photos by: Scott Schwartz / Video: Sam McConnell
A ’78 Trans Am Restarts a Specialty Car Program that Finds its Origins in the ’70s
Sheriff Buford T. Justice would have loved to get ahold of Jim Haller’s tuned Trans Am back in the day, and he wouldn’t have had a chance of catching this Fire Am! When we caught up with Jim Haller at the Trans Am Nationals in Dayton, Ohio over the summer, we got to learn the history of this killer T/A. This build was a collaboration of Jim Haller and Herb Adam’s son, Matt Adams.
Herb Adams is often known as the Godfather of the Pontiac Trans Am. He put his engineering skills to good use with his own company called Very Special Engineering, or VSE. Herb developed his own unique line of parts for his customers to create their own versions of what he dubbed the Fire Am. These parts were made to customize the appearance and performance of your Firebird Formula or Trans Am. All of these parts are now available through National Parts Depot (NPD). Adams even created other parts for his own version of the Chevy Camaro, known as the Cheverra.
Jim and Matt grew up together as kids, and their dads collaborated on the build of the first Fire Am. In addition to Matt baring the famous Adams last name, Jim’s dad, Don Heller, was actually a racer with VSE. Growing up around this kind of inspiration from the entrepreneurs put Jim and Mike on the path to becoming hardcore gearheads, they really had no chance of avoiding the car bug. The kids were aw-struck by the cars their whole lives, and once they got older, they decided it was time to build one themselves.The car started as a tribute to Herb Adams and his 1976 Fire Am that was on the cover of Motor Trend in May of 1978.
Jim, the owner, has always been into the muscle cars and classic builds. He’s had a 1969 Chevelle with a 427ci engine, 1967 RS Camaro with an LS1 powertrain, and a 1949 Chevy pickup with an LS 5.3L. Acquiring the 1978 Pontiac Trans Am about 2 years ago, Jim and Matt were determined to build a car that anyone could build on a modest budget, but would still be able to perform well at the track.
They also wanted it to distinctly jump out as a Fire Am build, hence the Fire Am graphics throughout. Many people aren’t familiar with the look, but it’s essentially the alternative to the black and gold Bandit Trans Am appearance. The two different cars might not be twins, but they are brothers, if not close cousins. In fact, the same person who did all the graphics on the black and gold Trans Am John Schinella, Head Chief of Design for Trans Am, designed the graphics for the Fire Am as well, so you might note a vaguely familiar look, with a bit of 70s/80s flair.
While they did use many of the parts from the VSE line, they didn’t copy Herb’s car exactly. As they got into the project, they made the choice to go with a more modern powertrain, opting to use an LS1 engine to give it an edge on power and performance. The LS1 engine has a Texas Speed & Performance ground custom high-lift camshaft, Edelbrock Performer Rpm LS1 intake manifold, improved racing windage tray, high volume oil pump, race spec oil pan, FAST EZ-EFI self-tuning fuel injection system, and MSD ignition box. Exhaust escapes into Hooker LS1 F-Body swap headers and is sent to Dr. Gas boom tube mufflers with custom right side exits that were custom made by HHR (short for Haller’s Hot Rods).
Since they were going to replace the floorpans anyways, they chose to go with a Richmond 5-speed manual transmission for the originally automatic transmission equipped car. This was an easy swap since Jim was able to order the full floor with a 4-speed hump. Behind the transmission is a Fidanza aluminum flywheel and Spec 2 clutch. A custom-made aluminum driveshaft feeds into a G80 posi rearend with 3.23:1 gears.
This 1978 Fire Am has a front subframe lowering kit, VSE race-style front and rear sway bars, 2” drop springs, classic Koni shocks on all four corners, and Gold West Del-A-Lum bushings on the stock control arms. To improve the steering, they pulled a Gen-3 F-Body steering box from a 1987 IROC, and installed it in the Fire Am. Since the stock brakes would make slowing a sketchy event with the new powertrain, Wilwood disc brakes take over on each hub to give it the stopping power it needs.
To give it a touch of modern meets vintage, they decided to use the YearOne version of the Honeycomb wheels, in a larger 17×9” size on the front and back, and then wrapped them in Nitto NT05 tires for high-performance traction.
Inside, you’ll notice the 6-point custom roll cage by HHR that tucks nicely around the Corbeau Racing seats with RJS Racing Equipment’s 5-point racing harnesses. Parts of this build came as an evolution during the project, so the interior is kept simple. For example, they wanted to lighten the car up, so they took out everything non-essential, like the radio, rear seat, etc. In the pursuit of weight reduction, they also made an aluminum rear bumper support and cut down on the super heavy front bumper. Since Herb had advised that moving the battery to the trunk would be the equivalent of moving your engine back 10”, that’s exactly what they did.
There are still some things they plan on doing with their Fire Am, and it’s yet to have a good run at the track, but we would definitely say that they have accomplished what they set out to do with this 1978 Trans Am Fire Am.
Bonus! Herb Adams, the legend himself was kind enough to do an interview with Timeless Muscle, and we have never felt so humble. Herb has been around the automotive industry/scene since the beginning of the Firebird, and was a key player in bringing the Trans Am to life.
While Herb Adams started out as an insider with Pontiac and GM, he left the company in the 1970’s to start VSE, a company that would go on to take the production Trans Ams to a whole new level. Herb himself would be completely hands on in the development of ‘the ultimate Trans Am’, and would do a lot of the track and road testing himself. He wanted to show the world that the Fire Am was a no-nonsense performer.
Herb Adams would continue to offer VSE Fire Am parts on through to 2006. After a hiatus, NPD picked up the line thanks to a pretty healthy demand for the parts. His son Matt, the collaborator on the featured Fire Am in this article, is actually involved in the Fire Am projects, so you can get an Adams made over Trans Am to this day, if you’re so inclined.
Shawn Henry is a Texas native who has spent the majority of his career building and selling F-Bodies and Corvettes. Now studying journalism, he is taking a new direction with his love of performance vehicles.