Written by Rocky Rotella on January 28, 2010 for the Hot Rod Network
We’ve all heard stories about uniquely-built Pontiacs that are far outside the norm of regular production. Some are equipped with a bizarre combination of options, while others sport a non-production exterior finish. Oftentimes only its original owner can explain the reason for each example’s existence, and though such stories can seem exaggerated, they may indeed be true.
As these Pontiacs changed hands over the years, many of the individual stories were lost, and a large number of them remain a complete mystery to hobbyists and researchers. Sometimes clues can be deduced through scraps of original documentation or material supplied by PHS Automotive Services, and that often conjures up many questions to be filled in with speculation or imagination, but nothing can replace an original owner’s tale.
So what would you think if we told you of a Pontiac that was delivered in primer?
And how farfetched would it seem if we said that it’s one of the 252 ’73 Super-Duty 455 Trans Ams? You’d probably tell us to go jump off the bridge we’d try to sell you next. Well, this Pontiac actually exists, and there’s a plethora of information to document its authenticity. Follow along as Larry Leist shares what it took to have this no-color ’73 Super-Duty Trans Am produced.
The Early Years
Leist Oil Company was primarily a full-service gas station located in Rockwell City, Iowa. Owned by Larry’s father, Tom, it also sold new vehicles to area residents. “I know Dad sold new Plymouths in the ’30s, but we didn’t get into Pontiacs until the late ’50s,” recalls Larry. Until then, the local International Tractor dealership sold Pontiacs, and when it closed in 1957, a Pontiac representative asked Tom to be a dealer. Tom agreed, and Leist Oil Company soon began selling new Pontiacs to the area for the ’58 model year.
Tom and Larry were both performance enthusiasts. “Dad liked speed but he also liked four-door cars, so he’d order a four-door sedan with Tri-Power for his personal car,” Larry says. “I’d order similar cars for stock, and they always seemed to sell well. The farmers really liked them. My first new Pontiac was a black ’60 Ventura with a 389 Tri-Power, and I was hooked on performance from that point forward.”
As Larry matured, he routinely ordered his Pontiacs a certain way to accommodate his large stature and maximize interior comfort. “I preferred automatics for racing consistency, and I liked column-mounted shifters because floor-mounted units typically required a center console, and that took up room between the front seats. I always ordered my personal Pontiacs with a column-shifted automatic if it was available.”
Into The ’70s
Until the ’73 model year, Leist Oil Company hadn’t delivered a new Second-Gen Trans Am, but Larry planned to change that. “I read about Pontiac’s new Super-Duty 455 engine in various magazines and in literature supplied by the Division, and knew I had to have it,” Larry says. “I placed an order for a Super-Duty Trans Am as soon as I could, and found that black wasn’t an available color. I always liked really odd combinations so I chose Brewster Green with Burgundy Custom interior instead.”
The Omaha Zone office sent Larry’s order back as soon as it was received with a note stating the Super-Duty engine wasn’t yet available. “I submitted the order about 10 more times and Pontiac rejected each of them. It was getting toward the middle of the model year, and I really wanted the car. Growing impatient, I called Pontiac to try and find someone to help push the order along,” he says.
Larry knew that he’d have to devise a good story, so he came up with the idea that a loyal customer wanted a Trans Am in a non-production color. He then called Pontiac and asked to talk to the person in charge of Car Distribution. The receptionist got him in contact with Jim Wilson, who was the Division’s Director of Car Distribution. His executive clout was certainly enough to get any car assembled in any way and Larry knew it.
“I explained to Jim that I was a small-town Iowa dealer and had a customer who was looking to purchase a black Trans Am as a graduation gift for his son,” he says. “I also told him that the customer had purchased a new Pontiac from me in each of the past 10 years and said that if Pontiac couldn’t produce a black Trans Am for him, he was going to buy a new Camaro instead. I never once mentioned the Super-Duty engine in our conversation, however.”
Wilson told Larry that he’d return his call once he had a chance to look into the matter. “When Jim called back, he told me that some of the Trans Am’s parts are sourced in color, so there wasn’t any way the assembly plant could paint the car black, but if I would be willing to paint the car for the customer, he’d be willing to ship it to us in primer,” Larry recalls. “I liked black anyway, so I figured I could get a black Trans Am this way, but what I really wanted was the Super-Duty engine!”
Larry was instructed on how to order the car to ensure the bogus customer got exactly what he wanted, and he had to specify his choice for the color-sourced pieces. “Jim told me to write on the order blank ‘primer with red air dams O.K. by Jim Wilson at Pontiac, Michigan,’ and he would see that the order got processed with priority. I simply adjusted the last Super-Duty order form I submitted and sent it in again in late April 1973,” adds Larry.
The order sat in cue for a few weeks because, unbeknownst to Larry at the time, delays with emissions certification process prevented the Super-Duty’s release until mid-May of the ’73 model year, and that’s the reason for the rejection of his initial orders all along. The Super-Duty engine was finally released for production on or about May 15, and Pontiac advised Larry that his order was accepted on May 18, 1973.
Larry’s T/A was among the first SD-455 cars assembled, which was on June 6 at the Norwood, Ohio, plant. It was then shipped on June 14 and delivered to his dealership on June 17. “I remember it taking three weeks and six days from the time the order was accepted until the day it arrived. I showed up for work one morning and there it sat, fresh off the transport. Before I had a chance to explain it to him, my dad asked me, ‘Who ordered that thing? It’s the ugliest color I’ve ever seen,'” Larry jokes.
As specified, Larry’s T/A was delivered in primer with its front bumper, valance and spoiler, and four wheel flares in Buccaneer Red. “The body was a darker shade of gray primer than the front clip, and the front half of the car was somewhat shiny, while the body shell was dull,” he adds. And as the buildsheet stated, the decals were shipped loose in the trunk.
Upon initial inspection, Larry wasn’t totally pleased when he saw chunks of rubber in the Trans Am’s wheelwells. “Typically when a new car was delivered to us, it had a mile or two on its odometer, but this Trans Am had about 15 miles on it. It was probably the first time the transport unloaders at the rail head had ever seen an SD-455 car, and it looked as if somebody had fun with it.”
The car was in primer only long enough for Larry to take a few pictures with it, and then it was off for paint. “I heard Larson Body Shop in Ames, Iowa, did good work and was familiar with show-quality street-rod paint jobs, so I took the Trans Am there. They disassembled the entire body and painted it in black lacquer. I remember it took eight months to complete and cost $243, but I was very happy with the result. The job they did was much better than anything the factory ever could have applied.”
Along with the body shop owner, Larry was somewhat concerned that the fresh black paint wouldn’t adhere to the pieces that were originally molded in color. “I decided to leave them red and found the contrast somewhat appealing, so I had the Shaker scoop, fender extractors, and rear spoiler painted to match. It was very different-looking, to say the least, but I was always attracted to weird combinations.”
Though the supplied decals were for a Buccaneer Red body, Larry chose only to install the “SD-455” units on the Shaker. “I always had people asking me if it was a Camaro, so I added ‘Pontiac’ to the windshield and ‘Firebird Trans Am’ to the front spoiler. It was about this same time that I replaced the original Rally wheels and white-lined radial tires with aftermarket units.”
Larry’s quest for maximum performance took the T/A to the next level in the mid-’70s. “To be honest, I was a bit disappointed with its performance in stock form, so I pulled the SD-455 and took it to Arnold Motors in Ames, Iowa, where it was balanced and blueprinted. We also added a set of domed TRW forged-aluminum pistons that I purchased from former Pontiac engineer Tom Nell, which boosted compression to 13:1.”
At this same time, Larry replaced the Super-Duty’s factory Ram Air-style exhaust manifolds and original muffler with a set of tubular JR headers and a cross-flow muffler from H-O Racing. “I also added a shift kit to the Turbo 400, and replaced its original valve body with a manual unit to provide full control over the shift points. I know the car ran much, much better overall, and I had it on the drag strip several times, but I honestly can’t recall what it ran.”
The Trans Am remained in this state for the next few years, but once it became difficult for Larry to find fuel for the high-compression mill, he reinstalled the stock pistons, exhaust system, and Rally wheels, and removed the non-stock decals. Looking much like a stock ’73 Trans Am once again, he parked it in a back room of the dealership, where it mostly sat for the next several years.
Though Larry never considered the T/A much of a show car, he attended the Trans Am Nationals in Dayton, Ohio, with it once. “All the stock pieces were in place, so I tried entering it into a stock class, but the judges and tech guys told me it wasn’t original because black wasn’t available for ’73. So I asked them to tell me just what color it should’ve been. They found only dashes on the data plate instead of a paint code and couldn’t provide an answer. We went back and forth, but they placed me in a custom class anyway.”
The Next Chapter
Sheer age began affecting the Trans Am’s black finish and Larry rarely drove it, so he considered parting ways with it in about 2001. “It only had about 20,000 miles on it and the lacquer paint had started checking. I didn’t have as much fun with it after putting it back to stock anyway, so I started thinking of selling it,” he says.
Fellow-hobbyist Ron Melvin of Round Rock, Texas, contacted Larry one day to inquire about some N.O.S. parts. “I was looking for unitized ignition parts for a ’72 Trans Am and Larry came up as a possible source,” recalls Ron. “I called and we began talking about our cars. He told me of his Super-Duty, and as soon as he said he was thinking of selling, we started working on a price. I bought it as quickly as I could.”
Since taking possession of the T/A, Ron says he’s done very little to it and has no plans to sell it. “I’ve only put a few hundred miles on it. It’s such an original car that I can’t bring myself to restore or modify it. The only change I’ve made was having the pieces that were once Buccaneer Red painted black to match the rest of the body, which I think is more appealing,” he admits.
Larry attends many Pontiac events, selling N.O.S. parts and enjoys sharing stories with hobbyists about some of the rare and unique Pontiacs he’s ordered for himself or customers over the years. But none draw as much skepticism as the no-color Super-Duty Trans Am he purchased new. “I tell people the story about the T/A and they look at me as if I have rocks in my head,” he jokes.
This particular Trans Am is just one of many unique Pontiacs produced over the years, and like all the rest, it too, was assembled in a specific manner for a special reason. Whether the others’ original owners or selling dealers knew someone within the Division’s corporate ladder who “could get things done,” or it was just one in a series of several fleet vehicles to receive a special color or group of options, this story further proves that nothing was impossible--no matter how tall the tale seems.
Editor’s note: You may have noticed that the photos in this story are a bit smaller and grainier than you normally see in an HPP feature. That’s because most are scans from vintage 3×5-inch prints that were taken in the ’70s and in 2001 by Larry Leist, the original owner of the SD T/A. Because the Pontiac has since had its red body parts painted black by its current owner, Ron Melvin, modern photos don’t tell the whole story as much as these vintage ones do. So please take these photos in the spirit in which they are offered, as photographic evidence of a true factory-freak ’73 SD T/A that we thought you’d enjoy seeing, regardless of the photo sizes and quality.