Autopolis

The cars we loved.

1970-1981 Pontiac Firebird Formula: The Grown Ups Muscle Car


1971 Pontiac Formula Firebird

1971 Pontiac Firebird Formula in factory brochure

Everyone knows about the Pontiac’s Trans Am. Its role as a style and performance leader in Pontiac’s hierarchy was well established. Typically the F-body platform was seen as having a dual performance throne in the form of the Chevrolet Camaro Z28 and the Pontiac Trans Am. In reality it was more a triad. The Formula was technically the step down model from the TA, but slotted above the V6 base and luxury oriented Esprit models. A properly optioned Formula was every bit as potent at a stop light drag race as any TA or Z28. With no excessive add ons, the Formula looked the part of a more grown up muscle car. Here was a car that exemplified the best of the Gran Touring tradition without any overt references to Europe. This was because GM was building some of the best cars of this type at any price (for a few years at least).

Clean Design
The lack of aero embellishments also better showcased the sleek new F-body that was introduced in early 1970. The Trans Am was fast on its way to becoming the car of choice for the not so subtle. The Formula was preferred by those who wanted TA performance without attracting all the attention. The TA had become a fashion accessory of a sorts of groups from the disco crowd to the outlaw set, thanks in part to the popularity of the Smokey and The Bandit Films. With bandit fueled exposure came a new set of negative images associated with the TA, centered around gold chain wearing, open shirt, middle aged men. By contrast, the Formula was relatively low key and all about performance. It’s concessions to flash came mostly in the form of graphics and its trademark twin nostril hood scoops.

While its been said that the Esprit was a secretaries car, the Formula was part janitor and middle management. It was one part luxury and two parts performance. One of the best performance attributes of the Formula was that it could be had with the same 455 CID HO V8 (7.5L) that came standard with the Trans-Am. After 1974, the 455 was replaced by a 400 CID V8 (6.6L) that had more power at one time. In the Formula this engine was a bit more effective due to the absence of appearance bits from the heavier Trans Am. As strict emissions rules kicked in the most powerful engines would drop in power from 355 (71’) to around 200hp (78’). A gradual rise in power would be assisted by the use of turbocharging but would never come close the heyday of the most powerful 70’ to 74’ cars.

Options Galore
Like other Firebirds of the period, there was a vast number of options that if chosen carefully endow a Formula to Trans Am-like performance. Depending on the year, there were three V8 engine options for the Formula. The standard was a two-barrel 350-CID V8 from the Esprit was rated at 255hp. It was a formidable step up from the base Firebird’s 145 hp V6. A more popular 400-CID (like the 455 before it) could be further enhanced with the TA’s High Output option. Rated at 330 hp HO versions had Ram Air induction that made the Formula’s twin hood scoops fully functional in such a way that allowed a near supercharger effect. Otherwise the scoops were sealed and covered with matte black paint.

Regardless of engine chosen, power was sent to the rear wheels via a four-speed manual or the more popular 3 speed automatic. Depending on engine, a 3 speed floor mounted manual was available. Some engines were automatic only, depending on the options chosen. Although the Formula lacked some of the Trans Ams flash, it shared many of the same performance features if the Trans Am Handling Package was selected. Like the TA, Formulas had a solid beam rear axle with a front A-arm suspension. There were even a few unique performance features of the Formula like a weight saving fiberglass hood. Usually a TA handling packages simplified the performance options, but in some years like 1978, buyers had to choose whatever single items were available like raised white letter performance tires on Honeycomb style wheels.

1981 Formula Formula Interior

1981 Formula Interior

Inside, Formulas shared a similar treatment to the base car. Contoured bucket seats and a “wood like’ instrument cover (as opposed to the TA’s machined metal look) was standard. Later cars would get the same metalic treatment as the TA. All of the TA’s performance gauges were included with the Rally Gauge Cluster in addition to a full array of radio, tape and CB options. Firebirds were designed for easily maintained user replaceable items. The dash had panels that could be removed easily by owners so that bulbs could be replaced quickly. All Firebirds benefited from an improved ride thanks to a high center tunnel that allowed the rear suspension more travel room. The Wide Track stance touted by Pontiac could be coupled with the optional Radial Tuned Suspension in the Formula with its thicker anti roll bars, uprated springs and shocks. You could even opt for a canopy top in 76’. Later a t- top like in the Trans Am would become a popular option.
Changing Muscle Car Market
Sales of the Formula were often double that of the Trans Am, peaking in 1978 with over 24,000 units sold. After the Bandit era Trans-Am, sales of the TA would surpass the Formula, reaching 117,000+ units in 1979, just as the Trans Am performance was reaching a new low. By this time Formula sales were still higher than they had been in years past. Having the world’s only turbo charged V8 as an option took a back seat to looks. TA was more what the market wanted.

Despite a sales trend reversal, the Formula continued to follow the Trans Am’s evolution. A larger semi wrap around rear window in 1975 would improve the driver’s rear view while a t-top option became available in 1976. A series of revisions to the Endura front end would add quad headlights in place of the single round pair of earlier cars. Visually, the Formula was beginning to look more like the Trans Am. The 15’ Honeycomb and later Snowflake style wheels of the Trans Am were options (although not every year) on the Formula, otherwise 15’ steel painted wheels was one of the many options. 1975 also market the return of the 455, but it only made 200hp thanks to regulations. Even worse, the engine most likely to be in Formulas, the 400 was rated a a lowly 185hp.

Brochure showing interior and smoked tail lights

Brochure showing interior and smoked tail lights

The period between 1976 up to the dawn of the Third generation car in 1982 was a sad time for the Formula’s straight line performance. A 76’ Formula with the 185hp 6.6L V8 typically could only manage a 0 to 60 run in in just under 12 seconds. To illustrate the fall from glory, base Firebirds from 1974 could do it in 10.3 (less in years prior). As bad as it was, the Formula fared better than the Trans Am due to lighter weight. GM was more interested in meeting EPA fuel efficiency standards than pure horsepower. So when the Trans Am had a brief flirtation with turbocharging, the Formula followed suite. The 80-81 cars could be equipped with the 4.9L Turbo V8. With only 210hp, it was less powerful than the 6.6 from a year before. Turbo lag was a big problem that effected performance while fuel efficiency improved. What looked great on paper was in reality a sluggish mess in the Trans Am, but was a more salvageable compromise between performance and mileage in the Formula.

Identity Issues in Old Age
As the model years passed, the Formula grew even closer to the Trans Am in performance and appearance features. Engines options grew as buyers were given their choice of downgraded motivation thanks to the full effect of EPA regulations. Engines from Chevrolet would later be supplanted by those from Oldsmobile and even Buick as Pontiac scrambled to keep up with changing laws. While the Formulas ability to go fast suffered, it got better at stopping. In 1979 Formulas would get a four wheel disc brake option like the Trans Am (otherwise it was drums in back). Oddly, items such as the ‘Formula’ steering wheel that was standard fare on the Trans Am, was an option on its namesake. The four tail pipes that had become associated with the TA, was also available on the Formula as was a rear spoiler. From behind it was becoming difficult to distinguish between a well optioned Formula and a TA. New blackout tail light lenses and rear spoiler were similar features between the two. Like the Trans Am, some Formulas proudly wore its name across the rear spoiler.

Having been eclipsed in many ways by the Mustang and a growing tide of Japanese imports, the Firebird got a needed make over in 1982. Once again the Formula concept continued mirroring the Trans Am. This time they were almost identical in appearance until in 1985 the Trans Am would get its own distinctive ground effects. The 70 to 81’ Firebird will always have a special place in the hearts of enthusiasts. Evidence suggests that these cars will appreciate in value at rates similar to the Trans Am. The early years are expected to be the most collectable but cars from 77’ to 79’ seem to be the most common. The bandit being the showoff that he was might have never considered the Formula. Had he gone with it, he may not have needed three films to get away from sheriff Buford T. Justice.

1981 Pontiac Firebird Formula

1981 Pontiac Firebird Formula

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This entry was posted on March 7, 2012 by in 70's Cars, 80's Cars, General Motors, Pontiac and tagged , , , , , , , .
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