GM EFI’S Guide to the 4th-Generation Pontiac Firebird

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It’s hard to believe and accept, that over a decade has passed since the last brand new Pontiac Firebird soared from its factory nest at the Sainte-Therese assembly plant in Quebec, Canada.

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Since debuting as a 1967 model, the Pontiac Firebird has enjoyed a storied and often iconic history. From the first 400 ci. Ram Air III/IV cars of the late-‘60s, to the sleek and unforgettable 2nd-generation ’70s ‘Birds and EFI-equipped models from the ‘80s, the Firebird has always been a highly stylized and potent performance machine.

Even with such an impressive lineage before it, the fourth and final version of Pontiac’s pony car holds a generation of Firebird fans and late-model performance-enthusiasts in their talon-like grasp to this day.

So awesome was the final iteration of Pontiac’s famed phoenix, we at GM-EFI.com thought it was only natural to provide you, our loyal and faithful readers, with a guide to the last decade of Firebird production, comprising the 1993-2002 models; it’s options, features, special limited/anniversary editions, etc.

Although all F-body-platform Firebirds built from 1993-2002 are denoted as 4th-generation cars, there are actually and technically, two versions of the same species; the 1993-97 and 1998-2002 models, both displaying distinct and subtle differences. We will of course cover them both.

We’ll also chat with Firebird Firehawk fanatic, owner and author of “Firehawk-The Fiercest of the Firebirds,” Mac Logan, picking his brain a bit on the late great 4th-Gen Firebird.

Finally, we will discuss some common weak points afflicting these cars and ways to strengthen and enhance them, helping to keep your bird flying for years to come. Remember, without Pontiac Motor Division, there will never be a new Firebird.

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PRE FLIGHT:

As a decade of the 3rd-generation Firebird was coming to a close, concept vehicles were appearing everywhere, giving a pretty good look to the near future of Firebird design. Starting with the 1988 “Banshee IV” concept car, the sleek aggressive styling of the next Pontiac Firebird was apparent and exciting. Design features included, aerodynamic carbon fiber/composite body panels, large wheels with wide tires, a ground-hugging stance and space-aged cockpit-like interiors with high-tech features. It was obvious; the next-generation would be quite a different bird than its predecessors.

1993: THE PHOENIX RISES, AGAIN

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With production starting in late-1992, the 4th-Gen Firebirds were advertised as being 90% new. Drawing heavily from concept cars of recent years and led by design team leader John R. Folden, the fresh ‘Birds employed new composite materials such as reaction-injected-molded (RIM) plastics for the front fenders and fascias, and sheet-molding compound (SMC) for the hatch, doors and roof. This along with a 68-degree windshield created a sleek, sculpted shape, more integrated than previous iterations. Simply put, the 4th-generation Firebirds looked more bird-like than ever.

Along with its new lines, almost all aspects of the powertrain, suspension, brakes and engine control systems were updated for the new Firebirds. Out was the MacPherson strut front suspension; in was a short/long arm (SLA) design, with track-proven DeCarbon gas shocks at all four corners. The live rear axle was retained, but the new shock and spring system provided both a comfortable ride and impressive handling characteristics.

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All new ‘Birds received dual front airbags, antilock brakes and power assist rack-and-pinion steering, with V8 Formula and T/A’s getting disc brakes at all four corners and front discs/rear drums for base V6 ‘Birds.

Standard and optional equipment varied, according to model and option group, with Formula and Trans Am receiving many features as standard fare. Optional features included, 10-speaker sound system with graphic equalizer, articulating front seats with leather surfaces, keyless entry, T-top removable hatch roof, steering wheel controls, etc.

The base Firebird and Formula wore the new sleek shape well, with the beak-like front and low-level deck lid spoiler. The top of the line Trans Am was adorned with a more Batmobile–like front fascia with integrated fog lights, side rocker panels and up-level aero-style rear spoiler. Both Formula and T/A rolled on 16×8-inch cast-aluminum silver-painted wheels, wrapped in Goodyear Eagle GS-C performance tires.GMEFI4THGENTA-9

The real news however, was what powered these new birds. Base Firebirds were equipped with a 3.4L V6 making 160hp, mated to a five-speed manual or optional four-speed automatic. Firebird Formula and Trans Am requisitioned a detuned version of their Corvette corporate cousin’s 350 ci 5.7L LT1 V8, making 275 hp and 325 lb-ft. The new mill was wielded by a standard T-56 six-speed manual or optional four-speed 4L60 automatic.

Performance numbers were impressive, with Car and Driver magazine putting a six-speed equipped Formula through its paces recording a 14.8-second 1/4-mile and 152 mph top-speed. Needless to say, all were pleased with the power of the new ‘Birds, the likes of which had not been seen since the legendary Super Duty cars of ’73-’74.

Picking up where they left off with their 3rd-generation Formula Firehawk, Street Legal Performance (SLP) out of Toms River, NJ., built 201 Firehawks for ’93, again based on the Formula and putting down 300-horses. The feisty Formulas employed a functional Ram Air hood, large open-element air-cleaner, beefier suspension and unique Ronal R-15 wheels and Firestone Firehawk tires. Performance bested a stock Formula and T/A, with nasty-quick numbers for the day, with a 4.9-second 0-60 and a 13.5 quarter-mile.

With 4th-Gen Firebird production starting late in the model year, only 14,112 total units were built. However, the style and power of the new ‘Birds created a buzz that only would intensify. So much so, that Motor Trend magazine awarded the 2+2 pony car its coveted “Car of the Year” award. It was perfectly clear; the new Firebird was here and better than ever.

1994: REFINEMENT, DROP TOP AND A SILVER ANNIVERSARY

Nineteen ninety-four was a big year for the revised F-body Firebird. Flying high from its 1993 “Car of the Year” accolades, the line was expanded and improved. Power was unchanged; with base Firebirds still propelled by the 160hp 3.4L V6, and the top ‘Birds, Formula and T/A, roasting their Goodyear Eagle rubber, via the 275 hp LT1 V8 borrowed from America’s sports car.

GMEFI4THGENTA-20Additions to the line included, optional traction control on automatic cars, now with the upgraded/updated 4L60-E (electronic) transmission and sequential fuel injection for the LT1 – providing smoother performance and crisper computer-aided shifting. A center-console-mounted button could shut-off the traction control, for those who wanted to let the ‘Bird’s tail feathers slide. The six-speed Borg Warner T-56 was commissioned for manual shifting.

There were several other subtle changes to these cars from the inaugural ’93s. For starters, GM had made the switch from speed density to a MAF sensor-wired ECU. No longer would you be able to buy a performance chip for your Trans Am – you would actually need to acquire a laptop if you wanted to tune your car. In the six-speed cars, the previous year’s 3.23 gear set would get tossed for more performance-minded 3.42 gears that would remain in place through 2002.

The Trans Am was now offered in three guises; coupe, GT and GT convertible. The T/A GT came with just about every option as standard. Regular Trans Am coupes employed an 110 mph speedo and computer-controlled governor limiting top-speed. The Trans Am GT had a 150 mph gauge and did not suffer from political interference, with a top-speed of 160 mph.

The big headlines for ’94, was the return of the convertible for the entire Firebird line and a limited run, 25th-Anniversary Edition Trans Am. Open-air flight could now be had in the base Firebird, Formula and Trans Am GT.

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Built to emulate the first ’69 T/A and early ‘70s cars, the 25th-Anniversary Trans Am was painted all white right down to its unique 16×8-inch five-spoke aluminum wheels. A blue stripe ran from beak to tail, with the same retro color scheme and 25th-anniversary embroidery adorning the ‘Bird’s beautiful interior. For $995 over the price of a T/A GT, the collectible Firebird could be yours. Only 2000 units were made, comprising of both coupes and convertibles, and automatic and manual examples.

Still gaining altitude, SLP’s Formula Firehawk was back again. Still pumping out 300 hp 330 lb-ft from its 5.7L LT1 as standard, an optional free-breathing stainless steel exhaust system was available; tacking on 15 additional ponies. Five-hundred of the special R6V code Firehawks were assembled for ’94. Now with production at cruising speed, 45,922 Firebirds were built for 1994 – more than 3-times over that of the ’93 mark.

1995: MORE OF THE SAME WITH NO [COMP]RIMISES

Nineteen ninety-five saw a new V6 engine equipping the base Firebird. The Buick-sourced 3.8L V6 with sequential fuel injection was rated at 200 hp and 225 lb-ft, definitely upping the performance ante for the non-V8 crowd. This V6 would carry on through until the end of production.

GMEFI4THGENTA-5The Trans Am line-up was trimmed down by dropping the GT package, leaving the T/A coupe and convertibles as the sole top tier Firebirds, with all Trans Am coupes receiving the tall-profile rear spoiler. Also new, were the 16×8-inch five-spoke aluminum wheels borrowed from the previous year’s anniversary model, donned in silver, finally eliminating the much-disliked “salad shooters.” The were controlled by a revised steering wheel from inside the cockpit.

GMEFI4THGENTA-10Other minor improvements included, “lifetime” lubrication of the control arm ball joints and coated brake components, to prolong the look and feel of your suspension and braking systems. Over 50,000 Firebirds were sold domestically in 1995, a very promising year for the prestigious pony car.

SLP’s Firehawk continued to soar, with 569 coupes and 102 super-rare convertibles doled out to the lucky few. New for ’95, SLP incorporated its Firehawk goodies into a very limited run of Comp T/A’s. The special silver with charcoal striped T/As were built to commemorate the 25th-anniversary of the BF Goodrich Comp T/A tire. Starting a three-year production run, 72 were sold in 1995.

Pontiac also sold two very serious road race Firebirds in 1995. Designated 1LE, the track-ready ‘Birds utilized hardcore suspension components, including 360-in-lb front springs, Koni adjustable shocks, firmer bushings and heftier antisway bars front/rear.

1996: RAM AIR REVIVAL

Returning from Pontiac’s past, like the sword of destiny or a great ring of power, Ram Air induction once again fed the V8-power surging from beneath the bulged hoods of Formulas and Trans Ams.

Checking RPO code WS6 on the option sheet, fitted your Formula or T/A with a cosmetic and mechanical makeover that further complimented its already aggressive demeanor. The modifications included, a functional scooped hood-with Ram-Air call-out decals, a briefcase size air-cleaner, dual outlet exhaust, meaty 17-inch five spoke aluminum rims wrapped in 275/40ZR17 Goodyear Eagle rubber and a tuned suspension; including a beefier tranny mount, harder durometer Panhard rod bushings, revised shock valves, stiffer springs, a thicker 32mm front sway bar and 19mm rear piece- all components developed by SLP for the 1LE package.

GMEFI4THGENTA-13The WS6 Performance and Handling package was good for 305 hp, 20 more than a non-WS6-equipped car. Benefiting from a new dual-cat exhaust with less back pressure, the standard LT1 now made 285hp – not to shabby.

Allowing for aircraft carrier-like slingshot take-offs, six-speed cars were matched to the 3.42 rear axle ratio, with automatic cars receiving the top-end friendly and performance oriented 3.23 gears, as opposed to the standard 2.73. According to the 1996 sales catalog, “Trans Am gives you a new perspective on performance, especially when outfitted with the WS6 Ram Air package.”comp1

The package didn’t disappoint, with Motor Trend magazine’s Don Sherman behind the wheel of a six-speed equipped Formula WS6, the 1/4-mile was eclipsed in 13.9-seconds at 102.4mph. Impressive to say the least and for only $2995 more than the cost of a regular Formula or T/A.

SLP continued Firehawk conversions, but with the WS6 cars now producing a similar appearance and performance stats, orders fell. Only 32 coupes and nine droptop ‘Hawks were built in addition to 45 Comp T/As. Ten hardcore, track–ready 1LEs also found owners.

Motorcycle manufacturer, Harley-Davidson, also joined the bandwagon, equipping 40 identical black WS6 Trans Ams with special Harley-logo embroidered seats and decals on the front fender panels behind the wheels. Most were sold in Southern California.

Total Firebird production for ’96 was 30,937, an average that would carry through till the end of the line.

1997: STATUS QUO AND GO

Remaining mostly unchanged for ’97, WS6 buyers could now feel the rush of wind in their hair created by 305-horses, with a topless Ram Air Formula or Trans Am becoming available. Other changes and additions included, the first appearance of daytime running lights (DRL) across the line and the 17-inch five-spoke rims fitted to WS6 cars now had a high-polished finish. This would also be the final year for convertible Formulas, as only 3,000 had been sold since becoming available.

GMEFI4THGENTA-21For those who still wanted the raw -performance and uniqueness of SLP’s Firehawk, 129 coupes and 16 convertibles were built. Included inthe coupes, were 29 super rare LT4-equipped Firehawks powered by a re-worked version of the ’96 Corvette Grand Sports 330-horse motor. Ninety-seven would mark the end of the Comp T/A, with 47 rare examples made and just 14 1LE cars for the track hounds.

Other notable special edition Firebirds included, nine gorgeous Hurst/Firebirds, a collaboration between Pontiac, Hurst, and engine-builder extraordinaire, John Lingenfelter. All were WS6 Formula-based, with a Hurst shifter bolted to a six-speed and horsepower-inducing tricks employed by Lingenfelter.

Also enjoying a rare existence, were 40 black WS6 TAs with special commemorative decals, celebrating the opening of the Fontana California Speedway. This was an effort by local Pontiac dealers to show support for the track and Pontiac’s top bird.

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As the ’97 model year came to a close, 30,754 Firebirds had been sold. Despite the popularity of the high-performance models, the scarce sales numbers began to draw the attention of some at GM, once again questioning the continued production of the F-body Firebird and its Chevy Camaro cousin.

Change was in the air, both for the good and the bad.

1998: 4th-GEN FIREBIRD; ACTII, SCENE 1 …and ACTION!

Few sequels or continuations manage to equal much less surpass their beginnings. That being said, if the 1993-97 F-body Firebirds were “Star Wars,” then the ’98-’02 cars are definitely “The Empire Strikes Back.”

As the Pontiac ad slogan would state, “The Muscle Car is Back,” referring to the new WS6 Ram Air Trans Am. Coupled with a slick TV commercial featuring a sinister black WS6 T/A, pouncing-on and devouring what looked to be a Lamborghini – then belching, few could argue. Everyone, regardless of being a car person or not, remembers that profound ad campaign.

Nineteen ninety-eight brought a fresh look to the entire Firebird line. Base, Formula and Trans Am models received a revised front fascia with twin air ports under the hood-line, integrated fog lights, redesigned pop-up headlights (now with dual lamps), new front fenders with air extractor vents behind the front wheels and a new smooth-style hood on non-WS6 Ram Air birds.GMEFI4THGENTA-11

Other changes included, revised interior center-console and new honeycomb pattern taillight covers featuring separate round reverse lights, either side of the “Firebird” symbol. Worthy of mention was the absence of a convertible Formula from the Firebird line; starting in ’98, all Formulas would be solid-roof coupes or were to be built with the heavily ordered T-Tops.

Even more significant than the cosmetic makeover was the addition of the all-aluminum 346 ci 5.7L LS1 V8, straight out of the new-for-’97 C5 Corvette. Here is where the ’98-’02 V8 birds really differed from their ’93-’97 siblings, with the performance numbers to prove it. In regular Formula or T/A guise, the new motor produced 305 hp and 335 lb-ft., equal to Ram Air figures from the previous model. Adding the WS6 package to the mix, tacked on an additional 15 horses and 10 lb-ft., bringing output to 320 hp and 345 lb-ft., respectively.

In the April/May ’98 issue of Sports Car International magazine, a ’98 Ram Air T/A achieved 0-60 mph in 5.3-seconds, the 1/4-mile in 13.45 at close to 105 mph and a top speed of 158 mph. Astounding numbers for a car under $30k.GMEFI4THGENTA-14

Accomplished racer and chief Firebird engineer John Heinricy, saw to it that the Firebird’s sterling reputation for road-hugging performance stayed true. Thus with soft springs and fine-tuned DeCarbon shocks, a T/A coupe generated 0.87g on a 300-foot skid pad with minimal understeer.

Picking the top-dog bird, the WS6 Ram Air performance and handling package included a redesigned twin-bulged hood, wider 17×9-inch high-polished five-spoke aluminum wheels, power-steering cooler, low back pressure stainless-steel tuned exhaust and a stiffer sport suspension, all for an additional $3,150.

With the Ram Air cars, now equal in grunt-factor to the Firehawk and SLP busy as bees, assembling them and tooling-up the next-generation Hawk, none were built for ’98.GMEFI4THGENTA-22

Total Firebird sales for 1998 were 32,155 sold, with the high-performance Trans Am/WS6 coupe, equating to almost half of this number. Formula WS6 cars remained the rarest of the ‘Birds with only 223 units made, along with 14 track-equipped 1LEs.

taking full advantage of the new LS1 motor and revised styling, John Lingenfelter offered 10 more Hurst/Firebirds-now Trans Ams, in celebration of the famed shifter company’s 40th anniversary. The cars wore the black and gold paint scheme of the previous LT1 Hurst bird and now pumped-out 360 hp, as a result of Lingenfelter’s tuning-expertise and bolt-on goodies.

Even with the hoopla surrounding the new engine, freshened looks and impressive bang for the buck performance, the ill-fated whispers around GM increased in frequency. Without vastly improved sales figures, our beloved Firebird was heading towards extinction.

1999: LET’S PARTY LIKE IT’S 1999

Never shy of anniversary celebrations, 1999 would see Pontiac rolling out yet another birthday bird, this time marking the big 3-0 for the Trans Am’s existence.

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All starting life as WS6 cars, 1600 30th-anniversary Trans Ams were made, comprising of t-top coupes or convertibles, and in both automatic and manual offerings. On top of the Ram Air fare, the special Trans Ams were all white with blue stripes streaming behind the iconic Firebird symbols at the front edge of the intake bulges on the hood and finishing on the rear deck lid and spoiler. The $1,575 package also included special blue-tinted, polished aluminum rims with Goodyear Eagle F1 rubber, white leather seats with 30th-Anniversary embroidery, exterior badges and a console-mounted numbered dash plaque.GMEFI4THGENTA-23

After performing the pace car duties for the February 14, 1999 Daytona 500, 30th-Anniversary T/As were offered with a decal package celebrating this accolade. The decals could be dealer-installed, upon the owner’s request.

The SLP Firehawk was back after a one-year hiatus. With a new unique hood-which followed the contours of the revised Firebird front fascia, closed air box, stainless steel exhaust and other tweaks, the new ‘Hawks made 327hp and 345 lb-ft. No longer exclusive to the Formula, The Trans Am now became the more numerous choice, as roughly three-quarter of the 719 Firehawks made for ’99, were T/As. The 1LE was still available for the hardcore racers, of which 20 found buyers.

As a side note, traction control and a Zexel Torsen II limited slip rear became available on V6 models, with total Firebird production up for ’99, at 36,209 units sold. Pontiac hoped that this trend would continue after the wonderful reception of the 30th-anniversary cars. Unfortunately, despite being arguably the most potent and alluring of the anniversary Firebirds, the ’99 30th-Anniversary cars would also be the last.

2000: FLYING INTO THE NEW MILLENNIUM 

Two-thousand saw little in the way of changes to the 4th-Gen Firebird. The 5.7L V8 cars got new cast-iron exhaust manifolds, an improved starter and a vapor recovery system canister. Six-speed equipped V8 models got an improved throttle linkage for smoother shifts and better launch response. Some WS6 cars were fitted with a new one-year only 17×9-inch spinning-blade design rim. All birds were fitted with child seat tethers and now met California (LEV) low-emissions-vehicle rules.

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With all the talk of an imminent demise, F-body fans were worried for other reasons as the Y2K millennium approached; fearing the departure of Pontiac’s Firebird. As the end loomed ever closer, the Formula was the first to feel the heat from low sales numbers, as 2000 was the last year you could get one with the WS6 Ram Air package. If you still yearned for Ram Air performance and handling in non-T/A guise, you could always get an SLP Formula Firehawk.

Two-thousand marked the first year that SLP’s Firehawk became a regular production option (RPO) WU6, although SLP still handled the assembly at its plant in Canada.

As rumors of the end continued to fly, so did increasing numbers of the rare and exclusive Firehawk. Now massaged to make 335 hp and offering more tasty optional equipment, 2000 saw 741 built, again predominantly Trans Ams. Scarce orders left 1LE builds dormant, but the race-ready ‘Hawks would return.

Dropping a bit from the previous year, Firebird production totaled 31,826 units. Consistent, but not what Pontiac or GM wanted to hear; from this point on, no one could deny what was coming.

2001: MORE POWER, MANY OPTIONS, LITTLE TIME

Harkening the end of the original muscle car era, Pontiac refused to let its flagship pony car whither away unnoticed. Pontiac would bring further refinement and more horsepower to the already dominant high-performance V8 birds for 2001.

Reaping the rewards of LS1 improvements, primarily to benefit the Corvette, the corporate trickle-down effect meant more power for the F-body Firebird as well; 2001-02 LS1 motors received a new profile camshaft, LS6 intake plenum-from the Corvette ZO6 and loss of the external EGR (exhaust gas recirculation) valve, thus adding 5-more ponies to the corral. This put the standard V8’s output at 310 hp/340 lb-ft. and the WS6 Ram Air cars at an even more impressive and underrated 325 hp/350 lb-ft. Later dyno tests on LS1 engines from the ’01-’02 model years, show horsepower figures approaching 350 on stock cars.

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Now coaxing 335 hp from the re-worked 5.7L LS1, SLP continued to fill orders for its famed Firehawk. Included within the 540 special SLP raptors made, 139 were the extra-special 10th-Anniversary Firehawk. For an extra $1,899, these commemorative editions were dressed in black with gold stripes, wheels, trim pieces, even gold tail pipes, decals/badging along with SLP’s unique IROC-inspired rear spoiler and a car cover. Like the  79% of Firehawks built for 2001, all 10th-Anniversary cars were based off Trans Ams.

With just over 21,400 birds built in 2001, a drop of 10,000 units from the previous year, denying the obvious was fruitless. On September 25, 2001 GM announced that the Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird would cease production at the end of the 2002 model year. The writing wasn’t only on the wall, it was everywhere.

2002: FADE TO BLACK… AND YELLOW

Trying to avoid the inevitable never works. That being said, Pontiac went full bore making sure to option-load all Firebirds in what would be its final year of production. Many features such as a power antenna, driver’s side power windows with express down feature, power door locks and mirrors, all became standard fare throughout the line. All V8 Firebirds now got a standard-issue steering cooler as well.

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Also notable, an abundance of LS6 blocks available in the final year of F-body production meant a limited number of ’01-’02 cars received an LS6 block cast from GM’s Mexico plant. Rumor has it 20% of the late’01-’02 WS6 ‘Birds assembled, could have the LS6 chunk. This can be verified by looking for specific cast numbers on the block.

As usual, Pontiac saw the glass half full rather than half empty, choosing this solemn and disappointing occasion to release one of its most potent and titillating limited edition birds into flight. Two-thousand three hundred ninety-one special RPO code Z15 Collector Edition Trans Ams were built, with 2000 units comprising of coupes and convertibles for the U.S. market and 391 going to the Canucks.GMEFI4THGENTA-29

Starting with the WS6 Ram Air package, each tantalizing T/A was dipped in Code-54 yellow paint and had an adornment of “screaming chicken” Firebird symbols from hood to taillights with black/charcoal feather-like streamers gracing the twin-bulge Ram Air hood, doors and rear quarter panels. The ‘Birds rolled on gloss black 17×9-inch five-spoke rims with special commemorative center caps also shod with Pontiac’s Native American symbol of flight.

Completing the CETA package, were black anodized front and rear brake calipers, black painted axles, a satin black rear lower valence, collector edition interior embroidery on the headrests and floor mats and an exclusive CETA owners portfolio as the icing on the cake.

For its Sept, 2002 issue, the more than enthusiastic staff of High Performance Pontiac magazine put an automatic-equipped CETA through its paces, ripping a 13.3-second 1/4-mile at 104 mph and recording 26 mpg while cruising on the highway.02firebird nascar

Following no less than five of its predecessors ,a Collector’s Edition Trans Am paced the 2002 Daytona 500, piloted by none other than Tonight Show host and renowned car collector, Jay Leno. The late-night king and respected car guy praised the T/A for its poise and power while performing its duties on the oval track. Other then special lights, the yellow/black Pontiac needed no modifications to pace the field of stock cars. Jay currently has at least one example of the CE Trans Am in his collection.

The SLP Firehawk enjoyed its best year ever, with a tails feather more than 1500 of the special birds sold, of which over 1100 were T-top T/A’s. A total of 30,690 Firebirds were produced for its final year 2002; up significantly from the previous year-no doubt in response to the news of the iconic monikers ultimate demise. Firebird faithful and enthusiasts alike, wanted to grab the last of the breed.

VERY HONORABLE MENTION:

The final year of Firebird production saw some of the most awesome examples of the famed pony car ever to fly.GMEFI4THGENTA-28

It can be argued, and with some truth, that the high-performance V8-powered Firebirds, had become pure enthusiast cars, attracting a specific type of buyer. With that in mind, high-tech hot rodders with a wealth of experience, expertise and passion for the late-model Firebird, took full advantage as the end approached.

One such purveyor of late-model Poncho power, former SLP regional manager, Matt Murphy, started GMMG inc. in Marietta, Georgia. Working in association with Kennesaw Georgia Pontiac dealer, Carl Black, GMMG designed and produced 101 super rare and highly-collectible Formulas and Trans Ams. Known as the GMMG/Carl Black Black Birds, these special cars combined modern massaging and retro-styling cues in a very potent package.

Each Black Bird received a free-flowing air box, a throw back 1969-style stainless-steel chambered catback exhaust, tuned engine management software for improved performance, 1.5-inch Eibach lowering springs, a 160-degree thermostat, ASP underdrive pulley and 17×9-inch American Racing Torque Thrust II wheels with dark gray metallic spokes, hood stripes, badges and white-faced gauges. A host of optional equipment could be ordered to taste, depending on model and “Stage.”

With the scarce 101 units comprising regular Black Birds, CETA, 35th-Anniversary T/As and Year One T/As and Formulas, the GMMG Firebirds are highly-prized and sought-after.GMEFI4THGENTA-26

Another notable 4th-Gen Firebird meddler, Dennis Mecham of Mecham Design and Performance out of Glendale Arizona, would start with a fresh Firebird (devoid of WS6 or 1LE equipment), and catering to the customer’s needs and desires, build incredibly high-performance and unique Firebirds.

Originally utilizing the Macho T/A name from the ‘70’s, soon the designation would be simply, Mecham T/A. These extremely rare and pricey birds were known for their unique quad-port heat-extractor/Ram Air hoods, usually adorned with an updated and more radical version of the “Screaming Chicken” decal. More significantly, Mecham Trans Ams employed heavy engine-work, tuning, exhaust and suspension upgrades as far as the customers wallet could take them.

WHY THE END:

When asked why the iconic Firebird was cancelled, retired GM design chief Wayne Cherry responded, “The Firebird started off as a sporty, stylish but still very functional vehicle and evolved into a fairly radical, almost 2+2 Corvette-type enthusiast vehicle which in some respects limited its appeal. Perhaps if it had retained some more of its functionality, it would have appealed and continued to appeal, to a broader group and sales would have been higher.”

On August 31st, 2002, however, it was all over. The final Firebird to roll off of the Ste. Therese, Quebec assembly-line was a Bright Red Trans Am convertible. It remains in the GM Heritage Museum to this day.

POTENTIAL PROBLEMS:

With the early LT1 cars now over 20-years old and the LS1 birds not getting any younger, there are some weak areas that we will identify for potential buyers. Obviously no longer covered by any factory warranty, fixes, dedicated sites and spare parts can be found via companies like Hawks Third Generation, 6LE Designs and others.

Since the ’93-’97 and ’98-’02 Firebirds are basically the same in many aspects, so are their trouble spots. Here are the most common problem areas.

  • Warping brake rotors front and rear, ’93-’02
  • Premature wear of power window motor/actuators, ’93-’02
  • Premature wear of pop-up headlight motor gears, ’93-’02
  • Power antenna motor failure, ’93-’02
  • Leaking rear differential cover seal, ’93-’02
  • Cracked interior door panels, ’93-’02-more prevalent on ’98-’02.

CHASSIS STIFFENING, 1993-2002 V8 FIREBIRD:

All ’93-’02 V8-powered Firebirds will benefit from joining the front and rear subframes together, thus increasing structural rigidity. This can of course be accomplished by installing a set of weld-in or bolt-in subframe connectors. Along with a strut tower brace, these simple-to-install and relatively inexpensive parts can improve your ‘Bird’s handling, steering-response and keep chassis-flex to a minimum. Adding a beefed-up torque arm will be the cherry on top, creating a more spirited ride and greater off-the-line performance. Lowering springs are another easy modification that can improve handling and enhance the appearance of your Firebird by lowering its center of gravity. Multiple companies, such as SLP, Hotchkis, BMR, UMI and others, sell packages or separate pieces, to your liking.

IDENTIFICATION:

Of primary importance to any potential 4th-Gen Firebird buyer, is the service parts identification label or Regular Production Order (RPO) label. This white sticker is mounted on the inside of the glove compartment door on ’93-’97 cars and on the drivers side inner door on ’98-’02 ‘Birds.WS6RPO

This label displays all the codes, which define what the car came with from the factory; including paint color, comfort and convenience options, suspension and trim packages and of course the VIN and which engine and transmission the vehicle had left the factory with.

For example, code LS1 on your RPO label obviously means the vehicle is an original LS1 car, while WS9 denotes a V8 Firebird – be it a Formula or Trans Am. Does your car have a Ram Air hood on it? If you see WS6 on your RPO label, you have a legit Ram Air WS6 on your hands. If you don’t, then it was applied sometime after it had left the dealership.

Firehawks received an additional label adding to its authenticity, and were actually based on standard Formulas or Trans Ams, not WS6s. So you wouldn’t see code WS6 on your RPO label if your car is a ‘Hawk. Pontiac books such as, “Original Pontiac Firebird and Trans Am 1967-2002” by Schild, can help in deciphering the codes and VIN numbers.

If this sticker is missing, particularly from the inner door area on ’98-’02 cars, this can be a telltale sign of body and/or paintwork. No matter how great a Firebird may look, the absence of this label should raise questions.

FIREHAWK FANFARE: A QUICK Q&A WITH MAC LOGAN

Respected automotive journalist and book author, Mac Logan, chose to take his passion for the 4th-Gen SLP Firehawk and infuse it into one of the most extensive and researched pieces of literature on the 4th-Gen Firebird available. Limited like the subject cars, only 1000 copies were printed, with 500 since sold. Within it’s 220 glossy pages, is an in-depth study that took the better part of a decade to gather. A must read for the Firehawk owner to collector, or any late-model F-body fan looking for info, facts, figures and some of the most stunning Firebird and Camaro pictures ever taken. For more info, check out FirehawkBook.com or e-mail Mac directly at: Mac@FirehawkBook.com

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GM-EFI: Mac, you’ve recently put together an amazing book highlighting the history associated with the 3rd- and 4th-genration Firehawk. What do you love about the 4th-Generation Firebird?

Mac Logan: “The aerodynamic styling is what really got my attention and kept it. I‘ve always been a Pontiac man, owning and driving them and following the late-model adage-Pontiac, ‘The Excitement Division.’ When the 4th-Gen cars made their appearance, it was apparent that Pontiac had really stepped it up in every way over the 3rd-Gen cars.” firehawk-dust-jacket-final

GMEFI: Why did Ed Hamburger (founder of SLP), gravitate to the Firebird for the Firehawk project? What was it about that car that made him choose it over a Camaro, Corvette or even a Mustang?

ML: “Starting with the 3rd-Gen cars, [Ed] saw what was happening in the way of [late-model] hot-rodding and with [the] performance parts potential, and knew the Firebird was a great performance car to begin with. Before the Camaro SS got underway, using the Firebird for the Firehawk also made logical sense; since there was no Corvette in the Pontiac hierarchy to worry about surpassing or offending.

Pontiac management was also very receptive to the idea of using the talents and skills of SLP on the 4th-gen Firebird as a test bed for reviving WS6 and Ram Air early in the 4th-Gen car’s production. If the cars weren’t popular there would be no reflection on Pontiac, but if they took-off so to speak, Pontiac would move forward on the WS6 Ram Air cars with confidence.”

“Contrary to the beliefs of some, the Firebird was always a very different animal from its Camaro cousin. I’ve always loved the more stylized interiors and sleeker exterior lines of the Firebirds – its what set them apart.” -Mac Logan

GMEFI: Most of us in the industry already know the answer to this next question, but there’s still a lot of confusion among our readers as to why the Firebird was cancelled. Can you shed some light on this?

ML: “There are multiple factors, ranging from low sales figures to disputes with the Canadian autoworkers union, but what it all comes down to is dollars and cents. At the time, the funds and interest in developing a 5th-Gen F-body Firebird and Camaro that would comply with many new standards and be competitive in the sales market, just weren’t there.”

GMEFI: Call us wishful thinkers, but do you think the Firebird will ever return?

ML: “I doubt it, without a Pontiac Motor Division there can be no real Firebird. I am aware [that] Pontiac still retains all the rights to the Firebird name, symbols and such – maybe a GM car called Firebird could appear – but it won’t be a Pontiac.

These Camaro-to-Trans Am conversions are nice, but [to me] they’re not Firebirds. Contrary to the beliefs of some, the Firebird was always a very different animal from its Camaro cousin. I’ve always loved the more stylized interiors and sleeker exterior lines of the Firebirds – its what set them apart.”

RETROSPECT:

There can be little argument, that when all is said and done, the 4th and final generation Pontiac Firebird has left a mark on automotive history that will never fade. Few cars are noted as much for their style and personality as for their power and performance like the 4th-Generation Firebird.

For overall bang for the buck, both when new and pre-owned, V8-powered Formulas and Trans Ams of all guises still hold their own against today’s performance machines. Their sleek shape and purely American style turns heads wherever they go and usually steal the show from newer cars still in production. They are also very reliable cars and like any machine that is well maintained, can perform extremely well for many years and miles.

The 4th-Gen Firebirds are the last of a breed of iconic American pony cars from an iconic motor division that is no more. Owning one is more than just having a cool car, it’s capturing a piece of history.

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Since obtaining his driver’s license way back in 1987, Andrew’s automotive interests have revolved around late-model, GM EFI iron. Predominantly a Pontiac guy, he had grown-up driving and experiencing many EFI cars from the ’80s to the present. Since 2008, he’s been a freelance writer/photographer for multiple niche auto enthusiast magazines and websites. Andrew claims to have a short yet definitve list of passions, in which late-model performance cars, hold a top spot.
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