Still cruising the old neighborhood in a car owned for 45 years.
When the weather is clear, Tom Wai-Shek takes the subway from his home in Manhattan out to Brooklyn. It’s where he grew up and where, today, he stores his 1968 Pontiac Firebird 400 in a rented garage. He disconnects the battery charger, checks the tires and fluids and then fires up the rumbling V-8 in a muscle car he’s owned since 1969.
Wai-Shek, a graphic designer, then drives the bright red Firebird on a loop along the Shore Parkway, under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and then down some of the same streets where he routinely cruised the car more than 40 years ago.
He recalls how his father had not allowed him to purchase his own car until he graduated from college. By the time he’d earned his degree from New York City’s School of Visual Arts in 1969, Wai-Shek had saved $2,000, and he’d made up his mind that he had to have a Muscle Car.
The art school graduate was in luck. His friend, Albert, who lived around the block in the Park Slope area of Brooklyn, had bought a brand-new Pontiac Firebird the year before and could no longer afford the insurance premiums charged to a young man driving a sporty car with a 330-hp engine. Another neighbor’s son faced a similar situation with a 1969 Mustang Mach 1.
“I loved both cars,” says Wai-Shek. He chose the Firebird for its $1,900 asking price; the Mustang’s owner wanted $2,100. His eye was also drawn to the first-gen Firebird’s curvier body. The Firebird had just 1,500 miles when he bought it, so Wai-Shek had essentially scored a new car at a huge discount. The car was originally Autumn Bronze with a black vinyl roof, a particularly handsome combination for the first-gen Firebird.
Wai-Shek enjoyed Brooklyn’s car culture with his Firebird, including watching – but not partaking in – the area’s illicit street races. And, like many other New York City Pontiac racers and enthusiasts made a beeline for the Brooklyn tuning shop of Annunziata Romano – better known as Nunzi – who, among other feats for the brand, was the first to run in the low 10s in a first generation Firebird.
Wai-Shek wasn’t looking for a horsepower boost but rather chassis mods, including a rear sway bar, to improve handling. Nunzi wound up servicing Wai-Shek’s Firebird for about 10 years.
When Wai-Shek moved to Manhattan to work as an advertising art director, he left the Firebird at his parents’ house. He’d take mass transit back to drive the car, including trips with fellow car buffs to major swap meets in Pennsylvania. That’s where he picked up the Rally II rims on the car now.
“I bought extra center caps and trim rings, because they tended to fall off from the bumps in Brooklyn,” he says.
Eventually, the trips out to Brooklyn became infrequent and the Firebird began to deteriorate. In Manhattan, Wai-Shek bought the second of the only two cars he’s ever owned, a used Ford Pinto wagon. He used it mainly for carrying the old advertising posters and porcelain gas station signs he bought at swap meets.
“The Pinto was good, because you could drive out to the shows and sleep in the back,” he says.
Unable to part with his Firebird, Wai-Shek decided to have it restored in the late 1980s. It took nearly eight years of shuffling between various mechanical and paint shops to get the work done.
“They’d promise the car would be done ‘next month,’ so I kept paying rent on my garage. The landlady thought I was crazy for having an empty garage for so many years,” he says.
Wai-Shek had the vinyl roof removed and had the car painted in a color he’d fallen in love with when he saw it on a Porsche – that brand’s famous Guards Red. A move to Pasadena with his wife and daughter is planned for the near future, and Wai-Shek expresses mixed feelings about that.
“I’ll miss the culture here,” he says. “You can walk from neighborhood to neighborhood and see and experience so many things.”
However, the car enthusiast in Wai-Shek admits to looking forward to joining Southern California’s car culture and having his Firebird parked in his own garage, with the weather and roads better suited for driving whenever he pleases.