Builder of the Coolest Trans Am Ever Tells All
It used to be that no one knew Riley Stair at all. Then he built the Trans Am.
You may know the Trans Am. It’s a 1970 second-gen body that Stair recreated into an image he had in his mind of what a Firebird Trans Am could and should be. He beavered away almost two years in a lean-to under a 9-foot by 13-foot tarp between one edge of his parents’ house and the neighbor’s fence. He kept running out of money as he built it, selling some cars he owned and selling the very truck and trailer he and his dad had built with which he was going to haul the thing to SEMA. But he got it done, learning everything from rust repair to calculus along the way. When he debuted it at the SEMA show—having rented a truck and trailer to get it there—his life was never the same.
He turned it into a tube-frame, reskinned, fully stripped race car, something that has been done perhaps 4 million times before. But in addition to performance things you might expect on a Trans Am project car—like a new 400-cid Dart LSX engine slid back in the frame and modeled after Australian Pro Stock spec with a 16:1 compression ratio sending just over 800 hp to the rear tires—Stair’s car had a look, an aesthetic that nothing before had ever quite carried off.
Since debuting at SEMA three years ago, the car has won pretty much every award a second-gen Pontiac Trans Am build could hope to win, the topper being the selection as a Hot Wheels Legends car, which is in the final process of finishing right now at Hot Wheels Mattel headquarters in El Segundo, California. That’s where we got to see it and where we heard some more of Riley’s and the car’s story, recreated here in his own words.
Riley Stair: It’s gone through quite a bit of surgery. Really the only thing that remains (of the original car) is the outer skin. Everything else was built by hand. It’s based off of a car purposed strictly for the track. Aesthetics are obviously important. I had a specific vision in mind of what I wanted it to look like. I wanted it to look as though it could have come out of the ‘70s but with some new styling and definitely some new engineering behind it. I think I’ve achieved that goal. I’m currently developing it, continuing to develop it, track it, use it, and I’m fixing things that break, things that need to be upgraded, updated. And that’s where it is right now.
Autoweek: What was it like to build it in such a confined space? (Stair built it next to his parents’ house.)
RS: From the fence to the side of the house (the space where the car was built) was nine and half feet wide and it was 13 feet long. Something like that. I actually own my own shop now up in Sacramento and I do things similar to this all day, thankfully. So yeah, that was my stepping-off point, I was working full time when I built the thing and working on this after hours. Right before SEMA in 2018 I quit that job to finish the car and kind of put all my eggs in that basket. And thankfully I was able to make it into a career.
AW: How has the Hot Wheels Legends selection helped you?
RS: The Legends Tour has been great. I’m not a huge media guy. So it enabled me to share the car in a different avenue than your normal, you know, track days or Instagram or whatever and reach a larger audience of people that are young enthusiasts, young car lovers, and also, it’s really special to be able to have something that’s gonna last a long time. To have this car, taking it on the track and using it, makes it a perishable item that might not be around next year, you never really know. So having a 1/64th-scale die cast of it is really special. To know that it’s going to live on, with other little kids playing with them as I did when I was a kid, playing with them on the carpet and whatnot. That’s been probably the most special part of the whole thing.
AW: Where have you driven it?
RS: It’s gone to four track days this year. And just like any race car it breaks things. It shows a lot of potential. I am an amateur driver at best. So keeping it on the track is difficult enough. Last time out was Laguna and I did four 20-minute sessions. It worked pretty flawlessly the whole time. So I’m finally out of the stage of fixing things that break and more into the fine-tuning and trying to get some speed out of it. So hopefully, I got a couple things to do maintenance-wise when I get back home but then we’ll be going out a couple times before the end of the year and see if we can’t find some speed out of it.
AW: How did you choose this car?
RS: I love ‘70s race cars. I just I wasn’t around then and it seems like it was a great time. I really like the aesthetic. The proportions of this car are really what drew me to this model and year specifically. So one of the things that I really enjoyed about a second-gen is the roofline. The roofline kind of just falls straight down into the spoiler. One of the goofy things about the second-gen, the nose is super-long, especially the Pontiac, it’s got the nose cone up there. But when I looked at them, I figured if I could just make it a little bit wider and if I can ease-out the proportions and make it a really enjoyable car to look at, and with the body line in the center of it kind of being a point and it kind of chases it like a diamond, the flares seemed like the best route to go (the car is seven feet wide). And that’s just the picture I had in my head.
AW: Was it hard to find one?
RS: Admittedly at the time second-gen Camaros, their price points were extremely high, way higher than I could manage. And finding a Pontiac, they were a lot less desirable. So I got on Craigslist on the classifieds and started clicking around and, funny enough, I started clicking around and I would be in the $4000 price range, $4500 price range and they’re all rusty and I thought, “No, I’ll find a better one,” and they’re all like that, I couldn’t find a better one. I looked for four-ish months and by the time I got ready to buy one I kind of had to pull the trigger on a rusty, junky one because the prices had started to climb. So I ended up with this one and it was in pretty good shape when I got it back from (media) blasting. It made for a fun story and it taught me a lot.
AW: What did you learn?
RS: I ended up having to do a lot of rust repair, which is something that I didn’t know anything about. I learned that it was difficult. There are definitely right and wrong ways to do it. It taught me a lot… I’m working my way through the whole car. There’s a lot of stuff that I’ve redone and fixed and improved. I don’t know that it will ever be a car that is actually finished. I’ve got some relatively radical ideas I’d like to do with it. But being that I track it I’m probably gonna wait till I’m hit and then I’ll do the thing. So rather than tear it apart now…
AW: Hood or no hood?
RS: So the hood, I have the air box on it now. When I built it as I’m sure a lot of people can associate with, I didn’t have all the money right up front. So the engine was being built over the 18 months I was building the car and I did a lot on it. And when the engine was said and done with the heads that are on it instead of the mockup ones I had, the engine was a little higher than I wanted. It sat right over the throttle body perfectly but there wasn’t enough room for a filter or anything. So unfortunately, I had to cut the airbox into the hood. But at the time, the hood was my favorite part. So I always intended to run it with the hood. The fact that it fits under the hood was kind of kind of a happy accident. I was just kind of trying to make sure that was stiff. I made it really, really robust so that you don’t end up (in a crash) with stuff getting to you or you go to it. (On a modern car) you would need crumple zones and anything else. And I’m not a big FEA (finite element analysis) computer guy. So I built it so that if I’m to run out of talent and hit anything, engine pieces and things aren’t going to get to me. It just turned out it looks good. So I always intended to have a hood on it. I usually keep a hood on it. But I think, as cool cars are without hoods, I love it with the hood on it. Just my personal opinion.
AW: How much did this cost?
RS: I started an Excel spreadsheet when I started building it. And it got to an amount of money that I needed to stop looking at it, because I started to build expectations for it. I don’t want to share the digit because it makes me, one, self-conscious and, two, I don’t know that it suggests anything positive. I’ll tell you that I was working full time, living at home, my parents were extremely gracious and knew that I wanted to do this and knew that it cost me everything. And at the time, I had a slew of old BMWs, the ones that you used to be able to buy for like $2500. And then they got really expensive. I had a few of those, and an old truck and trailer that my dad and I had built, and I sold everything. So it was pretty much every dime I could save for two years, and all of the cars that I owned, were dumped into the car. For a while it left me penniless. But it was worth every penny, I would never take it back. It taught me a lot. Not just in building cars. It taught me a lot about diligence, determination, and sacrifice. I actually had to rent a trailer to get it to SEMA in 2018 because I sold the truck and trailer that I was going to use to take it there to finish it. So it was the most worthwhile financial burden I’ve had thus far.
AW: That looks like a pretty sophisticated pushrod suspension. How did you know how to do the suspension?
RS: I read as much as I could. I found that half the stuff you read on the internet you have to tell yourself is not true. And then I started reading. I read a couple books. And I figured, ‘If somebody’s getting something published, they might know (what they’re talking about).’ And at the end of all of that I found that, back in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, before a bunch of computer-aided stuff, they used to string-out suspension geometry. They actually screened it out on the table and that helped them find all the geometry. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of ‘guess and check.’ For the independent rear suspension I wanted to get the anti-squat and anti-dive for the front. I really started to dive into that and unfortunately I don’t know any calculus. So thankfully, I was working with a guy who’s an engineer, one of the smartest guys I know, Alex Wright. He helped me a lot. I know one calculus equation now, for anti-squat and anti-dive. He taught me that. And I was like, ‘Okay, my brain’s full.’ So that and string.
It seems to work right now how I built it. It rides really well. The first time I drove it, I was afraid I would wreck it because, you build something with the tooling and means that I did, you never really know. The first time I was able to drive around the track and it drove extremely tame as far as geometry, drivability. But with that said, I left everything as adjustable as I could. Every aspect of this suspension can be adjusted, whether it’s the roll center or the camber curve or castor, everything’s adjustable so that if I hit something somewhere, I wasn’t going to have to chop the front of the car off to fix it.
AW: Have you changed anything?
RS: So the basic geometry, the roll center is still the same. The castor is still the same, although I do plan to add a degree of castor. I’ve pulled some camber out of it. And then I just got the shocks re-valved. I’ve been tinkering with the shock settings trying to get a little more rear bite out of it. But for the most part, the basic geometry of it is the same.
AW: Have you driven it on the street?
RS: I’ve had it, you know, around the block and it’s drivable. One of the hardest parts about it is you really should wear a helmet and be moving to get air moving through it, or wear a respirator. It is a methanol car so it’s extremely toxic in there. But technically, you can street it. The biggest obstacle, literally, is if you can get it out of a driveway and over anything in the middle of the road. I didn’t drive it at home. My parents’ neighbors are already upset enough at me. But first time I drove it on the street, it was really odd because it’s extremely low. And when you’re sitting in it, your caboose is actually only two and a half inches, three inches off the ground. So if there’s anything around you for reference, you realize that you’re in, like, your neck is at the height of a normal car tire. It’s kind of an odd sensation.
AW: What’s next for the Trans-Am?
RS: It’s been a great car, a great project, and will continue to be. It’s not a car that I imagine I will ever stop working on. I love the Trans Am, I love it. So I wanted it to look like that still, just with some minor modifications. Knowing that to get (a good track) time out of it, it’s gonna have to have some sort of aero. The spoiler is really the only thing that I want back there. The only thing I might do is make a carbon one that’s slightly taller with a little bit more attack (angle) on it. But overall, it’s a whole carbon flat bottom on the thing. I tried to duct the radiator and make sure that no air is going anywhere but through the radiator and through the brake ducts. One of the things that sucks about it is it does have a lot of mechanical grip, which is no problem. But at speed, without a wing and without any additional downforce, it still only weighs 3100 pounds. So why I built this car is, I’m not willing to sacrifice aesthetic to get a little bit of speed that I could get out of it. I figured right now Buttonwillow’s the standard for lap times in California. Realistically, if I can find some ability, it should be able to do mid- to high-40s out there. My personal goal being like a 50. That’d be really fast. And with the setup that it has now, aero-wise, it should be plenty capable. And that’s good enough for me. I’ll build something else if I really want to start to push the limits of speed on the track, I’ll build a different car with aero. But for this one, it’s just the very basics: I built an air dam to make sure the air’s not going to go in the front wheel well and fill the hood and everything else. It has a flat-bottom so air is not getting up into the cavities, and send it down the track and hope it’s fine.
And so far, everything is fine. Look for one of the Riley Stair Trans Am Hot Wheels at your favorite toy store soon.
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