When discussions arise concerning muscle cars usually the most ballsy performance oriented examples dominate the conversation. For instance when the golden era Dodge Charger is mentioned, the 426 Hemi and 440 Chargers dominate the conversation. Forgotten are the 383 and 340 powered Chargers which still had enough muscle to burn the tires and keep the competition in check. In Pontiac circles the same is true with the Pontiac 389, 421, 428, 455, and 400 V8s get the limelight while there were other smaller displacement Pontiac performance motors that performed very well but are rarely mentioned. Pontiac’s 326 H.O. and 350 H.O. V8s are perfect examples of real serious Pontiac performance motors that are forgotten by most.
By the mid-1970s most automakers had left performance behind. Pontiac was the exception it was still providing Trans Ams with serious contender (for the time period) 400 and 455 CID V8s. In the 1970s the word was out that Pontiac was the place to obtain a large helping of big-cubic inch power, and soaring Trans Am sales proved it. The C.A.F.E. ratings were the final blow to last bastion of big cubic-inch performance, GM was forced to pull the plug on Pontiac’s large displacement V8s. 1976 would be the last year for the Pontiac 455 V8 and 1979 would be the last year for the Pontiac 400. Pontiac was forced to forge ahead in a new direction. To Pontiac’s credit it already had developed a reliable small displacement V8. Pontiac released the 301 CID (4.9 liter) V8 for the 1977 model year on many of its rear-wheel drive cars. The 301 was a smooth motor that looked similar to the familiar Pontiac V8 which came in one physical size and many different displacement versions from 287 to 455 cubic inches. However none of the 301 parts were interchangeable with any of the previous Pontiac V8s. The 301 provided ample power yet good gas mileage for a V8. It was the perfect V8 motor for the times.
Starting in 1977; the base Firebird, Esprit, and Formula could all be equipped with the new 301. The Formula was a performance oriented Firebird since its first year of production in 1970. If there never had been the Trans Am, the Formula was hot enough to have handled the top dog muscle car slot for Pontiac with ease. Being there was a Trans Am, the Formula became the budget Trans Am. For most years, Formula buyers could get all the performance goodies available on the Trans Am. This included the Trans Am’s hottest motors for every year from 1970 to 1981 with the exception of 1975-1976 (these were the only two years the Formula could not be ordered with the best motor available on the same year Trans Am).
For 1979, the Formula had a new front-end and rear-end design just like the other 1979 Firebirds and 1979 Trans Am. The 150 horsepower (240 lbs/ft. of torque) L37 301 4 bbl. V8 was the standard motor for the 1979 Formula. To show this figure for 1979 was impressive, as a comparison the base V8 on the 1974 Formula was a 155 horsepower Pontiac 350 2 bbl. V8. The 301 provided enough grunt to move the Formula with authority. It paled in comparison with the high horsepower 400 and 455 equipped Formulas of the early 1970s, but for 1979, 150 horsepower was more than most of the competition. There were other V8 options for the 1979 Formula such as the LG3 Chevy 305 2 bbl., LM1 (Chevy 350, Olds 350, or Buick 350) 4 bbl., L80 Olds 403 4 bbl., and W72 Pontiac 400 4 bbl. The hottest of these was the 220 horsepower Pontiac W72 400 CID V8. The W72 400 which required the mandatory 4-speed manual transmission and WS6 handling package (same was true with the 1979 W72 Trans Am) was indeed a rarity with only 346 units produced.
The 301 was indeed a popular choice among Formula buyers for 1979. Most 301 powered 1979 Formulas were equipped with a 3-speed automatic transmission. The savvy buyer who wanted both performance and decent gas mileage, the 301 Formula with the optional 4-speed manual transmission was by far the best choice. This combo offered good performance during this period of otherwise lack-luster performance for American cars. The 4-speed 301 Formula sounded and felt like a traditional muscle car, though it did not have power of the 4-speed W72 400 Formula it had enough punch under the hood to please most muscle car buyers at the time. The 301/4-speed combo was a glimpse of the hot muscle car packages GM and Ford would offer during the 1980s, with a manual transmission mated to a small displacement V8 (around 5.0 liters). Pontiac knew by 1979 the W72 the biggest and most potent new muscle car motor on the streets in the late-1970s was to be discontinued. Pontiac understood the 301 was the way of the future. The 301/4-speed combo was Pontiac’s way of showing that there was a performance life after the mighty 400’s departure.
Aaron Hagen who comes from a family of second generation Trans Am and Firebird Formula fans (his Mom and Dad have owned their share of nice second generation Trans Ams and even a Formula), knows just how unsung the 301/4-speed combination is. He owns the beautiful bone stock low mileage (only 11,800 miles to be exact) 301/4-speed Formula shown in this article. Aaron powershifted at the track an impressive (for the heavy around 3,600 lbs Formula) 1/4 mile of 16.35 seconda at 82 mph (follow this link to see a video of his car in action at the 1/4 mile strip). A 1/4 mile time like this would have (back in 1979) dusted most of the 1979 model year competition. If you plug Aaron’s 1/4 time and trap speed into a horsepower calculator (adding the approximate weight of the driver) the horsepower figure for the 301 comes out to around 170 horsepower. That would have been about right considering rumors have persisted for years the L37 301 made close to 170 horsepower and not the advertised 150. Aaron comments that he can get 2nd and 3rd gear scratches with his Formula which has a performance-oriented factory original limited-slip 3.08 rear axle. Aaron who is a Trans Am and Formula fan through and through (he also currently owns a WS6 1999 Firebird Formula), received his 1979 Formula as a gift from a his father, Paul. I am sure it was a nice surprise getting a present like this – kind of like winning the lottery. As an added bonus this Formula has spent most of its life in the dry climates of Oregon, California, and Texas. Aaron’s Formula is unrestored with original factory paint (only the front bumper was recently professionally resprayed and blended) and all the factory assembly line paper tags are still present on the fuel lines, brakes lines, and coil springs.
Getting back to the specifics of Pontiac’s 301, it was considerably lighter and slightly smaller than the previous Pontiac V8s. It was a product of the times and was built for fuel efficiency. The crankshaft was built to be light and only used two counter weights verses the five used on the Pontiac 400. The small 1.72 inch intake and 1.50 inch exhaust valves were also indicators of the efficiency of the 301. The heads were a siamese port design and the 301’s bore and stroke happened to be 4.00 inches and 3.00 inches respectfully. The 301 proved to be a reliable motor unfortunately its lifespan was cut short. GM pulled the plug on the 301 at the end of the 1981 model year. Not only did this leave Pontiac for the first time without a Pontiac produced V8, it had nipped in the bud the 301’s progress as a true performance motor. The 1980-1981 LU8 301 turbo V8 (210 and 200 horsepower respectfully), produced more horsepower than any similar displacement new V8 at that time. During this time the Buick turbo 3.8 liter V6 produced 165-180 horsepower. By 1987 the 3.8 liter turbo pumped out an advertised 245 horsepower (the true figure is higher) which was enough to make it faster in the 1/4 mile than any other 1987 model year American performance car including the Corvette. If GM had not pulled the plug on the 301 in 1981, it makes one wonder how high the 301 would have soared. A 250-300 horsepower turbo 301 by the 1987 model year would have probably been the end result if the 301 would have survived.
Another side effect of GM’s premature cancellation of the 301, was the lack of aftermarket performance parts for the 301. Given a few more years in production as the top Trans Am motor, aftermarket performance parts would have surely become available for the 301. The 301 would have certainly come alive with more power given an aftermarket free-flow performance intake manifold and heads. Unfortunately it was not meant to be.
Though the Trans Am received the entire spotlight by the late-1970s, the Formula was the smart man’s Trans Am. It had 90% of the looks of the Trans Am yet was a bargain in comparison. A hot performance oriented Formula could be nicely optioned with the same performance options as the Trans Am yet save the buyer thousands. When buying a Formula it was not really a step down, it still was just as drop dead gorgeous as the Trans Am. Only main difference was the Formula was slightly understated when compared to the Trans Am. This did not mean the Formula was stodgy. Quite the contrary the Formula could turn heads and was flamboyant in its own way. The Formula did not have the big bird hood decal, flares, front fender air extractors, or shaker hood scoop of the Trans Am but it did have the optional Trans Am rear spoiler and its own optional wild decal package/paint scheme along with twin hood scoops. Worth noting the previous year Formula had standard the Trans Am rear spoiler however for 1979 Pontiac decided to make the spoiler optional on the Formula. Most Formula buyers opted for the rear spoiler, however a minority of 1979 Formulas were produced as Aaron’s sans rear spoiler. Without the rear spoiler the Formula had a clean look and was reminiscent of the early 1970s Formulas; many of which were ordered without the Trans Am rear spoiler. In place of the rear spoiler on the 1979 Formula was a decorative Firebird badge.
The standard Formula had the base Trans Am performance oriented tuned suspension which included standard 15×7 inch wheels in either the Rally II or snowflake design. With this suspension came standard front discs and rear drums brakes. Optional on the Formula and Trans Am was the WS6 handling package which included as standard four wheel disc brakes, 15×8 inch snowflake wheels, a performance steering box, and other suspension upgrades. The WS6 package gave the Formula and Trans Am handling dominance over all competitors. Aaron refers to his WS6 equipped Formula as handling "extremely well", on the skidpad this equated to about .81 g which for 1979 was astounding handling.
The interior could be appointed with all the same luxury and power options available on the Trans Am. Even the Trans Am’s famous metal dashboard bezel was standard on the Formula. The Formula could even be ordered with the upscale velour cloth seats which were also optional on the Trans Am. And if the buyer wanted T-tops those were also on the option list.
Cosmetically the 1979 Formula came with a two tone paint scheme which consisted of a lower body color that ran the entire length of the car and was encorporated into the lower portion of the front and rear fascias. Separating the lower body color from the main exterior color were stylish stripes which ran the entire length of the car. The lower body color was also used to accent the front portion of the twin hood scoops. And if this scheme was too sedate the W50 decal package could be ordered which added large “Formula” decals; one was located below each side door and another could be found on the rear spoiler. Standard on all Formulas were sail panel bird decals and door handle decal strips that matched the main exterior paint scheme (not the lower body paint color). There was also an optional big bird decal available for the rear spoiler for the Formula.
As was the case with many Firebirds of this era, Aaron’s Formula was ordered with an interesting array of options. These were the days before option groups which are the norm today for most new cars. Option groups force a buyer to purchase a whole option group when that buyer may only want one or two of the options in that group. Before these option groups were available any option could be checked off on the new car order form. The end result was unique cars, and in some cases one of kind cars. Aaron’s Formula happens to fall under the one of kind category. For instance his car as mentioned before was equipped with the 301/4-speed combo with a limited slip 3.08 rear axle and the WS6 handling package so the original owner obviously wanted performance. However here is where it gets interesting and the personal tastes of the person who ordered this car can be seen. Have been ordered with the rear spoiler delete, deluxe vinyl seats/interior, factory tachometer, rear defroster, engine block heater, electric trunk release, power antenna, and AM-FM stereo cassette; it is easy to see how Aaron’s car is one of kind.
One interesting option which was available on the Formula but was not popular was a vinyl roof. Adding to the Formula’ sparkle was the Trans Am’s famous chrome exhaust splitters which were located under both rear quarter panels behind the rear wheels. The Formula like the Trans Am came standard with the new for 1979 blacked-out rear taillights. To say these tail lights (which were new for 1979 and spanned the entire length of the rear bumper) looked cool was an understatement. Many different cars would later have similar dark tail lights.
The Formula for a specialty model sold well for 1979 with a total of 24,850 produced. Production volume for the Formula had steadily increased year by year during the 1970s. The Trans Am on the other hand at the same time skyrocketed in sales with total Trans Am production for 1979 topping out at an amazing 116,535 units. It would be this overshadowing by the Trans Am that would be the Formula’s undoing thus the Formula name was dropped at the end of the 1981 model year. Fortunately Pontiac realized its mistake and the Firebird Formula returned in 1987 and remained until the Firebird was permanently terminated when the 2002 model year came to a close.
The Formula was a great buy for 1979; it offered more bang for the buck than even the popular Trans Am. And for those like Aaron who know that the 301/4-speed combo is a wise choice since it provides good performance and good fuel efficiency – the best of both worlds. Who says you can’t have your cake and eat it too?
Special thanks to Aaron and Paul Hagen who provided the pictures and information used in this article of Aaron’s beautiful low mileage 1979 Firebird Formula.
Written contents in this article – © 2009 Pete Dunton – All Rights Reserved