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Looks That Kill—Updating an 80’s Muscle Machine With A Modern Wheel and Tire Package


Written By Steve Baur

Photography by the Author

Arguably the single most impressive change you can make to your car is to bolt up a new set of wheels. Selecting the right set can make a mundane car look muscular, and attract attention that the car might not have otherwise received. When it was time to upgrade the wheels on this 1987 Pontiac Firebird Formula, we looked past the Fourth-Gen F-body or Corvette wheels that many people opt for and went right to the WELD Racing Wheels website to browse it’s latest line of wheels, the RT-S.

Depending on application you might have to wait for your new WELD RT-S wheels to arrive, as many of them are made to order. They’re well worth the wait, however. We chose 18×9-inch RT-S S77s for this Firebird, and they are offered with a polished barrel, anodized black center, and milled-finish spokes. We would love to see a fully polished option in the future as well.

While most people think of drag racing wheels when they hear the name “Weld,” the company found that the late-model muscle car market desired something more than the old-school big-and-little look. Modern braking systems also required larger diameter wheels, and the tire companies responded to this as well to make a viable package. And lets face it, its easier than ever to make big horsepower for the street, and having a big footprint to hook it all up is essential.

One of the specifications that comes up when ordering these wheels is the pad height. This is basically the thickness of the mounting pad on the wheels and this is of particular concern if you have a big aftermarket brake setup on the car or large factory binders. WELD specified a low pad height for our application, and the company can help you decide what best fits your application.


As you can see, WELD Wheels has figured out a great number of fitment options for the ’82-’92 Firebird, and the company has many more of these guides on its website for other vehicle applications.

WELD’s RT-S line of wheels features modular, three-piece, forged aluminum construction with custom sizes, backspacings, and offsets that are sure to fit most any vehicle. The RT-S line started off with the S71 and S77 models, but has since been expanded beyond those to include a number of designs, as well as bead-lock options for those who still intend to drag race and need the utmost performance in their wheel-and-tire combination.

While the 15-inch version utilize a shank-style lug nut, the 17, 18, and 20s all use a conical lug nut. Machined right here in the USA, the S77 wheels are quite exquisite. The black anodized centers provide a durable finish.

For this application, however, we didn’t have to contemplate too hard with regard to the sizes, backspacings, and offset, as WELD already had a size listed in its online application guide that was just what we were looking for. Thinking back to the now-discontinued 17×9-inch SLP Firehawk wheels we’ve seen in the past, we started with those dimensions and upsized the diameter to 18 inches. According to WELD Racing’s application guide, this Third-Gen F-body called for an 18×9 diameter and width, a low-pad height with 5.20 inches of backspacing and the requisite 5×4.75-inch Chevy bolt pattern. WELD has plenty of options for the Third-Gen Firebirds and Camaros, from 15 inches to 20 inches in diameter, and from 4 inches wide to 11.5.

WELD ships the wheels with center caps and valve stems, but in our case, the front bearing assembly required a pair of slightly deeper, 3-inch center caps, which we were able to grab quickly of the internet.

Once you receive the wheels, it’s of the utmost importance to test fit them on the vehicle before you mount any tires to them. Here, we checked clearance to the front struts, as well as the lower control arm, tie rod ends, and front anti-roll bar. We did later run into a clearance issue after fitting coilover front struts to the car, but it was easily solved with a 5mm wheel spacer.

At the back of the car, there was plenty of room for a 10- or 11-inch wheel. Just be mindful that if you have lowered the car, the rearend moves more freely with the Third-Gen’s torque arm design, and if you’re too close to the inner wheel well, it may rub when the rearend is fully articulated.

We knew based on the similar dimension of the SLP Firehawk wheels that the rims would fill out the wheel wells and sit perfectly under the lips of the fenders, so we weren’t disappointed once the WELD S77s showed up and were fitted to the vehicle.While many enthusiasts opt to run a staggered fitment, we chose the square option so we could rotate the tires, a plan that would be more optimal for street driving and the occasional autocross. To that end, we contacted Nitto Tire and the staff there recommended the company’s NT05 “max performance” tire.

Here we are comparing the stock sized 245/50/16 tire on the left to the 275/35/ZR18 Nitto NT05 tire on the right. The Nittos were just a touch larger in diameter, and the larger width will not only improve vehicle performance, but it also fills out the wheel wells for a more aggressive appearance.

The NT05 shines in dry conditions and with just a 200-treadwear rating, it should do fairly well on the autocross or the dragstrip. While this Firebird’s engine produces around 400 horsepower, there is no shortage of vehicles that make far more and for that, Nitto offers the NT05R, which is a drag-radial version of the NT05 and shares a similar tread pattern for a matching fitment.

The NT05s have a rim edge guard molded into the bead of the tire that offers a bit of protection. The 275/35/ZR18 tires we picked out measure 25.55 inches in diameter, and offer a tread width of 10.94 inches. Nitto recommends a rim width of 9.0-11.0 (optimally at 9.5) and each tire weighs in at 28.05 lbs.
The WELD S77 wheels and Nitto NT05s go along way in bringing this 80s machine into modern times. Now we just need to give it an altitude adjustment!

After fitting the Firebird with the new wheel and tire package, it’s apparent that it has taken on a much more impressive appearance. Just because you want to rock out to Motley Crüe in your ’87 Firebird doesn’t mean its performance or looks need to stay locked into the 80s! Check out the captions for a few notes that we made during the change.


Nitto Tire


WELD Wheels