As a devout Firebird enthusiast and one who aspired to own an LS1-powered Fourth-Gen, a rush of excitement passed over me each time I saw one of Pontiac's television commercials promoting the newly restyled '98 Firebird. The clip I recall best depicts a Trans Am prowling an empty street on a sultry evening, seemingly in search of its next victim. To this day, that scene plays in my mind while driving my own '01 Trans Am.
I've often wondered if that particular series of Firebird promotions left such an impression on any other enthusiasts. Since no fellow Firebird owner I've spoken to has ever alluded to the racy late-'90s marketing campaign, I simply dismissed it as a sign that the commercials had faded away into obscurity. I felt very alone in my fascination with it until I met A.J. Viruet of Edison, New Jersey. He revealed in his interview with HPP that Pontiac's aggressive marketing convinced him that he needed a new Firebird.
"When I saw a Trans Am pull up behind an import, swallow it whole, and spit it out the tailpipe, I was immediately in love with the '98 Firebird," the 35-year-old security specialist admits. But A.J.'s love affair with cars, and Firebirds in particular, didn't start at that moment. "As far back as I can remember I've always liked cars," he says. "I was only 5 years old but could name every car on the road back then. Smokey and the Bandit and Knight Rider fueled my Firebird passion and I dreamed of owning one when I was old enough to drive."
True to his word, A.J.'s first was a used '86 Firebird he purchased at the age of 18, and a used '87 Trans Am was its replacement when his first was totaled while parked. His plans of owning a new Firebird were delayed when he joined the Marine Corps in 1995. "I remember seeing the new Firebird in that commercial just before leaving for my first overseas deployment and knew then that I'd own one," he adds.
This '01 Firebird Formula...
This '01 Firebird Formula was a dream come true for A.J. Viruet when he purchased it new. A series of modifications in recent years have transformed it into a turbocharged corner-carver that can presently provide 12-second timeslips or plenty of self-contained entertainment.
RPM Wheels R-505 rims and...
RPM Wheels R-505 rims and BFGoodrich G-Force KDW2 tires provide the grip for the corners. The wheels measure 18x8.5 up front and 18x9.5 out back, and the tires are 245/45ZR18 and 275/45ZR18, respectively. The center cap was borrowed from a '70s Firebird. Hawk brake pads, Power Stop rotors, and red-painted stock calipers handle braking duty.
A number of aftermarket components...
A number of aftermarket components were installed to maximize the Formula's already-excellent handling ability. Suspension Techniques 17/16-inch and 1-inch sway bars replaced the original front and rear units. Strano coil springs and KYB AGX adjustable struts and shocks are found at each corner. A double-adjustable panhard bar from UMI Performance locates the original 7.5-inch rear axle, while manually adjustable rear airbags maintain a consistent ride height.
Upon news of his homecoming, A.J. planned it so that his dream car would be waiting for him on arrival. He wanted to pay cash for his Firebird, so he decided to keep it as economic as possible. "The '01 models were out and it seemed as if every Firebird owner had a Trans Am. I liked the Formula because it was different, but performed just as well, and was cheaper. I considered the WS6 package, but it cost several thousand dollars and I really didn't feel it was worth the extra money. I didn't even want T-tops or leather interior."
Using a military sales outfit that allows deployed servicemen and U.S. diplomats to buy American-made vehicles directly from the factory at invoice cost, A.J. placed his order for a Black '01 Firebird Formula replete with the LS1 engine and six-speed manual transmission in November 2000. He then made arrangements for it to be delivered to a Pontiac dealer in Fairfax, Virginia, where he would be stationed upon returning from his tour.
The Formula was assembled at the Saint Therese, Quebec, plant on March 1, 2001, and shipped to the dealer, where it sat awaiting his arrival. "I couldn't wait to get home. I took delivery of it on March 27, 2001, and paid $23,200 for it. It was everything I dreamed of. When I drove it to New Jersey to visit family, I remember being so excited that I didn't care about having to pay the tolls," he jokes.
A.J.'s Formula was his mode of daily transportation for the next few years, racking up over 105,000 miles on its odometer in that time. "I retired it in September 2005," he says. "It was mechanically sound, but the exterior needed to be refinished, and I wanted to add an aftermarket Ram Air hood and airbox assembly from www.ramairhoods.com and a Wings West rear spoiler."
Rated at 310 hp and 340 lb-ft...
Rated at 310 hp and 340 lb-ft of torque when new, this LS1 has never been rebuilt. Bolt-on equipment includes an 85mm SLP mass airflow sensor, an 85mm throttle body from Jantzer Performance, 42-lb-hr fuel injectors from DeatschWerks, and 1.75-inch tubular Hooker headers. The combination cranks out 500 hp and 530 lb-ft of torque at the tires on 8 psi of boost from the remote-mounted STS turbo. The strut-tower brace is from BMR.
Tristate Leather in Elizabeth,...
Tristate Leather in Elizabeth, New Jersey, added black Corvette leather to the Formula's original seats. Red stitching tastefully matches the red-leather door-panel inserts. An optional Hurst shifter rows the gears in the T56 six-speed manual transmission.
A 7-series Elite gauge package...
A 7-series Elite gauge package and dual pillar pod from GlowShift Gauges allow the driver to monitor the engine's air/fuel ratio and turbo boost from the cockpit.
The prized Firebird was entrusted to Joe Correia of Jorge's Auto Body in Elizabeth, New Jersey, in September 2006, where its body was stripped to bare metal, and then treated to two coats of Mipa Primer, followed by seven coats of R-M Diamont Gloss Black and Mipa 2K MS clear. The finish was wet-sanded with 600- to 2,000-grit paper before being polished to a mirror-like gloss using 3M products.
In addition to the exterior refresh, black leather replaced the tired Ebony cloth interior, and the suspension was treated to some mild upgrades, including aftermarket springs and shocks, and wheels and tires. A Flowmaster aft-cat exhaust system was installed, but the LS1 engine otherwise remained original.
A.J. was pleased with his Formula's appearance, but the feeling proved short lived. "I took it to its first car show in April 2007, and there were seven other black Firebirds there," he recalls. "I realized then that I had to set my Formula apart from the others. I decided to customize the body by adding flames and incorporating a tribal Phoenix into the hood. I wanted the car to have that old-school look, though."
D&V Auto Body in Newark wet-sanded the fresh black finish using 1,500-grit paper, and portions of the body were masked off. Using a flame design that A.J. created as a template, Ken Elias of Ken's Kustoms in Elizabeth produced a life-sized stencil depicting that flame pattern. Spies Hecker modern Corvette Red with orange, yellow, and white accents was applied to portions of the body before the entire finish was coated with Spies Hecker clear. Final sanding and polishing followed.
Both front seats and the center...
Both front seats and the center of the rear upperseat features a custom embroidered Firebird logo.
To make the Firebird's presence...
To make the Firebird's presence felt at sport compact shows or tailgating at purist events, A.J. had Carlos Ramirez (NVS AUDIO in Elizabeth) install a completely new electronics system, including neon exterior lighting, underdash interior accents, a 9-inch DVD monitor that drops down from the suede headliner, and a monster stereo system. The custom-made rear enclosure was designed for quick and easy removal, so the entire speaker system can be disconnected and set aside should the Formula be in a race event.
The remote-mounted STS turbocharger...
The remote-mounted STS turbocharger has the potential to provide 15 pounds of boost and generate 750 hp. In this particular application, however, the system produces about 500hp and is limited to 8 psi because the LS1 engine is largely unmodified.
The Formula was completed just in time for A.J. to drive it on the 2007 Hot Rod Power Tour. "It turned out even better than I imagined and I received compliments wherever I took it," says A.J. Wanting even more from his Formula, a five-piece Wings West body kit, improved suspension components, and new wheels and tires were added in 2009, and a completely new audio system was installed.
The LS1 remained mostly stock and A.J. was content with its performance for several years, but as the Formula stepped up in looks and handling, it wasn't long before he realized the LS1 needed to pack more punch. "I knew a power adder was an easy way to take it to the next level," says A.J. "I wanted to make sure whatever I chose was compatible with the stock LS1 and any engine modifications I might make later."
The exhaust required to operate a turbocharger increases underhood operating temperatures, and A.J. didn't want to risk damaging his Formula's one-of-a-kind custom flames. To keep those temps to a minimum, A.J. opted for a remote-mounted turbocharger system from STS Turbo in Orem, Utah. Its 67mm STS turbocharger resides where the muffler is normally found. The impeller in the turbine housing is driven by exhaust gases to spin the intake impeller in the compressor housing, which draws outside air through an STS 9-inch conical air filter and a 3-inch intake tube. This pressurized air is sent forward through a series of increasing-diameter intake charge-air pipes, which step up to 3 inches at the intercooler. From there, the cooler, denser air is delivered to the 3.5-inch MAF, and then through a 4-inch silicone adapter that connects the MAF to the throttle body. Excess boost is bled off with an STS 38mm wastegate and 3-inch-diameter downpipe on the exhaust side, and an STS 50mm blow-off valve releases boost pressure on the intake side when the throttle closes.
TT Performance in Little Falls, New Jersey, installed the turbo system and shop owner Matt Sorian performed the tuning. At 8 pounds of boost, the otherwise stock LS1 cranked out 500 hp and 530 lb-ft of torque at the tires. That power is channeled through a replacement LS6 clutch, and the original six-speed transmission and 7.5-inch rear axle with 3.42 gearing.
When asked what he likes best about his Formula, A.J. said, "With the turbo system and suspension enhancements, it not only throws your head back and pushes you in the seat while accelerating, it gives you a great sense of confidence in the corners. It's just so fun to drive, and I do so as often as possible no matter how far the trip may be-as long as the weather allows."
Future modifications include completely rebuilding the Formula's entire drivetrain and building up the LS1 engine to take full advantage of the 750hp capacity the turbo system. "My goal is to have a street-friendly car that puts out 700-800 hp at the tires, but can also be driven anywhere," he adds.
When A.J. first saw that Firebird commercial over a decade ago, he envisioned a vehicle that possessed the potential of becoming his ultimate Firebird. Not only was he fortunate enough to enjoy his dream car for several years in stock trim, he's enjoying it even more now after customizing it to his taste. And with the modifications still coming, it doesn't sound like A.J. plans to awaken from his dream any time soon!
Here's A.J. where he likes...
Here's A.J. where he likes to spend most of his time.
As part of the STS remote-mount...
As part of the STS remote-mount turbocharger kit, this air-to-air intercooler remains well hidden under the front bumper cover.