Long-Burning Flame – Robert Torppa Reignites his Muscle Car Dreams with a Fiery ’68 Firebird
“It’s basically my high school dream car on steroids,” Robert Torppa says about his stunning red ’68 Firebird.
While Robert was grateful for the vehicles his family did provide for him in high school, what they thought he needed was a far cry from what his teenage heart wanted. Growing up in the heyday of affordable muscle cars, he gravitated toward the kids with the cool cars, and though several had some righteous Camaros, it was a buddy’s ’68 Firebird that really left an impression. Robert says he’s always been drawn to that which is a little different, and the Firebird fit the bill.
Fast forward to a point in life where the means and time to take on a project car converged, and the hunt for a Firebird of his own began. Robert landed this one on his local Craigslist. It was a basic 350/Powerglide coupe that had literally been painted yellow in a church parking lot.
The car was brought home and disassembled, and all parts tagged and bagged. Hot rodders know the Pacific Northwest climate can be hard on old cars, especially those with vinyl tops like this one had, so new quarters, sail panels, and a trunk pan were welded in. Robert says the leaky Powerglide was a blessing in disguise as the oil-soaked floor pans never had a chance to rust and remained intact.
The original plan was to make a “nice driver” with a pro-touring vibe and an LS under the hood. Work progressed on weekends and in spare evenings for a year or two until circumstances caused the family project to halt for a bit. Eventually the realization set in that outside help would be needed to keep the project from sinking into oblivion. Robert is a contractor in the timber industry and was driving through Hoquiam, Washington to bid on a job when he spotted a cool little hot rod shop. He stopped to check it out, but nobody was in. He took down some information and poked around on Google when he got home.
The shop, Richardson Custom Auto Body, was owned by Don Richardson, and turned out quality cars. Robert finally spoke with Don on the phone about what he was wanting, and Don offered to bring his trailer and come look the Firebird over. The two hit it off and were on the same page, so the car was loaded up and the project was back on the front burners. Robert visited the shop once a month in between numerous phone calls and emails as each step was made.
Robert was impressed with the number of successful cars running Detroit Speed suspensions at the Optima Street Car Challenges and had Don work with the DSE team to put together a suitable package for the ‘Bird. Weld-in subframe connectors were added and the front now sports a DSE coil-over kit with massive 14-inch Baer disc brakes and their 600 Steering Gear assembly that offers rack-and-pinion technology in a bolt-in replacement box. The rear leaf springs were replaced with a new Quadra-Link setup and a fresh 12-bolt with 13-inch disc brakes. The DSE-spec kit was specifically designed around 18×10- and 19×12-inch wheels, which Rushforth Wheels was happy to create in a stylish custom-designed five-spoke style.
The engine was also custom-built, crafted by Nutter Race Engines in Vancouver. It’s a 6.2L LS3 pushing 550hp and backed with a 6L90E automatic six-speed transmission. Future plans call for paddle shifters and more horsepower.
The interior was on schedule with a guy who then had a family emergency. As anyone knows, great upholstery guys stay booked out and getting in at the last minute to meet a deadline is nearly impossible. Robert looked high and low before discovering AMA Interior Solutions in Kelso, Washington. They specialize in aircraft seats and panels, but also do boats and the occasional car. Their eye for detail and meticulous craftsmanship was exactly what Robert was looking for, and they worked together to create a suitable interior that matched the rest of the car.
Red accents were used throughout the cabin, and the French seams were all done old school-style with a single needle. A pair of 2006 GTO bucket seats was used, now modified and lowered to fit, and another pair was integrated into the rear. The dash was also trimmed in leather and fitted with one-off Dakota Digital gauges and a sporty MOMO steering wheel. There’s a full audio system with a touch screen in the console. Douglas European Aviation Leather was the material of choice for AMA and it worked very well.
While the chassis and interior give the car its heart and soul, it’s the exterior most people see first. Many hours of modifications went into the body and paint and the results are flawless. Paint and wheels are two of the hardest decisions on a car, and while they did wrestle with the wheels for a long time, the paint was much quicker. “I told Don I liked red, but I didn’t like red-red,” Robert says. “And I liked burgundy, but I didn’t like burgundy-burgundy. He told me he had just the right color and when I saw it I was like: ‘yes, done, next item on the list!’”
The color is PPG’s Viva la Red and was a 2009 SEMA contest winner. The paint’s formula is exclusive to Richardson Custom Auto Body, and they laid six coats of it in base coat, followed by six coats of clear, all cut and polished to a glass-like state. Body modifications range from the obvious, like the mesh phantom grille and shaved chrome, to the double-take subtleness found in the molded spoiler, ’69 Camaro front valence, and flush-mounted glass. The engine bay was completely redone in custom panels and the bumpers tucked closer to the body. The taillights were also molded in, and the inner headlights deleted to make room for cold-air horns for the LS3.
While the build is a far cry from the “cool driver” Robert set out to build, it has been very rewarding. The build process, the development of friendships, and the enjoyment of sharing the completed car with people at shows and events is what it’s all about, and Robert’s fine ’68 Firebird is way beyond anything he might have been able to have while in high school. Sometimes it IS just better to wait.
Photos by Todd Ryden & Steven Bunker