AUTO REVERSE: Pontiac's "Sunny" Small Car
Welcome to the first installment of our new feature, AUTO REVERSE, where we take a picture-book look at a product of Detroit that you may have forgotten about or perhaps remember fondly (or might even hate). AUTO REVERSE is comprised of a chronological collection of photos and ideas from the pages of old car magazines and brochures. Here for us to enjoy before the pages turn to dust, as too many cars have turned to rust. Today's upload focuses on Pontiac's small sporty entry, arriving during GM's mid-seventies downsizing craze.
Above are two ads showing the 1979 and 1980 Sunbirds in coupe form. Pontiac touted high miles per gallon as a feature intrinsic to a small car but hoped it's departure from econobox looks would win it fans. The yellow one above has an excessively small looking pop-up sunroof. These cars also did not benefit aesthetically from large blocky chrome bumpers that were meant to improve crash ratings.
1982 brings a newly designed car, offering a coupe, sedan, wagon, and this attractive hatchback, seen here in red. Here the designers covered the bumpers in painted flexible body work that modernized the look. The new styling featured a front end slightly reminiscent of Camaro. The changes went beyond the design, however, the name was changed briefly from Sunbird to J2000. The name probably derives from the "J" designation given to the platform upon which these small cars, including Chevrolet's Cavalier and Buick's Skyhawk were built. "2000" seemed to be a catch all phrase for anything purposing to be futuristic or forward thinking in the 1980's.
Quickly, Pontiac re-renames the car Sunbird. Here it is with a new convertible option, when it came to body styles in the eighties, GM provided options. Here the car still wears the Camaro-esqe angular front fascia.
In an issue in 1983, Motor Trend proclaims to drive every convertible available that year. The above picture demonstrates how one ends a cheeky day of testing and photographing convertibles for a major magazine. Our Sunbird, although way in the back, seems to be center staged and somewhat spotlit.
This 1983 Sunbird convertible tested by Motor Trend has some nice looking, but rather tiny aluminum rims. I would guess they are 13's.
Here the Pontiac J2000 shares a front page cover with a Firebird convertible. This is a concept car in which they have added a Supercharged powerplant and a few styling tweaks, including a Pontiac staple, Black with Gold accents.
This car seems to preview the Sunbird Turbo which eventually arrived in 1984. The stance of the car is enhanced by the fatter, larger wheels, in a deep set gold lace that resembles rims to be used on future Pontiacs like the Turbo Grand Prix and Trans Am models.
Here the car wears hood vents, but they look more like the ones eventually used on the Turbo Grand Prix than they do the production Sunbird Turbo vents.
The Sunbird Turbo hatchback of 1986 implemented a 2 tone paint scheme, fade pinstripe, black wheel well flares and Trans Am like hood vents. The wheel-well flares not only served to differentiate the GT from the base models but also gave the Pontiac a look that was unique from GM's siblings, such as Buick Skyhawk or Oldsmobile Firenza.
Here some fella test drives a new Sunbird GT Turbo Convertible. A fun car on a sunny day.
This could only be an 86 or 87 model year Turbo GT. The Turbos are easy to spot by the functional hood vents, as not all GTs were Turbos. In 1986 the sportier SE and GT models received "semi hidden" headlamps which allowed the four headlights to peek out from slits in the fascia. Once the headlights were employed the louvers above the lights would motor up revealing the entire beam. Front and center on the car, this Sunbird wears Pontiac text instead of the usual arrowhead logo, an unusual decision that works.
The Turbo had a special gauge cluster to show boost upon acceleration. A brushed aluminum application to surfaces of the dash, bucket seats, and manual trans were available options.
Two tone cloth interior inside, outside: Note the pinstripe fade (shown clearly) behind the open door, black lightens to silver, then is broken by red.
Seven gauges total in this package, the crowding causes some to be a little small, but Speedo, Tach and Turbo boost get the premium real estate.
The Sunbird made a small but handsome convertible.
The Sunbird features a blacked out "neutral density" taillight treatment which looks dark unlit, but red glows from behind a black grid pattern when night falls.
A 1989 Sunbird GT Turbo convertible, shown in a monochromatic paint scheme, gets revised rear-view mirrors and a redesigned rear end. Headlights are off and in the closed position, only parking lights and fogs used.
This image shows the new for 88 rear styling, which seems to elongate the car and modernize the whole vehicle aesthetically, I am hard-pressed to think of another car that improved so dramatically by simply changing the back third of the car.
1990 Turbo GT, Pontiac updates the front end after a considerable run of the old design dating back to 1986. The car retains the semi-hidden headlight look but now they fold back under the hood instead of popping up like the older design. This configuration was quite attractive, the car gets the Pontiac emblem back up front instead of the text that occupied that space in the previous years, it also allowed the company to share more parts with the cars stablemate the Cavalier, since the folding headlight assembly could fit in where Cavailier's standard headlights did.
The GT in 1990 looses the wheel flares and instead gets a flared, more sculpted lower molding. This serves to give the car a coke bottle shape that was common in many historical Pontiac designs. New 15 inch wheels are standard on GT.
The GTs Turbocharged 4 cyl. engine looks great new in shiny red paint. This engine produced 140 hp, allowing it to turn in competitive performance figures.
This closeup of the GT fascia shows the folding panels in the off position, the lights show behind them. The GT has standard foglights while the SE shares this front but the foglights are deleted. In later years Pontiac would drop the Turbo to trade for the 3.1l V6 and the car would get a monochrome paint over the black accents.
In 1988 Pontiac updated the interior sharing similarities to the Grand Prix interior, with buttons for headlights and wiper controls located in reachable locations from the steering wheel.
In the above photos we can compare the Sunbird GT to its sheetmetal sibling the Chevy Cavalier in its highest trim the Z24. Moving beyond the stigma of "badge engineering" or "cookie cutter design" GM was commendably able to give these cars unique personalities.
In 1990 designers were hard at work preparing a concept for the next Sunbird. Initial designs like this one were very sporty.
Pontiac previews a concept for the next generation of Sunbird and suggests a new name may be in order with this "Sunfire" showcar.
Although meant to preview the next Sunbird, not much of this 1990 Sunfire concept made it to production. The exception would be the name, of course, and the rear which is very close to the 1994 Sunfire.
In 1994 this concept was shown at auto shows congruently with the reveal of the actual car. This Speedster was actually a heavily customized version of the production model.
In 1995 the Sunbird, which had been in service at core since 1982, is replaced with the all new Sunfire. These new models offer only 4 cylinder engines. GT shown above has 16 inch tri-spoke wheels and painted black roof.
Some very 90's ads for the Sunfire, first the Sedan, then the GT coupe.
The GT had expressive aero-skirt sculpting and dual exhaust outlets, an illuminated PONTIAC text on the rear would remind some of us of the 1988 Fiero.
Sunfire had a different C pillar design than Cavalier, looking a little more like the Monte Carlo at the time. The Cavalier instead had a sharp triangle shape that seemed to be an evolution from their previous models.
Sunfire interiors were comfortable and roomy in back for its size. Flowing design from dash to doors, scallop design to seats were pleasant, but the execution was too plasticky for alot of people's tastes. The first year offered available bright red and teal interiors, as well as a more subdued tan and white leather.
Sunfire convertibles had power tops with a unique one handed operation.
In 2003 the Sunfire was restyled again. It no longer had a sedan, convertible, or even a GT model. Just a sporty affordable coupe offering. Some options included power sunroof, manual transmission, and chrome 16 inch rims. The Sunfire is dropped from Pontiac's lineup in 2006. Later in response to dealership's cries for a small car to sell, Pontiac hastily offered a rebadged Cobalt. It was called the G5, and never had the same unique characteristics, styling, or charisma of Pontiac's original small car.