is it possible to serve up a 404 status BUT STILL SHOW THE ORIGINAL CONTENT without cloaking?
I understand you can do that with a 410, but I've not done it. See this discussion... [webmasterworld.com
My initial reaction is that, in this situation, rather than go to that extreme and kill the pages and the inbound links, you should keep the meta noindex,follow, but only on the pages eventually worth keeping
. More thoughts on that below.
Strip it down and beef up the essentials
That made sense, but I realize that "strip it down" may be ambiguous. Some pages may simply need to be dumped completely, others noindexed but worked on in a prioritized fashion. I'm not sure if that's what you've done. It may be that you've tried to hang onto too many pages. I don't know. There are likely to be tradeoffs.
I think you need to look clearly at the user experience and at Google, and trim your site down to a point where it's useful. Check backlinks, try to preserve the core pages and pages that have backlinks which are worth preserving, and work on those first.
While normally I don't like to fiddle with pages once they've been launched, I'm wondering whether, in this case, it's possible to improve the pages incrementally, in stages, because it seems the otherwise you're going to have a site sitting hidden in the basement for much too long. Is there a core site online that's in the index? How much of the site online is noindexed?
You should also assess the quality of the initial pages that did get backlinks. If, in your opinion, those pages really aren't very good, it may be that those backlinks aren't worth much either. Were they freely given editorial links? Are the sites that gave them still good sites? It may be that you need to further evaluate what's worth keeping, and maybe get rid of some of those pages too, perhaps redirecting the links to related and reworked pages, but only where appropriate.