Car of the Week: 1970 1/2 Pontiac Formula Firebird

Story and photos by Brian Earnest

It isn’t exactly a Trans Am, but for Jim Dunlap, of Green Bay, Wis., his gorgeous 1970½ Formula Firebird is close enough.

Driver and automobile have been united since 1980, when Dunlap was looking to buy his first car. He needed something to get to and from high school, and preferably look good doing it.

“It was a senior and I was looking for a Trans Am, Am and couldn’t really afford one. So I came across a Formula, and I didn’t really know much about it. I was only 17, it had hood scoops, and I thought,  ‘Well, that’s a cool car,’ so I bought it. There were like 102,000 miles on it when I bought it. I bought it in Green Bay. I’m the third owner. It was originally a Chicago car. [The seller] bought it from the original owner.

“I drove the wheels off it. It got me in a lot of trouble in high school — a lot of trouble [laughs]. But it was a fun car. I drove it for one year in the winter and that was it because it wasn’t any good in the snow. So I bought a winter beater and a drove that in the winter time and I only drove this in the summer.”

Fast-forward 15 years to 1995 and Dunlap still had the itch for a T/A. He still owned his Formula Firebird, but the car was starting to look a little tired and Dunlap figured it might be time to part ways. “I wanted a ’70 Trans Am, and really couldn’t find one and those are getting really expensive, and the Formulas were getting pretty rare, too, so I figured I just keep this. It was getting a little rusty and the paint was starting to chip off, so I figured I wanted it done right. So I took it to Williams Auto Body in Green Bay. They had it for a year and a half, and it was a frame-off restoration. They took the whole car about, and I gave them a bunch of new parts for it. I said ‘Do it up. I want it done right!’”

Dunlap replaced the rocker panels, swapped in new weather stripping, and added a few other new parts. For the most part, though, the sweet Pontiac is a lovely original. The 400-cid/335-hp engine and automatic transmission have each been rebuilt once, the carpeting has been replaced, and the rich-looking Castillian Bronze paint has been re-sprayed. “The interior is all original,” he says proudly. “The door panels are original. The woodgrain dash has a few cracks and stuff, but it’s still the original dash. It looks great.”

“And that Castillian Bronze, that was for the ’70-71 Camaro and Firebird, one year only. It’s a really rare color. You don’t see many around. Oh year, I like it. It’s gorgeous color. Back in the early ‘70s, most of the were black, or green, or yellow … You didn’t see many bronze ones. It shines.”

THE 2ND GEN ’BIRDS

The 1970 Firebirds arrived late, but were worth the wait. Car magazines raved about the Maserati-inspired Endura nose with twin recessed grilles. Standard equipment on base Firebirds included a 250-cid, 155-hp six, glass-belted tires, front bucket seats, vinyl upholstery, a woodgrained dash, carpeting, an outside mirror, manual front disc brakes, wide wheel rims and door pockets. There was only a hardtop model with a $2,875 base price and 18,874 were built.

Styling changes for the 1970 Firebird began at the front, where there was a new Endura rubber front end with dual recessed grilles and single headlights. Split side marker lamps, enlarged wheel openings, flush door handles and smooth, clean, curvy body panels brought Pontiac’s sports-compact car up to date. Firebird lettering and engine badges were behind the front wheel cutouts.

A new Firebird model had chrome “Esprit” signatures on its roof pillars, knit-vinyl upholstery, a deluxe steering wheel, dual sport mirrors, concealed wipers and antenna, trunk floor mats, wheel trim rings, decor moldings and a 350-cid two-barrel V-8.

The performance-oriented Firebird 400 became the Formula 400. While the 1970 Trans Am was probably the hottest of the second-generation Firebirds introduced during the last week in February, the Formula 400 was right up there in terms of performance and had more of the street-racer look that said “muscle car” from the word go.

In addition to all the federally mandated GM safety features, the Formula models included a 330-hp/400-cid V-8 with a single four-barrel carburetor, a three-speed manual gearbox with a heavy-duty Hurst shifter, a 1 1/8-inch front and 5/8-inch rear stabilizer bar, high-rate springs, special wind-up rear axle controls, F70 x 14 bias-belted tires, 7-inch-wide wheel rims, Formula 400 trim, a deluxe steering wheel, carpets, a vinyl bucket seat interior, dual sport mirrors, concealed windshield wipers and manual front disc and rear drum brakes.

All Formulas had a special, tough-looking hood with long twin air scoops that opened at the front end, just above the grille. These scoops became functional when the L74 Ram Air V-8 was ordered for $168.51 extra. This was called the 400 Ram Air option and it put out 335 hp at 5000 rpm.

Pontiac’s 400-cid V-8 had a 4.122 x 3.75-inch bore and stroke, a 10.25:1 compression ratio and a single four-barrel Rochester carburetor. It generated 330-hp at 4800 rpm and 430 lbs.-ft. of torque at 3000 rpm. Car and Driver charted a 6.4-second 0-to-60 run and a 14.7-second quarter-mile at 98.9 mph. That wasn’t as fast as the Trans Am the magazine also tested, which also cost less ($4,663.63).

The second Trans Am was all new, but basically similar in features to the 1969 1/2 version. Front air dams, front and rear spoilers, a shaker hood, side air extractors, a rear-end spoiler and aerodynamic outside mirrors gave it an exotic sports car look.

When the final production figures for 1970 were tallied up, a total of 48,739 Firebirds and Trans Ams were built: 18,874 base Firebirds; 18,961 Esprits; 7,708 Formulas; and 3,196 Trans Ams.

 

STILL ROUGH AND READY

The Ram Air III engine package with 335 horses and cool functional hood scoops has always appealed to Dunlap. He learned to live happily with the automatic transmission, and the factory air-conditioning in his car has been a nice bonus. “The Ram Air II is the same one that’s in the Trans Am,” he notes. “It’s not a real highly optioned car, but I guess it had a lot of options for 1970. The air conditioning is big, because a lot of cars didn’t have air conditioning in ’70.

“The wood grain dash is original and that’s stock. It has the optional gauges, which is kind of rare for the Formula. It has the Formula steering wheel, which was an option… It’s an automatic car, which is an option. And it’s got a space-saver spare tire, which is a really rare option.”

Dunlap admits he doesn’t put many miles on his bronze beauty nowadays. The Firebird makes some show stops every summer, including the Iola Car Show in central Wisconsin, where it has been in attendance many times.

“She doesn’t handle like new cars do. She bounces a lot and it’s kind of stiff, but it handles pretty good. For ’70, it handled great for its year,” Dunlap says. “It goes pretty good for an automatic car with a higher gear ration. She goes pretty good. Nowadays, it’s rough compared to new cars, but fun to drive! I love driving it, but I don’t drive it much. It’s in the garage most of the time now.”

Perhaps Dunlap is still trying to make amends for the days when he wasn’t so kind to his treasured Poncho. One day, in particular, still haunts him.

“I was 17, and of course I was trying to impress everybody,” Dunlap recalls with a chuckle. “I went on a smoke run and was squealing the tires and I broke both leaf springs and snapped the driveshaft U-joint out of the rear end! There I sat… My dad was a mechanic, so I had to tell him. Yeah Dad, I broke the car

“It was kind of funny then. It’s not so funny now. Now I baby it.”

 

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