By on October 24, 2017

Image: 1978 Pontiac Sunbird Sport SafariFrom the most malaisey part of the late 1970s comes a model which would have been a Rare Ride sooner, had your author known about it. It’s a little Pontiac two-door wagon with sporting pretensions.

What awaits you is a Pontiac Sunbird Safari Wagon from 1978. Prepare your polyester jacket.

Image: 1978 Pontiac Sunbird Sport SafariPart of the last gasp of the General Motors H-body, this Pontiac cousin to the Chevrolet Vega and Monza was originally known as the Astre. Pontiac was finished with the Astre name by 1977, but wanted to continue offering the station wagon variant.

So, for the 1978 and 1979 model years, the Astre wagon became the Sunbird Safari Wagon. GM didn’t want to let Ford’s Pinto wagon go unchallenged in those last couple years of its life.

Image: 1978 Pontiac Sunbird Sport SafariThree engines were available during those two years, including the 5.0-liter Chevy V8, a 3.8-liter Buick V6, and the 2.5-liter Iron Duke, which is Principal Dan’s favorite engine. Our example today has the 3.8-liter V6, the same one as in this Junkyard Find from 2012. Murilee Martin tells us it has 105 horsepower, which isn’t very many.

Image: 1978 Pontiac Sunbird Sport SafariThis particular example has some extra bits added to the basic sporty wagon shape: Side pipes, front spoiler, metal window inserts — all cobbled from other vehicles.

Image: 1978 Pontiac Sunbird Sport SafariThis Sunbird is well-equipped, featuring a rally gauge package, tilt wheel, sunroof, air conditioning, and a three-speed automatic transmission. However, this example does not appear to have either of the two rare options packages — the Firebird Redbird, or Sunbird Formula.

Image: 1978 Pontiac Sunbird SafariA commodious and private rear cargo area allows room for many different activities. And the owner has provided some Kleenex, as well.

Image: 1978 Pontiac Sunbird SafariSuperb Pontiac snowflake alloys are present, which can make almost any vehicle look great.

Image: 1978 Pontiac Sunbird SafariThe excellent personal plate should not go without a mention. WIDETRK, indeed. All in all, it’s a tasty and seemingly rust-free find from a forgotten and short-lived model variant. It’s yours in Minneapolis for just $8,200.

[Images via seller]

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58 Comments on “Rare Rides: 1978 Pontiac Sunbird Safari Wagon...”


  • avatar
    Cactuar

    What a cool car, I had never seen it before! Thanks for that.

  • avatar
    relton

    I don’t believe the V8 was offered in the station wagon body, only in the coupe and fastback. They were a little bit bigger, had a little bit more length in the engine compartment.

    At one time, I was enamored of the H-body cars. Buick offered the V6 in a special edition that claimed 200 hp. It had dual exhausts, with dual catalytic convertors, and a 4 barrel carb. The left hand convertor compromised ground clearance, and I quickly wore a hole in it.

    We had a Monza with the V8 and air conditioning. That car had 3 (three!) cooling fans, 2 electric, 1 a pusher, 1 a puller, and a small fan on the water pump.

    The best H-body I had was a Vega fastback, into which I swapped a Ford 2.8 V6. The Ford bell housing mated to the Chevy, Muncie, trans.

    I am not tempted to have another H-body.

    Bbo

    • 0 avatar
      dukeisduke

      The engine compartments are the HV (Vega and Astre) cars, but I’m not sure about the HM/HR cars (Monza/Skyhawk/Starfire/Sunbird). Putting a V8 in a Vega/Astre usually means giving up on a/c, due to lack of room for the evaporator case on the firewall.

      I’d yank off the side pipes, front spoiler, and some other stuff, to clean things up.

      • 0 avatar
        JohnTaurus

        Yeah, same here. The window delete looks kinda cool, but the rest looks like someone got a little too crazy with a JC Whitney catalogue.

        • 0 avatar
          FuzzyPlushroom

          I can forgive the front spoiler, as it has a sort of ‘factory racer’ look to it. It reminds me, in spirit, of the handful of Vauxhall Magnum ‘Sportshatch’ models built with the ‘droop snoot’ Firenza nose.
          http://s155.photobucket.com/user/monaro0162/media/cee369e893b54f676c62d4b4d7a57da272f29ca8_r_zpsb8cf0830.jpg.html

          The wheels/tires and the ‘panel’ windows are rad, but the side pipes really would have to go. You might fool some people until you put your foot down…

          If one were to update it mechanically (as I’d quite like to), I think a Series II 3800 out of a ’96+ F-body would suit it perfectly.

    • 0 avatar
      Lampredotto

      “Buick offered the V6 in a special edition that claimed 200 hp. It had dual exhausts, with dual catalytic convertors, and a 4 barrel carb.”

      Are… you sure about that? Even the optional 305 V8 struggled to make 130 HP in those years.

    • 0 avatar
      rpol35

      Agreed, I can’t find an historical reference to the V8, just the Iron Dud and the V6.

  • avatar
    TwoBelugas

    The H body had so much potential, then GM screwed it up with the build quality of day old tuna casserole….

    • 0 avatar
      dukeisduke

      They’re great handling cars.

      • 0 avatar
        TwoBelugas

        one of my uncles worked in the Lordstown plant and bought of the first year Vegas from there. He loved it, for the first year, then things started falling off. He did say it was really nimble and fun to drive with the RWD layout, while the wheels were still attached to the car that is.

  • avatar

    V8 Vega !

    Yep, I’m old !

  • avatar
    cbrworm

    That’s…uh…something. It kind of looks better than I remember it – must be the side pipes and stick on parts. I’m not so sure about the air dam though.

    Most of the cars of that era were so bad. I remember them falling apart, or at least degrading significantly within the first year of use. They were so much sadder to live with day to day than the survivors would suggest. They really weren’t much better new.

    • 0 avatar
      TwoBelugas

      they look good now because we have seen an era of automotive design where Pontiac Aztek looks….normal.

      See: Lexus. Acura. All the cross overs.

    • 0 avatar
      dukeisduke

      I daily drove a ’76 Vega GT for eleven years, and it just had all the usual high-mileage car problems. It didn’t really burn oil (I drove it from 93k to 218k, and the engine had never been apart), but it sure as hell leaked it, both out the rear main seal and the oil pan gasket. I was putting in a quart every 600 miles (Valvoline Turbo V), so when I changed oil and filter every 3k, it was usually brown, not black.

      The rest of the repairs were the normal things – a/c, front end parts, brakes, shocks, front springs, clutch (it had the five-speed), starter, alternator, a couple of timing belts (with new water pumps, as a precaution). The exhaust system was still all original when I got rid of it. Being in Texas, rust wasn’t a concern like it was for owners up north. I even added power steering and a tilt column along the way (from a junkyard donor car that I got a front fender off of, after getting sideswiped).

      My main complaints about the car were the marginal a/c system and the small radiator (which I upgraded to a custom-built 3-row).

      • 0 avatar
        Syke

        My ’73 Vega GT was not only my daily driver 1973-76, but also did three seasons of SCCA autocross in the B-sedan class. When I traded it in (probably about 42-45,000 miles on it, given my usual driving at the time) it was starting to show a little smoke out the tailpipe, but was a very reliable and enjoyable car at the time. I’m one of those rare birds who have no complaints about the Vega.

        That success got me into a ’76 Monza 2+2, four cylinder, 5-speed (with that odd dog-leg first on the shift pattern). Never autocrossed it (at this point I was terminally pissed at the SCCA’s attitude towards American car owners), and it wouldn’t have been that great at it since the car was heavier, but it was a good rallye car and blue-collar GT. Another fondly remembered car, no particular problem.

        So I tried my luck one more time, even though I really didn’t want another Chevy. This one blew up in my face big time, and it was 25 years before I touched another Chevy.

    • 0 avatar
      scottcom36

      I’m sure about the air dam, sure it stinks IMHO. GM put one on the Chevette that looked pretty good: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-D9wKlk0x8Ro/UwRTxsFCz3I/AAAAAAAAIrc/UzSui58PHik/s1600/1983-Chevrolet-Chevette-2+Door-1.JPG

  • avatar
    indi500fan

    I think it’s just begging for a 3800 supercharged and a 200-4R overdrive trans.

  • avatar
    Scoutdude

    Somewhere not too far from where I live there is the Astre version of this that looks pretty similar though it has aftermarket wheels and the exhaust note says V8. I’ve seen it out and about several times over the years.

    Speaking of the V8 I don’t think they actually put it in the Vega body shell, even if they are trying to pawn that old wagon shell off as an extension of the Sunbird or Monza lines like they did at the end. The 78 Brochure lists an available V6 in the Sunbird Sport Safari.

    • 0 avatar
      dukeisduke

      They even built some Vega hatchbacks with Monza front ends grafted on (the Monza S Hatchback), in ’78. I remember seeing a couple of them, way back when they were still new. Goofy looking, to put it mildly.

      http://www.oldcarbrochures.com/static/NA/Chevrolet/1978_Chevrolet/1978_Chevrolet_Monza_Brochure_2/1978%20%20%20Chevrolet%20Monza-12.html

    • 0 avatar
      Syke

      See my comment below.

  • avatar
    Shockrave Flash Has Crashed

    Sidepipes, RWL tires and an 8 track player. High School me approves. I suspect this one has not been to the Midwest or you’d be able to sweep it into a dustpan.

  • avatar
    JimZ

    the sad thing is, so long as that’s an even-fire engine, the V6 was probably the least bad engine option in those cars. otherwise you had the buzz-bomb Iron Duke, or the 2300. And the less said about the 2300 the better.

  • avatar
    Oberkanone

    Much prefer 1978 Ford Pinto Cruising Wagon

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    Is the dashboard suffering from the infamous early/mid 70’s cracked dashboard that plagued many a GM vehicle? If not then why the hideous ‘carpet’ along the top of the dash?

    Never liked those when they were new and seeing the interior now, reminds me of why. Epitomizes, cheap and nasty. Look at the location of the air vents right where the driver’s left knee/leg should go.

  • avatar
    Syke

    Tone it down a lot, and I had the same thing back in 1979.

    1979 Monza Kammback, V6, 5 speed, every suspension and tire upgrade the factory offered at the time (this was my last ordered car), the high end interior. The intent was to build as close to a Volvo P1800 wagon as I could while still being stuck with a Chevrolet (dad was holding the purse strings).

    When it ran, it was one hell of a road car. I’d ordered it for handling, and it did in spades. The V-6, when coupled with the manual, had sufficient power for the time’s expectations.

    Unfortunately, it was the worst POS I’ve ever owned in a car (and I’d had a Vega GT and Monza 2+2 previously that were good cars, thus my going to the well once more). Constant breakdowns, always idled rough, the car had to be repainted on the sides after the first winter. And we got started off on the wrong foot when GM cancelled the ordered full instrumentation dashboard, leaving me with the standard strip speedometer/gas gauge setup. Which they didn’t warn me about until the car arrived. 4’s and V-8 got the tach, V-6’s didn’t because they were primarily being sold with the automatic.

    Three years later it was traded in for an ’82 Dodge Omni. A year and a half after that, and it was still sitting on the Dodge dealer’s lot. Rusting away.

    • 0 avatar
      Russycle

      GM really had some issues with paint about then. Dad had a ’80 Citation, and a friends family had a Chevette of the same era. Both had paint problems after a couple years.

  • avatar
    FreedMike

    Wasn’t this the car that required you to remove the engine to change the sparkplugs?

  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    Someday I will mount an Iron Duke to a frame on soft spongy mounts and use it to shake gallon paint cans when doing home improvement projects – it is the perfect application for that motor.

    Iron Duke is what keeps me swearing allegiance to V6 and V8 engines.

    • 0 avatar
      jpolicke

      What was it that wore out on those engines that made them rattle like a pair of maracas falling down the stairs?

      • 0 avatar
        Russycle

        Whaddya mean “wore out”? Pretty sure the shakes were built-in at the factory. Wouldn’t surprise me if GM engineers came up with a solution but management decided nobody who bought small cars cared so they’d pocket the 5 bucks it would cost to fix it. Could be I’m a little jaded.

        • 0 avatar
          golden2husky

          I think the fact that the ol Duke is one bank of a V8 (IIRC) kind of dooms it to mediocrity…eventually they added balance shafts in the late 80s. I guess they wanted to make sure it had a crappy reputation before doing anything about it.

          • 0 avatar
            JimZ

            you’re thinking of the Pontiac “Trophy 4” from the early ’60s. Iron Duke was (IIRC) always a four cylinder.

            The Trophy 4 literally resembled a 389 with one cylinder bank sawn off:

            http://www.hemmings.com/magazine/hmn/2010/08/1961–63-Pontiac-Trophy-4/3632031.html

      • 0 avatar
        MoparDave

        Two things make the “Iron Duck” thrashy & noisy:
        1-It was a larger displacement 4-cylunder. No matter what they did, it was going to idle rough compared to something with a smaller displacement. GM figuring out how to use something similar to Mitsubishi’s ‘Silent Shaft” system? Surely you jest! The beancounters would have shot it down along with any other proposal that wasn’t synonymous with ‘DIRT CHEAP”.
        2-in their infinite wisdom-instead of using a timing chain-and-gear setup, they used gears only to drive the cam. Massive amounts of noise–to bad nobody invented a soundproof timing cover to muffle the noise. (just turn up the radio instead…)

      • 0 avatar
        MoparDave

        Two things….
        1-Large displacement 4-cylinders tend to have a rough idle than smaller displacement 4 cylinders (a fact conveniently forgotten after the 1/2 of a 389 V8 they did for the 1961-63 Pontiac Tempest).
        2-the Iron Duck used timing gears instead of a timing chain setup. Consequently-it was noisy no matter what (Kinda sounding like pouring gravel and chicken bones down the garbage disposal).

      • 0 avatar
        JimZ

        “What was it that wore out on those engines that made them rattle like a pair of maracas falling down the stairs?”

        nothing. inline four cylinders inherently have a secondary vibration (2x crank RPM.) and it gets worse with longer stroke and higher reciprocating mass. you can cancel most of it with twin counter-rotating balance shafts (which the Iron Duke lacked for most of its life.)

        • 0 avatar
          jpolicke

          Must have been the timing gears, because new engines didn’t make the noise. Although I don’t recall the Ford Cologne V6s, which also used gears, making that kind of racket.

  • avatar
    detlump

    My first car was a 77 Sunbird notchback with the same engine. Orange metallic with a black interior. Was my grandmother’s car originally. Different wheels, steel rally wheels with Pontiac center caps and trim rings.

    No AC though, it had only a pair of vents below the dash on the side, opened and closed with a knob. Worked pretty well if you were moving, not so much if stopped or in slow traffic. The 231 V6 is uneven-firing, as the distributor is for a V8 and GM cheaped out, putting two blanks in, resulting in the uneven firing. You can see the opening in the engine pic. Also, the fan did not have a clutch, so it turned at engine speed. If you stepped on it, sounded like a banshee, with little actual result in performance.

    As it was first car, I have fond memories of trying to get the shine back in the paint, cleaning the wheel wells of snow in the winter. It was terrible in the winter, BTW. The trunk was very shallow as the tank was underneath. It never left me stranded though, but despite my best efforts, rust started to devour it. One day my mother had enough and called for it to be donated. I left for university one day and when I came home it was gone.

    I couldn’t bear to be there to watch it being hauled away.

  • avatar
    65corvair

    My first car was a ’76 Astre hatchback. On paper it was an OK car, but workmanship was so unbelievably bad. Reliability was even worse. I was aways fixing something. It was only five years old and 27,000 miles when I got it. Handling was not all that good by the way. It wasn’t awful, but that’s about it. The rear suspension would bottom out over large bumps. I replaced it with a ’85 Ford Tempo.It was the biggest improvement form one car to the next I ever experienced.

  • avatar
    Russycle

    Always liked the looks of the H-body wagons. Drop in a fuel-injected 3.8 from the 1990’s and you’d have a fun little beast.

  • avatar
    Conslaw

    My family had an Astra or Sunbird with the Iron Duke. (I can’t remember which. It doesn’t make a differennce.) The most basic transportation but still better than a Chevette. It was a reliable car. When my parents traded it in for a 1982 Chrysler TC-3 with a 2.2, I thought the TC-3 was a sportscar by comparison. It was quicker, roomier, better looking, and got better gas mileage. My college roommate had a Vega with the V-8. It ate front tires and brakes from what I remember. It ran though.

  • avatar
    cdotson

    $8200? CRACKPIPE!

    Somebody had to say it.

  • avatar
    Prove Your Humanity 2+9=?

    Agreed, CP. The owner has a 5 dollar cheapo plastic foam steering wheel cover on it. For ten bucks, a good PU leather sew-on would make a world of difference. A careful buyer would have to assume that the engine probably has Kmart store brand oil in it.

  • avatar
    rreichar

    I had a red Chevy Monday with a little V8. It was a couple of years old when I got it. I remember pulling up to an impromptu party in a park with my cousin in the passenger seat. There were some girls who looked at us as we pulled up. I opened the driver’s door which promptly fell off. Pins fell out of the hinges. We were able to put the door back on but realized we weren’t going to be able to make up for the first impression we had made and went on home.I eventually sold the car to a drag racer.

  • avatar
    MoparDave

    I kinda like this car–it is enough of a head-scratcher to most people (“Sunbird Safari Wagon? Isn’t it an Astre?) because of it’s rarity. I also am digging the MPC model “custom” look (for when you didn’t want to build the stock version, but also didn’t want to build the “race” version). The only thing that would top this particular one would be somebody doing a “Cruising Wagon” version of a Mercury Bobcat wagon….

    • 0 avatar
      True_Blue

      ” I also am digging the MPC model “custom” look (for when you didn’t want to build the stock version, but also didn’t want to build the “race” version).”

      I love this reference. I can practically see this as a drawing on the top of a glossy white cardboard box.

  • avatar
    Johnster

    In addition to the Chevy Monza wagons and Pontiac Sunbird Safari wagons that used the old Vega Kammback and Pontiac Astre Safari bodyshells, I think that everyone knows about the handful of leftover Chevy Vega hatchback bodyshells that were matched with Monza front-end clips and sold as Monza ‘S’ Hatchbacks. (Like the wagons, the Monza ‘S’ hatchback was not available with a V-8.)

    However, I swear that in the fall of 1977 or in early 1978 I recall seeing a ’78 Sunbird hatchback that used also used the old Vega/Astre hatchback bodyshell with the same Astre-derived front end as this Sunbird Safari wagon. It was sitting on the lot of my local Pontiac dealer. I’ve never seen the Vega/Astre hatchback-derived Sunbird hatchback mentioned anywhere and I’ve never seen another such car.

  • avatar
    MRF 95 T-Bird

    I had a coworker with 1979 Monza Kammback with the 231 V6 and a 5 speed. It drove quite well since the powertrain was a better match than the 140ci aluminum mistake.

    Instead of GM investing, ok bean counting the ill fated 140ci aluminum block they should have just taken the Pontiac OHC-6 and lopped off 2 cylinders. It would have saved them a lot a grief and their reputation.

    I would not mind building a Vega/Astre/Monza with a Quad-4 or a Ecotec.

  • avatar
    el scotto

    This should be on a pedestal at Toyota or Honda’s North American headquarters. The signage should read: “Thank You GM”.

  • avatar
    Big Al From 'Murica

    I want to see Wayne Carini crack open a garage and find one of these behind it.

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