Rare Rides: A 1976 Pontiac Sunbird, Practical Malaise Luxury

Corey Lewis
by Corey Lewis

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]

Corey Lewis
Corey Lewis

Interested in lots of cars and their various historical contexts. Started writing articles for TTAC in late 2016, when my first posts were QOTDs. From there I started a few new series like Rare Rides, Buy/Drive/Burn, Abandoned History, and most recently Rare Rides Icons. Operating from a home base in Cincinnati, Ohio, a relative auto journalist dead zone. Many of my articles are prompted by something I'll see on social media that sparks my interest and causes me to research. Finding articles and information from the early days of the internet and beyond that covers the little details lost to time: trim packages, color and wheel choices, interior fabrics. Beyond those, I'm fascinated by automotive industry experiments, both failures and successes. Lately I've taken an interest in AI, and generating "what if" type images for car models long dead. Reincarnating a modern Toyota Paseo, Lincoln Mark IX, or Isuzu Trooper through a text prompt is fun. Fun to post them on Twitter too, and watch people overreact. To that end, the social media I use most is Twitter, @CoreyLewis86. I also contribute pieces for Forbes Wheels and Forbes Home.

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4 of 57 comments
  • Johnster 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.

  • Teddyc73 Teddyc73 on May 10, 2021

    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.

    • See 1 previous
    • 28-Cars-Later 28-Cars-Later on May 10, 2021

      @Art Vandelay History doesn't repeat but it often rhymes.

  • Theflyersfan Well, if you're on a Samsung phone, (noticing all of the shipping boxes are half Vietnamese), you're using a Vietnam-built phone. Apple? Most of ours in the warehouse say China, but they are trying to spread out to other countries because putting all eggs in the Chinese basket right now is not wise. I'm asking Apple users here (the point of above) - if you're OK using an expensive iPhone, where is your Made in China line in the sand? Can't stress this enough - not being confrontational. I am curious, that's all. Is it because Apple is California-based that manufacturing location doesn't matter, vs a company in a Beijing skyscraper? We have all weekend to hopefully have a civil discussion about how much is too much when it comes to supporting companies being HQ-ed in adversarial countries. I, for one, can't pull the trigger on a Chinese car. All kinds of reasons - political, human rights, war mongering and land grabbing - my morality is ruling my decisions with them.
  • Jbltg Ford AND VAG. What could possibly go wrong?
  • Leonard Ostrander We own a 2017 Buick Envision built in China. It has been very reliable and meets our needs perfectly. Of course Henry Ford was a fervent anti-semite and staunch nazi sympathizer so that rules out Ford products.
  • Ravenuer I would not.
  • V8fairy Absolutely no, for the same reasons I would not have bought a German car in the late 1930's, and I am glad to see a number of other posters here share my moral scruples. Like EBFlex I try to avoid Chinese made goods as much as possible. The quality may also be iffy, but that is not my primary concern