’S GOOD TO BE THE KING
“Fitz, buy me a Ferrari!”
Did Bill Mitchell own any Ferraris? “He knew that he ought to learn more about them,” said Chuck Jordan, GM’s design chief from 1986 to 1992 who owned seven of Maranello’s finest, including an F40. “So he told [Warren Fitzgerald, his administrative assistant], ‘Fitz, buy me a Ferrari!’ And Fitz bought him one of those big, old Ferraris … not a really romantic one. And he didn’t like it. Those old Ferraris were hard to steer at low speeds and not what he was used to. He said it was ‘trucky.’ So he said, ‘Fitz, sell the thing.’ That was before the Pegasus. No, he didn’t have the passion for Ferraris.” Gary Witzenberg

Forget all the PR fluff: Pontiac engineers may have played around with overhead cam engines, but it’s highly unlikely they would have ever seriously considered dumping their powerful, torquey, durable, and cheap-to-build overhead valve V-8s. Nope. Bill Mitchell, who wasn’t even a great Ferrari fan, stuck a Daytona V-12 into a Firebird for one reason: Because he could.

STYLE COUNSEL
In an era when GM execs wore sober three-piece suits, Bill Mitchell’s dress sense was—er—eye-catching. He made sure the engineers and bean counters knew he was the crazy creative guy and left him alone.

SAY WHAT?!
At his peak he was one of the world’s greatest car designers; many of the GM cars under his direction projected a sophisticated style that made them look more expensive than they were. But Bill Mitchell the man was a profane, bigoted womanizer who often drank to excess. At GM’s German subsidiary Opel they still talk about his being banned by a major Frankfurt hotel for his activities with three female “friends.”

Mitchell told it like it was—or at least how he saw it, which meant the same thing if you worked at GM Design during his 19-year reign. And even after he’d retired, the opinions came free and fast. Politically correct? Nope. Not in the least. Take it away, Bill…

On downsizing: “Styling a small car is like tailoring a dwarf. It’s hard to make it look right.”

On a black C4 Corvette interior: “Dracula’s dressing room!”

On the ’80s aero design fad: “Where the hell are you going to run at 155 mph?”

On John Z. DeLorean: “I didn’t like him. I didn’t like his aloof egotism.”

On the C4’s rock-hard suspension: “Well, it’s all right at Indianapolis, but you can’t take a lady for a ride.”

On learning GM had approved the ’63 Corvette Sting Ray and Buick Riviera for production: “God, I could have got drunk for a week!”

Ferraribird_SB.EPS

“OF COURSE IT’LL FIT IN THE WAGONEER.”

MEET THE JERRARI V-12
Bill Mitchell wasn’t the only one to think of this kind of swap. Casino magnate Bill Harrah had a 1977 Jeep Wagoneer fitted with a Ferrari V-12 for making the 60-mile winter commute from Reno to Lake Tahoe. The Jerrari idea was also applied to a 1969 Wagoneer, with a 265 nose grafted on. This car showed up on eBay in May 2008 with a retrofitted Chevy 350 V-8, and bidding topped $21,000. The 1977 Wagoneer is on display at the National Auto Museum in Reno, Nevada.

rdks-150044-ferr-08-hr

Mongrel Machine
What does the Pegasus drive like? Like a Ferrari Daytona with a leaf-sprung rear axle and a linebacker in the passenger seat, that’s what.

Something to Say?

2 thoughts on “A Ferrari Engine in a Pontiac Firebird Makes The Ferraribird

Roadkill Fall 2016 Cover