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How would you have optioned your new 1979 Trans Am, Formula, Esprit, or Firebird?

Published in blog.hemmings.com

1979 Pontiac Trans Am. Art from the collection of Rocky Rotella.

Many of us have imagined what it would be like to order our favorite vintage cars back when they were new. Using the information in this article, now you can ponder which model and options you would have checked off if you’d strolled into a Pontiac dealer during the Carter administration to purchase a new 1979 Firebird.

Updated front and rear, the models still maintained their distinct identities. The following brief overview illustrates how they compare to one-another. Additional details are on the Firebird Facts & Figures sheet and in the options listings from the Pontiac Selling Facts booklet in the thumbnails.

The Trans Am was Pontiac’s “ultimate sports machine,” according to the Division. Included in its base price was a front air dam, wheel opening air deflectors, shaker hood scoop, fender air extractors, rear spoiler, sport mirrors, black-accented grilles, and Trans Am decals, but the hood bird was optional. Inside was an engine-turned instrument panel fascia, Rally gauges with tach and clock, Formula steering wheel, and console. Rally Radial Tuned Suspension, Rally II wheels with trim rings, 225/70R15 blackwall tires, power disc/drum brakes, a choice of transmission, limited-slip differential, and chrome splitter exhaust tips rounded out the standard features.

An automatic-only 185-hp 403 Oldsmobile engine was provided and the four-speed-only 220-hp Pontiac T/A 6.6 Liter (400) (Federal-only) cost extra. The 150-hp 301 four-barrel (Federal) was a credit option and could be had with either trans.

Pontiac 400 availability was limited because the engines were held over from 1978 to install during the 1979 model year. Its code was W72 for 1978 and L78 for 1979. It required the WS6 Special Performance Package that included suspension and steering upgrades, four-wheel disc brakes, 15 x 8-inch cast-aluminum (nicknamed Snowflake by fans) wheels, and 225/70R15 white letter tires.

1979 Pontiac Firebird Formula

1979 Formula with the optional W50 Formula Appearance Package.

The Formula was the slightly lower-cost street fighter with twin non-functional hood scoops, lower body accent color, console, choice of transmission, and an optional rear spoiler. For 1979, the Trans Am’s engine-turned dash panel and Formula steering wheel became standard, as were Rally gauges with a clock. The base 135-hp 301-two-barrel engine (Federal) and the 125-hp 305 two-barrel Chevrolet (California) made the Formula slow, but the more powerful 400, 403, and the 301 four-barrel were optional. A 165-hp 350 four-barrel was for Chevrolet high-altitude regions. Again, only the 400 and 301 four-barrel engines could be backed by a four-speed. Limited-slip cost extra, but Formula did come with the same suspension, power brakes, and wheel/tire package as the T/A.

1979 Pontiac Firebird Esprit

1979 Esprit with the optional Redbird Appearance Package.

 The Esprit was the luxury Firebird. No standard spoilers or scoops for this classy contender. Its exterior sported additional bright body moldings. A 115-hp 231-cu.in. (3.8-liter) Buick V-6 (Federal, California) was the base engine, and optional was the pair of 301s (Federal) and the 305 (California). The 350 was for high altitude. Only the 231 was matched with the base three-speed manual (Federal), but most of them were ordered with the optional automatic. The rest of the engines (and the California-bound 231s) required the automatic except the 301 four-barrel, which was also available with the four-speed.

Inside was a luxury cushion steering wheel, Custom Trim, and added acoustical insulation. The Esprit’s Radial Tuned Suspension was predisposed to boulevard smoothness over serious cornering, and deluxe wheel covers and FR78-15 blackwall tires were standard but, oddly, power brakes were optional.

The base Firebird was the affordable choice. It lacked the Esprit’s standard exterior brightwork, sport mirrors, deluxe wheel covers and interior upgrades but shared its powertrains and RTS.

Appearance Packages consisted of the black and gold Y84 Special Edition for the Trans Am, the W68 Redbird for the Esprit, and the W50 for the Formula. See the included Facts & Figures Firebird sheet, page C3 from the 1979 Pontiac dealer album, and page 19 of the options listings from the Pontiac Selling Facts for the packages’ contents.

1979 10th Anniversary Trans Am advertisement. Art courtesy of the Automotive History Preservation Society.

The 10th Anniversary Limited Edition Trans Am debuted early in the 1979 calendar year and 7,500 were ultimately produced. A ton of the Trans Am’s extra-cost equipment (see options listing page 26 for details) like WS6 was standard. There were also 10th Anniversary-specific items like the “superbird” hood decal with wings that flowed onto the fender-tops, two-tone Charcoal-over-Platinum-Silver paint treatment with red and black striping, silver tinted roof hatches (T-tops), and cast-aluminum “turbo-air flow” wheels.

Inside was exclusive silver upholstery with leather seating surfaces and vinyl side facings, embroidered Firebirds on the door panels and rear seat, red cockpit-style gauge illumination, an upgraded sound system, and a leather-wrapped Formula wheel. The buyer could specify the 400/four-speed, or the 403/automatic drivetrains.

Given the choices, I know we could easily invoke our 40 years of hindsight (yes, the 1979 Firebirds are now 40) and simply pick a 10th Anniversary Trans Am or load up a black-and-gold Special Edition with options and have highly collectible Birds for the era. That’s a bit easy though.

The idea is to order the Firebird that would have best served as your daily driver, not a pampered collectable. You’ll also recall the country was enduring the second energy crisis of the 1970s at the time. Fuel prices and loan interest rates were high, and then there’s insurance.

Despite those considerations, you may still decide on a 10th Anniversary Trans Am or an S/E, or after some deliberation, you might be surprised to realize that a different Firebird is a better fit for you.

The 10th Anniversary T/A’s sticker price was $10,619.55, which would be $39,302 in 2019. The Trans Am was $6,515 ($24,111), the Formula $6,204 ($22,960), the Esprit $5,303 ($19,626), and the base Firebird was $4,935 ($18,264). The S/E package added $1,329 to a Trans Am with the Fisher Hatch Roof or $674 without it. Prices were adjusted multiple times during the 1979 model year, so listings that began in January, were chosen for this article.

My Cameo White 1979 Formula with the W50 package had the 301 four-barrel/auto/highway-geared powertrain. When I owned it back in the 1980s, I appreciated the fact that it didn’t have the air dam and wheel opening air deflectors of the Trans Am and it was a less common sight on the road. I also enjoyed its T-tops (even though they leaked a little) and its A/C and white vinyl Custom Interior with red appointments. Though the 301’s power was lacking, the Formula handled really well.

If I would have ordered a 1979 Firebird new, I would likely have considered a Formula over a Trans Am. I would’ve certainly preferred the L78 T/A 6.6 Liter (400) engine ($370) with its required WS6 Special Performance Package ($434), four-speed (NC), and limited-slip differential ($63). Additional options would’ve included the W50 Formula Appearance Package ($92), Custom Trim Group with vinyl upholstery ($108), Rally gauges with tach and clock ($63), A/C ($529), Soft Ray (tinted) windows ($64), power windows ($132), power door locks ($86), electric rear window defroster ($99), tilt steering wheel ($75), and AM/FM stereo with cassette ($351). I may have even chosen the same color combination as the car I owned.

The base price plus options for my Formula add up to $8,670 ($32,087 today). It would’ve performed well for its era and been slightly more subtle than a T/A, despite its stripes and billboard “Formula” decals. And there wouldn’t be no air dam or wheel opening air deflectors, thereby alleviating worries of proper fitment and potential damage on the road. Just my rationale.

Interestingly, an L78 400 Formula would actually cost a bit more than an L78 Trans Am. The L78 is $370 for the Formula and limited-slip is $63 extra, compared to just $90 for the same engine in the T/A and limited-slip is included. Consequently, even with the difference in the two model’s base prices, an L78 Trans Am is still $32 cheaper. Add the $63 optional tach/clock to the Formula that’s standard in the T/A and the Trans Am is $95 cheaper.

Which 1979 Firebird would you choose and what equipment would you specify for it? Click on the thumbnail photos for additional ordering information.

Author’s Note: Only factory artwork was used in this article, so the quality may not be perfect given the age, but the photos do add a time warp feel. I couldn’t locate any press photos of the 1979 base Firebird or the black and gold Special Edition Trans Am in the press kits I have, the dealer album, or dealer brochure. If you know of factory press photos for these cars, please email me at tdemauro@hemmings.com. The exterior color charts in this article have the non-Firebird colors blocked out to avoid confusion.