It’s with great nostalgia that we look back at the year 1987. Robocop, Lethal Weapon, and Dirty Dancing were hits in the theater, Michael Jackson’s Bad album was tearing up the charts, and children were banging away at their controllers playing games like Contra, Street Fighter, and Mega Man. Gas, for those of us who were driving at that time (your author was four), was just 89 cents a gallon and an entire pound of bacon cost less than two bucks. Sure, there was a major stock market crash in there too (sound familiar?), but ’87 also brought us some of the coolest GM pony cars in a while, including the Pontiac Firebird Formula 350 and its bigger brother, the Trans Am GTA. Re-introduced in ’87, the Formula 350 was the top of the line Firebird, packing a 5.7-liter L98 engine under the hood, capable of producing—wait for it—upwards of 225 hp and 310 lb-ft of torque. In a world filled with original Nintendos, a hip Michael Jackson, and the crew from Lethal Weapon, 225 hp was about all you could ask for and for one young Steve Baur, who was 16 at the time, it was a beauty of a car that he could only dream of pulling up to the school yard in.
Of course, here, some 26 years later, those specifications don’t sound quite as impressive. The Tuned Port Injection system seems dated, the 700R4 transmission lacks the refinement of a modern six-speed automatic, and the 16-inch wheels just don’t lure in the honeys like they used to. But, that doesn’t mean the ol’ Formula 350 doesn’t still have some charm. Amusingly, unlike the old high school football star who peaks early, ages poorly, gets fat, and still relives his game winning catch as if it could pay the current rent at his mother’s house, the Formula 350 has actually aged incredibly well. Its smooth bodylines still look sharp. Its laid back roofline, sporty front end, and squared back exudes style without age, and the engine still offers enough performance to get work done.
However, like anything of the era, a modern Formula (you know, one that still runs and drives) is not without its fair share of issues. For us—well, Steve—to find a nice project worthy of owning, we had to be willing to make some sacrifices. On a meager automotive magazine writer budget, we only had about 2,500 dollars to play with initially, which meant we could either buy a running/driving Formula with beat up body panels and missing interior pieces or a clean bodied, mint interior project with some engine issues. “Once I decided to buy another one, my main requirement was that it was a hard top. I’ve had plenty T-top cars, and while none of them leaked, I’ve found that I never really used them and the chassis’ always twisted a lot even with subframe connectors. Also, I looked at a couple of rat-traps before coming to the conclusion that I didn’t want to restore a whole car. It was better to spend some money on something that was really nice to begin with. My initial search turned up a bunch of typically beat rides in the 1,800- to 3,000-dollar range until I came across this particular car. The engine was shot, but the car still belonged to the original owner who took exceptional care of it over the years. It’s an original, unmolested example, and for 2,000 dollars, I don’t have to repaint it, restore the interior, or undo a myriad of bad mods from previous owners…”
However, we do have to fix the engine, which came rattling into our world headquarters with some serious rod knock. Like, shut-it-off-right-now-and-never-start-it-again rod knock. And if the engine had to come out, well, we might as well rebuild it bigger, stronger, and with a little bit more modern technology…