An Interview With Herb Adams

By Bob Wicker 

Photos from the Internet and Courtesy of Passion Motors

 

 

PontiacsOnline.com is thrilled to have conducted an extensive interview with Herb Adams in January, 2010. Mr. Adams has proven to be an inventor, innovator, and genius in the automotive enginering world. For years he also set the racing world on edge by competing with and beating well funded pro teams on a shoestring budget with pure engineering prowess and determination. Mr. Adams career started at Pontiac in the glory days and led to the development of the Trans Am, the SD-455 engine, the WS6 suspension, VSE and the Fire Am and Cheverra and a host of other great projects and products. His new company is Passion Motors where he is building a new car, Contessa, that has many in the the automotive world paying very close attention. We hope this interview and photo journey through Mr. Adams career will be as exciting for you as it was for us to put together. 

 

 

 

Pontiacs Online: You have had an amazing career in the automotive engineering world. I know our readers will love to hear some of your experiences. Thank you for agreeing to this interview.

 

Tell us a little about your career at Pontiac. When did you start there?

 

Herb Adams: 1957. I went to what they called General Motors Institute at the time. It's now called Kettering University. At that time it was a Co-op program. You could go to school for a month and then work for a month. When you're in that program they have a set of experiences they want you to have. The first year you work plant to get your hands dirty and see what that's like. It takes a while to show them what skills you have and eventually they give you some fun assignments. 

 

I was there at the right time when Estes and Delorean and those guys were running Pontiac and they were looking for new ideas. It was a great time to be there.

 

PO: A car you designed called the Vivant recently came up for sale. Talk to us about that project and the car's history.

 

HA: I built that car right out of college in 1965 or 66. I had the hots to do it so I just did it. I was working at Pontiac at the time so I used a Pontiac engine which I was able to buy from Pontiac at a good price.

 

PO: Was the car a show car, a track car or what?

 

HA: I built it as a design study and a show car. I built the chassis, then designed the body. At the time there were about a half a dozen English craftsmen that had moved to the Detroit area. They had all been trained in England in the Rolls Royce style of coach building where they used a wheel rather than dies to make panels. They were looking for a way to show their skills and I didn't have much money but they were willing to build the car inexpensively to show what they could do. So they built the aluminum panels which was a very skilled endeavor. We finished it up and put it in a few shows.

 

Herb Adams Vivant

 

 

The Vivant in 2009

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PO: In the mid 1960's you were placed in charge of an engineering special projects group at Pontiac. I know that your group worked on the development of the PFST (Pontiac Firebird Sprint Turismo) that led to the first Trans Am that was released in 1969. What can you share about that project?

 

HA: I did a lot of work and product planning on what became the first Trans Am in 69 and the second Trans Am in 70 1/2.

 

DeLorean was the head of Pontiac at that time and he knew he was going to get the Firebird line to go along with the Camaro. He wanted us to develop something that was going to beat the Z28. The unfortunate thing was, at that time Pontiac had the Overhead Cam 6, which really was not a great engine. At that time we were tasked with using that engine to try to go as fast as the Z28. It (the PFST) was our first effort at basically a tuner car where we tried new ideas. We put webers on that engine to try to get more power but we couldn't get big enough side drafts carbs so we used down drafts which ended up sticking out of the hood, so we made a hood scoop. That started a trend in the whole industry. We did that car in 67 and by 71 everybody had a scoop going through the hood. That (the PFST) was the early development car. We worked on the handling and aerodynamic stuff and it was a learning car that ended up being the 69 Trans Am.

 

 

PFST

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1969 Trans Am

 

 

 

 

 PO: What was your involvement with Pontiac's effort in the SCCA Trans Am racing series in 69 and 70?

 

HA: We developed the racing engines and gave the specs to the guys that were racing. Jerry Titus in the 69-70 season was trying to race Firebirds and I didn't have a lot of experience with that kind of effort so it was a learning curve. Unfortunately the team was trying to make money on the deal and wouldn't spend what was needed to do the job right. The guy in charge of engine development at that time, Russ Gee, allowed us to do engine development on the dynamometer. The first 303 Pontiac only made like 300 horsepower. Tom Nell, Jeff Young and myself worked on that project. By the time we got done it was making I think 475 horsepower, which was as good as anybody had in those days. The problem was we would give the specs from our development to the Titus team and they would go change them. Unfortunately, Jerry got killed at the end of that season.

 

Titus/Godsall 1970 SCCA Trans AM

 

 

 

 

PO: You made a name for yourself in 1971 with the 1964 Gray Ghost Tempest. You and your team showed up at Lime Rock, a Trans Am series race, with a personally funded older car and ran very competitively against the factory funded pro teams. Tell us more about that experience and the reaction from some of the other race teams.

 

HA: We had gained a lot of knowledge especially about chassis development from the 70 SCCA season. They (Pontiac) would not give us any parts but at least by then we knew what to get. The car was a joke to them (the other race teams) until we were running in second place right up until the end, then we blew a head gasket. We were chasing down Donahue at the time. We did some things that they laughed at.  Like, we ran big tires on the front because the car was nose heavy. It turned out that in the rain the car was really, really competitive. Bob Tulius was the driver. He had a lot of experience driving in the wet. So every time it rained we did really well. It was also competitive in the dry. We usually ran in the top five.

 

The Gray Ghost 1964 Tempest 

 

 

PO: In the 72-73 SCCA Trans Am series your team campaigned a Firebird. Please elaborate on that car and that season.

 

HA: We found  a wrecked Firebird in a junk yard. We applied what we learned with the Tempest and had a better starting point.  That car was pretty competitive. We always ran well with it. We won one race and should have won three or four, but we had different problems. Milt Minter drove that car. It was funny. Sometimes he would amaze you with how good he was and other times you wondered if he was there or not. He had terrific talent and did real well with the car.

 

1972 SCCA Firebird

 

 

 

 

 

PO: There are some old photos of a rear engine early 1970's Firebird project being driven on the street. What was your role in that project and what became of it?

 

HA: There was a guy named Paul Lamar who was a kind of a genius. He was helping Jerry Titus and that is where I met him. He said "Let's do a rear engine car." I said "All right". And at that time Pontiac was open to that sort of thing so I proposed it and they said "Go ahead and do it". Paul built the car. We tested it a little bit. As far as driving, it wasn't really a whole lot better. It improved the weight distribution but you couldn't feel a difference driving the car. He used a whole Toronado drive train and put a Pontiac engine on it. The engine sat where the back seat and trunk normally would have. We gave that car to the crash test guys. They wanted to see what would happen in a crash with all that weight behind the driver, but I don't think they ever actually ran the crash test.

 

Rear Engine Firebird

 

 

 

PO: You are well known for your involvement with the Super Duty engine program at Pontiac. Tell us about that project and how difficult it was to launch during those dark days of automotive performance in the early 70's, with ever changing government regulations and a GM corporate desire to stay out the government's crosshairs.

 

HA: Russ Gee, who was running engine development said "You guys have learned about making power having developed the 303 and the 366." The 366 was actually a much better engine than the 303 as far as output. We got it up to about 575 horsepower. "Take that knowledge that you've learned on the race engines and apply it to a street engine." This was in 1971. When the GTO came out in 64 it was a world beater. There was no other car like it. But by 69 everybody else had a (factory) hot rod with Hemis and 396's and they were making more power than the Pontiac engines were. By 1970 the GTO still had the reputation but we knew it wasn't as competitive as it used to be. Russ Gee said, "Lets build a really strong engine using what we've learned", so that was the goal.

 

The engine was based on good engineering but the missing link was the crankshaft. They didn't want to spend money on a forged crank so we had to use a cast crank. But we got good rods, good heads and a good camshaft and it turned out to be a pretty strong engine. But, by the time all this happened at Pontiac we were too late. The muscle car thing was over. Everybody else was getting out of that market and by 73 we were the only guys still there. Of course, we had to live with low compression. However, the Super Duty engine was better in emission tests than the regular engine.

 

Delorean had gone by then. He had supported us getting started on it. Jim McDonald came in as the head of Pontiac. He was a really good guy but was not really a car guy. He had come up through the foundry and he had to believe what people told him. When we got to the point of wanting to put the engine in the 73 Firebirds, we got another General Manager, (Martin Caserio) and his attitude (regarding the Super Duty) was "What are we wasting our money on now? We need to build regular cars."  We had shown the car (73 SD 455 Trans Am) to the press at long  lead time so by then we had 600 or 700 hundred orders for them. And that, with the engine option being a couple of grand, which at that time was expensive. There was a guy at the plant who had made all of the parts without anybody knowing about it. He had them all ready to go. Without him the project would have died. The last meeting I attended at Pontiac, on my last day there, the new GM (Caserio) wanted to show everyone how tuff he was. And in the meeting they went around and around on the issue of the SD project. Finally I decided to be the bad guy and said, if we can build 600 engines and have at least that many orders, why don't we just build them and sell them. So they did.  

 

1973 SD 455 Engine

 

 

 

PO: Tell us about your decision to leave Pontiac.

 

HA: By the time that meeting occurred I had already given my two weeks notice and that happened to be the last day that I was there. I had a job offer elsewhere. Russ Gee, who was my boss at the time, said in light of the new politics, maybe you should go for it.

 

PO: Tell us about the 1973 NASCAR effort with a Pontiac Grand Am.

 

HA: It was the same bunch of guys who worked with the 72 Firebird effort and the same idea. The SCCA basically abandoned the Trans Am series.  I think they only ran four events that year. So we decided that if we were going to continue racing, the SCCA is not the place to be. At that time NASCAR was nowhere near as strong as it is now. It was about as popular as the Trans Am series had been. So we decided to apply the lessons we had learned in the SCCA to the NASCAR entry. That's when we built (the 73 Grand Am). We only ran it a couple of times. We took it to Riverside and ran in to a lot of resistance. NASCAR was a sharecropper arrangement. "We're the boss and you are the sharecropper." We had three strikes against us. We were damned Yankees, fu*%ing engineers and those faggot SCCA guys. So we didn't fit in too well. So we went to Riverside. They wouldn't let us run. They said, you have to change this and change that so we did what they asked. The last day of qualifying they said, "I'll let your car run but you have to use one of our drivers". I said `"No." Jerry Thompson was the guy who was driving for us. I said "He has been here all week working with us." So at the last minute they said "OK, you can go qualify". So we qualified in the middle of the pack. In the race we got up to 7th place in the first hour and the master cylinder failed. It was a good showing for the first event. We went down to Daytona. We were there over a week but they never let us run. They said, "you have to change this, you have to go talk to the next guy", etc. About that time is when I left Pontiac and Tom Nell was also quitting at that time. We sold that car to a guy in Washington.

 

1973 NASCAR Grand Am

 

 

 

 

PO: I have seen some old photos of a 76 or 77 Olds Cutlass race car that you ran.

 

HA:  We had a good friend at Oldsmobile, Dale Smith, and he helped us do some racing by giving us parts and let us dyno test. They had a series called the Kelly Girl series in IMSA. We ran a couple of years there. We started with a Starfire and we ran the first modern version of the Buick V6, before it was a good motor. Then we had a 77 Cutlass and we ran that at Daytona in the 24 Hour, but we blew the tranny in the back straightaway. Oldsmobile helped us and I think one of the Oldsmobile guys was driving when the tranny blew. Then in 78 we raced a "hunchback" Cutlass.

 

1977 IMSA Cutlass 

 

PO: Some of our readers will be familiar with the Silverbird SCCA race car that you built in the late 70s. It was very competitive. I believe it finished 2nd at Laguna Seca in 1978. What can you tell us about it?

 

HA: Appliance Wheel had just been bought by WR Grace. A guy named Tony Goodchild was put in charge of Appliance Wheel and some other divisions of that company. He was able to twist some arms at Pontiac and get them to supply the engines which were the 366 engines we had developed about five years earlier. They gave Tom Nell the contract to supply those engines. We built the car and we ran a half dozen races. We had some different guys driving. (Jerry) Thompson did real well and then Milt (Minter) drove it the last race and did really, really well. I think he finished 2nd. We had to run against 427 Corvettes and we really didn't have enough power, but it ran good. So everybody was pleased with it. Part of the deal with Appliance was that they would get the car and put it on sort of a low level tour of different retail stores. Some guy in Detroit apparently ended up with it. He restored it and put it in the Detroit Autorama show. I didn't see it but some people I know did and said it looked good.

 

SCCA Appliance Wheel Silverbird

 

 

 

 

PO: You were involved in a project to design identical Trans Am race cars for a potential IROC race series. What can you tell us about that project?

 

HA: Those were in (late) 76 or 77. The guy that was behind those was John Schinella, who at the time was Pontiac's chief stylist. He did the birds. John was the bird man. He did a great job of keeping the Firebird current and modern. He understood the value of the performance aspect. Again, it was a tuner car. We changed the exhaust and made the suspension better, added better wheels and tires. We went through the car and upgraded it. He got Pontiac to put up the money. I think we built six of them. It was going to be an IROC thing but nobody came up with the money to make a run of it. We delivered the cars to (Pontiac) but I really don't know what happened to them.

 

IROC Trans Am Project

 

PO: Was that project the start of the Fire Am program and VSE?

 

HA: Yes. We asked Pontiac if we could sell the parts and they said yeah, go ahead. So, yes that was the start of VSE.

 

Fire Ams

 

 

 

 

 

VSE Literature

 

 

 

 

PO: Who designed the Fire Am graphic?

 

HA: John Schinella did.

 

 

Fire Am Graphics

 

 

   

 

He (Schinella) had a GMC Motor home that he had tricked out and taken to quite a few of the races. We were racing the Appliance Wheel car. And he would show up with  "Trans Am Territory" and created a spot at the race track where the Firebird guys could hang out.

 

Trans Am Territory 

 

 

PO: The Cheverras are another much talked about VSE project from that period. Please tell us about those cars.

 

HA: Basically we just took what we were doing for the Fire Am and made a Chevy version of it. It had the same suspension, but with different graphics.  

 

Cheverras

 

 

 

 

 

 

PO: I understand that you partnered with Cars and Concepts to sell Fire Ams and Cheverras through dealers. How did that partnership work?

 

HA: The partnership was really good. Dave Draper and Dick Chrysler were there at the time. They were developing their convertible packages. They liked what he had. The problem was that in order to make the program economically feasible, GM would have had to deliver the cars directly to Cars and Concepts instead of the dealers, but GM wanted nothing to do with it. They (Cars and Concepts) built a few prototypes but I know there was no volume.

 

PO: Do you know about how many of each of those cars were sold through dealers?

 

HA: Probably less than 10. We had a great package and good publicity. All the magazines were behind it and the car really ran good and looked good, but GM said "We don't care." They were big enough then that they didn't need you.

 

 

 

PO: You campaigned a Fire Am in the 79 and 80 Daytona 24 Hour races. I understand that car was a legal street car and actually driven to the 79 race from Michigan. Please share that story.

 

HA:  We took the same Fire Am suspension and put it in that car. We had to have a roll cage so we installed a chrome plated roll cage. Everybody got a big kick out of that. It was a street legal car and we first ran it at a couple of SCCA events just to shake it down. It had a Pontiac Super Duty engine in it. The first race we did on our own, We had no support of any kind. But we qualified. In those days the attrition was very high in a 24 hour race. Most of the exotic cars couldn't go more than 3 or 4 hours. But we just kept running. I remember waking up in the morning, the sun was coming up and the car was still running. We were in 10th place in GT when the crank shaft broke. The same piece we wished we would have had in the Super Duty but never got, the forged crank, got us. The end broke off the front of the crank.

 

The second year we again ran a street tire, Goodyear Wingfoots, because they were part of the Fire Am street package. And we ran them in the race. But that year we went through three or four transmissions in the 24 hour race. They were (aftermarket) transmissions but they weren't as good as the factory transmitions we ran the year before.

 

1979 Fire Am Street Legal Racer

 

 

 

The third year we went down there with a Cheverra, a yellow one. We got a lot of resistance. They didn't like the whale tail. We again went down there with street tires. Initially they said we had to be within 10 percent as fast as the fastest qualifier (in class) in order to qualify. Then they changed the rules and said we had to run within 7 percent of that time in order to qualify. We couldn't do it with the street tires so we put a set of race tires on. I qualified and Jerry Thompson who was a co-driver went out and blew a right front tire and hit the wall.

 

We sold that car after that event. It showed up on ebay a few months ago and we bought it back. It had not only been neglected it had been abused. But my son decided that we should restore it. It was a Hot Rod cover car. So we are doing that now. We'll have it done in the Spring, I think. Finding that car was like meeting your old girlfriend.

 

1981 Cheverra Racer

 

 

PO: Tell us about some of your subsequent racing projects in the 1980's in the Trans Am and Can Am series.

 

HA:  We had a good sponsor, Escort. They funded a couple of wild cars that we built. The only car we built that didn't run competitively was the Pontoon car. We put the engine way over on one side and the driver way over on the other.

 

PO: That was Cam Am race series car, right?

 

HA: Yes. We just never had enough time or money to develop that car. It had a lot of down force, but we couldn't balance it front to rear. And we couldn't find anyone who wanted to drive the car. In a typical race car you sit in the middle of the car. But when you put the driver way over on one side, and the car moves around, the driver moves quite a bit as well.  So the drivers never felt comfortable pushing it. Too much stress on the drivers' body.

 

 

PO: You ran some Pontiac Trans Ams in SCCA in the 80's and early 90's as well, correct?

 

HA: About the time I quit racing my son (Matt) came along and wanted to race. So he ran a 90 or 91 Firebird that we called a Fire Am. And we also turned that in to a tuner type package.

 

1980's SCCA Fire Ams

 

 

PO: You (VSE) developed a car in the early 1990s called the Jackrabbit. What was the nature of that project?

 

HA: At the time people were in to the kit car thing. It was based on the VW Rabbit. You could buy one (a Rabbit) and take all of the parts off of the donor car. It was very light weight, like 1500 pounds. And the engine was 170 horsepower. It was great car. If you drove down a mountain road I don't care what you were driving, you wouldn't be able to keep up with it. It was front wheel drive.  We sold about 25 of those. We started going to the kit car shootouts and we would be the third or fourth fastest car against much more powerful Cobras because of the power to weight ratio. The trouble was that everybody wanted a Cobra. Everybody said the car was "cute" but guys don't want a "cute" car. We still have one of them. It's a fun car to drive.

 

VSE Jackrabbit

 

PO: Then VSE got involved in building Cobra kit cars? What made those cars unique?

 

HA: My son, Matt built those. At that time there were over 30 companies involved in building Cobra kit cars. We designed a backbone chassis which was far superior to any of the others. They had a kit car shootout that they ran every year. We went there and we won "top dog" five times. The last year that (Matt) went he was five seconds faster than the next Cobra. During that time we were able to refine our chassis and we sold some cars. (That market) was really competitive. Some of the competitors would advertise that they would sell you a "car" for twelve thousand dollars, but all you got was a box of parts. We had to get 50 or 60 grand to sell you a whole car.

 

VSE Cobra

 

 

PO: Your current company is called Passion Motors and your new project is the Contessa, From what I have seen, this car is another amazing engineering achievement and is also beautiful in form. Please tell us all about the Contessa and what she can do.

 

HA:  It is an evolution of our (VSE) Cobra chassis. It has an independent rear suspension. It is a stretched chassis with the same basic design. I designed the body 20 years ago. We have two (completed prototypes). One is a street car with a nicely finished interior and we have one that is set up for the race track. We are really pleased with how well they handle and how fast they are. It weighs 2500 ponds with the 502 GM crate motor which has an iron block. We are working on one with an LS7 engine which should be 100 pounds lighter and 100 horsepower more. So with that package we'll be at under 2500 pounds with 650 horsepower.

 

PO: That ought to boogie.

 

HA: Yes sir.

 

PO: Are you taking orders for Contessa now?

 

HA: Yes. We did several shows last Summer and we have some pending orders now.

 

PO: What are some of the available engine options?

 

HA:  The street car has the 502 crate engine, but we can basically do any engine you want. The LS7 is also a really good package. One customer wants one with an LS9 also.

 

The car rides really well. It has a lot of wheel travel and soft springs. It handles really well. We've done a lot of testing on the track and we have a really good package. This car is what the Trans Am would be today if I were still at Pontiac.

 

 

Contessa

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Passion Motors web site:

 

http://passion-motors.com/default.aspx

 

PO: Passion Motors is also selling VSE suspension components for some of the older models that were served by these systems in the past. Please tell us about these systems?

 

HA: Back when we were in that business, we sold suspension components for the F cars and the A cars. When we set up this business to sell Contessa, Matt suggested that we sell the suspension parts again. We already had the designs and tooling and everything so we could build them. There is some interest in those parts.

 

VSE Suspension

 

VSE Parts link:

http://passion-motors.com/VSEPerfomanceParts.aspx

 

 

PO: There have been a lot of inquiries in Trans Am circles regarding reproductions of the Fire Am decal kits. Does Passion Motors have any plans to do those in association with the VSE product line?

 

HA:  Matt has a few orders for those now. When he gets enough orders we will make them.

 

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