Rare Rides: A 1976 Pontiac Sunbird, Practical Malaise Luxury
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.
Johnster on May 10, 2021
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.
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