x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

My Car: Modified 1979 Pontiac is a fiery old bird

It was love at first sight for Mitchell Perera when he saw the classic Pontiac Trans Am Firebird on an Ajman car lot 15 years ago.

Mitchell Perera put a lot of work and effort into modifying his 1979 Pontiac Trans Am Firebird but he's now keen to start a new project. Ian Hainey for The National
Mitchell Perera put a lot of work and effort into modifying his 1979 Pontiac Trans Am Firebird but he's now keen to start a new project. Ian Hainey for The National

A beautiful bolt of metallic blue turns the corner into the car park as Mitchell Perera drives up smiling in his stunning 1979 Pontiac Trans Am Firebird. A picture of pride, the 44-year-old Sri Lankan can't stop beaming as he explains how his car is more than just a pretty picture.

Perera, who has lived in the UAE for more than 35 years, works as a sales and marketing manager for Liberty Motor Sports in Sharjah and has owned the Trans Am for about 15 years. Where the hot rod's body shell is all original, underneath the shiny sheet metal it is a whole different ball game.

"The engine is a genII LS1 Corvette motor mated to a 4L65 tranny. The car is equipped with modern AC and rides on Foose Nitros staggered wheels," he says. And the bafflement continues: "The interior is hand-made to look like a two plus two and the dash is equipped with auto metre gauges and has a Bandit shifter to manage the gears on a hand-built trans-tunnel." Sensing he may be losing me, Perera quickly brought it back to basics, "Basically, this is the car I grew up admiring, so told myself that one day I'm going to own one and here is it," he says, pointing to the car.

"I bought the car for Dh22,000 from a second-hand dealer in Ajman and it's only done 2,400 kilometres since I rebuilt it. I was in love as soon as I first set eyes on it and wanted it at all costs, so was lucky to not have been held to ransom."

The year 1979 was special for Pontiac as it was celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Trans Am - a popular version of the Pontiac Firebird. Various upgrades and additions made this edition highly collectable. It had received dramatic front and rear facelifts, including a grille-less, elongated nose, flanked by four rectangular headlamps. At the rear lurked a full-width tail lamp and front and rear spoilers were installed, along with wider fender skirts for fatter tyres.

"Other than the shell, the car is a complete resto-mod and it's still one of the best purchases of my life," Perera says. "It's very much part of the family - and I've taken it all over the UAE - the best cruising is done with the guys from Jebel Ali Cool Car Klub and fellow UAE based hot-rodders."

Unfortunately, it seems that this long-term relationship may be coming to an end as Perera's car-loving eye has begun to wander. "One day I will build me another one with a LS7 motor and other go-fast goodies - in fact, I'm thinking about it now as I want to get the next one started."

When asked how much he would sell it for, Perera's face forms the image of a man totaling up hundreds of hours of work and purchasing countless parts. "It's very hard to price a car like this as the time and money spent is ridiculous, but I'll be asking for the market value for the car and, at the moment, it's around Dh120,000," he says with conviction. "It's a small price when you consider you'd be paying the same amount on a Caprice or a Japanese saloon car. This one will definitely get you the looks and plenty thumbs up wherever you drive it."

As for vehicles generally, Perera says: "I'm a truck person so I tend to favour them more than cars for their ruggedness and agility. I'm also a keen off-roader so conventional cars don't really do it for me.

"It's very hard to put your finger on just one car as there are so many good daily drivers. One of my favourite cars is the Cadillac CTS-V station wagon, which, unfortunately, is not sold here."

There's little doubt that Perera will have plenty of offers for this rare, blue beauty, if he does decide to part from his long-term love.