is the automotive equivalent of a bulging bicep: a lean, muscular performance machine that
can tackle any street corner in town. If you have a hunch that this car is what they
used to call a "sleeper", you're right."
- Pontiac Firebird dealer brochure, 1988.
PONTIAC FIREBIRD FORMULA- 1987 to 1992
ALL MUSCLE. ZERO FAT.
Bunkie Knudsen, General Manager of Pontiac Motor Division during the early 1960's, once stated his first principle of product sales: "You can sell an old man a young man's car, but you can't sell a young man an old man's car."
With that philosophy driving Pontiac, it was easy to see where youthful performance at GM was born in the '60's and where it continued to live and thrive long after other car manufacturers had closed the lid on the coffins of their various makes and models of muscle cars.
The Firebird Formula was born with the same intensity and spirit that had brought about the creation of the famed Pontiac GTO six years earlier way back in 1964. The recipe was simple: take a regular production car, offer it with the best suspension and most powerful engine you can cram into it, then sell lots of them to the younger generation of buyers.
And that's just what Pontiac did, over and over again, first with the GTO in 1964 and then later with the Firebird Formula in 1970.
The Firebird Formula first appeared as a brand new, regular production model in 1970, debuting with the Firebird, Firebird Espirit, and the Trans-Am as the four models offered in Pontiac's F-body lineup. Only the Firebird and Trans-Am were carried over from 1969 to 1970, new for the second generation were the Firebird Espirit (replacing the Sprint) and the Firebird Formula. The second generation of the popular GM F-body was an instant success and the Firebird Formula quickly developed a loyal following of performance enthusiasts. While the base model Firebird was sporty and economical with the more upscale Espirit representing more luxury options at a subsequently higher price, the Formula was the less expensive of the two high end, high performance models. The Trans-Am, while being the top of the line performer of the breed and with the greatest visual impact, was also the heaviest of the Firebirds and the most expensive. The Firebird Formula fell squarely into a no-nonsense niche in the Firebird family. It had all of the good looks of the base model Firebird matched to the high performance of the Trans-Am, all without the flash and the hefty price of the Trans-Am. From the outset, the Firebird Formula offered high performance at a bargain price, which is what the youth market was looking for, especially since it often commanded less insurance costs than its flashier sibling, the Trans-Am.
The Formula was a street machine from the start, designed that way, and the enthusiasts knew it. When the Camaro dropped it's top of the line Z28 model, and soldiered on with just the base model and an LT model, Pontiac Firebirds continued to gain a large support base and to be produced. The second generation Formula continued in production through all model years (1970 to 1981) and gained remarkable success in the last five model years (1977 to 1981) of the generation when John Schinella worked his graphics magic to transform the Formula package into a truly visually stunning work of art. A small but loyal following quickly grew up around the Formula namesake, elevating the model to cult status among enthusiasts and performance advocates.
The Formula could always be had with the same engine and suspension options that the Trans-Am could. The engine bay of the Formula was home to many Ram Air versions of the venerable Pontiac 400, several 455s, the Super Duty 455, the W72 220hp 400cid Pontiac (the last of the big Pontiac motors in '78 and '79) and finally to the turbocharged 301 Pontiac V8 of 1980 to 1981.
The Formula was the younger brother to the Trans-Am, a less expensive option than the Trans-Am, but more powerful than the base Firebird and Espirit models. As the Trans-Am continued to increase in weight with each new set of accessories added, the Formula remained the lightest and most powerful of all Firebirds available.
The 2ndGen Firebird Formulas were always Pontiac's street fighters. They had the looks of the base model, but the power trains and suspension of the Trans-Am. Middle level entries in the performance war for the street. The 2ndGen Formulas could always be ordered with the same engine and suspension combinations that the Trans-Am had for that year, making the Formula a bargain performer. 2ndGen Formulas ruled the streets from 1970 to 1981. Their hearts beat with the power of 400cid Ram Air series V8 engines, SD 455s, the W72 / L78 two hundred and twenty horsepower 400cid V8 in 1979, and finally the 210 horse 4.9 liter Pontiac 301cid turbocharged V8 that left production in 1981.
Formulas were always Firebirds that were taking the fight for GM to the streets. In a dark age of performance when the Camaro became the ugliest, least performing F-body ever produced, in an age when the Z28 died a slow death, the Formula and Trans-Am were always there, shining examples that performance at GM, or at least at Pontiac, was not dead. When everyone else in Detroit was throwing in the towel, when performance was bad, government emissions controls on the rise, when the Ford Mustang II was a joke, when the Cobra II option was even more laughable, when the Corvette was suffering from smoglegalitis, that was a hey-day for Pontiac. When the Z28 finally died and the Camaro was available with only a LT package and the anemic 350 smogger engine, that's when the Pontiac Formula really shined. In the '70's, Chevrolet gave the F-body performance title to Pontiac on a silver platter.
The Formula was a survivor. Pure and simple. During its eleven year initial reign on the streets, it saw the slow and horrible wasting deaths of many of its competition and its good friends. Gone were the Pontiac GTO, the Judge, the Chevy SS Chevelle, the SS Nova, the SS Camaro, RS Camaro, and the Camaro Z28. Gone were the Plymouth Road Runner, Dodge Charger, Plymouth Barracuda and the Ford Boss Mustangs. Gone were the Mach I Mustangs... The wasting sickness that was pollution and emissions controls killed such great engines as the Pontiac 400 Ram Air series motors, the Super Duty 455, the LS-1 454 big block, the LT-1 350cid small block, the 302 Boss, the 351 Cleveland, the 440 Wedge, the 426 Hemi, the Six Pack Mopar engines, the 427 Cobrajet and 428 Super Cobrajet engines, and a host of others. All around Detroit, the automotive ghosts of once great performance cars and the echoes of high performance engines lived on only in memory or in private collections. Yet, through all the darkness, there drove two examples of high performance in America; the Pontiac Firebird Trans-Am, and the Pontiac Firebird Formula which were neck to neck with the Chevy Corvette for title of best American performance car.
During the darkest years in Detroit automotive performance history, when other car makers were dropping their sport coupes faster than you could say 'emissions standards', someone forgot to tell Pontiac that it wasn't the '60's all over again. In an era of ever decreasing cubes, puny power ratings, inefficient engines, unleaded gas, and the dreaded catalytic converter, the Pontiac Firebird Formula could be had with either 400 or 455 cubic inchV8s. Backing these with state of the art suspension, and heavy duty automatic or manual transmissions, and the Formula was the only game in town for many people.
It was a no holds barred, bare and simple street fighter. The Formula was a no frills performer, with just enough touch of sport thrown in to make it exciting. The recipe was simple, take the base model Firebird, and give it all the performance and handling of the top of the line Trans-Am, but without any of the extra cost options of the Trans-Am aero packages, etc. and without all the higher insurance and model cost.
It was a hit, from 1970 1/2 to 1981, the Formula grew a very loyal following of Pontiac buyers and owners, many of them repeat owners of Formulas.
The Formula option was last seen in 1981, the first year of GM's ECM, and the last year of the last Pontiac V8, the 200 horsepower 4.9 liter turbocharged V8. The last Formula had been somewhat down on power than the year before, losing 10 horsepower and dropping from 210 horses to a mere 200, but even then that was enough to outmuscle it's rival siblings, the Camaro Z28 and the Camaro Rally Sport, easily. Backed with a stout TurboHydraMatic 350 3 speed automatic transmission, and riding on the legendary WS-6 suspension system featuring limited slip differential and four wheel disc brakes (unavailable on the Z28), the Formula closed out the second generation with a roar, not a whimper. It was also a foretaste of what was to come; small displacement engines and computer enhanced engine management. But it was 1981, everyone was in shock over the ECM modules on their new Firebirds and Camaros, and the darkness was looming ever darker on the horizon for factory high performance. For many, the computer signaled the end of performance, and the beginning of an Orwellian 1984 like Big Brother era. Others recognized that the addition of electronic engine management systems would be of great benefit in the future, especially to performance.
Many waited eagerly for 1982, and the introduction of the 3rdGen F-bodies for the Formula nameplate to be carried on, but Pontiac did not offer the Formula in 1982. Instead, it offered only the base model Firebird, a Firebird S/E (forgettable), and the ever present Trans-Am. Gone also was the promising 4.9 liter turbocharged V8 motor, in its place was an anemic 305 cubic inch Chevy small block that had four cubes more and sixty horses less than the previous year's top of the line turbocharged motor. Sadly, the Formula vanished at the end of 1981. The 3rd Gen Formula model had never even made it to the drawing boards. The mighty name of "Formula" would be in limbo for 5 full years before making a triumphant return in 1987. A return that raised many questions from loyal Pontiac Formula owners and potential new Formula buyers.
Where had the Formula been all these years?
Why was it suddenly back now?
So, why did the Formula vanish at the end of 1981. It was simple, really. Federal emissions standards were choking the life out of performance cars. Performance cars were expensive to design and build, and the F-body was seeing decreasing sales. It was GM's way of merely cutting their losses by rolling back on the available models offered with the 3rd Generation cars. Both Pontiac and Chevrolet were allowed three models, and they were decided to be a base model, an upgraded base model, and a performance model. These were offered as the Camaro / Firebird, the Berlinetta / Firebird S/E, and the Z28 / Trans-Am.
The Firebird was seen as the base model, and if people wanted performance, then they could look to the Trans-Am. Cut out the middle man completely, you had two choices; economy or all out performance. The middle of the spectrum was very dark indeed, being populated by such wholly forgettable models as the Firebird S/E and the Chevy Camaro Berlinetta. Models which sacrificed even more performance for increased comfort, luxury, and high tech worthless doo-dads such as digital dashes, stereos on a stalk and integrated overhead consoles. The Firebird S/E did have the option of being ordered with the WS-6 suspension and the same 305 cube with four barrel backed by a 4 speed manual transmission as the Trans-Am offered. Some see the Firebird S/E as 'the missing two models' in that the Firebird S/E could be ordered as either the previous year's Espirit model for luxury, or as a performance model with the same suspension and power train (excluding the LU5 Cross Fire Injection motor) as the Trans-Am, thus it could be ordered as a 'pseudo-Formula' if you picked the right boxes.
If anything, the new F-bodies were heavy. Lighter than their 2ndGen predecessors, they were still heavy. The base engine was a 2.5 liter inline four cylinder, Pontiac's famous "Iron Duke", fed by a single throttle body injector. The next step up was a 2.8 liter V6 which drew breath through an anemic 2 barrel carburetor. The top of the line performance models were initially offered with a pair of 305 cubic inch Chevy small blocks under the hood. The first model, the LU5 was the first fuel injected power plant to ever grace a Firebird's fenders. It utilized an older design of cross ram mounting a single throttle body injector where normally a carburetor would have been mounted. The LG4 version of the engine was a joke, barely producing 140hp in full emissions trim and a torque curve flatter than the bird decal on the nose. They were no match for their predecessor's performance, even the performance offered by the 301 turbo plants and the 403 Oldsmobile engines in the last years of the 2ndGen.
The 5.0 liter LU5 Cross-Fire Injection V8, the most powerful offered at 160 horsepower, could only be had with a 3 speed automatic, and only then in the Trans-Am equipped with the WS-6 Special Performance Package. The best that the 'pseudo-Formula' Firebird S/E could muster was the WS-6 Special Performance Package, and a 5.0 liter LG4 carb fed V8 backed by a four speed manual transmission. It wasn't very much... Zero to sixty came over 9 seconds after dropping the pedal, with the quarter mile taking seventeen or more seconds at a very unimpressive 80.5mph, and this was for the LU5 CFI motor and automatic. The LG4 paired with the 4 speed manual wasn't much better.
But it's so easy to see the dark clouds and miss the silver lining. The early '80's were also bright time in automotive performance. While high performance was plagued with the first mass dispersal of so called 'computer controlled' cars, overkill smog and emissions equipment, and bland, unexciting 85 mph speedometers, there was light on the horizon. GM, and Ford, were stuck with making small displacement V8 engines, and they had to do the best that they could with them. R&D and high technology provided the answers. High performance, high flow catalytic converters began to appear in production, units that would flow better than any previous unit. It became apparent that the environment and pollution controls were not going to go away, so GM and Ford did what they do best.
The early '80s were also the first big computer flood. Home computers were all the rage. Everything began to have a microprocessor installed in it; TV sets, radios, microwaves, VCRs, and your family car. Using a computer to control the engine could allow better cam profiles, high flow heads, hopped up carburetors, and better exhaust systems to be added, all the while maintaining emissions legality. The computer could think far faster than any human, and could control electronic ignitions, adjust spark curves, adjust timing, etc. to provide not only superior performance, but increased fuel economy and lessened emissions.
Many look down upon the 5.0 liter power plants that powered the F-bodies back then, but many also fail to see that each year, these engines simply got stronger and stronger. GM and Ford had a long standing rivalry on the street, and Ford's own 5.0 liter power plant, the legendary 302cid V8, was getting more powerful. Something had to be done as Z28s and T/As were getting blown into the weeds by Ford's new lighter, faster Mustang GT!
The carburetor versions of the 5.0 liter small block rapidly increased in power, jumping almost fifty horsepower in just two short years! These were performance jumps that had not been seen since the fond days of the late '60's and the reign of the muscle cars! For the first time in a long time, engines were getting stronger, not weaker. This year's engine was fifty horsepower stronger than last years, not fifty horsepower weaker as had often been the case in the 1970's.
People began to smell performance and actually began to enjoy their sports cars again. Ford was on the edge of this new wave of excitement. It's compact 5.0 liter 302cid High Output V8 was ruling the streets. The Mustang GT breathed through a dual snorkel air cleaner, and was lighter than either the Z28 or the Trans-Am. It could out huff, out puff, and out hustle GM's traditional pony cars, and this from a company that tried to shovel the Mustang II / Cobra II (with a 302cid drawing breath from a two barrel carburetor) down the public's throat just six short years before! Things had really changed over at the Blue Oval headquarters. Changes that would escalate the war on the street, bring about untold advances in performance technology, and bring back one of the most revered Pontiac models ever introduced.
So, the immediate threat to GM was the Mustang GT and it's four barrel, five speed backed 5.0 liter High Output V8.
Enter GM's own 5.0 liter High Output engine, the L69, and what a beauty it was. Using the larger 'monolith' style catalytic converter, and larger 2.75" exhaust system, the L69 was available only with a 5 speed manual transmission and came standard with 3.73 gears in a limited slip differential. The L69 camshaft was the camshaft out of the Corvette's 350cid V8 (which featured higher lift and longer duration than the camshaft found on the LG4), and a specially calibrated Rochester Quadrajet four barrel carburetor. The new motor had a lightweight flywheel, a aluminum intake manifold, a higher 9.5:1 compression ratio, and an electric cooling fan. The Z28 breathed through a large dual snorkel air cleaner assembly very similar to the Mustang GT's, while the Trans-Am was equipped with a single snorkel air cleaner but drew in cold air from a fully functional cowl induction scoop, the first functional hood scoop on a Pontiac Firebird in almost 10 years! The L69 5.0 liter High Output V8, for the moment, took the fight back to the streets and closed the gap between Fox body and F-body.
Between 1983 and 1985, the streets were home to open warfare between GM and Ford, and the engines moved from carb to electronic fuel injection. The horsepower rose by fifty percent on the 305 in the F-body during just three years! The least favorite of all the new engines to ever call the 3rdGen F-body home was the often maligned Cross-Fire Injection engine. The CFI engine, a cross ram intake manifold with two separate throttle body single injector units, GM's first factory fuel injection offered on a F-body ever, was greeted with open contempt instead of welcome arms. The engine, in a larger 350 cid displacement, powered the last of the C3 Corvettes and the first of the C4 Corvettes. Breathing through special cold air induction units built into the hood, the units mounted in the Corvette were noticeably more powerful than the smaller versions built into the F-bodies. The CFI engine, mounted in the Z28, also featured the first forward air scoops ever on a production Camaro, the twin hood doors would flip open under full acceleration, directing denser, colder air to the special air cleaner. Cross Fire Injection lasted only two two years and bowed out, but GM had learned enough about the benefits of electronic fuel injection in those two short years to replace it with a much more potent form of EFI in 1985; electronic direct port fuel injection known to GM as TPI or Tuned Port Injection.
Gone was the round air cleaner and the snorkel snout with the reinforced paper tube and plastic air scoop. Gone was the familiar looking under hood setup that had been the hallmark of performance cars for the last twenty-five years. Just what the heck was this new fuel injection system? TPI was a aluminum plenum, eight tuned runners leading into a high flow base unit, and nothing like anything that anyone had ever seen before. It didn't look like any kind of previous fuel injection and it didn't look anything like the previous Cross-Fire Injection system. It was digital, electronic, as opposed to the '63 'Vette's mechanical fuel injected 327. What everyone could agree to however is that it was beautiful. TPI premiered on the '85 Corvette, generating impressive results, propelling the new Corvette to speeds in excess of 150mph. True to form, the '85 Chevy Z-28 and the '85 Pontiac Trans-Am were offered with an available Tuned Port Injection engine, though only in the lesser, 5.0 liter displacement. The performance results of these new TPI engines was nothing short of miraculous. A '85 IROC-Z with a 5.0 TPI engine could hit 140mph on the straight away. The marriage of emissions, high performance, technology, and computers was starting to work, despite the initial bumps in the road that had turned many against electronic enhanced vehicles.
The '85 TPI F-bodies had a field day with the still (then) carburetor Mustang GTs, but that would change in '86 when Ford updated it's 5.0 H.O. power plant to use it's own form of port fuel injection. It was this for that. The pendulum would sway to and fro, first to Ford, then back to GM, but neither side managed to hold a clear victory for long.
Aging gracefully, the Z28, Trans-Am, and Mustang GT all began to gain weight. A little enhancement here, a new spoiler there, more sound insulation, a new power driver's seat, etc. and soon, all three heavy weights were, well, heavy! Ford was the first to realize this, and they began to copy Pontiac's version of the Firebird Formula, itself a nice compliment to the GM division. Imitation is the greatest form of flattery, and Ford was laying it on thick and heavy with the introduction of the LX 5.0 Mustang in the mid-'80's.
The LX 5.0 Mustang took GM by surprise and the automotive fans who were loyal to the Blue Oval loved it. Now they could order a base model Mustang with all of the power of the Mustang GT, at less cost, and less weight. Same engine, same suspension, same transmission, but less weight. That was a hot rodder's recipe for success in anyone's book, and Ford knew it.
And it was all highly familiar. Like people had seen something like the LX 5.0 Mustang before ...
Suddenly, GM was losing again on the street. Even the introduction of it's 5.0 TPI engines were only a stop gap against the Ford LX 5.0 Mustang threat. In 1986, Chevrolet pulled out all the stops and dropped fifty 5.7 liter TPI V8s into 50 IROC-Z Camaros, for testing purposes only, and used the press to wave them at Ford in defiance, saying, basically, "OK, you want war, you got it. Starting next year, we're going to shoe in the small block Chevy 350 from the Corvette into the F-body, see how you like that!". These IROCs were built without air conditioning, which made them pretty much useless in a real world environment, when their competition included air conditioning and blistering performance. Still, it didn't matter much, because the LX 5.0 Mustang was such a hot performer, that even with the 350 in the '87 and up IROC-Z and Trans-Am (later also the GTA), the LX 5.0 Mustang still proved to be the hot ticket. The F-body performance models soon grew so heavy, that just to get decent real world performance, the 350 was almost a required option. The Z28, T/A, and GTA were just too heavy, even with the 350 engines, to really compete with the LX 5.0 Mustang.
GM needed a different answer to the LX 5.0 Mustang problem. For the first time in a long time, it was going to take more than mere cubes to answer the LX 5.0 Mustang threat. It was going to take a diet, one that was going to starve the F-body for all it was worth. While Chevrolet thought that "more cubes" would be the answer, Pontiac knew better. Like any good body building program, you had to turn fat into muscle, not just add muscle to fat. The two divisions of GM approached the Ford LX 5.0 Mustang problem from different angles. Each had a different answer to the problem. Chevrolet approached the problem of the Mustang from the base model / cost economy standpoint while Pontiac approached the problem from the 5.0 LX and 5.0 GT standpoint.
Only one of them was right ...
The ad that launched the return of the Firebird Formula in 1987
Pontiac Firebird Formula: A Wolf In Sheep's Clothing Let Loose To Play On The Street
1987 was a banner year for Pontiac for this was the year that Pontiac introduced the heaviest ever Trans-Am (the GTA model) and the lightest, most powerful F-body available from GM (the Formula). It was also the year that the Chevrolet division made it's last, fatal mistake in dealing with the LX 5.0 Mustang problem.
In 1987, the biggest changes of the 3rdGen F-body family took place with the Pontiac Firebird line. Previously, F-body buyers had few choices; the economical base Firebird or the pricier and more powerful Trans-Am. What was missing was a middle choice, something that was the best of both worlds. Ford had three choices at this time; the base Mustang, a sportier LX 5.0 version that was really just a base model powered by a Mustang GT power plant and suspension, and the Mustang GT. The LX 5.0 took GM by surprise, here was a street fighter, a wolf in sheep's clothing. It was the the classic lesson of hotrodding; take a base car, shove a hot motor into it, sell it cheap, and it will sell over and over again.
Boy, did it sell!
The LX 5.0 Mustang was lighter than the Mustang GT, less expensive, but offered the same level of performance and handling. It was also easier on insurance and car tags once purchased. People flocked to the LX 5.0 Mustang, especially those who thought that the Mustang GT was a overweight spoiler and scoop package distantly related to that horrible Mustang II Cobra II from the mid-'70s. The LX 5.0 Mustang was cleaner, simpler. It was a contender for the street, well muscled, lean, with no fat. A no holds barred street fighter with a proud pony heritage and wearing a blue oval badge.
GM needed a response to the LX 5.0 Mustang. Chevy thought they had the answer. They were wrong! Chevrolet's entry to the LX 5.0 problem came late in the 1987 model year with the introduction of the RS Camaro. It wasn't much of an answer, since the RS edition of the Camaro was available in California only, and then the most powerful engine available was a fuel injected 2.8 liter V6. Even with a tight manual transmission, the LX 5.0 Mustang, powered by a 220 horsepower 302cid port fuel injected V8 and backed with a heavy duty transmission and stiff rear gears, could run circles around the RS Camaro without even breaking a sweat.
Again, with the introduction of the RS, Chevy had missed the problem entirely. What people wanted was a lighter, faster F-body. Chevy's RS was simply a watered down Z-28, all the fat with half the muscle. It was a sheep in wolf's clothing. The RS had Z28 style valances that were painted body color (like the IROC) but no lower body stripes. The RS looked like a monochrome version of the IROC, minus the IROC's 'washboard' hood, while it received, in place of the IROC's hood, a flat, featureless body colored steel hood. The RS received the 15 inch 5 spoke aluminum Z28 wheels which were painted to match body color but not the superior tires. The suspension was softer than the IROC-Z and Z28 models as well, lacking even four wheel disc brakes. The 1987 RS Camaro came in red, white, or black only. Coupled with base Camaro 2.8 liter V6 power and top of the line Z28 weight, the RS was, again, not the answer that people were looking for. The Chevy RS was an answer to the base four cylinder LX, but in no way ever came close to addressing the problem presented by the LX 5.0 and its port fuel injected V8 power plant. The Chevy RS never lived up to it's 2ndGen namesake, a car at that time that could be ordered, like the Formula, with all of it's bigger brother's performance options.
Chevrolet may have begun to see the selling potential of a mid-level sport coupe in the F-body line, but Pontiac was first to pick up the fallen GM banner and carry it proudly back to the streets with the re-introduction of the revered Formula nameplate.
More than just a decal and spoiler package, the Formula was every bit the equal and in many ways better than the LX 5.0 Mustang. 1987 marked the year of the return of the Formula, Pontiac's best example of a mid-level entry factory street fighter. The Formula came at a time when many people considered the Trans-Am to be approaching obesity. The Trans-Am suffered from a couch potato style diet of options and standard equipment. Performance was being sacrificed for comfort and the TA was quickly becoming a land barge. The Trans-Am's emphasis had been evolved from boulevard bruiser to stop light cruiser (a fact that would continue with the introduction of the GTA, which many thought stood for Great Tubby Am, a horribly fat but super comfortable version of the TA, a overweight T-Rex with four chins and belly-lap disease).
Sure, the TA was swoopy, aerodynamic, but it had lost it's bite on the street. It was aging. Badly. The newly available 5.7 liter V8 wasn't even offered with a manual transmission, further increasing the weight of the car and diminishing the performance! The GTA was doing good to hit sixty in seven seconds with the 350 under the hood! Pontiac needed a lighter model of Firebird to take its fight back to the streets and to wrestle the asphalt away from the Blue Oval boys and their little LX 5.0.
The Trans Am was still offered, but people wanted a base Firebird with Trans Am handling and performance. People wanted something that Pontiac hadn't offered in five years.
People wanted a Formula.
The name must have been whispered at first, in some hushed strategy meeting. Someone probably asked "What?" and then someone said again, a little louder, "Formula. Let's bring back the Formula."
And that's what Pontiac did. Pontiac's answer to Ford's mid-level street fighter LX 5.0 was their own version of the mid-level street fighter. Formula. The legend had returned. It was a base model Firebird with all the Trans-Am muscle and none of the fat. The recipe for producing the Formula was simple. Take a base model Firebird and give it Trans-Am performance and handling. Give it the WS-6 Special Performance Package automatically, and give it the availability of every single engine option that the Trans-Am had up to and including the big 5.7 liter TPI V8. But the new Formula needed a simple look, an easily identifiable look that would be unmistakable, and what it did NOT need was a whole bunch of spoilers and ground effects.
Making the Formula stand out was the large "Formula" lettering on the lower part of the door, simple and effective. Rear discs and limited slip differential were again, an option as opposed to being standard issue. A strange way for Pontiac to take the fight back to the streets, the Formula began to look like it would follow the RS Camaro. The base model of Formula was identical to the RS Camaro but for the fact that the Formula came standard with the lowest powered 5.0 liter V8 available each year and the RS came standard with the MPFI 2.8 literV6. No V6 Formulas were ever produced and the V6 motor could not be chosen for credit. If you wanted a real street fighter, then you had to work for it by checking off boxes on the RPO codes and building your own Formula.
In order to be effective, the Formula had to go on a crash diet even before it hit the streets. Pontiac wisely took the base model Firebird, added a front lower chin spoiler, added the power bulge hood found on the '82 thru '84 T/As, and the wrap around rear aero-wing style spoiler found on the current Trans-Am. Take this modest looking platform and make the WS-6 Special Performance Package standard including 16x8 High Tech Deep Dish aluminum wheels wearing P245/50VR16 Goodyear Eagle GT high performance steel radials and options for limited slip differential and a set of rear disc brakes. Power train wise, Pontiac dropped the ball completely by making the base engine of the Formula the wimpy LG4 four barrel Rochester carburetor equipped 5.0 liter V8. Standard engine should have been the LB9 5.0 liter TPI motor backed by the solid MM5 five speed manual transmission, but...
Many people questioned the addition of the power bulge hood. It was the same hood as had been found on the '82 through '84 Trans-Ams, only it had been gutted and sealed off! Gone was the solenoid activated hood scoop that would direct cold air into the hungry carburetor of the base LG4 motor. Gone was the special air cleaner assembly. In its place, a crude plate was attached to the inside of the hood scoop, sealing it off, and a layer of insulation covered the bulge, hiding the missing 'guts' of the previous functional system. Why had this been done? Why was the base engine a carburetor fed 5.0 liter? Why was there no provision for cowl induction with this engine when it so obviously needed it? Why was the base motor the weakest V8 offered in the line?
The Formula was supposed to carry GM's fallen banner back to the streets, and to do that, it needed the most powerful guns it could carry and that meant tuned port injection. Preferably big tuned port injection. TPI motors couldn't use the cowl induction system, not without major reworking of the intake and induction system, so the old cold air induction system was scrapped. With the coming demise of any carburetor engine in the GM lineup, a functioning cowl induction system didn't really make sense either mechanically or economically.
Even with the dropping of all carburetor engines from the F-body lineup in 1988 and the base model engine becoming the L03 5.0 TBI injected small block, the cowl system remained missing. The power bulge hood, once functional, had been relegated again only to pure decoration, even the inlet, easily opened by removing four screws, was hidden under a layer of under hood insulation.
The 1987 Formula was a virtual re-incarnation of the 1982 Trans Am, with the exception of the added base model's rubber bumperette style guards on the chin and the rear bumper and the rear aero-wing spoiler. The Formula came with a standard 5 speed manual transmission, in which the base engine was the tired old LG4 5.0 liter carb fed V8. Other engine options included the more powerful LB9 5.0 liter TPI V8 with a 5 speed manual or a 4 speed automatic, and the top option was, of course, the available 5.7 liter TPI B2L optioned 350 cubic inch TPI fed V8 which gave the Formula special side decals reading "FORMULA 350".
Engine-wise in 1987, the base engine for the Formula was the LG4 5.0 liter making 170 horsepower @4400rpm and 245 lbs.-ft. of torque @2800rpm, fed by a Rochester Quadrajet four barrel carburetor (the last year for a carb on any F-body V8). The next step up in power was the tuned port injected LB9 5.0 liter V8, making 190 horsepower @ 4000rpm and 295 lbs.-ft. of torque 3200rpm when mated to the 700R4 automatic transmission. The same LB9 motor made 215 horsepower at 4400rpm and 295lbs.-ft. of torque at a mere 3200rpm when mated to a five speed manual transmission. This was due to a hotter camshaft being offered only with the manual transmission. The most powerful engine option in 1987 was of course the B2L 5.7 liter OHV V8. This monster was tuned port injected and produced 225 horsepower at 4400rpm and a hefty 330 lbs.-ft. of torque at a lowly 2800rpm. The B2L was only available with the 700R4 automatic transmission.
In 1987, some 13,160 Formulas would be produced. There was definite interest in a lighter, faster street fighting capable F-body.
The 1988 Formula saw the disappearance of any carburetor engine in the line up. The lowest powered engine option in the Formula was now the L03 5.0 liter V8 with TBI. The standard transmission, as always, was the MM5 5 speed manual.
Not much changed on the Formula from model year 1987 to 1988. Carburetors was now a thing of the past on any V8 engine. Firebirds were now either using TBI throttle body based fuel injection or TPI tuned port injection. The top power plant in the Formula was still the B2L optioned L98 5.7 liter TPI V8, now pushing out 230 horsepower but it was, again, only available with the 700R4 four speed automatic transmission. Three different 5.0 liter powerplants were offered; the base engine with TBI, the weak cammed TPI engine with automatic, and the hotter cammed TPI engine with a five speed stick behind it.
In 1988, production for the Formula was up slightly by 315 units, from the '87 figure of 13,160 to the '88 production figure of 13,475 units.
The Formula was back, and growing stronger. Slowly, but the car was generating public appeal, the required attention among enthusiasts, and it was getting hotter.
In 1989, the G92 option was the big performance news from GM. The G92 option was a special dual catalytic converter exhaust system that reduced backpressure by 50%. It was claimed to be good for 10 horses. The L03 5.0 liter TBI V8 was still the standard engine choice with a 5 speed manual. The 700R4 automatic could also be ordered on the base motor. The TPI motors continued to grow stronger. The LB9 5.0 liter TPI V8, when backed by the 700R4 transmission, produced 195bhp and 295 lbs.-ft. of torque. When the LB9 was backed with the MM5 5 speed manual, it received the hotter camshaft and produced 220bhp and 290 lbs.-ft. of torque. The B2L 5.7 liter V8 now pumped out 230bhp and 330 lbs.-ft. of torque. If the G92 option was checked off, 10 horses were added to these numbers (G92 only available with LB9 / MM5 and B2L / auto combos) raising the 5 speed stick backed LB9 TPI V8 to 230bhp and the B2L 5.7 liter TPI V8 to 240bhp. If the 5.0 liter LB9 TPI V8 was optioned with the 5 speed manual transmission and the G92 package ordered, the buyer received rear disc brakes, limited slip differential, the special performance exhaust, and a hotter camshaft. The G92 option helped to put the Formula squarely back in the ring against it's rival, the LX 5.0 Mustang and even the heavier Mustang GT.
Formula (and all Firebirds for that matter) now had a "Pass-key" theft-deterrent system that had a resistor pellet imbedded in the key that had to match the ignition in order for the car to start.
1989 was the biggest production year for the Formula model, with an impressive 16,670 units being produced. This was 3,195 more units produced for this model year than the year before. It was also the peak production year for the Formula. The next year would see almost a 75% reduction in Formula production.
The 1990 Formula saw the addition of the new Supplemental Restraint System (SRS) airbag added to the driver's side and mounted in the steering column. Gone were the steering wheel mounted stereo control option, but the steering wheel was larger, and redesigned for a better grip. Engine options continued to remain the same in 1990, as they would until the end of the 3rdGen F-body in 1993. 1990 saw the change over in the TPI engines from Mass Air Flow (MAF) to Speed Density (SD) metering. It should be noted that in this same year, Ford switched their 302cid port fuel injected engines from Speed Density metering to Mass Air Flow metering. It was a strange year ...
Power choices for 1990 remained the same with some notable improvements. The LB9 5.0 liter TPI V8 got the same cam regardless of choice of automatic or manual, producing 210bhp and 285 lbs.-ft. of torque. If the hotter G92 package was ordered, horsepower for the manual (only) backed LB9 jumped from 210 to 230bhp and torque increased to 300 lbs.-ft. The B2L still produce 240 bhp and 340 lbs.-ft. of torque this year. The B2L was still not available with a manual transmission.
Production of the Formula model also feel sharply in 1990. Just over a quarter of the previous year's order was submitted this year, and total production of the Formula amounted to only 4,832 units. A loss in production of Formulas of 11,838 less Formulas produced. This trend would continue into the next year when production would once again be cut nearly in half.
In 1991, the Formula received a new front nose featuring recessed turn signals. The nose was very loosely based on the Pontiac Banshee concept car, and would carry over to the base model, the Trans-Am, and the ultra heavy GTA as well. The base model Firebird, the Trans-Am, and the GTA all received 'Batmobile' like side valence extensions, and a redesigned nose. The Formula, being the light weight street fighter that it is, did receive the new front nose but was mercifully saved from having such gluttonous aero packages stamped onto it's exterior. A redesigned (somewhat) flatter aerowing style rear wrap around spoiler appeared in '91 and was standard on the Formula and TA / GTA.
Powertrain choices and power output remained unchanged for the '91 model year.
Street Legal Performance (SLP) offered a special performance package, installed through the dealerships and available through GM Performance Parts, that really woke up the TPI motors. This package consisted of emission legal components (50 state certification) that included cast-aluminum high-flow intake runners, tri-Y stainless-steel tuned-length exhaust headers, a low-restriction stainless-steel exhaust system, revised engine calibration components (PROM), and a low-restriction, cold air-induction system. This package, as installed, was good for roughly 50 horsepower at 5500rpm, with increased torque above 2800rpm and up to a full second advantage from zero to 60. Time in the quarter mile was also reduced by roughly one second with six miles per hour being added to the trap speed.
Production of the '91 model year Formula was the lowest of all the recent years, with only a bare 2,610 units being produced. People were getting anxious for the 4thGen cars, and demand for the aging 3rdGen cars was waning. Or, perhaps, it was the outrageous aero package and the new styling which didn't appeal to as many people as the previous years' version had.
The Formula remained unchanged from 1991 to 1992, which was the last year of production of GM's 3rdGen F-body. In 1992, the Firehawk, an aftermarket modification of the Formula appeared. Priced outrageously high, very few were produced thus insuring their place as collectibles. SLP modified a 350 Formula with aftermarket TPI parts, suspension components, backed the engine with an optional ZF-6speed transmission straight out of the Corvette, and offered the entire package as a dealer option. Although the Firehawk was a remarkable performing car, it was overkill, and priced suitably to shock. Costing just shy of what a brand new Corvette would run you, the Firehawk was less of a bargain, and more of a statement of 'money is no expense,' the Firehawk would continue on and off as a dealer option, however, it's market segment was both narrow and not very deep with the obvious indication of this being that only 25 were built, with sticker prices in the $60,000 range. For the price of one Firehawk, you could almost buy a brand new Corvette and a brand new Formula!
Powertrains and options remained unchanged for the last year of 3rd Gen F-body production.
1992 saw the end of production of the 3rdGen cars, and the next year would see the start of production of the fourth generation of the GM F-body. It was the end of a glorious, if somewhat strange and sometimes dark era in American automobile performance.
At the end of the era of the 3rdGen cars, Chevrolet's RS had never answered the question of the LX 5.0 problem. The RS never received any engine more powerful than the L03 TBI 5.0 liter V8 and then only as an extra cost option. Its suspension options were never shared with the Z28 or IROC-Z, and it was never really intended to compete against the LX 5.0. Options like the G92, the B2L, WS6, rear discs, hotter cams, aluminum drive shafts, engine oil coolers, etc. never would find their way to RS buyers or owners.
The Firebird Formula had done such a great job of taking the fight back to the streets, that the RS was seen as another option, not a necessity in the war against Ford. RS. From a potential star player to bench warmer from the beginning, it was never even given a chance by Chevrolet. It sat on the sidelines, ignored by Chevrolet, and watched as its cousin, the Formula, got all the limelight on the street. Many people wondered what a RS could have been like, if it had been equipped with the same suspension and power train as the Z28, but others quickly pointed out that it would have been a Z28. The Formula was different. It wasn't a Firebird and it wasn't a Trans-Am. It was the best of both worlds, a wolf in sheep's clothing as opposed to the RS's sheep in wolf's clothing attitude.
The fourth generation of F-body, unlike the third generation, included the Formula model in the lineup from the start. The RS Camaro was, strangely, absent, proving that GM had learned a hard lesson in the late '80's and early '90's. A lesson taught to them by the Blue Oval ...
Sometimes, less really is more.
Nothing proved that fact more than the 3rdGen Pontiac Firebird Formula.
Interesting Facts Regarding The Firebird Formula And The RS Camaro
The Formula was always available with all engine options except a V6. No Formula was ever produced with an engine displacing less than 5 liters and 8 cylinders. V6 engines could not be ordered in a Formula, not even as a credit option. Starting the second year of production, the 5.0 liter L03 TBI injected V8 became the standard engine backed by a 5 speed manual transmission. The Formula could be had with the same powertrain options that were available to the Trans-Am and the GTA.
The RS Camaro was originally produced with a V6 engine. Later, it would add the 5.0 liter L03 TBI V8 to it's options, but this never came standard. The 5.0 liter V8 with TBI was the most powerful engine available in the RS Camaro, ever. It never shared the same suspension or powertrain options as it's bigger brother, the Z28.
With the introduction of the 4thGen F-bodies, Pontiac produced the base Firebird, kept the Formula, and the Trans-Am. The GTA was dropped from the lineup completely.
With the introduction of the 4thGen F-bodies, Chevrolet dropped the RS Camaro and offered only the base model and the Z-28.
In late '95, Ram Air once again started to surface on high performance Formulas and Trans-Ams. Missing in action for over twenty years, it was once again proved that ram air and cowl induction could now be used on port fuel injected cars and to obvious benefit.
The 4thGen Formula came standard with the same engine, transmission, and suspension as the Z28 and Trans-Am. It's exterior was different from the base model Firebird in the addition of special spoilers and badging. However, it never received the ultra-heavy aero package that adorned the 4thGen T/A. Even into the 4thGen, Formula continues to lead the fight on the streets for GM, going strong for twelve years now.
The 4thGen RS Camaro was re-introduced late in the '90's. It was basically a spoiler and badge special which added greatly to the weight of the base Camaro. Power was still provided by the base model's port fuel injected V6. No other engine options were ever offered on the RS, and it never shared the same power train options available as the 4thGen Formula.
Chevrolet, it seems, still hadn't learned their lesson.