STYLE AND SCOOPS: Gary Trombino’s ’70 Firebird Formula 400

Car guys are simple creatures. That’s not to say they’re indecisive. When they like a particular make, model, or color, it’s only a matter of time before they attain it. For Gary Trombino, a lifetime of various machines would come and go before he acquired our subject car. In the end, he wanted it for undeniable reasons.

 The Early Years:

Gary is a 66-year-old, retired, government auditor, but his hot rod heritage dates back to his early teens. Gary gives full credit of influence to his uncle Bernie. In the mid- to late-‘60s, Gary frequently went with Uncle Bernie to watch drag racing at West Hampton and National Speedway on Long Island. It was Pontiac’s heyday in showrooms and on the racetrack. Young Gary would gawk with eyes wide and jaw agape, while Uncle Bernie’s buddies ran their full-sized Bonnevilles and Catalinas – some with Super-Duty motors.

Further Pontiac influence and indoctrination came from Uncle Bernie’s friend, Harry Wesch. Harry was head mechanic and race driver for Mrytle Motors Pontiac in Middle Village, Queens. When he wasn’t installing tuning kits on the latest Pontiacs, Harry was drag racing Myrtle’s highly-modified, 428ci-powered ’68 Firebird – The Myrtle Tiger. For New Yorkers, Myrtle Motor’s racing and high-performance resume was as esteemed as Michigan’s Royal Pontiac.

Gary’s first car was a hand-me-down 1966 six-cylinder Chevrolet Chevelle. After that, several different makes and models came and went through his youth. The most notable was a ’74 Trans Am, which he didn’t have for long due to engine issues. He also had some Mopar action in the form of a ’70 340ci Dodge Challenger. By the time Gary graduated from Hofstra University in 1976, he was a certified, card-carrying car nut.

 A Little of Everything:

A few years out in the real world, making real money, Gary started to buy new cars at an almost alarming rate. He states, “this was always a luxury I gave to myself.” Beginning in 1980, he purchased a 305ci V8, 4-speed Camaro. In ’83, he traded-up for a Toyota Supra. In ’86, it was a Mazda 6 GT. In ’90, an Eagle Talon. And, in ’94, a Mustang GT. By the late ‘90s, however, Gary began contemplating a more serious collector car.

That contemplation came to fruition in 1998 when Gary was perusing the iron at a Long Island car show. It was a black ’67 GTO automatic, hardtop, with the H.O. 400ci motor. Gary had to have it. So, he did.

Years later, Gary dropped the hammer on another fine arrowhead machine. This time – a late model offering in the guise of a brand-new ’00 WS6 6-speed Trans Am. Gary loved his Ram Air bird, but two years of daily driving in stagnant Long Island traffic drove a reluctant sale (a decision he still regrets). To heal his wounds in ’03, Gary grabbed another potent Poncho – a Buccaneer Red ’73 Trans Am with a worked Butler-built 455ci motor.

 Consolidation and Considerations:

By ’08, Gary had a hard decision to make. His beloved black ’67 GTO needed engine work and an A/C overhaul. In his own words, “I just didn’t want to get involved,” so he parted with the Goat after ten years of ownership. The sale created possibilities and much-needed space in his two-car garage.

With his heart set on another second-gen TA to park next to his ’73, Gary wasted little time looking for a replacement. Nightly searches on eBay soon revealed the perfect candidate. It was a numbers-matching ’71 (LS5) 455ci H.O. automatic TA in Cameo White with blue stripes. The interior was complete with Pontiac Historic Services (PHS) documentation and a scant 40,000-original miles on the clock.

Negotiations spanned several weeks, and Gary sealed the deal in 2009. He smartly plans to keep the ’71 until pigs fly. In 2010, Gary retired after 31 years and was poised to devote more time to his car hobby. Gary sold his Buccaneer Red ’73 TA in 2011. He felt the A/C robbed power, and it wasn’t even working, so he was ready to move on.

Gary sat content for a few years with his near-perfect ’71 TA. But soon, he yearned for something else. He loved Pontiac’s pony cars and pondered, “what Firebird haven’t I owned yet.” In 2014, that burning inner question was answered. Gary always liked the smooth styling of the ’70-’73 Formula and those unmistakable hood scoops. With his target in sight, Gary went hunting.

 Lean, Green, Machine:

It didn’t take long before Gary’s Internet searching revealed the object of his obsession. Sitting pretty in Massachusetts, was a numbers-matching Keylime Green ’70 Formula 400. Acting on a bible-long description, PHS documentation, and plenty of detailed images, Gary quickly called the owner. He learned the rare bird had undergone a frame-off restoration during the owner’s 12-year tenure and came with over 100 sheets of service and restoration paperwork to prove it. Gary was experienced enough to know this was the real deal. He didn’t quibble on the asking price and agreed to it over the phone. Once the funds were exchanged, Gary called a local shipper and his new Formula 400, arrived a week later.

 Proven Formula:

When Gary first jumped in and wrapped his paws around the leather-wrapped Formula steering wheel, he knew he’d lucked out. The 44-year-old Firebird was as-advertised. Restored to factory specs, it drove tight, and the motor was stout. Gary immediately noticed the glossy paintwork glistening with a sparkle not present on cars from this era. He later found out, pearl was added to the Keylime hue, for the two-stage respray. 

 Sorting it Out:

Even with his Formula’s fully restored status, Gary found some things it needed. First and foremost, was the characteristic wheel-hop experienced when mashing the gas pedal. Gary’s friendly neighborhood mechanic, Kenny Willms, checked it out and immediately suggested installing a pair of traction bars. Next up were the wheels and tires.

The previous owner installed staggered 14×7- and 15×7-inch Rally II wheels. Gary’s wisdom led him to replace the front rollers with new 15s and wrap all four wheels in BFG Radial T/A rubber – 225/15 in front and 255/15s in the rear.

Gary noticed his non-Ram Air Formula 400’s hood scoops were already open and set-up for inhalation duties. He finished the job by installing the intake tube assembly under the hood. That made it fully functional and factory correct. A dual-muffler set up was also pre-existing instead of the stock crossover. Gary changed to a pair of deep-breathing Flowmaster mufflers and finished with new factory-style tailpipes.

 Up to Speed:

In the late summer of ’15, Gary cruised his Formula 400 to a Pontiac Oakland Club International’s (POCI) all-Pontiac show on Long Island. His green machine gleamed in the August sun and drew the attention of a very special Poncho proponent. It was Richie Hoffman. Another East Coast product, Richie is a master mechanic and a 40-year expert on all things Pontiac.

Like, back-in-the-day arrowhead-icon Nunzi Romano, Richie is renowned for unleashing the full potential of Pontiac’s all-block motor. Well, Gary introduced himself and stated he wanted more out of his (L78) 400ci engine. Richie was more than happy to oblige.

A few months later, Gary drove his Formula 400 to Richie’s garage. Richie removed the Formula’s motor and transmission and transported the body back to Gary. The plan was to completely rebuild Gary’s motor and trans for optimal performance. Richie ordered a complete engine rebuild kit from Butler Performance along with a vast array of high-end components.

The crux of the extensive rebuild is bulletproof bottom-end internals, including Federal Mogul main bearings/BBC Rod bearings, a forged Eagle crankshaft, Scat H-Beam rods, and Ross Reverse Dome pistons. The bumpstick is a custom grind Bullet Cams racing piece. Highlighting the top end are new pushrods and rockers accompanying fully ported and polished cylinder heads, by the talented hands of Frankie Ford. Perched atop the high-performance work of art, is a reworked carb, increased from 750 to 820cfm.

Further upgrades include a deeper billet oil pan, large core radiator, new steel flywheel, a high-volume aluminum water pump, new timing chain, and every single bolt, fastener, bracket, gasket, and seal. To increase breathing, a set of Ram Air Restorations, ceramic-coated, factory-style RA headers, begin the exhaust.

To wield the estimated power rating of 500hp/500lb-ft, the factory Hurst-shifted 4-speed (M21) close-ratio transmission received a full overhaul at Moonlight Garage in New Hyde Park, New York. Deeming the stock Safe-T-Track Posi (G80) and (G92) 3.73 gears up to the challenge, the rearend was serviced but left as-is. The factory front discs and rear drum brakes remain stock.

After two years of work and countless dollars spent, Gary’s Formula was reunited with its practically brand-new motor and transmission in the fall of 2017. Transformed into a bored, stroked, and balanced 477ci thing of beauty, Richie’s expertise is not only evident in the engines optimized performance but by retaining the motor’s factory-stock appearance. In Gary’s own words, “The car drives superbly, with loads of torque, great sound, and no rattles. You would never know the power plant is a 477ci engine with 500 horsepower.”

 Conclusion:

In 2019, Gary addressed some exterior issues that were a thorn in his side. The previous owner’s restoration was a good one, but there was some cracking and bubbling paint on the bird’s Endura beak, hood, and driver door. The paint was corrected at Custom Collision Specialties in Middle Island, New York. They also removed the broken aftermarket radio and installed an appropriate radio-delete plate.

Needless to say, Gary covets his rare ’70 Pontiac Firebird Formula 400. Sitting proudly next to his ’71 Trans Am, Gary takes pride in having two mint and significant second-Gen birds. This Memorial Day, Gary plans to take his Formula to Musclepalooza and run the 1/4-mile at Lebanon Valley Speedway.

When we asked Gary if he’d ever sell his Formula, he says, “no, she’s definitely a keeper.” Well, of course! How could he ever part with that style and those scoops?

About the author

Andrew Nussbaum

Pontiac possessed by Smokey and the Bandit at 6 years old, and cultivated through the '80s by GTAs, IROCS and Grand Nationals, Andrew hails from Queens NY and has been writing freelance for ten years.
Read My Articles

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