1970 Pontiac Firebird Formula 400 – One Very Mean Bird

1970formula-s.jpgPontiac released the original Firebird for the 1967 model year, at the same time Chevrolet released the first Camaro. Both cars were rushed to the market to compete with Ford’s Mustang which had been a runaway sales sensation after it had been released in the middle of the 1964 model year. The Mustang was intended to cater to the emerging youth buyers, and like an expert in archery Ford with the Mustang hit its mark with a direct bullseye. Chevrolet saw this big untapped market and released the mid-engined Corvair for 1960 and the Chevy II and Nova for 1962 to tap into this market. These offerings only had limited success. Ford also had seen the market and intended its Falcon which was released for the 1960 model year to lure youth buyers into its dealership showrooms. Ford knew all the components of the Falcon were right on the money but it feel short wooing the youth crowd. This was due to the Falcon’s styling not being sporty enough hence Ford reacted quickly with the 1964 1/2 Mustang with beautiful sporty curves and lines – it was built on the Falcon platform and used the same engines, transmissions, and other Falcon components. Pontiac had carved out its niche in the emerging youth market with the release of the 1964 GTO which started the muscle car era. Young performance oriented buyers by the mid-1960s were flocking to Pontiac dealerships and sales were skyrocketing. John DeLorean who ran the Pontiac division at the time wanted a two-seat sports car for Pontiac’s new car lineup. After battling it out with the GM executives and losing, Pontiac was given a consolation prize – a car to be built on the new Camaro’s F-body platform. What seemed at the time to be a defeat would lead to the car that would forever solidify Pontiac’s performance reputation – the Pontiac (Firebird) Trans Am. The downside was when Pontiac was given the prize by GM, Chevrolet was in the advanced stages of 1967 Camaro development so Pontiac would not have much say in the overall F-body platform design and didn’t have much time to modify the exterior and interior to give the car a Pontiac touch. Given the short amount of time that Pontiac had, the finished product released was attractive and had enough of that Pontiac flair to appeal to Pontiac’s youth buyers. And Pontiac helped to push the "pony car" market which the Mustang had created towards performance by offering an optional 400 CID V8 (Chevrolet offered an optional big-block 396 for 1967). On the performance front if one didn’t want a straight-six, the 1964 1/2 – 1966 Mustang only had optional small-block V8s under the hood in the form of a 260 or 289 CID V8s – the hottest of which was the 271 horsepower Hi-Po 289 V8. If it had not been for Carroll Shelby along with Pontiac and Chevrolet offering larger displacement V8s the 1968 Mustang would have never had the big-block 390 CID V8 option as its new top performance engine option (Shelby made standard in the 1967 Mustang Shelby GT500 a 428 CID V8). By 1968 the Mustang would have the Cobra Jet 428 CID V8 as an option and the horsepower race was on.  

Pontiac designers had a little more say in the Firebird’s slight refresh for 1969 giving the Firebird a much more distinctive appearance than the 1970formula-5.jpgCamaro. However it would be the next model year that would give Pontiac free reign to design a car that would embody everything Pontiac stood for. When the first run of the second generation of the F-body was due to be released in 1970, Pontiac stylists gave the Firebird a very stylish look – one that would make it and the more upscale Trans Am the darling of the performance crowd during the entire 1970s. The overall styling was so magnificent that only slight updates were needed to keep it fresh, the second generation Firebird lasted twelve model years which was four times longer than the life of first generation Firebird.

The first generation 1967-1969 Firebird had the general dimensions and overall look of the original Mustang with Pontiac styling cues. The original Firebird was Pontiac’s version of the Mustang. The 1970 Firebird was an entirely different story it was lower, wider, and longer. And 1970formula-4.jpgit had a long hood and short decklid styling with plenty of Pontiac styling cues. The semi-fast back rear window and the Firebird having ditched the 4 side windows for just two side windows gave the overall styling a more sports car look over the previous Firebird. The nose beak with the twin Pontiac grilles was present. The styling could be summed up as very elegant but very muscular and in Formula 400 and Trans Am trim the Firebird was just plain mean looking – it meant business. The Firebird was so far ahead of its time in styling – even ahead of the new slick 1970 Camaro. Where the Camaro was available with either twin chrome bumperettes or a solid front bumper which was the norm on most cars back in the day, the Firebird had no chrome bumper to interfere with its sculpted front beak. Instead it used an Endura front bumper, which was first introduced on the 1968 GTO, allowing the entire front-end to be one single color and appear as one uninterrupted finely shaped work of art. The Endura front-end which also was also standard (but much smaller) on the 1969 Firebird for 1970 took the Firebird styling-wise the next level. There would still be a chrome bumper in the rear however a few model years later Pontiac would replace it with an Endura style bumper. The Endura front bumper/nose piece also gave Pontiac the added benefit to more easily do styling changes every few years which helped to keep the second generation Firebird looking modern for its twelve model year run. Most new cars today use Endura type bumpers.

The best way to summarize the 1970 Firebird design was that it was European – it had the sleek lines of a Ferrari and the muscular athletic look of the GTO especially in Formula 400 and Trans Am form. There was nothing quite like it then and even in today’s market. The current 2012 Challenger offers a muscular appearance however it’s lines are blunt and not sleek like the 1970 Formula 400.  


The Trans Am which had been a limited edition performance Firebird for 1969 was for 1970 assuming the same role. Pontiac for the 1970 Trans Am just like in 1969 tacked on the spoilers, air dams, and front fender air extractors along with adding a new functional shaker hood scoop for total wow factor.  Pontiac may have not known what it started with the second generation Trans Am but sales for 1970 jumped five times what they were for 1969 to 3,196 which for a special edition car were good sales numbers. By 1979 Trans Am sales would skyrocket to 116,535, something Pontiac in 1970 could have never predicted. In 1970 Pontiac was marketing the Formula 400 as its mass production performance Firebird model of which 7,708 were produced. Total Firebird sales were 48,739 units for the 1970 model year which was better than the number reflects since the Firebird had been released during the middle of the model year. Something interesting to note most Pontiac performance buyers were still buying GTOs in larger 1970formula-7.jpgnumbers than the performance Firebirds (the Trans Am and Formula). The combined sales of the Trans Am and the Formula were 10,904 – only 25% of 1970 GTO sales (40,149). A few years later Trans Am and Formula sales would easily eclipse GTO sales and the GTO would be canceled leaving the Trans Am and Formula as Pontiac’s top performance offerings.

As previously mentioned Pontiac saw the Formula as its bread and butter performance Firebird model. The new Firebird could not have been released a worse time, in 1970 muscle car sales were down and they would continue to spiral however the Firebird would defy the odds by gaining in popularity during the performance drought years of the 1970s. The Formula would deliver the performance goods with a package that looked the part. Though some of the Trans Am’s outlandish spoilers and air dams were not available on the Formula – the Formula was a more understated version of the Trans Am. The Formula did however have a mandatory wild looking twin scoop hood. In fact it was so wild onlookers could not miss the large twin hood scoops which had two very wide openings just above the front grille. The Trans Am’s rear spoiler was optional on the Formula. The Formula was equipped 1970formula-3.jpgwith standard 14 inch wheels with poverty caps while the Trans Am came standard with 15×7 inch Rally II wheels. The Formula could be ordered with the Trans Am’s 15×7 inch Rally II wheels with F60-15 tire which gave the Formula a more performance oriented look along with improving handling (14 inch Rally II wheels were also optional on the Formula).

Like many muscle cars of this era, the Formula had plenty of power under the hood.  There were two engines available on the Formula, the standard 330 horsepower (L78) 400 CID 4-bbl V8 and the optional 335 horsepower (L74) Ram Air III 4-bbl 400 V8 (both engines produced 430 lb-ft of torque). Due to the 400 V8 being standard on the 1970 Formula, Pontiac referred to the Formula as the "Formula 400" in its product literature. The downside was these two 400 V8s were slightly handicapped by Pontiac. Since the GTO was still Pontiac’s performance flagship car for 1970, its standard L78 400 which was the same standard engine found in the Formula but it had a higher rating of 350 horsepower. Same was the case with the Formula’s optional L78 Ram Air III 400, it was rated at 366 horsepower in the GTO much higher than the Formula’s rating. There are presistent rumors that Pontiac had rigged the linkage on the Formula’s Rochester quadrajet 4-bbl carburetor secondaries (rear two barrels) to not open up all the way at full throttle thereby slightly crippling both engines. However these rumors are false, the difference in horsepower was merely on paper, giving the GTO a false horsepower victory. Pontiac only rigged the linkage on the 1967 and 1968 Firebird equipped 400 V8s in order to meet an internal GM horsepower-to-weight ratio mandate. Same was true with the 1970 Trans Am which came standard with the L74 Ram Air III 400 and optional with the (345 1970formula-2.jpghorsepower) L67 Ram Air IV 400, its horsepower ratings were only underrated on paper. The L78 powered 1970 Formula 400 as tested by Car and Driver Magazine back in the day obtained a 0-60 mph time of 6.4 seconds and a 1/4 mile time of 14.7 seconds at 98.9 mph which was impressive when you consider the rear axle ratio was only 3.07 on the test car. The L74 Ram Air III 400 powered 1970 Formula as tested by Hot Rod magazine (March 1970) went 0-60 mph in 6.0 seconds and did the 1/4 mile in 14.2 seconds. If a buyer wanted the Formula’s wild hood scoops to be functional (pass air to the engine via an opening in the air cleaner assembly – the slang of which was called ram air induction), the L74 Ram Air III had to ordered – the L78 could not be equipped with the functional hood scoops. The ram induction hood scoops had a "Ram Air" decal on each scoop to denote the scoops were fully functional. Dual exhausts were standard on the Formula 400.

A three-speed manual transmission was standard on the Formula (for both the L78 and L74) with a 4-speed manual and a TH400 3-speed automatic transmission both being optional. The 3-speed and 4-speed manual transmission both came standard with a floor mounted shifter. When the TH400 automatic was ordered if the center console was ordered the shifter was mounted on the floor, if ordered sans the center console the auto shifter was mounted on the steering column.   

The beauty of the Formula 400 was it could be equipped with a stripped down basic interior with no options to keep the price and weight down. At a base price of $3,370 the Formula 400 was a downright bargain – it was a lot less than the Trans Am’s base price of the $4,305. This gave the 1970formula-8.jpgFormula 400 buyer a sporty bare-bones performance car with 330 horsepower and a heavy-duty 3-speed manual transmission. And even if a buyer wanted the 335 horsepower Ram Air III with ram air induction and a 4-speed manual transmission the price only went up slightly – still much more affordable than the Trans Am not to mention less curb weight and less weight meant quicker performance times. A bare-bones Formula 400 may have had dog dish hub caps and stripped down interior but for the budget performance buyer it didn’t matter. The one downside was Pontiac made the tachometer optional on the  Formula so there were a number of 1970 Formulas that were produced with no tachometer – which was the same as taking a sight seeing trip of the Grand Canyon and being forced to wear eye blinders.

There was also an all new Firebird interior for 1970, it was modern and sporty. Front bucket seats with headrests were standard. Even in base form it was attractive. However a buyer could easily tack on the options to spruce up the interior giving the Formula a much more upscale appearance. In fact it could look as upscale as the Trans Am. Unfortunately the 1970 Formula could not be ordered with the Trans Am’s standard "turned-aluminum" dash (beautiful decorative aluminum dash trim with tiny round swirl marks) however the Formula’s simulated wood grain dash trim was attractive.  The Pontiac "formula steering 1970formula-6.jpgwheel" which was standard on the Trans Am and optional on the Formula 400 (it was also optional on the 1970 GTO) did the best job of sprucing up the Formula’s interior. The interior was comfortable and the seating position was low especially in the front seats which helped to solidify the sports car image of the Firebird in the minds of its occupants. Yet the low roofline did give tall front and rear seat occupants limited headroom. And rear legroom was unfortunately limited so a normal size adult could easily feel cramped in the backseat.  
Pontiac did a fantastic job in the delivery of a real performance car to budget oriented buyers. The Formula had the styling, image, and performance to keep the customers happy. The only flaw in Pontiac’s plan, was that the Formula did not turn out to be its bread and butter performance car in the long run. As the 1970s progressed the buyers flocked to the more outlandish Trans Am in much larger numbers. Formula sales also increased but sales of the more expensive Trans Am easily eclipsed those of the Formula. Unfortunately the Trans Am’s rock idol type status has had the effect of making many muscle car fans overlook the 1970 Formula 400. This doesn’t change the fact that the Formula is one serious muscle car. Think of it like a majestic bald eagle which is both a thing of beauty and a bird of prey, same is true of the 1970 Formula 400 it may look sleak and stylish but it is one very mean bird.  

Written contents in this article – © 2011 Pete Dunton – All Rights Reserved