We’re just going to come right out and say it; the 3rd-Gen Firebird never got much love. Apart from ’89 TTA owners, the GTA-driving, gold chain wearing guys from Jersey, and the occasional Knight Rider fan, there was little respect coming from enthusiasts in regard to the third-gen.
As time went on, however, power started to gradually improve, and by the car’s final years it had become fairly respectable from a performance standpoint. Throw in the fact that aftermarket parts suppliers started supporting the TPI versions, and it was possible to have yourself one hot little street/strip third-gen back in the day.
Although the ’89 Turbo Trans Am, along with the ultra-rare ’91-92 Firehawks, were the fastest third-generation Firebirds produced (all of which were good for low-13 second 1/4-mile times), the Formula 350 was the most powerful version of the mainstream car that you could get your hands on at the time of its inception. Here we are some three decades later, and the Reagan-era Firebirds are starting to earn a new level of respect among enthusiasts. Not so much because of their TPI engines, but rather, the LS-series swap craze.
But let’s back up for a second; because the car’s owner, Justin LaClair, is just one such individual who took it upon himself to transform his ’89 Formula 350 into something truly unique. Initially relying on the OEM 235 hp foundation to build upon, and purchasing the car in upstate New York back in December of 2001, it’s been a bit of a bumpy road for Justin to get the car from where it was from when he bought it, to where it is now.
As he tells us, “I was looking for a [third-gen] F-body with the 350 engine and all off the upgrades that came with it. Most of the cars I found had serious rust issues (a common problem in New York). The Pontiac had a blown engine, but it was a Florida car and the body was rust-free, so I bought it.”
As Justin continues his story, he goes on to tell us about the several small-blocks that came and went during that time; including a bolt-on 350, to a hotter 330 hp engine with a TPiS MiniRam intake. He also made the switch from MAF, to speed density during that time. Unfortunately, the 330hp SBC wasn’t built correctly, and it only lasted Justin six months.
Later, he had Kowalsky Racing Engines (KRE) build him a stout 355 engine, and upgraded back up from speed density to the then new EFI Connection OBDII system. Alvin Anderson at PCM of NC later tuned this setup.
Wanting the luxury of selecting his own gears, Justin swapped out the trusty 700R4 for a more appropriate T-56 six-speed gearbox with a Pro-5.0 shifter. The stock 3.27 gears were pulled from the 9-inch rearend and replaced by a 3.45 gear set. Fast forward a year later, and the 3.45s were ditched for 4.10s and a Dana 44 rearend.
“I was looking for a [third-gen] F-body with the 350 engine and all off the upgrades that came with it.” -Justin LaClair
By 2010, the Formula was ready for basically a full frame-up rectification, and Justin called upon Corvette Refurbisher of Rustburg, Virginia – just a stones throw away from KRE to handle the paint and bodywork. While the Formula was stripped down, Justin realized just how ragged his original light grey interior was becoming. So he sourced replacement charcoal grey upholstery from an ’83 Camaro owner who removed it back in the day when his car was still brand new (because race car).
The interior also needed a better set of gauges to keep an eye on the engine vitals, so Justin installed an Auto Meter water temp, wideband, fuel pressure, and a Phantom Series boost gauge.
He also installed a Hawks Third-Gen reproduction rear spoiler and an ASCD Ram Air-1 style hood to not only drop a few pounds, but to further freshen and update the overall look of the ‘Bird. A pair of smoked ’91-’92 Trans Am taillights give it a distinctive look as well.
Apparently, 370 horsepower to the tires wasn’t enough for Justin by this point, so he decided to pull the old-school mill and ultimately gave the car one serious upgrade/update: with a 2001-spec LS1 ripped from a more modern 4th-generation F-body.
To take it a few steps further, the LS1 in question received an array of bolt-ons that included a Magnuson Superchargers 2300 TVS blower designed for an LS2 GTO (modified to fit), a SDPC 92mm LS2 throttle body, a more aggressive camshaft, upgraded suspension, and well, basically everything. The long-block was basically left alone, although LaClair sought the help of Advanced Induction to assemble and CNC-port the OEM 241 castings.
His friends at PCM of NC stepped in again, this time, to assemble the engine and install a custom-grind bumpstick of their own specifications from COMP Cams into Justin’s LS1. Well, they did much more than just install the camshaft. In fact, they did all of the work, making the complete swap from TPI to LS1, while making great strides to ensure that there wouldn’t be another engine failure reminiscent of an earlier build from another shop.
So there were proper precautions taken into effect, like the upgraded fuel system consisting of twin in-tank pumps from Racetronix, 1000cc FIC injectors, and an Aeromotive adjustable regulator. Oiling is an issue with LS1s, so a Melling 10296 pump was installed along the way. NGK TR7 plugs and PCM of NC wires were called upon for spark duties.
Backing the boosted LS1 is an RPM-built T-56, Monster Stage 3 clutch and flywheel, fed through a Spohn Top Gun driveshaft, and into the aforementioned Dana 44 rear. Justin is brave, relying on OEM LS1 F-body front brakes and OEM LT1 F-body rear discs to bring this 657 rwhp beast to a halt.
Now, although the car was sitting on 17×9.5-inch Ronal rollers (aka, Firehawk wheels) when we shot it a few months back, Justin has since swapped them out for a set of Weld Racing RT-S wheels at all four corners. The car looks and handles fantastic, either way, thanks to a combination of Spohn, Eibach, KYB, and stock suspension goodies.
Although this car is Justin’s pride and joy, he has had other late-model GM cars come his way; including a ’95 T/A, a ’99 T/A, and an ’05 CTS-V. Despite the fact these cars are technically more advanced than his old ’89 Formula, it’s this car that he has persisted with over the years – making him a truly passionate third-gen fan.
However, none of this would have been possible, if not for the support of his wife, family, friends like Ernie Brooks, and of course, his pals in the aftermarket, such as PCM of NC, Corvette Refinishers, and Integrity Auto for keeping the Formula in top form. With cars like Justin’s running around, it looks like the 3rd-Gen community has one more car that they all can be proud of!
- CAR: 1989 Firebird Formula 350
- OWNER: Justin LaClair
- ENGINE BLOCK: LS1; 2001-spec
- CRANKSHAFT: Stock; LS1
- CONNECTING RODS: Stock; LS1
- PISTONS: Stock; LS1
- CAMSHAFT: COMP Cams; hydraulic, .612/.624 lift, 225/243 duration, 115+0 LSA (spec’d by PCM of NC)
- ROCKER ARMS: LS1; 1.7
- CYLINDER HEADS: LS1 (241 casting); ported and polished to 232cc and assembled with stock valvetrain by Advanced Induction
- COMPRESSION RATIO: 10.5:1
- INDUCTION: SDPC 92mm throttle body, custom cold-air induction kit
- POWER ADDER: Magnuson TVS 2300 (LS2 GTO-spec)
- INTERCOOLER: Magnuson
- BOOST: 13 psi.
- IGNITION: NGK TR7 plugs, PCM of NC wires
- EXHAUST: Stainless Works 2-inch long-tube headers , 4-inch ovalized Y-pipe, Magnaflow 4-inch catback
- FUEL DELIVERY: 1000CC FIC, Aeromotive regulator, twin in-tank Racetronix pumps
- OILING: LS1 F-body pan, Melling 10296 pump
- TUNING: Alvin Anderson at PCM of NC
- TRANSMISSION: T-56; built by RPM Transmissions
- CLUTCH: Monster Stage 3
- DRIVESHAFT: Spohn Top Gun
- REAREND: GM Performance; Dana 44, 4.10 gears
- SUSPENSION (FRONT): KYB struts, Eibach Pro-Kit springs, 34mm sway bar
- SUSPENSION (REAR): KYB shocks, Eibach Pro-Kit springs, and Spohn drag-spec 24mm sway bar
- CHASSIS MODS: Spohn subframe connectors, custom driveshaft loop, stock Panhard bar and torque arm.
- BRAKES: LS1 F-body (front), LT1 F-body (rear)
- WHEELS: Ronal; R15 17×9.5 (aka, ’91-’92 Firehawk wheels)
- TIRES: Goodyear Eagle F1 275/40/17 (front), Nitto NT555 275/40/17 (rear)
- HP/TQ.: 657/627
- BEST 1/4-MILE ET: N/A
- BEST 60-FT.: N/A
Rick Seitz is the owner and founder of GMEFI Magazine, and has a true love and passion for all vehicles. When he isn’t tuning, testing, or competing with the brand’s current crop of project vehicles, he’s busy tinkering and planning the next modifications for his own cars.