Let’s face it; from the early portion of the 1970’s until the early 1980’s, the Muscle Car Era was, for all intents and purposes, done. High insurance rates, emission controls, plus fuel shortages and higher prices cooked the goose of the muscle car. No more ‘Cudas, Boss 429 Mustangs, or high-horsepower Camaros or Firebirds were to be found on the road.
Sure, some muscle car nameplates lived on – the Camaro Z/28, the Pontiac Firebird Trans Am, even the Mustang II Mach 1 – but they were mostly trim packages (especially the widely-despised Mustang II, with a 108 horsepower V6 in 1974). Most could argue with a great deal of validity that they were gaudily-styled cars made to look the part of a muscle car, but in reality had no engine performance to match the styling or the nameplates of the cars.
However, this sad state of affairs gradually began to change for the better in the early-to-mid 1980’s as modern engine technology improved and automakers were figuring out how to revitalize muscle cars, which in due time ushered in an all-new muscle car era that continues today. Helping to lead the cause were performance car companies like Callaway, Saleen, and SLP (Street Legal Performance), Inc.
The SLP Firehawk, 1991-1992: The Beginning
In 1991, SLP joined forces with Pontiac to create a performance option (RPO code B4U) on production Firebird Formulas – the SLP Firehawk. The Firehawk made its debut during the final model year of the 3rd generation Firebird. The Firehawk received the 350 cubic inch L98 V8, with porting done to the cylinder heads and other modifications to help make it a 360 horsepower, 390 pound-foot beast of an engine (especially for that time). Production totaled just 25 cars, but FirebirdFever.com (a great resource for information about SLP Firehawks) mentions a 26th car that reportedly made over 400 horsepower, though that car is not counted in the official production numbers.
The SLP Firehawk also had other performance upgrades (some optional): a Corvette 6-speed ZF manual transmission mated to an aluminum driveshaft, four-piston Brembo brakes (the 1LE brake system was standard for the Firehawk – buyers had to move up to the Competition package to get the Brembo brakes), a Dana 44 rear end, 275/40-17 tires, Recaro seats, a roll bar, five-point harnesses, and stiffer bushings in the rear control arms. Several Firehawks were even sold with an optional fuel cell. Some of the options were a part of the $9,995 Competition “R” package (the previously mentioned Brembo brakes were a part of that package, for example).
The Firehawk was a performance tour de force for the time, although it was more track-worthy than street-friendly, with a Car and Driver test drive review describing it as “unrefined.” It was not cheap, either; the SLP Formula Firehawk tested for the Car and Driver test was $51,989 – not inexpensive, even in the early 1990’s. According to Firehawk.org, out of the 25 produced in this initial run, the first eight Firehawks were late 1991 model year cars while the remaining 17 cars built were 1992 models, although 27 had originally been ordered.
The 1993-2002 SLP Firebird Firehawks
The fourth generation Firebird debuted for the 1993 model year, and with it came an all-new SLP Firebird Firehawk as well. A sleeker, more aerodynamic and handsome body graced the Firebirds, and of course, the Firehawks benefited from the same. 201 Firehawks were built for the 1993 model year, far more than for the 1991/1992 model years. The second generation Firebird Firehawks would continue until the Pontiac ended the Firebird’s production run for good in 2002. Firehawks could be had with more basic performance upgrades than the previous cars, which made the SLP package more accessible and affordable to muscle car enthusiasts and also allowed SLP to sell more cars profitably; the first-year 1992 Firehawks were very expensive and costly for SLP to produce.
The 1993-1996 SLP Firebird Firehawks came equipped with the 5.7 liter, 300 horsepower, 330 pound-foot LT1 V8 engine. 1993-1996 model year Firehawks were all Firebird Formulas only, as the previous cars had been as well, and had to be ordered from Pontiac with the R6V RPO code. Here are a partial list of options for the 1993-96 SLP Firebird Formula Firehawks, which came with GM’s standard 3-year, 36,000 mile warranty:
1993 (201 produced):
- Lightweight Composite Hood with Functional Cold Air Induction Package utilizing modified Corvette Air Cleaner
- Stainless Steel Exhaust Tips
- 17″ x 8.5″ Aluminum Alloy Wheels (Ronal R-15)
- P275/40ZR17 Firestone Firehawk tires
- Firehawk graphics
1994 (500 produced):
In addition to the 1993 options, a Performance Exhaust Package increased engine horsepower by 15 to 315 and torque was increased by 5 to 330 pound-feet. The $1,199 Performance Exhaust Package included all stainless steel components, a 3-inch diameter intermediate pipe, a less restrictive muffler, and two left-mounted 2.5-inch tail pipes. Also available was a $1,599 Level II Bilstein Sport Suspension Package.
1995 (671 produced):
Firehawk convertibles made their debut, with 102 of them built out of the total production run. Other than some minor additional options, not much else was new and notable for the 1995 SLP Firehawks, as most of the options and the horsepower ratings remained the same. The $1,599 Level II Bilstein Sport Suspension Package was not available for the convertible model, however.
1996 (41 produced):
SLP shifted production concentration to the Firebird WS6 Ram-Air and the Camaro Z28 SS. The Performance Exhaust Package became standard on the Firehawk, and other changed options were again minor, though the total cost of the major option package was less than in the previous model year.
Here are some of the other available options for the 1996 SLP Firehawk:
- Engine Oil Cooler Package
- Performance Lubricants Package with synthetic rear axle lube, semi-synthetic power steering fluid and premium quality, synthetic media engine oil filter
- Level II Bilstein Sport Suspension Package
- SLP Hurst short throw shifter with H shift knob
- Torsen Limited Slip Differential (includes Performance Lubricants Package)
- American Racing Equipment chrome-plated aluminum wheels
1997 (116-145 produced):
Firehawk production numbers for this year seem to be conflicting; Firehawk.org reports the official Pontiac production numbers for the Firehawk to be 116, however, if the additional 29 special edition (built only for the 1997 model year), 330 horsepower, 5.7 liter V8 LT4 Firehawks reported on FirebirdFever.com are counted, that would bring the total production run for the 1997 model year to 145 SLP Firehawks (which is what Firebirdfever.com claims).
The special edition LT4, using an engine sourced from the outgoing C4 Corvette Grand Sport, was featured in the August 1997 issue of Motor Trend Magazine. It was noted that “25 to 30” would be built, so the 29 listed on the Firebirdfever.com would seem to be reasonable.
Motor Trend also added this about the Firehawk LT4; “The quick-revving LT4, with its increased-flow-rate injectors, reworked ports, bigger valves, high-lift cam, and higher-compression pistons, was created as a special optional variation on the standard LT1 small-block V-8… This engine combines with the Borg-Warner six-speed and the hottest version of the Firebird chassis to produce a barn’s worth of hoot. Every quick-shifting trip is a basso symphony of V-8 vocalizations that blasts grins onto faces. A Hurst shifter clips the six-speed’s long throws into precise snicks with no apparent gain in effort, enhancing the driving experience.”
Other than minor performance and appearance upgrades that were made available (and the addition of the hotter LT4 Firehawk), the standard SLP Firehawk remained status quo for 1997 model year.
1998 (none produced):
No SLP Firebird Firehawks were built, but 1999 would see quite a change for the SLP Firebird Firehawk.
The SLP Firehawk received a new engine (the LS1) and a freshened body style common to all Firebirds for the 1999 model year. The new Firehawk boasted a 5.7 liter, 327 horsepower, 345 pound-foot LS1 V8 engine. Also, the Firehawk was finally available on the Trans Am, not only the Formula Firebird, and sales reflected the popularity of that change.
Of the 719 SLP Firehawks sold for the 1999 model year, 613 of them ordered from Pontiac were Trans Ams. That was a wise move on the part of SLP and Pontiac. The new option code to order the Firehawk through Pontiac Dealers was WU6. 1999-2002 would prove to be the final run of SLP Firehawks based on the Pontiac Firebird, as production of the storied nameplate would end in 2002. Pontiac as a GM brand would only last eight more model years, as the Pontiac brand was eliminated and would not exist after the 2010 model year.
In the April 1999 issue of Motor Trend, the SLP Firehawk Trans Am was praised for its performance, and for the most important performance components of the car: “…the Firehawk’s 5.7-liter/327-horsepower OHV V-8 speaks up with a deep, dual-pipe bass rumble that sounds as sweetly familiar as the first stanza of the Star Spangled Banner. Blip the pedal and the chassis rocks with race-car authority… The real beauty of this car is its simplicity. Simplicity? Yes, relatively so with its gutsy V-8, six-speed manual, and live rear axle. But all three work with a remarkable level of polish… Thank the LS1’s 345 honking pound-feet of tread-blistering torque. Any car that’ll jump to 60 in 5.3 seconds is way good with me. Helping to secure the hot numbers is a stout Borg-Warner T-56 six-speed manual transmission…” That statement couldn’t be made for most of the 1970’s and 1980’s – the muscle car era was retuning with a vengeance, and would continue into the new millennium.
Some other standout features of the 1999 SLP Trans Am Firehawk include an under-hood forced-air induction system, a cat-back, stainless steel exhaust, composite hood with functional air scoops, and Firestone Firehawk 275/40ZR17 SZ50 tires (with 17-inch aluminum wheels), just to name a few. The 2000 SLP Firehawks gained three additional horsepower, increasing total horsepower to 330 (torque remained the same at 345 pound-feet), but no other major changes were made. 741 Firehawks were produced for the 2000 model year.
The 2001 SLP Firehawks gained an anniversary edition, but more importantly, the LS1 V8 engine received an LS6 intake, which boosted engine horsepower to 335, with still no change in torque. Trim and performance options didn’t vary much from the previous two model years, although the anniversary model did have special trim, badging, wheels and other appearance extras.
540 Firehawks were built for the 2001 model year. The SLP Firebird Firehawk’s final run came for the 2002 model year. 2002 Firehawks built in August 2001 and before came equipped with the same 335 horsepower engine as the 2001 model; Firehawks built after August 2001 gained a High Flow Induction System, which increased horsepower up to 345, and torque to 350 pound-feet. Again, there were several suspension packages to choose from, allowing owners to determine the performance and handling abilities of their Firehawks.
The SLP Firehawk went out with a bang in 2002, with 1,505 of them created, the most Firehawks produced in a model year. America may have lost its muscle car groove in the 1970’s, but with the help of determined engineers, the development of better technology, and the desire performance enthusiasts had to go fast, America got its muscle car groove back, and Pontiac, along with SLP, Inc., was a big part of helping it do just that.