My ’89 Pontiac Formula is so sweet I may hang on to it forever
July marked 30 years since I became the proud owner of a 1989 Pontiac Firebird Formula convertible. We’ve been through a lot together. College. Teenage angst. Girls. Street racing. Drag racing. Family. Marriage. Kids. My first job. Career. Three apartments. Two houses.
When I was 22, I packed it up and drove the sucker from New Jersey to California. That was way back in 1992. The Firebird is as important to me as a mechanical object can be.
I have my mom to thank for the car, although my father paid for it. After a few years, my mother had decided that my 350-powered Cortez Silver 1969 Camaro Rally Sport convertible wasn’t safe and insisted that my father buy me a new car. He didn’t want to. Luckily, he was a car guy and understood I needed something cool. Something rear-wheel drive with some power. Preferably a V-8.
It was the 1980s and the second muscle car era was in full swing, although the Buick Grand National and GNX were already out of production, along with the Chevy’s Monte Carlo SS. The import scene hadn’t really developed yet. Back then, in our little corner of suburban New Jersey, you got beat up if you had a four-cylinder engine and front-wheel drive. I got beat up anyway, but at least I had some horsepower and the ability to do burnouts and powerslides
Somehow, it never occurred to me to buy a used Grand National. I can’t explain why. I really wanted a C4 Corvette, which was still America’s best overall performance car in 1989, but it was way too expensive. Only rich kids and older guys had new ’Vettes. Pontiac was building 1500 Trans Ams with Buick’s turbocharged V-6, but they were also big bucks. They also only came in white, and I hated white cars back then. My new ride had to be black. At some point I also decided I had to have a manual transmission, even if it meant less horsepower. I wanted to throw gears, and those Trans Ams—like the GNs—were all automatics.
In 1989, if you wanted a new car with a V-8, rear-wheel drive, and three pedals, you really only had three choices: an IROC Camaro, a 5.0 Mustang, LX or GT; or a Firebird, Formula, or Trans Am. I remember being dead set against an IROC. They were cool, but they were everywhere. IROCs were all over the Jersey Shore cruise spots, including Seaside Heights, my go-to. And they were stacked at the street races just over the causeway in Toms River. I usually didn’t like guys who drove IROCs.
That left the Mustangs and Firebirds, and I spent the next couple of months shopping, going to dealers and scamming test drives. The 5.0-liter Mustangs were quicker for sure, but they rode and handled terribly. The Firebirds were lower and wider. They had larger tires. They handled much better than the Mustang, and you could get four-wheel disc brakes. From behind the wheel, the Firebird sorta felt like a poor man’s Corvette.
For giggles, I also sampled a Toyota Supra Turbo, but I didn’t love it. For a few minutes, I also seriously considered a Mitsubishi Starion Turbo. I thought that car looked terrific, still do, but they were too slow. Then I decided I wanted a convertible like my ’69 Camaro and started leaning toward the Mustang. Although Chevy would sell you a convertible Camaro in 1989, Pontiac wasn’t doing drop-top Firebirds. I locked in on a 5.0-liter Mustang LX convertible with a five-speed manual.
But there was a problem. Ford installed an ugly luggage rack on the trunk of every Mustang convertible and I couldn’t get past it. It was an eyesore. I even got a few estimates from body shops to see how much it would cost to remove it. Then I went back to the local Pontiac dealer to look at the Formula again and saw an 8×10 of a white Formula convertible tacked to the wall of the salesman’s cubicle. “What’s that?” I asked, almost coming out of my shoes. He told me they could send any Firebird with T-tops to ASC in Michigan to be converted into a convertible. ASC built the Camaro convertibles for Chevy and would use the same parts on the Firebirds. I still have that 8×10 today.
Somehow, my father agreed. Probably to make my mother happy. I ordered the car. Black inside and out, LB9 305 TPI, five-speed manual, dual catalytic converters (which bumped the horsepower from 215 to 225), four-wheel disc brakes, limited-slip differential, power windows, cassette stereo, power antenna, power mirrors, and per ASC’s instructions, T-tops and a power trunk release, which it would modify to open the top boot. Unlike the Trans Am, every Formula came with the WS6 package standard. Leather upholstery wasn’t available on the Formula.
Base price was $13,949. MSRP with options was $15,922. Two-tone delete saved us $150. I still have the window sticker and the finance papers. My father put about $5000 down and financed the rest over 60 months at an APR of 14.95 percent. Welcome to 1989.
The car was built at GM’s plant in Van Nuys, California, shipped to ASC’s facility for chopping and then delivered to me in New Jersey. I took possession on July 7. It was the first time I had ever seen a third-gen Firebird convertible in person. The car was just as I ordered, with one exception. I had specifically ordered the car without the door moldings, wanting a cleaner look. Unfortunately, they were part of the option package with the power decklid release and had been installed.
My father told my mother the conversion cost $5000, but I think it was more like nine or 10 grand. According to the internet, my car is one of 330 Firebird convertibles built by ASC that year, and one of just 17 Formula convertibles with the LB9 engine. It must be one of just a few with the five-speed, dual cats, and four-wheel disc brakes, if not one of one. Most of these cars were ordered by dealers with the standard hardware, however there were apparently two Formula convertibles produced with the L98 350/automatic combo.
After a few weeks, I took the car to a local body shop and had all the graphics removed, including the Formula from each door and the 5.0-liter from the sides of the hood bulge. I left only the small screaming chicken decal on the nose between the pop-up headlamps. That summer, the car ran 14.51 seconds at 94 mph in the quarter-mile at Englishtown, basically matching the numbers I had seen in all the car magazines. I still have the time slip. It was quick enough to survive at the Toms River races if I chose my competition carefully. It beat up on SS Monte Carlos easily and it could take 5.0-liter Mustangs with automatics. However, late one night, soon after moving to Redondo Beach, I remember getting spanked by some guy in a turbocharged Renault Fuego. Welcome to California.
Now, with about 65,000 miles, the Formula remains basically stock, but I have made a few small mods over the years. The Grant three-spoke steering wheel was a birthday present from my college girlfriend. That first year, I also installed a K&N filter and a Hurst shifter with a black ball. Once in California, I removed the blocker plate that sealed the hood scoop and have never reinstalled it.
In 1993, I was the feature editor of Popular Hot Rodding magazine, and the editor wanted to do a story with Hotchkis Performance. We used my car for the photos, installing the company’s first strut tower brace for these cars, along with its rear suspension parts. I also lowered the car with 600-pound front springs and progressive rate springs in the rear. Soon after that, I installed Bilstein shocks and went back to Hotchkis for a set of frame connectors, which the company prototyped on my car. The changes really improved the handling, dialing out much of the chassis flex and understeer.
All of these parts are still on the car, but I’ve kept all of the original stuff, except for the shifter. My father foolishly threw it out while cleaning the garage years later. My only regret is tossing the original Goodyear Gatorbacks. In 1994, I got a free set of Pirellis for another magazine article and dumpstered the Gatorbacks, which still had some life left in them. They don’t reproduce those Goodyears yet and cars with their original tires are sought after. Today it wears only its third set of tires, BFGs I installed about 10 years ago.
Aside from that, some tune-up parts and new set of fuel injectors, also installed about 10 years ago, the car is all-original, down to its hoses, hose clamps, clutch, top, and plastic rear window. Back in New Jersey I only drove it in the snow once, and in California it has only seen rain a few times. Somehow, I’ve always managed to keep it inside. Even in college, I rented a garage space for $50 a month from an old man who lived next to the fraternity house. It’s never been through an automated car wash.
It isn’t perfect, however, and I know every nick and scratch on it. The door ding in the right rear quarter panel is from a careless Philadelphia cab driver. The small scratches at the top of that panel happened in a parking lot back in college, while the scratch on the driver’s side front fender is from some trash I ran over on a Los Angeles freeway. The chip on the driver’s side mirror happened somewhere outside Amarillo. There are other scars, but you get the point.
In 1998, I bought another Firebird, a black and gold 1976 Trans Am, which I also still own, causing my then-girlfriend (now my wife) to nickname the Formula “The Original Recipe.” She meant it derogatorily, but the name has stuck. My wife hates the car. Always has. Says it’s too Jersey. We’ve been married nearly 20 years and she’s been in the Formula just a few times. She’s never driven it.
You know the old saying, everything is for sale. And I have thought about selling the Formula over the years as my collection has grown and the values of third-gen F-cars have risen. But then I take it out for a drive with the top down, usually up PCH to Malibu, and run Mullholand and the areas other twisty two-lanes like Stunt and Schueren. It isn’t fast compared to today’s cars, but man, does it drive sweet. Just like it did on day one back in July 1989. I think I’ll hold on to it. Forever.