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.

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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Murilee Martin
Murilee Martin

Murilee Martin is the pen name of Phil Greden, a writer who has lived in Minnesota, California, Georgia and (now) Colorado. He has toiled at copywriting, technical writing, junkmail writing, fiction writing and now automotive writing. He has owned many terrible vehicles and some good ones. He spends a great deal of time in self-service junkyards. These days, he writes for publications including Autoweek, Autoblog, Hagerty, The Truth About Cars and Capital One.

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  • Marques Marques on Feb 06, 2024

    Primary choices of that era also included: Honda Accord coupe, Mazda 626 coupe(later the Mazda MX-6), Nissan 240 SX,Ford Tempo/Mercury Topaz,Dodge Aries/Plymouth Reliant, Mitsubishi Mirage/Dodge Colt coupe.

    So many choices back then, the ones I listed are just a few examples.

  • Wjtinfwb Wjtinfwb on Mar 04, 2024

    88 Sunfire written in Sharpie on the fender... the Sunfire wouldn't come along for another 7-8 years. At least they didn't call it an Astre.

  • Bd2 If they let me and the boyz roll around naked in their dealership I'll buy a Chinese car.
  • THX1136 I would not 'knowingly' purchase a Chinese built or brand. I am somewhat skeptical of actual build quality. What I've seen in other Chinese made products show them to be of low quality/poor longevity. They are quite good at 'copying' a design/product, but often they appear to take shortcuts by using less reliable materials and/or parts. And , yes, I know that is not exclusive to Chinese products. When I was younger 'made in Japan' was synonymous with poor quality (check John Entwistle's tune 'Made in Japan' out for a smile). This is not true today as much of Japan's output is considered very favorably and, in some product types, to be of superior quality. I tend to equate the same notion today for things 'made in China'.
  • Mike Beranek No, but I'm for a world where everyone, everywhere buys cars (and everything else) that are sourced and assembled regionally. Shipping big heavy things all over the planet is not a solution.
  • Jeffrey No not for me at this time
  • El scotto Hmm, my VPN and security options have 12-month subscriptions. Car dealers are not accountable to anyone except the owner. Of course, the dealer principles are running around going "state of the art security!", "We need dedicated IT people!" For the next 12 months. The hackers can wait.