Susan Tallant laughs as she remembers how she first began the project of customizing her 1967 Pontiac Firebird convertible. After driving the recently purchased car one sweltering Midwest summer day, Tallant was determined to install an air conditioner. When she and her husband finally began to tackle that project, Tallant decided to take it one big step further. “I thought, ‘So, as long as we’re taking everything out, we should customize the car.’” She chose to take on the project for one simple reason—the Firebird is her dream car. “It’s the car I’ve wanted since high school,” she says. She waited 15 years to get it. In January 2007, Tallant drove all the way from Kansas City, Mo., where she co-owns Tallants Auto Body and Hot Rod with her husband, to Denver, Colo., to buy the car.
At first, Tallant didn’t make any customizations to the Firebird, driving it just as it was. But she soon realized no one paid special attention to her car. “People ‘oohed’ and ‘ahed’ at [other cars] and totally ignored mine, and that made me upset,” she says. “So, I thought, ‘That’s it. We need to change this up. I don’t want [my car] to be the one that fades into the background.’” In November of 2007, Tallant began to pull apart the Firebird.
Although her husband had experience restoring cars, Tallant didn’t. Yet she was determined to work on the Firebird herself. “When I started to customize it, I told my husband I didn’t want people to look at it and say, ‘Oh, there’s another car Dan built and Susan drives,’” she recalls. “I wanted it to be a car I did that he helped me with.” Tallant soon realized she learned the best by example. When she had to tackle things she’d never done before—like putting in Wilwood disk brakes—she relied on watching the expertise of her husband. “He worked on one side and I watched what he did. Then I went to the other side and duplicated it,” she says.
Slowly, the Firebird began to transform from a wallflower to an eye-popping hot rod. Tallant replaced the Pontiac rear end with a 9-inch Ford one. She pulled out the original 326 motor and put in a Chevy 454 with a 671 blower, producing 631 foot-pounds of torque. She also ripped out the old interior and installed a newer and more comfortable seat from a Mazda 626. Changing the interior from red to black, painting the dash, and installing new door panels, upholstery and gauges rounded out the Firebird’s customizations.
Despite the Firebird’s emerging beauty, the process was a lot harder than Tallant anticipated. “It was definitely tiring. It’s hard, hard, hard work,” she remembers. “Anyone who watches TV shows where they build a car in seven days doesn’t realize they have a crew of 100 people working on it.” At times she was tempted to throw in the towel. “There were nights when I didn’t want to go out in the garage and work, but if I didn’t work on it, it wouldn’t get done,” says Tallant, who, in the evenings, also ran her household and helped her daughter with homework.
The long hours paid off in the end. “A lot of people are like, ‘Holy cow!’ The overall impact of the car surprises them,” says Tallant, who hopes her experience will make her an even stronger asset to the shop. Already she’s noticed it’s easier for her to talk with customers. “I know what they are are talking about now, and I can use technical jargon with them.”
On a personal level, Tallant is proud to say she did most of the work herself. “I got my hands dirty. I broke every single fingernail. I ruined clothes,” she laughs. “The first couple of times I reached down to do something that was greasy and nasty, I tried to find a clean way to do it. But by the end of the process I didn’t care anymore. I just did it.”