True Story of the $500 Tijuana '69 Trans Am
By Alex Manz (aka: Alex from Ohio)

There isn’t a car guy out there who hasn’t heard an urban legend or two about some unbelievably rare and ridiculously cheap muscle car.  The story should go something like this: “This guy died in a Ram Air 4 Judge convertible that was buried in a snow bank…the stench from his rotting body was so bad that the car couldn’t be sold and was given to a charity…it’s now being driven around Wichita Falls by a homeless family with no sense of smell.”  Does the story usually have an “air” of truth to it? Of course.  But with every one of these stories there is one thing missing that could silence the detractors …photos (Ed. Note: TXTA photographers are currently searching for the homeless people in the Judge convertible).  This story is different in a couple of key respects.  First, I have plenty of photos of the $500 ’69 Trans Am, and the family driving around in it are in Waxahachie.

Enough joking around…here’s the real story.  In early 1980 I was a 22 year-old sailor stationed on a ship in San Diego.  My buddies and I enjoyed drinking cheap beer while watching female performance artists.  We soon realized that San Diego had a dearth of affordable entertainment like that, so we headed 20 miles south to Tijuana, Mexico.

Tijuana at that time had plenty of American muscle cars on it's streets that had crossed the border after the OPEC oil crisis of 1974 (TXTA history lesson: during the oil crisis gas prices skyrocketed from 32 cents per gallon to over 50 cents!).  Since we were all muscle car freaks we were constantly commenting on the interesting finds parked along the Avenida de la Revolucion, or the Avendia de Ninos Heros.  “Hey, look at the 396 emblems on that SS Camaro.” “Look down that alley at that yellow ’70 Road Runner convertible.”  Of course none of us had much money to work with (we were all E-4s in the military…small paychecks). 

After one night of particularly hard drinking in "TJ"’s notorious “Zona Nostra” area, we stumbled back towards the border and stopped on the bridge that crosses the Tijuana River to take a leak.  Below the bridge was the parking lot for Tijuana’s bus station.  As I was relieving myself I scanned the parking lot to see if anything interesting was parked below.  Right below a street light in the center of the lot was a white ’69 Firebird with a trunk spoiler and two blue stripes running the length of its roof and trunk.  I commented to my shipmates that it looked a lot like a ’69 Trans Am. I was met with, “They didn’t start making Trans Ams until 1970”. I knew damn good and well what it was, and I came back the next day to look it over more closely.

On my way across the border I asked the US customs agent what was involved in bringing a car up from Mexico.  He said I would have to run the vehicle’s VIN with California DMV to determine if the car had been stolen in the US and then taken to Mexico, otherwise the car would be seized at the border and I would be out my money.  He also said I would need a notarized bill of sale and the signed title to bring the car across the border.

When I got to the Tijuana bus depot and started asking about the white Firebird, no one understood English.  I found a guy next door with an auto upholstery shop that spoke English and gave him $20 to translate for me.  He asked who owned the blanco Firebird and we were directed to talk to Faustino Mendoza, a baggage handler at the depot.  Through the interpreter I asked him if his car was for sale.  He wanted ocho hundred dollars for it.  I responded with “Cuatro.”, and we settled on cinco ($500).  I told him I needed to run the VIN in San Diego and would be back to him in a couple of days with the money.  A nice lady at the DMV told me the Trans Am had last been registered in California in 1974 and that it wasn’t stolen.  I was getting visions of driving the ’69 T/A along Southern California’s beaches in the near future.

As promised I was back at the "TJ" bus depot a couple of days later.  Faustino had the title and we went to a Mexican notary public to get the documents legitimized.  Once that was done and the money had changed hands, we were back at the T/A to get it started.  Faustino first flipped a toggle switch under the dash, goosed the gas pedal half a dozen times, then crawled under the car with a large screwdriver covered with arc burns.  After several attempts the Ram Air III engine coughed to life.  Aside from the incredibly rough idle, large cloud of blue smoke, and un-muffled exhaust, it ran perfectly.  With its huge Holley carburetor and Weiand X-CELerator manifold its gas pedal was like an ON-OFF switch…a real driver’s car. I put it in gear and quickly worked my way to the border crossing.  The engine died many, many times as I inched the car through the long line of cars waiting to cross, and I felt bad about causing so much pollution to the fragile Southern California atmosphere.  Finally I was up to the front of the line.  The customs agent told me to shut the engine off and thanked me when I did.  It wouldn’t restart; so several agents helped me push it to the parking lot.  After reviewing the paperwork the agent told me I could leave.  I had to have it towed up to San Diego. 

Back in town, I went over it with a fine-tooth comb.  It had the original YW code engine, the unusual ’69 T/A air cleaner, a Turbo 400 transmission, console, factory tach and gauges, Formula steering wheel, power steering and brakes, a standard blue interior, and 2 of the original 14 x 7 Rally 2 wheels.  It also had red “Ram Air” decals near the rear of the hood scoops (like the car in the May 1969 Car & Driver ad).  On the negative side, it needed a right front fender and air extractor, Endura nose, left rear quarter, windshield, engine and transmission rebuilds, exhaust system, complete interior, a trunk pan, tires, brakes, and a paint job.  Aside from those things it was in perfect condition.  While searching the car I found gas receipts from a Chevron station in Newport Beach, CA, and a Zippo lighter that had been awarded to someone by the Commandant of the Marine Corps.  I soon realized that I didn’t have the money to restore it and that I could probably sell it for a considerable profit.  I advertised it in the San Diego Union newspaper for $3,000 and got 47 phone calls.  The first guy to look at it bought it and towed it away.  I later learned that it was resold to another guy in San Diego.  It's whereabouts now…who knows?  Of the many muscle cars I’ve owned over the years, that ’69 Trans Am is truly the one I never should’ve sold! 


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