It’s been over 50 years since Pontiac’s fabled Firebird first spread its wings as a 1967 model. Since its introduction two years later, the venerable, in-your-face Trans Am has garnered much of the spotlight. But another V8 Firebird exists. It’s less celebrated and touted, but just as potent a performer, known as the Firebird Formula.
For its final flight from 1998-02, the Firebird Formula was blessed with LS power and continued its reputation for Trans Am level performance, with more toned-down looks. We will now delve into the Formulas, their equipment, variations, production numbers, and place in the iconic lineage of Pontiac Firebird history.
Less Is More:1970
Born with the debut of the second-gen Firebird, the Formula 400, — which replaced the Firebird 400 — was meant to provide all the power and performance of the Trans Am without the stripes, spoilers, fins, and wings. Marketed to the older enthusiast, Pontiac guessed that the Trans Am’s race-inspired looks might not be to everyone’s liking. As a result, the Formula retained the second-gen’s uncluttered and un-spoilered slick European lines.
The Formula 400 wasn’t just a V8 Firebird sharing the body of the Base/Esprit model, it featured its own very distinct, menacing twin-scooped Ram Air hood and specific badging. Although more subdued externally than the Trans Am, Formulas were, nonetheless, just as impressive in the performance department. They had a larger front and rear anti-roll bars, heavy-duty firm-control shocks and could be equipped with the Trans Am’s Ram Air III motor, suspension, and rear spoiler as options. On top of this, once word got out that the Formula 400 was 100-pounds lighter than its racy brother, street and track credit was instantaneous.
This basic Formula — pun-intended — carried through the second and third generation, with a break from 1982 to 1986 with no Formula model available. During this time, Formulas got base V8 engines with the Trans Am’s top motor, suspension option, and featured their own unique hoods, fascias, wheels, and graphics — while always offering the slimmer exterior. With the introduction of the fourth-gen came an all-new modern aerodynamic shape penned by Jack Folden, head of Pontiac’s Exterior II Design Studio, which flew onto the scene. Now, the Formula came right out of the box, with the same 5.7-Liter, 275 horsepower and 325 lb-ft torque LT1 motor, Performance Ride and Handling Suspension and either a Borg- Warner six-speed manual (T56), or a four-speed Turbo Hydra-Matic (4L60) automatic transmission.
For 1996-’97, the Formula was perched with the Trans Am atop the pony car throne and could be optioned with the WS6 Ram Air Performance and Handling package. Not seen since the 1970 Ram Air and the 1992 WS6, the two iconic badges were now teamed together in one all-powerful performance pairing. Developed and manufactured by Street Legal Performance (SLP), the weaponization included a bulged composite hood with functional air-intake scoops, under-hood open air-element cold-air induction, a free-flowing dual-outlet exhaust, firmer sport suspension, and huge 17-inch five-spoke wheels wrapped in Goodyear Eagle GSC high-performance tires. The net gain of the WS6 Ram Air package was a bump from 285 horses to 305, with vastly superior handling, a mean muscular stance, and a sinister style like nothing on the road.
Slimmed Down And Up-Gunned: 4th-Gen Formula 2.0
For the 1998 model, Pontiac’s already slick Firebirds received new sheet metal and sheet-molded composite (SMC), including a restyled front fascia, fenders, hood, pop-up headlights, dual-lamps, and honeycomb tail lamps with round reverse lights. Even more significant, the V8 birds were now armed with the soon-to-be-legendary Gen III LS1 motor. Fitted to standard Formulas and Trans Am’s, the all-aluminum medium displacement, 10.1:1 compression 5.7-liter LS1 made 305 horsepower and 335 lb-ft of torque in either T56 six-speed or 4L60-E four-speed automatic guise. This equaled horsepower and bumped torque by 10 lb-ft over 1996 to 1997 Ram Air numbers.
Like their powerplant, the Formula (W66) and Trans Am’s (Y82) share the (FE2) Firm Ride and Handling suspension, with a short/long-arm (SLA) front set-up, using coilover monotube De Carbon gas-charged struts and a 30-mm tubular stabilizer bar with links. Out back is a Salisbury live axle with a torque arm, Panhard bar, coil springs with De Carbon shocks and a 19mm stabilizer bar. Also included was a quicker 14.1:1 power rack and pinion steering ratio. As for rear axle ratios, Formulas received a 2.73 gearset (GU2) for the auto, with standard wheels and tires, or the performance 3.23 geared axle (GU5) for the automatic and high-performance rubber. All T56 six-speeds received 3.42 gears. Braking was beefed-up for 1998, with all birds getting standard four-wheel power-assisted anti-lock (ABS) disc brakes, new twin-piston aluminum front calipers and larger 11.9-inch fronts 12-inch rear vented rotors. The Firebird was the first car in North America to replace hydraulic proportioning valves for rear braking with a more efficient Electronic Brakeforce Distribution (EBD) system. An improved Traction Control system (TCS) was also optional equipment on the Formula and Trans Am Models.
Following a detailed marketing and buyer demographic research, Pontiac blessed all 1998- ‘02 Trans Am coupes with standard removable roof panels (T-tops), while they remained optional on Formula coupes. The same research also led to a convertible Formula being discontinued for 1998-’02, as a result of low orders from 1994-97. Depending on option group 1SA and 1SB, Formula coupes were basically equipped identically to the Trans Am, with T-tops, Prado leather power seats, chrome 16-inch wheels, speed-rated high-performance tires, traction control, and a 12-disc CD changer being the customers only remaining decisions.
Where the Formula really differs from the Trans Am, is, of course, it’s exterior appearance. Retaining the base bird’s smooth shape, the Formula deletes the Trans Am’s pronounced aero package, of the front fascia, side rocker panels, dual-outlet exhaust, rear fascia, and aggressive rear hatch-mounted spoiler (T43). The Formula’s fog/driving lights reside at the corners of its closed beak, with the double-U-shaped integrated opening atop-unlike the 1993-97 cars, with their dual-inset nostrils. Only raised Formula badges on each door call-out its true identity, as the base coupe’s red Firebird logo sits between the tail lights. A low-level rear decklid wing completes the bullet-like shape of the car’s exterior.
Exterior colors for the ’98 Formula included: Bright White (10), Bright Silver Metallic (13), Navy Blue Metallic (28), Bright Green Metallic (31), Black (41), Sport Gold Metallic (63) 1998-only, Blue Green Chameleon (79), Bright Red (81), Bright Purple Metallic (88), Red Orange Metallic (96).
Conservative Fire Power: 1998 Formula WS6 Ram Air
Although the Formula is known for its subtle style, it is anything but subdued. In WS6 Ram Air form, its aggressive, high-performance nature rears its razor-sharp talons.
Fitted with a new, American Sunroof Company (ASC)-manufactured, composite twin humped Ram Air hood, the ’98 Formula WS6 Ram Air harkens back to its 1970-75 second-gen origins. Underneath, its LS1 is fed by a revised Ram Air-induction kit, which routes outside air sucked through the hood nostrils directly into the intake box. A new low-restriction exhaust system is unique to ‘98 Ram Air, exiting through a 3.5-inch polished tip on the driver’s side only, and a power steering cooler is included. The heavier breathing and exhaling nets an additional 15 horsepower and 10 lb-ft over the standard LS1-output, making 320 horses and 345 lb-ft of torque at the engine. The top tier Formula was marked with Ram Air decals on the leading outside curve of each hood bulge, a 3-D WS6 cloisonné rear fascia badge, and specific WS6 wheel center caps.
An upgraded WS6 suspension was tested and tuned by Chief Firebird Engineer at the time, soon-to-be head of GM High-Performance Vehicle Operations (HPVO) and multiple SCCA/IMSA Champion racer, John (Heinrocket) Heinricy. The track-proven components include a larger 32mm front sway bar, specific shock valving, stiffer and taller durometer bushings for the transmission mount, Panhard bar, and higher front and rear spring rates (63-Nm-front/variable 23Nm-30Nm rear) (non-WS6 V8-51-Nm/19.9-Nm). Completing the package are 17×9-inch polished five-spoke aluminum wheels wrapped in new speed-rated P275/40ZR17 Goodyear Eagle F1 high-performance tires specifically developed for the WS6 Ram Air Firebirds. Definitely $3,150 well spent.
Unanimous performance figures had a stock Formula WS6 Ram Air soaring to 60 mph in the low 5-second range and flying through the ¼-mile in the mid-13s at around 105 mph. Although closer than ever in girth to its Trans Am sibling, the Formula still weighed in around 50-pounds less, and this was evident on the track and the road course.
Changes To The Mix: Additions and Deletions 1999- 2002
Changes to ’99 Formulas were few; they included a new Torsen II limited-slip rear differential. Augmenting the standard (ABS) and available traction control system (TCS), the torque-sensitive rear differential gave a better sense of control under all driving conditions. A new oil life monitor was added to all birds with a computer-controlled gauge to inform the driver. The T56 six-speed cars were now available with a Hurst short-throw shifter and WS6 Ram Air Formulas and Trans Am’s were fitted with a new dual outlet exhaust.
As for exterior colors: Sport Gold, Bright Purple and Red Orange Metallic were out, while Pewter Metallic (11) and Medium Blue Metallic (20) were in.
Millennial Bird: 2000
For Y2K, new 17-inch aluminum wheels became standard with the WS6 Ram Air package. Known as the torqued-spoke or salad-shooter wheel (N66), the high-polished spinner was featured in early 2000 ads, mainly fitted to the Trans Am WS6. Few Formulas wore the new wheel, as most buyers chose the still available (at no cost), (QF6), high-polished five-spokes.
The color palatte changed a bit as Maple Red Metallic (44) was added and Medium Blue Metallic was removed. WS6 cars were only available in White, Pewter, Silver, Navy Blue, Black, and Bright Red.
Most significant and not realized, 2000 was the final year that the Formula could be fitted with the WS6 Ram Air option.
More Fun, Nearing The End Of The Run: 2001
Benefitting from its corporate brethren, the Corvette and GMs trucks, the V8 Firebirds received an increase in pony-power for 2001.
Despite the Formula’s exemption from the WS6 Ram Air program, improvements to the F-bodies LS1 engine definitely upped the ante. With a new camshaft from the Vortec 6000 (LQ4) 6.0-liter truck motor, the ZO6 Vette’s LS6 intake manifold, devoid of power-robbing Exhaust Gas Recirculation (EGR), better-flowing airbox, larger Mass Air Flow sensor (MAF), Formulas got a bump in power to 310 horsepower and 340 lb-ft of torque. Additional LS1 improvements lifted from the LS6 included increased volume fuel injectors, new (pup-style) catalytic converters, cast iron exhaust manifolds with new gaskets, reduced tolerance crankshaft main bearings for increased durability and less “cold knock” or piston slap upon startup, and a recalibrated Powertrain Control Module (PCM) to maximize performance and fuel efficiency to meet National Low Emissions Vehicle (NLEV) certification standards.
Reliable sources also confirm that with an abundance of LS6 blocks cast for the C5 Corvette ZO6, a small percentage of 2001 and 2002 LS1-powered F-cars received an LS6 block. Stats suggest 10 to 15-percent of ’01 and perhaps 25-percent of ’02 LS Firebirds and Camaros have the LS6 chunk. The slightly stronger-cast LS6 block was developed to handle more power and higher compression, featuring bulkhead windows that allow increased crankcase breathing and lower air pressure. Specific casting numbers, finishes, and markings on the block can verify LS1 from LS6.
All birds received re-valved shock absorbers for ’01 to improve ride isolation and shake. And everyone’s favorite, Sunset Orange Metallic (71), made its first appearance, while Silver Metallic took a break.
Not to belabor the disgusting fact anymore, but on September 25, 2001, GM announced that the ’02 model year would be the last for the F-body Firebird and Camaro. The Camaro returned, but our Firebird would not.
Last Flight: 2002
For its final year, the Formula would be lavished with an array of previously optional features. The WS6s power steering cooler, removable hatch roof (T-tops) and a six-way power driver’s seat were now standard fare and Silver Metallic was back.
Racers And Hawks: 1LE And SLP Formula Firehawk
With showroom-stock racing origins dating back to the mid-‘80s and the third-gen Firebird, both The SLP Formula Firehawk and the 1LE suspension package again became intertwined for the last of the birds.
Listed as the 1LE Autocross Package for 1998 and ’99, the special handling suspension included larger 35mm front stabilizer bar and a 21mm rear, harder durometer control arm and Panhard rod bushings, stiffer springs, and Koni double-adjustable front and rear shocks. As usual, there were stipulations to ordering 1LE. The $1,175 Formula hardtop-only option required the $3,150 WS6 Ram Air package and a six-speed transmission. Ordering 1LE would trigger the (R7Q) standard equipment delete and a credit of $1,125. To save weight the R7Q option removed power options like seats, windows, door locks, mirrors, antenna and fit the base sound system with a regular steering wheel minus radio controls. After doing the math, for an extra $3,200, you got a stripped-down —serious as s**t —1LE WS6 Ram Air-equipped Formula, ready for the road course and a super-rare Firebird. GM discontinued 1LE mid-way through 1999 citing low orders, but the track-ready kit soon returned.
After conceding their contract to ASC for 1998-’02 WS6 Ram Air production, SLP concentrated their efforts on developing a fiercer Firehawk. That said, new hoods and wings were more difficult to achieve than originally thought. Fixed clear lens headlights also took time to meet SLPs and the Government’s highest production standards, thus there were no ‘98 Firehawks.
For 1999, the Firehawk was back in full flight, retaining Pontiac’s factory pop-up headlights and available for the time being on the Trans Am. For $3,999 above the cost of a Formula, Trans Am, and Trans Am convertible, the standard Firehawk included SLP’s specific composite cold air induction hood with heat extractor ports and under-hood forced air induction, low-restriction stainless steel cat-back exhaust with two dual tips, Firehawk-specific 17’x9-inch silver-painted, 5-spoke wheels wrapped in Firestone Firehawk SZ50 275/40ZR17 tires, upgraded suspension components, Firehawk nose badge, fascia graphics, a console plaque, and two key fobs.
With 327 horsepower on tap, a Formula Firehawk would equal or pull on a stock WS6, rushing to 60 mph in 5.0-seconds flat and down the ¼-mile in 13.5-seconds at 106 mph on its way to a governed 160 mph top speed. If that wasn’t enough, SLP offered a list of options to increase the aesthetic uniqueness and high-performance of their rare and special birds.
For 2000, SLP’s Firehawk package (WU6), became a Pontiac regular production order (RPO), helping to facilitate a quicker ordering process and delivery.
For 2001, SLP picked up where Pontiac left off, offering the 1LE suspension as an optional package. This of course coincided with Pontiac no longer fitting Formulas with WS6 Ram Air, which was their requirement for 1LE. This also meant that now you could order an option-loaded, hardtop or T-top, stick or auto, Formula Firehawk, equipped with hardcore 1LE suspension. Benefitting from the aforementioned improvements to the LS1, ’01 Hawks got a bump to 335-horses.
Saying a final farewell in ‘02, Formula Firehawks were well-equipped and up-gunned. With Formulas now T-top-fitted by Pontiac, no hard roof Hawks were built for ’02. As for more power, the Firehawk’s airbox was revised with a smoother-flowing lid and filter by Donaldson. The new breathing unit netted another 10-horses, pushing ’02 Hawks to 345 horsepower. The extra features and new lid raised the base WU6-Firehawk cost to $4,300. SLP fitted 117 ‘02 Firehawks with 1LE suspension, the most of any production year.
Restrained And Rare: RPO Codes And Production Totals
Answering the age-old question of which came first, the “screaming chicken- T/A” or the egg? In this case, the Formula is the egg and it technically came first. RPO code (WS9) designates the Formula conversion, which means V8-equipped Firebirds, Formulas, and Trans Ams, have this code on their service parts identification label on the driver’s side door. For merchandising purposes, each V8 bird receives another RPO stating which exact model it will be: (W66) for a Firebird Formula, or (Y82) for a Trans Am. All other RPO codes also appear on this label like the WS6, WU6,1LE, etc.
For SLP Firehawks, extra stickers were applied for tire-loading information, SLP-altering confirmation, and another on the passenger side door indicating additional SLP optional equipment sometimes referred to with a (Y2Y) code. The SLP birth certificate and window sticker will also be listed in this information.
For production totals, three sources were utilized: Original Pontiac Firebird/Trans Am ’67-’02-The Restorers Guide, by Jim Schild; Firehawk-Fiercest of the Firebirds, by Mac Logan; Christo Datini, Managing Archivist at the GM Heritage Center/Media Archive; transamworld.com and their stats provided by compnine.com. These sources provided very close or matching numbers on most counts.
Formula coupes total: 2,123
Pontiac 1LE: 14
Formula coupes total: 1,602
SLP Formula Firehawk Hardtop: 34; T-top: 72
Pontiac 1LE: 20
Formula coupes total: 1,535
SLP Formula Firehawk Hardtop: 23; T-top: 39
Formula coupes total: 1,037
SLP Formula Firehawk-hardtop: 31; T-top: 39
*SLP Formula Firehawk/T/A with 1LE: 60
Formula coupes total: 901
SLP Formula Firehawk T-top: 168
*SLP Formula Firehawk/T/A 1LE: 117
1998- 2002 Totals
Formula coupes: 7,198
SLP Formula Firehawk: 406
Pontiac 1LE: 34
SLP Formula Firehawk with 1LE: 177
*Total orders for Formula Firehawk and T/A with 1LE, no separate breakdown for Formula.
The Rarest And Baddest: GMMG Carl Black Year One Formula
In spite of their scant numbers, the Formulas built by Georgia-based F-body tuners GMMG must be mentioned. Founded by former SLP regional manager and fourth-gen F-body guru Matt Murphy and offered exclusively by Carl Black Pontiac in Kennesaw/Roswell Georgia. The GMMG Blackbird Trans Ams and Year One Formulas applied old-school form with modern hot rod function to the last of the V8 Firebirds breed.
Offered exclusively as 2002 models and only in six-speed guise, Carl Black’s Year One Edition Formulas were sent to GMMG to receive full factory WS6 specs. This was very special in its own right since no Formula had been so-equipped since the 2000 model. The standard Carl Black package added American Racing 200S (Daisy) 17×9.5-inch charcoal metallic-painted five-spoke wheels, front and rear Eibach 1.5-inch lowering springs, unique “YO/35th Anniversary” badging and body side “Formula 350” accent stripes, white-faced gauges, with YO logo, an oversized white shift ball for the short-throw Hurst stick, a painted lower rear fascia license plate surround and a center beak-mounted Pontiac “Arrowhead” emblem.
Serious performance was available and designated in “phases”. The $4,000 Phase 1 upgrade included the standard kit plus a 1969-sounding, chambered, stainless steel catback exhaust, a free-flowing carbon-fiber airbox lid, with Year One Edition engine decal/K&N filter, a 180-degree thermostat, modified MAF sensor, ASP underdrive crank pulley, port-matched exhaust manifolds, 3.73:1 rear axle gears, F/R dimpled brake rotors and specific engine tuning. Phase 1 made 380 horsepower, which was appropriately acknowledged by “Formula 380 HP” side stripes.
The hardcore Phase 2 upgrade includes all standard/Phase 1 fare and adds, ported cylinder heads, a performance camshaft, coated long tube headers, a ported and polished throttle body, GMPP plug wires, 4.10:1 rear axle gears and side stripes boldly stating 435 horsepower. The $11,500 Phase 2 upgrade was so extensive, that it voided the factory vehicle powertrain warranty. Both Phases produced high-to-mid 12-second ¼-mile passes on the Goodyear Eagle F1 rubber, with low 12s just a pair of Mickey T rear street slicks away.
The rarity of the Carl Black Year One Formulas cannot be overstated, with only 16 built, including two PR (public relations) cars. According to Year One, both PR cars, — one red, the other black — have the Phase 2 435-horse upgrade. As for the other 14 cars, the GMMG registry lists two equipped with the Phase 1 380-horse package, two with the 435 horsepower Phase 2 and one receiving the ultimate Phase IIX, 475 horsepower upgrade.
Formula-Driven To Extinction: Conclusion
When all was said and done, more than 10-times the number of 1998-02 fourth-gen Trans Ams were built as compared to their subtler sibling. This makes the Formula the rarest of the final Firebirds, if not the most famous. Regardless of numbers, Pontiac’s Formula Firebird was lavished with the same high-performance fare as it’s wilder nest-mate and was branded with the same iconic Firebird monikers like WS6, Ram Air, Firehawk, 1LE and Blackbird. And in the racing world, the more svelte Formula was a true street demon and the more frequent pick to dominate on the road course.
Rare in their day, two decades post production has increased the Formula’s appeal to late-model Pontiac/Firebird collectors, performance enthusiasts, and LS-freaks alike. Staying true to its mantra.