By on May 7, 2021

Today’s Rare Ride marks the third time we’ve featured a Pontiac Sunbird in this series. The first Sunbird was from 1978 and presented itself as the Safari Wagon. But that was just a renamed Astre and not a real Sunbird. The second Sunbird we saw was a convertible with a 2000 in its name, a J-body from a time of naming turmoil at Pontiac.

In contrast, the Sunbird we have here is the original: An economical and optionally luxurious car that debuted in the Seventies without a confused identity. Your author’s never seen one in real life.

Sunbird debuted in 1976 as a replacement for the Vega-adjacent Astre. The Astre and Sunbird coexisted for a couple of years, as seen above in the confused wagon from 1978. Though a new car, the Sunbird remained on the same H-body Vega platform as its Astre predecessor. Available only with two doors, the subcompact was presented only as a two-door sedan for 1976. The following model year added a more aggressive hatchback. For 1978 and 1979, the Astre wagon was refreshed visually joined the lineup as the Sunbird Safari Wagon. The first Sunbird continued through the 1980 model year but was limited to two body styles in its final offering.

The rear-drive 1976 Sunbird was equipped with a base engine from the Vega, a 2.3-liter inline-four known as the 2300 (78 hp). The next year customers were rewarded with a new base engine: the powerful 2.5-liter Iron Duke. It produced between 84 and 90 horsepower dependent upon model year. Big spenders selected the Buick 3.8 V6 and its 110 horses, or the Chevrolet 305 (5.0L) as an option in 1978 and 1979. Transmissions on offer were a four-speed manual or three-speed automatic.

Customers could option their Sunbird with different packages to emphasize a luxury or sports personality. The Formula package was popular and included upgraded handling, spoiler, and decals. A quick seller, the Sunbird proved popular and GM sold nearly 480,000 Sunbirds over five model years. 1980 was a long-run year, as dealers needed inventory to hold them over until the ’82 arrival of the front-drive J platform J2000. It debuted at the start of Pontiac’s branding experimentation.

Today’s Rare Ride is firmly on the luxury end of the Sunbird spectrum. Dark red with a white vinyl coach roof, it’s got wheel covers, whitewalls, a plush velour interior, and an automatic transmission. There’s even V6 power and air conditioning. It’s traveled 17,000 miles since 1976 and is in spectacular condition. The price is also spectacular: $29,000.

[Images: Pontiac]

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57 Comments on “Rare Rides: A 1976 Pontiac Sunbird, Practical Malaise Luxury...”


  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    The Sunbird was the Pontiac version of the Chevy Monza, back when badge engineering was at its zenith.

    These were everywhere in my teen years, but they rusted away like every other 70s car. The preservation of the one for sale is astonishing, but it’s priced for someone with… discriminating taste.

    • 0 avatar
      tomLU86

      Rarity does not necessarily equate to demand and a high price…

      I checked out the ad. It is a very nice looking car. It is almost peak Vega, but not necessarily peak malaise American sport coupe.

      The V6 automatic meant it was not as gutless as the Iron Puke. But Car & Driver tested a Skyhawk, the Buick variant, more to assess the 231 V-6 (3.8–perhaps it had the ‘even-firing’ crankshaft, hence the short take), and concluded that while the car moved, the vibration was a little high, and the V6 might be better suited for the down-sized LeSabre, with a lot more mass to dampen those vibes.. (maybe that’s where the Vibe name came from 25 years later?)

      The 305 V8 was entertaining, but the V8 was a tight fit.

      In 1978, GM’s cars generally did not exude the cheapness of the other two domestics–but the Mustang II was nicely trimmed, at least to me. And it had a standard tach and real gauges. The GM cars had better ride and handling, and in that era, to me at least, GM meant better quality, Vega 140 aluminum engine excepted.

      Nice car, but…the owner will be getting less for it, or keeping it.

      • 0 avatar
        Art Vandelay

        Peak Malaise and Peak Vega? Put them together and I’ll give you a nickel and some stagflation.

      • 0 avatar
        Hydromatic

        “odd-fire”

      • 0 avatar
        teddyc73

        @tomLU89 “It is almost peak Vega, but not necessarily peak malaise American sport coupe.” What does that even mean?

        • 0 avatar
          FreedMike

          Peak Malaise sports coupe? Step right this way…

          https://www.mustangspecs.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/[email protected]

          Mustang II Ghia with a half-vinyl roof, opera windows, fake wire wheels, quilted velour seats, and a four-banger. And Ford sold hundreds of thousands of these horrid things.

          Say what you want about the Monza/Sunbird, but at least it was better-looking – in fact, I’d say any hatchback model would qualify as a pretty slick looking car today (assuming, of course, it hasn’t rusted into oblivion).

    • 0 avatar
      NormSV650

      My Dad picked one up just as I was taking my driver’s test. It had four-on-floor and no catalytic converter. It was pretty beat when we got it and supposedly be the disposable car for the male teen to wreck but never did.

  • avatar
    Scoutdude

    The Craigslist map shows it as located in Ballard which checks out as a likely place for the not so proverbial little old lady or man who drives very little.

    The condition however does not fit the stereotype.

    youtube.com/watch?v=KBgIvH0tu6Y

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    My brother bought a 1977 with the V6 with a 4 speed manual. It was quick when it was running but most of the time it was not running. He named it the Sick Bird. I drove it once and had to wait for it to decide to start. It’s no wonder that the Japanese took over the small car market. GM at its worst and now GM under Barra is going back to the worst. It’s just a matter of time till GM becomes Chinese but you can bet Barra and the GM board get their golden parachutes. GM is just a shadow of their former self and eventually they will just fade away. Good riddance.

    • 0 avatar
      Steve S.

      I had that powertrain in a 1980 Monza as my first car. It ran fine and actually made the Monza somewhat fun to drive, but man that car was garbage. It had hard plastic door panels that were literally turning to dust around me, the usual GM droopy headliner, and the shifter was attached to the body instead of the trans, and it was so vague and notchy it took all the fun out of driving a stick. Oh and the shift rods came loose from the transmission once leaving me unable to get it in gear.

      GM today is much better than it was then, but like many American companies it can and will limp along in mediocrity for decades; its glorious past just a distant memory which is a metaphor for our nation as a whole.

      • 0 avatar
        redapple

        Jeff>>>

        Ms Barra made $25,000,000 last year.
        Over $100,000,000.00 during her career?
        Parachute is fully gilded.

        Hey Mary. You could give more to your alma mater. I get our alumni news too. (real shameful)

        • 0 avatar
          mcs

          I met her at a party at GMI party back when she was a student. I was invited by the GMI students and fellow interns I worked with at various GM plants. Not sure what happened with the others or even if they are still at GM.

  • avatar

    I sold these at my father’s Brockport, NY Pontiac dealership.

  • avatar
    FreedMike

    @Corey:
    “Your author’s never seen one in real life.”

    Not only have I seen one, I’ve driven one, and had we not found the almost-new VW Rabbit I ended up with, it’d have been my high school graduation present.

    (The Rabbit was a far better car.)

  • avatar
    islander800

    I recall that in 1978, I believe, the Sunbird was also available with an aluminum-case Getrag 5-speed manual overdrive transmission, which I convinced my girlfriend at the time to select when buying her new Sunbird. I had purchased a new 1976 Olds Omega hatchback with the Olds 260 cu. in. V8 and the same Getrag 5-speed. That Getrag was a bit of an odd duck, as the side movement between gates from reverse/first to second/third and fourth/fifth was VERY close – and it had NO reverse lockout! Needless to say, I “ground myself a pound” more than a few times touching reverse while rapidly shifting from first to second (or got fourth instead of second) and downshifting to second was done VERY CAREFULLY. But the Olds 260 V8 was a sweet little engine. While cruising in overdrive fifth, it barely turned 2000 rpm while getting about 30 mpg. I suspect both that Sunbird and my Omega are very rare beasts today. (My girlfriend and I broke up not long after she bought that Sunbird – maybe the no-reverse-lockout Getrag was a factor?…)

    • 0 avatar
      Jeff Semenak

      I bought a 1976 Model with the 3.8, used in 1979. It had the 5MT from the Factory. No point, winding it out over 4000 rpm though. The Getrag was a solid unit. In 5th at 60mph, I was getting 35 mpg. Note: it used ATF instead of Gear Oil, unusual but slick-shifting.

    • 0 avatar
      tomLU86

      @islander800

      Very interesting! How long did you keep the Omega? The 260 was a smooth motor, but kinda slow (I learned to drive on a 75 Ventura 260 auto)

      That 5-speed, with the ‘racing pattern’, I remember as a teen, GM offered it on the 260 in Olds, and the Vega/Astre/Monza/Sunbird.

      However, as an adult, after eventually learning about GM’s undersized automatics, I wondered if that was the same exact trans in a Cutlass 260 V8, transmitting power to push 4,000 lbs or more, as was in a Vega/Sunbird, which was about 2500-2900 lbs.

      Car and Driver tested a Sunbird hatch with the 305 and 5-speed–for late 70s malaise, it was pretty credible as I recall–17.x second quarter mile.

      • 0 avatar
        islander800

        I foolishly only kept the Omega for two years – I got captivated by the all-new 1978 Buick Regal with the first-year 3.8 Turbo engine. Big mistake: instead of offering V8 power with V6 economy, it was the other way around. (The Regal Grand National was still in the future.) But the real kicker was after owning it for two weeks, I had to take it in for an engine knock on cold start-up. Turned out Flint had installed the wrong pistons – and the dealer had to essentially rebuild the engine! I should have demanded a new vehicle but there you are. Later, the aluminum front engine cover had to be replaced, due to antifreeze oozing out through pores in the casting. I guess the Buick foundry STILL hadn’t figured out how to properly cast aluminum, the actual reason why they unloaded their small-displacement aluminum V8 of the 60s to the British, according to my Dad’s cousin who worked in Buick Flint foundry management at the time. When the warranty ran out, I unloaded it, thinking problems were not about to magically disappear. Even though my family was die-hard GM fans (my Dad had gone to GMI in Flint in ’39-’41 and always bought GM) that was my last GM purchase. Should’ve kept the Omega!

  • avatar
    Oberkanone

    Nice example of wayback machine to show how things were back in the day.
    I was not aware of V8 as option for this GM platform.
    This 1977 Astre priced at $8995 is more appropriately priced.
    https://classics.autotrader.com/classic-cars/1977/pontiac/astre/101307723

  • avatar
    28-Cars-Later

    It saddens me disposable domestic 70s crap can command a $29,000 ask. Sure, some 70s stuff can and should do so, this… eh…

  • avatar
    conundrum

    “Luxury” mentioned in the article title,

    “Luxury” mentioned in the article.

    This IS a ratty Sunbird we’re talking about, right? Luxury and Sunbird are not words that ever went together, not then not now.

    • 0 avatar
      Oberkanone

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QWDKrNR2rBk

      If you don’t see luxury in the cordoba top, decadent red cloth bucket seats and cloth trimmed door panels than you need sales training.

  • avatar
    Imagefont

    A friend of mine bought one of these as his first car, a 78 I think. Cream colored Coupé with the Iron Duke. I bet the doors alone weighed 800 lbs a piece, it took all your might to open them when parked on a hill pointing up. It had no redeeming qualities.
    Crush it!

  • avatar
    Art Vandelay

    These are pretty much rock bottom for Detroit in my book. Nothing redeeming about this or much else from the era.

  • avatar
    namesakeone

    The Pontiac Astre was actually marketed from 1975 to 1977 (in the U.S.) and from 1973 to 1977 (in Canada), as a barely-disguised Pontiac version of the Chevrolet Vega. When the Vega and Astre were discontinued at the end of the 1977 model year, the wagon version was incorporated into the Sunbird lineup (with a little front-styling work), and the wagon and hatchback were incorporated into the Chevrolet Monza (again with a little styling work). The Sunbird wagon was retained through the 1979 MY, and the Sunbird–on this platform–was discontinued after the 1980 MY.

  • avatar
    namesakeone

    And the advertised car does not have alloy wheels; those are wheel covers.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    For 29k there are better antique or classic vehicles I would rather have. This Pontiac is in excellent shape and maybe a car museum would be interested in it but who ever buys this should do some hard negotiation. True GM quality is better today than the 70s but in recent years it has been on the decline again as has Ford and Stellantis. GM has a few really good vehicles and is capable of great vehicles but the accountants are in charge and earnings per share along with stock price are more important than making a quality product.

  • avatar
    MRF 95 T-Bird

    I had a coworker who owned a 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 in the ill fated 140ci aluminum block they should have just taken the Pontiac OHC-6 and lopped off 2 cylinders or just stuck with the 151ci-4 that was in the base Nova. It would have saved them a lot a grief and their reputation.

  • avatar
    namesakeone

    The price reminds me of a woman I read about at the Aretha Franklin funeral. She was outside the church, with three of Franklin’s albums, which she was willing to sell. For $1000.

  • avatar
    stuki

    The fundamental shape of personal coupes, pretty much irrespective of price stratum and even execution, is simply far and away the most pleasing in autodom. It’s like comparing Herreshoff’s yachts, to the currently fashionable globs of floating snot.

  • avatar
    NigelShiftright

    As we move into what increasingly seems like Malaise Era II, I do have some grounds to hope that at least the cars won’t be quite as dreadful as they were in Malaise Era I.

    • 0 avatar

      No, they will not because they will be zero emission vehicles with instant torque with stupidly fast acceleration and moving so fast on specially designed freeways that humans would not be able to operate them manually because humans are too slow. Talk about e.g. 300 mph and 1G acceleration – or in more common term 70 mph in 2 seconds and that is family car. Sports cars will do 3g MAY BE.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    Do we really need 300 mph especially in an urban area? A third of that would be plenty for most drivers. I wouldn’t mind the quicker acceleration especially for merging on the interstate or passing on a 2 lane road. Better battery technology especially if solid state batteries. I had a 73 Chevelle, 77 Monte Carlo and a 78 Buick Regal Limited which were much better than the Sunbird but even those did not have the reliability of today’s vehicles. They weren’t bad vehicles but they were still Malaise Era.

    • 0 avatar
      Oberkanone

      1972 Chevelle SS appeals to me. Malaise began in 1973 for the Chevelle.
      Sunbird is shining example of GM mediocrity.
      Imagine a modern Chevelle with battery electric propulsion, 400 mile range and cost under $22000. (SS Chevelle cost around $3300 in 1972, about $21,500 in 2021 dollars)
      Now I can spend $40K and get a Bolt. Perhaps this is beginning of next Malaise.

  • avatar
    rudiger

    $29k? Whatever that guy’s smoking, it’s some good shit.

  • avatar
    aja8888

    Heck, for $29K you can buy two used 2002 325 Ci BMW convertibles and have money left over for a 1998 Jetta.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    Having had a 73 Chevelle they were decent cars with a 350 V8. My 73 Chevelle Deluxe was the perfect sleeper a 4 door with hubcaps and no chrome but lots of acceleration–would burn rubber with a stock 350 2 barrel. It left many other cars surprised when they could not keep up with me. The 1978 Malibu would definitely be Malaise. I don’t know what they will call today’s era of vehicles but it will be something besides Malaise. Possibly the Blob Era since many of today’s vehicles look similar and resemble a blob more than anything else.

  • avatar
    Dave M.

    That big ol’ GM fuel “gage” where a tach should be cracks me up. As does the blank gage on the bottom left. Talk about lazy design…

    • 0 avatar
      toronado

      they put that huge fuel “gage” in everything, it looks so cheap and out of place. And why did they spell gage that way for so long? I remember some had a warning light that said “check gages”, cheaper than a dedicated idiot light for each item but whew how lazy can you get.

  • avatar
    Johnster

    Although the Sunbird (and the Monza) ended up as something of a replacement for the Astre (and the Vega) respectively, they (and the Starfire and Skyhawk )were originally intended to complete against other subcompact personal sporty cars, such as the Ford Mustang II and the Capri, as well as the Toyota Celica and the Opel Manta.

    Although I can’t find written evidence to confirm it, I swear there were a handful of 1978 Pontiac Sunbirds built that used the Astre Hatchback bodyshell. They shared the Astre-derived front end-clip of the Sunbird Safari and were similar to the 1978 Chevrolet Monza ‘S’ Hatchback in concept.

  • avatar
    teddyc73

    Malaise, malaise, malaise!! Can we talk about the 70s and NOT use that ridiculous overused word? Every single article mentioning a 70s car now includes that stupid word. ENOUGH! By the way, this car looks great. I like it.

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