| A Visit to Texas
by Alex Manz
I suppose I should start this article with how I found out about Texas Trans Ams, and what led me on my quest to have David Mars build the ultimate Second Generation Formula for me. A few months ago I was accumulating parts to restore a '67 RS Camaro when a revelation hit me; sell the boring Camaro and buy an exciting Second Gen Formula or Trans Am. The Camaro sold pretty quickly in August 2002 through a Hemmings ad, and I actually made a few bucks on the project car. But where should I look for a Firebird to replace the Camaro?
For those of you who have never looked for a collector car I can highly recommend the "Google" search engine. I decided my Trans Am or Formula would have to be red (my favorite color), would have to have the W72 400 engine and 4-speed, and preferably have many options. I entered "Red Formula Trans Am 400 4-speed" in the Google search window and "Texas Trans Ams" popped up as one of the first choices. When I clicked on the Texas Trans Ams prompt I was taken to the "project cars" page and saw there was a rare '79 Formula 400 for sale (you can't get much rarer than 346 built, can you?). I checked out the rest of the web site…primo stuff. It looked like this David Mars guy was pretty serious about his Firebirds and really might know his stuff (and also had a killer web site…keep your web guy, David).
My mind started to race (just like this finished Formula will...ha, ha!). I dialed the TX TA phone number and a friendly drawl answered. I inquired about the aforementioned red Formula and was shocked to learn that no one else had been smart enough to snap it up (you snooze, you lose!). Was it the REAL DEAL? David assured me it was, and started throwing code numbers at me a mile a minute. One thing I've learned in life is to NEVER trust anyone from Texas (okay…just kidding). Actually, it wasn't that I doubted David. I knew he was telling me the truth, but I figured as long as I was contemplating the purchase of such a rare Firebird that I should contact Pontiac Historic Services and find out as much about this car as I could. David gave me the VIN and I was at the PHS web site faster than it takes to do a 5 grand power shift.
As long as I'm giving TX TA a plug, I might as well give PHS one, too. The PHS site quickly guided me through the easy-to-understand procedure…enter personal contact data, VIN, and credit card info, press SEND, and whammo!…45 minutes later I receive a fax from Jim Mattison, the man, the legend. Note to the uninitiated…Jim was in charge of Pontiac's vehicle records and retired several years ago. Before he left Pontiac he said it might be a good idea to save those records, which turned out to be an unbelievably great thing for Pontiac fans (thanks, Jim!).
But I digress. Jim wrote on the fax, "A Mayan red car with a carmine interior?!". Yes, this Formula was the REAL DEAL. I scanned the dealership order form and learned this car was ordered from Van Winkle Pontiac in Dallas in April of 1979. The person who ordered it was obviously, A: wealthy ($9,539 list price), B: a speed freak, C: craved the color red, and D: was a creature comfort nut (the only option it didn't have was "kitchen sink"). I later learned that according to Hot Rod magazine, most 400 engines were already spoken for by the time the Feb. issue was released (Hot Rod tested a Trans Am with the 400 in that issue). I realized that this car was probably ordered by someone with some pull at Pontiac, maybe Mr. Van Winkle or his son. Who the heck knows.
Shortly after receiving the fax I was back on the phone with David closing the deal on the
Formula, and trying to figure out when I could come down to check out the car and investigate TX
The opportunity came in Sept. 2002 when I flew to Kansas City to buy a motorcycle. I hopped on the bike and headed south for Dallas-Ft. Worth. Early September on the southern plains is hot, dusty, and windy, and also very beautiful. I made it to the far north end of the vast DFW Metroplex by 2:30 pm, rode past the incredible Texas Motor Speedway on the north side of Ft. Worth, and worked my way through the crush of traffic headed south toward downtown Ft. Worth on I-35W. I quickly surmised that there are way too many people (over 5 million) in a metro area that has roads dating to the time when the area supported half of that number.
By 3:30 pm I was south of downtown and getting on to I-20 headed east. I followed the signs to US287 (also known as the Mansfield Highway) and soon was riding on the much quieter 4-lane highway into the sleepy little town of Kennedale. I called David and got specific directions to TX TA... "watch for the cop just south of town and don't speed, go past the Kennedale Speedway, and I'm about half a mile further on the right…you can't miss us".
He was waiting out front when I rode up. When you meet David for the first time, you immediately realize that he's a genuinely nice guy; there is nothing contrived or phony about him. He gave me the grand tour of the main building, which is a steel commercial setup that measures approximately 50' by 150'. The front of the building contains an office and showroom that are under construction, and the back 3/4s is an open shop area where most of the restoration work occurs. David is justifiably proud and enthusiastic about TX TA, and I was amazed to learn that he does virtually all of the work himself. In the shop area were several Trans Ams and one '65 Mustang (he sometimes takes in "undesirables"), and David graciously spent an hour or so showing me his meticulous work on the different cars.
I don't know how many of you know quality work when you see it, but I've been around collector cars and seen many "restorations" during that time, and David Mars knows what the heck he's doing. He is a car restoration FREAK. For example, the (ahem!) Mustang he was working on needed to have its incredibly rusty back half replaced. He carefully disassembled the mess he was given and replaced each panel using the factory-style welds. He said his goal was to make it look like it had just been assembled at the Ford factory (note to David…I'm not sure that's necessarily a goal to aspire to!). He also showed me a dark blue '77 Trans Am that had been hit hard in the right rear. It had been totaled, but it had an owner who loved it and wanted it restored to like new condition. David was in the process of putting a new quarter and tail panel on it, and the amazing thing was that his welding work and panel fit were just as bad as when GM had built it at the Norwood plant (his welds and panel fit on the right side of the trunk floor were so good that they perfectly matched the untouched left side). Yes, it's true…David can build you a Firebird that will look just like GM built it; his work is truly unbelievable. I was half expecting to see some elves frantically working on a Trans Am around the corner.
Alright, how does David Mars do it? First, it appears that his dad Roy might have instilled in his son a now nearly extinct thing called a "work ethic". Second, he works 12 hour days (yes, I agree that's nuts). Third, he really loves what he's doing. Fourth, his family puts up with his foolishness and actually supports him.
The end of my visit was spent walking around the "back forty", so-to-speak. The woodsy rear of TX TA's property is filled with sad, wounded Trans Ams, Formulas, and Firebirds; cars that were neglected or abused by evil former owners. David decided to make rescuing these proud 'Birds his life's work (he's our man!). As we walked around the rows and rows of sickness and death, he recounted tales about the cars. We stopped to see a blue '78 TA that some idiot had repainted army green and butchered while installing '79 taillights. We laughed together at the horrible fate suffered by a 10th Anniversary TA that a hillbilly goofball had repainted blue and taken a sledgehammer to, not realizing how rare his TA truly was.
We finally got to my rare, red Formula 400, quietly sitting under a tarp in a lean-to shed. We pushed it out into the open, and David cleared parts out of it so I could take some photos. Texas is very kind to its cars, and this Formula had zero rust…an easy restoration for David. David showed me the factory build sheet on top of the Formula's gas tank and I spent 10 minutes carefully separating it from the tank (a very valuable piece of paper!). He also showed me the huge spiders that are all over the property. They are harmless yellow and brown garden spiders that measure as much as 5" from leg-to-leg, but they look like they could kill you with one bite.
The tour ended as we went to the back of the main building and we checked out David's ultra-rare Admiralty blue '74 Super Duty Trans Am (fuggeddaboutit!). David plans to bring it back from the dead one of these days (after he gets done restoring all of our cars). David's dad Roy showed up and we talked for a bit. He had stopped by to help David with one of the project cars.
Yeah, I enjoyed the heck out of my visit to TX TAs, and you will too. Make sure you stop at
Chicken Express on your way out of Kennedale and get the large "Express Tenders" meal…it's
worth driving to Texas for!