Junkyard Find: 1988 Pontiac Sunbird SE Coupe

Murilee Martin
by Murilee Martin

Even by the standards of the far-flung General Motors Empire, the J-Body was found everywhere, from the Vauxhall Cavaliers of Great Britain to the Isuzu Askas of Japan to the Daewoo Esperas of South Korea. In the United States of the 1980s, the Chevy Cavalier was the J-Body King, but its Pontiac-badged sibling, the Sunbird, was a not-so-distant second place in the J sales race. Today's Junkyard Find is a sporty Sunbird coupe, found in a yard just south of Denver, Colorado.

junkyard find 1988 pontiac sunbird se coupe

In 1988, five members of the J-Body family were available in the United States: the Cadillac Cimarron, Buick Skyhawk, Oldsmobile Firenza, Pontiac Sunbird, and Chevrolet Cavalier. That year was Peak J here, with the Cimarron and Firenza getting the axe prior to 1989.

Like the Cavalier, the 1988 Sunbird was available as a two-door coupe, a four-door sedan, a convertible and a station wagon. You could even get a GT Turbo version.

1988 was the first year of the second-generation of the J-Body Sunbird (the name had been applied to the Pontiac-badged version of the Chevrolet Monza before that), and it had substantially restyled front and rear bodywork.

The SE and GT Sunbirds for 1988 got these partially concealed headlights with retractable "eyelids."

This car got a thick coat of white house paint over its original white paint, with a faux bra sprayed in black over that.

This engine is a SOHC 2.0-liter straight-four, rated at 96 horsepower and 118 pound-feet.

The only transmissions available in the 1988 Sunbird were a five-speed manual and a three-speed automatic.

This car has the five-on-the-floor, a wise choice given that the slushbox cost $415 (about $1,096 in 2023 dollars).

The interior is done up with industrial-grade crypto-velour. This back seat doesn't look so comfortable.

The final mileage total was an impressive 268,392 miles. Nope, there's no tachometer.

The MSRP for a 1988 Sunbird SE Coupe was $8,599, or about $22,719 in today's money. Its Cavalier counterpart listed at $8,120 ($21,454 now).

There's no air conditioning, but this car does have the $145 rear defogger option.

Hear the distant thunder, the call of the road.

No time to wonder, you've gotta go!

In the 1990s, fun will become the exclusive province of the rich… or maybe not, if the Sunbird has its way.

[Images: The Author]

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4 of 28 comments
  • Jeff Jeff on Sep 11, 2023

    You can look at it this way these might not have been the best cars but they were affordable and lasted a reasonably amount of time. That's more than you can say for 2023 GM products especially the full size pickups which start at around 50k and can go up to 100k which are less affordable and likely will not last 268k miles more like 100k miles and replace the transmission. I have driven these and did not find them that bad especially compared to the 1985 Mercury Lynx (wannabee Escort) I had that blew head gaskets, had an electronic carburetor that would not start when warm, and a 4 speed manual that had to be replaced. There was also the Yugo so if you want to compare other hoopties there are much worse ones than a 1988 Pontiac Sunfire.

    • See 1 previous
    • Jeff Jeff on Sep 12, 2023

      Art--Some of the earlier Hyundai and Kias were not that great and as I said the early Escorts and Lynx. A car that lasts over 200k is not exactly terrible even though it might not be what you want. Today we have far fewer choices in affordable vehicles than we did in the 80s. Granted I would rather have a Honda, Toyota, Mazda, and Nissan from this era but again as I previously stated much worse choices were available at the time.

  • Sgeffe Sgeffe on Sep 12, 2023

    The 2nd-generation Sunbird (Sunfire) came out in 1995. This was still based on the J-Body architecture introduced in 1982. 3rd-Generation if you count the Monza-based Sunbird.

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