Owner Review

1995 Pontiac Firebird Formula review

Rating: 4.6
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Writing a review about your old car is like trying to explain to someone why the generation you grew up in was ‘the best’. Unless you’ve lived it, you won’t believe it. And I think this applies to the cars we had when we grew up. For me it was in the 1990s, a time when Hanson and the Spice Girls ruled our airwaves, neon windbreakers made you the coolest guy in school, Jurassic Park was smashing the box office, and the cars were, well, mostly awesome.

We had some killer rides back then. Sure, some of them are starting to show their age now, but some actually aged pretty well. Take our 1995 Firebird Formula for example. Not a bad looking car for 23!

Having been made partly famous by a young David Hasselhoff in Knight Rider, earlier models are a common sight at any American car show. But something drew us to the sleek styling of the later-year versions. Not as common, not as popular (Down Under at least) and easily mistaken for a Nissan or Toyota of that period, the Firebird is nonetheless an aging classic that has definitely left its mark in automotive history.

Introduced in the late '60s and based off the more popular Chevrolet Camaro, the Pontiac Firebird is, and was, an American muscle car that combined solid performance with modern design. This particular example has spent a good part of its life in Australia, having been converted to right-hand drive when imported.

Over a period of six weeks, the car was completely gutted of all components from engine to interior, with a ‘mirror conversion’ from left to right taking place. The fit and finish isn’t too bad either. Sure it’s got some panel gaps that would rival Dave Hughes’ front teeth, and the plastic dashboard has a similar texture to your wheelie-bin lid, but for a car that’s travelled more than 160,000 kilometres and counting, it could be a lot worse! More on the conversion later.

The fourth-generation Pontiac Firebird (1993-2002) incorporated an all-new body style with fibreglass doors, plastic guards and a metal bonnet; A mixed bag of materials to produce a car with a curb weight of around 1500 kilograms. Coupled with an alloy and cast-iron V8 donk under the hood that produces 275 horses (205kW) when standard, it gave any European and Japanese import a run for its money.

Mash that right pedal, wait two seconds for the car to realise you want speed, and bang you’re off. No, not to the petrol station... it’s fuel-injected, so it has some credibility with fuel consumption and emissions figures. Along the way she’s had a few cosmetic and performance upgrades including larger Boyd Coddington wheels, suspension strut brace and a full exhaust system. There’s no point owning a car like this if you can’t hear it coming a block away.

Originally painted in a gross green/blue colour, the ‘bird was repainted purple in honour of the Melbourne Storm. (Nah, they weren’t around in ’95, and we are Hawks supporters anyway!)

Life behind the wheel actually takes some getting use to. I wouldn’t say it’s a hard car to drive, though. It has power steering, a tight turning circle and surprisingly decent front and rear visibility, but the seating position of the driver and passenger is basically in permanent lawn-chair mode, so it’s a total switch from the conventional seating position you would find in a regular sedan.

With the exception of your usual wear-and-tear issues that cars of this age develop, and I’m talking about pumps, hoses and general mechanical parts, the ‘bird has been pretty reliable. The left-to-right conversion has made some electrical gremlins appear, though. For instance, the pop-up headlights occasionally don’t activate. A loose wire or a bad grounding is to blame, but finding it in the mish-mash of wires under the dash is not something I would attempt diagnosing.

And here lies one of the problems these imports face when they are shipped over and converted. Because they are not developed in house with right-hand drive in mind, like the new Ford Mustang for instance, they will never drive or perform the same as their original left-hand-drive cousins.

Further, technology has slowly crept up to the ‘bird with the 5.7L V8 now no match to the power outputs of even today’s top turbocharged four-cylinder cars, and the four-speed gearbox is similar to what Noah used on his Ark, but there’s just something unique about these cars that make you smile every time you sit behind the wheel, and why we’ve kept this ride in our family for more than 15 years.

Generally speaking, American cars of yesteryear are perceived as being big, heavy, gas-guzzling, refinement-lacking machines. And for the most part, that is kind of true. But with increased competition from an emerging import market, US car companies got smarter with the way they designed, built and marketed their vehicles. And the fourth-generation Firebird is a prime example of this positive turn in the way Americans built their cars.

And so the story of the Pontiac Firebird is now no more, laid to rest, having made its last model in 2002. Over the years our example has been a daily driver but now spends most of its days under a car cover, only taken out on those sunny Sunday afternoons. We like to think of it as being a future classic. Time will tell.

If you’re ever thinking about owning a mid-'90s American sports car, go for it! They are raw, uncompromising and unforgiving machines with straight-line speed and unparalleled road presence. Just don’t expect them to be the most reliable or well-built cars to grace our roads. Buying one also gets you automatic entry into Victoria’s largest automobile club, the RACV. But that’s what you get when you own and drive a car of this generation.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.