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1988 Pontiac Firebird - Formula for speed

An engineer--who’s not a nerd--builds one of the cleanest and quickest third-gen Firebirds we’ve ever seen

Barry Kluczyk Dec 14, 2011
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Gordon Rojewski is a General Motors engineer. With that type of brain to contend with, it was no wonder that we had to ask for an explanation about the personalized plate on his turbocharged '88 Firebird Formula: FEQLSMA. "It stands for 'force equals mass times acceleration,'" he told us. "It's a physics formula and the car is a Formula. Get it?" Um, yeah, Gordon. Sort of. Something tells us we should have been looking over your shoulder during the math section of the SAT. Inscrutable license plates notwithstanding (we bet you engineer types couldn't come up with a big, graduate-level English class word like that), the look and performance of this third-gen Pontiac are as straight and easy to understand as a slide rule--which we're sure fills Rojewski's pocket protector at work. Not that we would ever suggest that engineers are, like, nerds or anything like that. Maybe they're a little eccentric and tend to wear plaid shirts, but they're not nerds. Mostly.

Besides, nerds don't build 920-horsepower street machines that would give Doc Brown's--an eccentric engineer type in his own right--DeLorean a run for its time-warping performance. There's no flux capacitor aboard this Firebird, but the 76mm turbocharger comes close to altering space and time when the boost maxes out at 18 pounds and the car rockets forward with the kick of a full jigawatt. Rojewski's experience with the car dates back to 1994, when it was purchased as the replacement for a car that was stolen while he was away at college. The 305/five-speed-equipped Formula helped him forget about the trick scientific calculator and Star Trek videos that were also lost in the theft. An avalanche of modifications and a 15-plus-year journey to its current state began with the discovery of a coolant leak.

"My brother worked at a Pontiac dealer at the time and offered to help replace the intake gasket, but as soon as the intake was removed he noticed the block was cracked," says Rojewski. "Since we had to replace the block, we figured we might as well build a strong 350. It all snowballed from there."

With an ACCEL/Lingenfelter-equipped small-block, a T56 six-speed and a Strange Engineering 12-bolt, the Formula ran as quick as 12.80 at 112 mph on street tires. Not bad, but Rojewski was thinking bigger and his inspiration came in the form of the "Mule"--a turbocharged, pro touring-style '69 Camaro built by Mark Stielow, one of the supreme plaid shirt wearers at GM. So, he started to collect the elements for a pressurized small-block, including a stronger Dart cylinder block and forged rotating parts from Scat (crank), CP (pistons) and Oliver (rods). That produced a 400-inch short-block, which was topped with a set of All Pro 220cc aluminum cylinder heads, filled with 2.10/1.60-inch stainless valves and Jesel 1.6-ratio roller rockers. The 68cc chambers of the heads and the boost-friendly pistons give the engine a 9.0:1 compression ratio.

A roller camshaft serves as the airflow mediary. It actuates the valves to control access of the pressurized air charge into the cylinders. That air comes via an oil-cooled, Precision Turbo 76mm compressor, the inertia of which is driven by exhaust fed by custom, 321-stainless turbo headers. It then blows through custom tubing to a BBK 58mm twin-bore throttle body and into a TPIS Mini-Ram intake manifold--fitted with 65-pound F.A.S.T. fuel injectors--and down through the All Pro heads. The engine assembly was farmed out to the venerable Thomson Automotive.

In the car, a custom air-to-air intercooler lowers the air charge temperature, feeding the engine cooler, denser air. The 1.75-inch headers, intake plumbing, and intercooling system were all fabricated by the recently defunct Stenod Performance--a shop that was no stranger to this magazine and whose fabrication skills will be sorely missed by the high-performance public. The turbo system also includes a TiAL 60mm wastegate and 50mm blow-off valve. Utica, Michigan-based Q.C. Coatings took the liberty of powdercoating and ceramic-coating the various exhaust and tubing components. Engine cooling is handled by a thick Ron Davis aluminum radiator and a pair of Spal electric fans--all mounted on a radiator support fabricated by Stenod. Rojewski turned to Dave Mikels, another GM nerd--er, engineer--to handle the tuning of the engine's F.A.S.T. stand-alone controller. None of that tuning, we're told, was done in his parents' basement. Mikels has his own basement.

Ghtp 1111 1988 Pontiac Formula Formula For Speed 001 5/8

Backing the boosted small-block is a Viper-ized T56 six-speed, which is used with a McLeod Street Twin clutch and aluminum flywheel. The transmission is capped with a C6 Corvette shifter and transfers torque to that stout Strange 12-bolt via a custom, metal-matrix driveshaft from Dynotech Engineering. The rear end is filled with a 3.73-geared, Eaton clutch-plate limited-slip differential and a set of 33-spline axles. The torque ultimately meets the road on 18-inch Michelin Pilot Sport 2 tires that are mounted on a set of Formula 43 RAD14 wheels, measuring 18x9.5 inches in the front and 18x10.5 inches in the rear. Formula 43 is an upstart wheel manufacturer from the Detroit area and builds their wheels right there in the Motor City. What we really like about the wheels is their classic multi-spoke design, which reminds us of the BBS-style wheels that were ubiquitous in the 1980s and early-'90s. They have the spot-on look for a third-gen or fourth-gen F-car, but in a larger, more contemporary size. Well done.

A brace of bolt-on chassis parts helps keep that 18-inch wheel-and-tire combination connected to the pavement. The components include Bilstein struts and shocks, Eibach springs, Hotchkis rear lower control arms, and a modified Panhard bar. There's also a BMR steering brace. For the brakes, Rojewski plucked a set of fifth-gen Camaro Brembo rotors and calipers for the front and used PBR C4 Corvette parts in the rear.

When it came to the appearance of the car, Rojewski kept it simple. No aftermarket enhancements or complicated graphics--just smooth bodywork sprayed with a Mercedes silver metallic color. Jory's Race and Custom, in Westland, Michigan, did the work and the color highlights the sporty yet restrained proportions of the third-gen Formula. There's not a bad angle or view of the car. And while it has the unmistakable cues of a car from the 1980s, it will go down in history as one of the best-looking examples of the era--just like a '66 Chevelle exemplifies styling from the 1960s.

Rojewski broke out his slide rule when it came to the interior, reconfiguring the instrument panel to hold more AutoMeter gauges than there are married guys at a Dungeons and Dragons convention, including a boost gauge located prominently between the large speedometer and tachometer. The stock seats were swapped for Recaro SRD buckets, with the driver's seat fitted with a Schroth racing harness. Customer door panels were made, with fabric inserts stitched by All American Auto Upholstery, in Romulus, Michigan, using the same material as the Recaro seats. Additional interior items include a MOMO steering wheel, Vintage Air heater/air conditioning system, and a rollbar. It's hard to see the black rollbar, because it blends with the black interior color, and the deep-tinted windows (by Sun Shade in Troy, Michigan) don't let much light in.

When we caught up with Rojewski and his Pontiac, the car had only a few break-in miles on the odometer, so there are no quarter-mile times to report. But with more than 900 horsepower and 900 lb-ft on tap, traction will be his biggest challenge. No doubt, he's got a formula worked out to overcome it. That's the kind of engineer Rojewski is. But he's not a nerd. Nobody with a third-gen F-car this cool could be.



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1988 Pontiac Formula
Owner: Gordon Rojewski
Block: Dart SBC
Compression ratio: 9.0:1
Heads: All Pro 220cc, 2.10 intake, 1.60 exhaust valves
Cam: Custom hydraulic roller
Pushrods: Trend Performance
Rocker arms: Jesel roller-tip, 1.6-ratio
Pistons: CP, forged
Rings: Diamond
Crankshaft: Scat, forged steel
Rods: Oliver, forged I-beam
Throttle body: BBK 58mm
Fuel injectors: F.A.S.T. 65-lb./hr.
Fuel pump: twin Walbro 255-lph
Ignition: MSD
Engine management: F.A.S.T.
Power adder: Precision Turbo 76mm
Boost: 18 psi
Intercooler: Stenod Performance air-to-air
Wastegate: TiAL 60mm
Exhaust system: Custom 1.75-inch turbo manifolds, 3.5-inch downpipe and exhaust
Transmission: Tremec T56
Clutch: McLeod Street Twin
Driveshaft: Dynotech Engineering
Front suspension: Stock-type with Bilstein struts and Eibach springs
Rear suspension: Stock-type with Bilstein shocks, Eibach springs, Hotchkis lower control arms and modified Panhard bar
Rear end: Strange 12-bolt, 33-spline axles, 3.73 gear, Eaton posi
Brakes: Chevrolet/Brembo fifth-gen Camaro (front), PBR C4 Corvette (rear)
Wheels: Formula 43 RAD14 18x9.5 front, 18x10.5 rear
Front tires: Michelin Pilot Sport 2 275/35ZR18
Rear tires: Michelin Pilot Sport 2 295/35ZR18
Fuel: 93-octane
Race weight: 3,750 lbs
HP/TQ: 920/911 (at the crank)