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Is the 1979 Pontiac Firebird Formula W72 the Last Muscle Car?

HOT ROD logo HOT ROD 2019-03-18 Jerry Heasley
a car parked in a field: 001-johnson-1979-pontiac-firebird-formula-front-three-quarter.jpg

Was this 1979 Pontiac Formula the last muscle car?

Research

While we were taking pictures of a 1971 Pontiac "Tirebird" in Bruce Johnson's collection (Sept. 2018), we spotted this 1979 Formula in a row of 1970s Firebirds. Johnson is a muscle car collector, and he was very enthusiastic about this particular Pontiac, which didn't seem special to us next to a 1974 Super Duty also in his collection. Why was he collecting this Formula?

Not quite old enough to remember the 1960s, Bruce and his twin brother, Barry, drove late 1970s Trans Ams to school. So, was Bruce's enthusiasm related more to nostalgia than performance?

He says, "I had a 1979 W72, 400, four-speed Trans Am in high school and college. Barry had a W72 in a 1978 Trans Am with an automatic. We would go cruising and end up in a race. The W72 would beat everything."

"Everything" included Corvettes, Camaros, and Mustangs of that era. Plymouth had dropped the Barracuda in 1975, and Dodge put the Challenger nameplate on a four-cylinder import built by Mitsubishi from 1978 to 1981. The 1979 L82 Corvette in Bruce's garage now made sense.

In their school days, the performance of their W72 Trans Am Pontiacs surprised the twin brothers. "We wondered what was so special about this W72 Pontiac," says Bruce. "It came with chrome valve covers, but why was it beating Corvettes and Z28s, handily, by a couple car lengths?"

Being the fastest rear-wheel-drive, American V-8 ponycar of the late 1970s is one thing. Why does Bruce think this 1979 Firebird Formula is a real muscle car? Or any of the W72 400s of 1977-1979, available also in the Trans Am?

a red and black truck parked in front of a car: 014-johnson-1979-pontiac-firebird-formula-front.jpg© Hot Rod Network Staff 014-johnson-1979-pontiac-firebird-formula-front.jpg

The W72's 220 hp doesn't sound much like a muscle car, but the 220 is a net rating, not a gross power rating common in the muscle era. The NHRA dyno'd a W72 engine at 260 to 280 net hp.

"The best quarter-mile e.t. [from published magazine articles] is 14.6, which I think is pretty comparable to a 1968 GTO." [He's not far off. Hot Rod's Feb. 1968 road test of a Ram Air GTO with a four-speed and 3.90 gears in bone-stock condition logged a 14.70 quarter-mile e.t.—Ed. ]

No doubt, Pontiac and Pontiac alone was carrying the muscle car torch through 1979. Bruce recalls a song from those days by Sammy Hagar, "Trans Am Highway Wonderland" recognizing the last 400 Pontiac's dominance on the street, with words such as "a custom plate that says IEATZ28," and races "a big boss Ford or a 350 Chevy."

Bruce makes a point with this comparison, so we asked. Does the W72 Formula also feel like a muscle car?

"Oh, definitely, it will get away from you if you're not careful. My slightly modified 1979 Trans Am, in college, could catch rubber in all four gears."

Bruce did open the ram air scoop, super-tuned the carburetor, and removed the catalytic converter to create true dual exhausts.

The 6.6L is late 1970s nomenclature for the old 400 from the GTO's glory days of the 1960s. Pontiac's famous 1964 GTO was the first muscle car. This 400-powered Firebird Formula as the last muscle car makes Pontiac the alpha and the omega.

Extending the muscle car era into 1979 required special planning. Pontiac built its last 400 in 1977 and stockpiled engines for 1978 and 1979. This odd fact shows how Pontiac strived to keep the muscle car flame lit.

This particular W72 Formula was an original-owner car for 95 percent of its life. It is numbers-matching and has original paint. "The first owner passed away about two years ago," Bruce says. "One of his nephews got the car. He installed a Star Wars type air cleaner, modern stereo, and fat tires."

a car engine: 003-johnson-1979-pontiac-firebird-formula-engine.jpg© Hot Rod Network Staff 003-johnson-1979-pontiac-firebird-formula-engine.jpg

Luckily, a collector named Jeff Brown spotted the Formula at a show and managed to purchase the rare W72 and put it back to stock. He traded it to a dealer who sold it to Bruce.

Mileage is 75,000, but the car is original down to factory markings and tags on its suspension. The Mayan Red Formula is fairly loaded with power windows, T-tops, and the W50 Appearance Package.

"Somebody keyed the hood, but I got that fixed. It is in very original condition."

Collectors, of course, want to see everything original. The W72 still has the single-snorkel air cleaner assembly, which many owners did pull off and replace with an open filament aftermarket air cleaner.

A W72 Trans Am would be showier, but the Formula is lighter, and production is a mere 367 units compared to 8,326 for the 1979 W72 Trans Am. For the 1977-1979 production run, Pontiac built more than 350,000 Trans Ams and Formulas, 20 percent of which were equipped with the W72 engine. The only other car to receive the W72 engine was a special Pontiac Can Am in 1977. A production breakdown for Trans Ams and Formulas that left the factory with W72 engines is shown here:

Auto4-Speed
1977
Trans Am14,77511,402
Formula7561,735
Year Total15,53113,137
1978
Trans AmNA14,872
FormulaNA28,009
Year Total21,384*42,881
1979
Trans Am08,326
Formula0367
Year Total08,693
Source: John Witzke, W72 Historian *non-W72 automatics

The 1979 model year was special for Pontiac because it marked the 10-year anniversary of the Trans Am. Only 1,817 of the 7,500 10th anniversary models (Y89) were equipped with the W72 engine.

Bruce says, "A lot of people call the Formula the gentleman's muscle car because it is understated. There's nothing understated about the Trans Am with its scoops and graphics. The Formula is less conspicuous. I think it's tasteful. I think it's a beautiful car."

What finally killed the W72 and ended the muscle car era? Bruce points to Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards for 1980. The hottest Pontiac engine for 1980 was the 301 Turbo, a V-8, automatic only, and which at best was a "sixteen-and-a-half-second quarter-miler." That Pontiac did have horsepower when revved, but the old-time muscle car feel was gone.

The 1979 Trans Am and Formula had all the components of a muscle car. Bruce Johnson believes the 1979 W72 is the last muscle car. What do you think?

Faster Than Imports, Too

I remember a girl in high school bragged her dad had a Mercedes 450SL that was the fastest car in town. Barry told her to bring it to school one day and race during our lunch break. The W72 Trans Am was three car lengths ahead of the 450SL before they made it to the next light! The same thing happened with other imports, including 280ZX Turbos, RX-7s, Supras, and a brand-new Porsche 944 Turbo.—Bruce Johnson

At a Glance

1979 Firebird Formula W72

Owned by: Bruce Johnson

Restored by: Unrestored

Engine: 400ci/220hp W72 V-8

Transmission: BorgWarner T10 4-speed

Rearend: 3.23 gears with Safe-T-Track

Interior: Deluxe black vinyl bucket seat

Wheels: 15x8 Snowflake

Tires: P235/60R15 front, P275/60R15 rear Cooper Cobra

Special parts: W72 Special Performance engine, WS6 Handling Package, Hurst shifter, rear deck spoiler, W50 Appearance Package

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