Forgotten Formula: A ’98 Firebird Formula WS6 Convertible Exists

It seems more often than not that when we write about a Pontiac, the word ‘rare’ becomes part of the story. Well, with that said and as a follow-up to “Formula-Driven” The Final Firebird Formula ’98-’02, have we got a rare Pontiac for you. In fact, a Pontiac that, by all accounts, shouldn’t even exist, but it does. So now in an exclusive feature, LSX Magazine uncloaks this piece of late-model Poncho history, sharing all we know about this rarest of the last of the breed birds…and of course, we’ll show her to you, as well.

Shoulda’, Coulda’, Woulda’: The 1998 Formula

Not to be redundant, but this story demands reiteration of some key details about Firebird Formula production for the ’98 model-year. The Formula (W66) was fitted with the Gen III 5.7L LS1 and, like all birds, wore a new front fascia, fenders, hood, headlights, and taillights. It was all good for Pontiac’s other V8, bird-sharing drivetrain with standard and optional features with its Trans Am sibling, while retaining the silky-smooth sleeper shape of the base Firebird. The one negative, based on very low 1994-’97 orders:there would be no convertible Formulas offered from 1998-‘02, with open-air cruising relegated to the base ‘bird and Trans Am only.

Early Birds And Acronyms: ASC, SLP, And WS6

By mid-1997, the Firebird line was in flux with the aforementioned changes being readied for the 1998 model-year production. Most integral was American Sunroof Company (ASC), taking over the WS6 Ram Air program from Street Legal Performance (SLP). SLPs Tier-1 relationship with GM/Pontiac had developed/manufactured the Ram Air revival for the ‘96-’97 LT1 V8 Firebirds. ASC now conceived a new WS6 package, with a revised hood and Ram-Air intake integrated with the Firebirds fresh fascia. ASC was also responsible for fourth-gen convertible conversions an honored task bestowed upon them since the third-gen cars.

With all this transference going on and seemingly before the final decision was made to ax the ragtop Formula option, two topless Formulas were built as test and tune vehicles. Both were pre-production proposal ASC WS6 cars in red (81U) pewter cloth(14B) interior, with our owner’s car having an automatic, black top, and the other, fitted with a six-speed and white top. According to extensive research and the paperwork provided by our owner, his car was invoiced by the Pontiac division and produced in May of 1997 and then shipped to GMs Fleet Operations in Milford, Michigan. The invoice also shows North American Operations (NAO), Company Vehicle Fleet Ypsilanti, Michigan, as a possible delivery destination.

From there, one doesn’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to apply deductive reasoning as to the early life of our subject car — only what happened after. As for the six-speed, white-topped example with no real evidence of its present-day whereabouts, except for some unconfirmed internet rumor, it most likely met with the crusher or was dismantled for parts or SEMA modification, as is common practice for vehicles of this type.

Car Facts

For both the present owner and us, no stone was left unturned in telling this story with the utmost accuracy. With that, we’ll take it from the top and our first piece of evidence: the vehicle CARFAX. According to this detailed history, our convertible Formula WS6 is not even identified as such but is recorded as a ‘98 Firebird Trans Am convertible. This is also the case on the previous owners’ buyer’s guide/warranty paperwork, but more on that later.

With invaluable input from the founder and head of Pontiac Historic Services (PHS) and Poncho guru, Jim Mattison proposes that with the very low VIN number, and since no convertible Formula WS6 cars were supposed to exist, the car was assumed to be a Trans Am. He adds that this car should never have ended up in public hands for the above-mentioned reasons, and no window sticker will exist either. Mr. Mattison suggests that this Formula’s clandestine existence and lack of eyes on it, when its paperwork went across someone at GM’s desk, is how it slipped through the corporate cracks and was sent to auction and sold as a topless Trans Am.

Mattison’s theory seems spot-on, since the CARFAX shows one owner from Minnesota purchasing the car with 12,899 miles on it at a Midwest Region Auto Auction in late January 1999. Mattison states this was probably a dealer sale with a manufacturer’s certificate of origin. For four years, the owner enjoyed the rare Formula, between residences in Minnesota and sunny Arizona. As of May 2003, the CARFAX shows the Formula ending up in a Phoenix dealer’s inventory, with 23,686 miles on the clock. Here’s where our secret saga really heats up.

Owner Two: Enter Paul

Paul Albrecht is a Wisconsin native and heavy truck dealer who also happens to be friends with our present owner. He’s not necessarily a car guy — in 2003, Paul was on the hunt for a sporty car, something to enjoy his days off, and during those brief Wisconsin summers. Hoping to avoid the likely rust and rot issues associated with cars living up north, Paul relegated his search to the southern states. One day, while scanning the Internet, Paul’s eye was transfixed by a shiny red Pontiac Firebird convertible, offered by Performance Dodge in Phoenix, Arizona. After some phone conversation and a local buddy’s quick appraisal, Paul hopped on a desert-bound flight with every intention of buying the topless Firebird.

Once on the ground at Performance Dodge, Paul was told a story about this particular car. According to the salesperson, the Formula’s previous owner was a former GM executive who had a second home in Phoenix and had recently traded-in the ‘bird for a diesel-powered Dodge pick-up. Most tales do originate from truths. But connecting the dots on the CARFAX history, 16 years after the fact and with a Dodge dealership that no longer exists, knowing for sure if this  backstory is accurate is quite impossible. All Paul did know for sure was that he loved his new red convertible enough to strap in and drive the 1,700 miles and roughly 27 hours back to Wisconsin.

Once back in the badger state, Paul cruised the tires off his new ragtop V8-powered Firebird, still not knowing what he had. That question only started badgering him when everywhere he went, many admirers would ask, “What kind of car is this and do they still make them?” So, by early 2004, Paul decided to call PHS and the plot thickened from there. According to Paul, within a day of speaking to Jim Mattison at PHS, who told him [Paul] unequivocally, that he shouldn’t have that car, he received a pretty surprising phone call. The man on the line said he was from Pontiac and asked Paul how he got the rare ‘bird and then quickly made an offer of $30,000 for her. Only having just purchased the car and still in shock as to what he’d acquired by pure chance, Paul decided to keep his Formula. Since PHS gets its info from the manufacturer, this phone call makes sense, as Pontiac would’ve gotten word of the car’s existence and private ownership.

In February 2004, the PHS documents arrived,including the vehicle invoice/order sheet from Pontiac. An enlightened Paul learned that his was an authentic, one of two built, 1998 WS6 Firebird Formula Convertible. As a further nod to his lucky acquisition of a car that no one should have owned, a big underlined “congratulations” appears on the PHS cover sheet.

Even with the good news, Paul’s tenure would be short and sweet. By 2006, an unfortunate impending divorce began to steer him toward a painful and reluctant sale.

Keeper Of The Flame: Present Owner

Randy Davis is a 51-year old excavating contractor from Wisconsin, whose friendship with Paul started many years before this story. A lifelong car guy, Randy exalts being a self-taught mechanic, pulling cylinder heads and doing his first motor swap at 13 years old and fixing people’s cars by 15. The early hot rodding was definitely a byproduct of good parenting, being that Randy describes his dad as a youthful racer and mom being into cars, too. Randy had plenty of exposure to American iron, growing up around dad’s ‘55 Chevy, ’65 Stang and ’69 383-cid/four-speed-pistol-gripped Road Runner. However, Randy’s first steeds were big, heavy, hand-me-down sedans, which were better than nothing.

Randy had laid eyes on his pal Paul’s topless Firebird more than once and definitely liked what he saw. When Paul informed him about his marital situation and needing to part with the Formula, Randy was an instant player. Since receiving the iron-clad PHS confirmation of the Formula’s origins and the $30,000 offer from the unnamed Pontiac person, Paul felt brazen enough to put the Formula on eBay with a $100,000reserve. After a short stint with no offers, Paul and Randy’s negotiations got serious.

Paul knew he had a rare collector piece, if not yet a six-figure car, and wanted to fetch a good price. Randy was aware of the Formula’s special uniqueness and didn’t want to insult his friend. But without a crystal ball, he was intent on getting the car for a price that made sense in the present. With that, Randy offered Paul $35,000 for the 8-year-old Formula Firebird, now showing a tad over 40,000 miles on the odometer. Taking into consideration that this was a strong offer, five-grand more than the anonymous Pontiac guy offered three-years prior, and knowing it would have a good home, Paul eventually accepted. So, with all that said and done, by May of 2006, Randy Davis took possession of the Formula Firebird WS6 convertible. Ironically, this is the only Firebird and Pontiac he has ever owned. Since obtaining the Formula, Randy has driven it sparingly during Wisconsin’s short summers, going to local shows and barely recording 1,000 miles in the last 13 years.

Droptop Have And Have Not

Lest any questions remain as to the authenticity of our subject car, one need look no further than the (RPO) sticker or Service Parts Identification (SPID) label on the driver’s side door jamb. Here we find four tell-tale codes, which prove beyond a shadow of a doubt what she is. The first code in the upper right-hand corner is 2FS67 — this denotes a convertible Firebird it would be 2FS87 for a hardtop/T-top coupe. Code WS9 means a V8 Firebird and all Formulas and Trans Am’s have this. Code W66 denotes that this Firebird was built as a Formula model — it would be Y82 for a Trans Am. And WS6, which shows that this car is equipped with the Ram Air performance and handling package.

Furthermore, it’s what our Ram Air Formula convertible is missing, as much as what it has, that cements the proof of its early secretive beginnings and not-for-sale-status. Clearly absent in the pictures provided by Randy, are any “Ram Air” decals on the leading edges of each hood scoop. Also not present is a “Pontiac Ram Air” decal under the hood on the airbox. And as the icing on the cake, the early production ASC Ram Air hood is rough, to say the least. With Randy’s description and images of the underside, depicting a hand-formed and unfinished piece, with glue visible on the seams and fiberglass and composite weave showing, it’s obvious pieces of this car were not off the assembly line.

Conclusion

Well, there you have it. This is definitely one of the rarest birds to fly from GM’s Canadian coop, and owned by a guy who hadn’t partaken in the Poncho hobby prior. After exhaustive questioning and with definite pushing of our own opinion, Randy seems intent on keeping his one-of-one ragtop Ram Air Formula for quite a while. Who knows, maybe 20 years from now, on a cool January night in Scottsdale, Arizona, Randy’s rolling piece of Pontiac provenance will go across the block and command some big money. Good luck Randy, and thank you for sharing.

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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