(first posted 12/23/2014) Cohort poster William Oliver has found something approaching a unicorn: a Pontiac Astre, but not just any Pontiac Astre. It’s the final year 1977 model, which was the only one to have Pontiac’s “Iron Duke” 2.5 L four under the hood, replacing the ill-fated Vega 2300 engine. The only thing that can top this would be the 1975 Astre “Li’l Wide Track” model. Good luck finding one on the street. But this is plenty of motivation to take a look at the Astre’s less than stellar history.
The Astre first saw the light of day with its curious split grille in 1973, as a Canada-only model. Pontiac had an unusually large presence in Canada, with its locally-built “Cheviacs”. But wanting to get in on the sub-compact market too, the Lordstown, OH. plant started spitting out these, headed for Canada. Mechanically, they were identical to the Vega, and the change to the grille was minimal.
In 1975, US Pontiac dealers finally got in on the Vega action too, just when Vega sales began their terminal decline. Astre sales were very sluggish, so the “Li’l Wide Track” appearance package was created. It didn’t help much either; some 3,000 were sold from the factory, and more were dealer installed.
The Astre was just a Vega with the optional Custom Interior as standard. But there was also an SJ package, which turned the Astre into a genuine hot-date mobile. Or not.
Despite looking quite similar, 1976 Astres (and Vegas) had a number of substantial differences under the skin, reflecting many of the changes made for the H-Body Monza, Sunbird, etc. These included a new box-section front cross-member, larger rear brakes, and a new “torque link” rear suspension, that tamed the rear axle hop so easily induced by the rubber-shredding 70 hp (84 hp optional) Vega 2300 engine, which also had a number of improvements and was now called the “Dura-built 140”, and not ironically.
But for its final outing in 1977, the Astre was bestowed the 2.5 L Iron Duke, with 84 hp and a bit more torque. The Iron Duke was a Pontiac engine, derived from the 301 V8, with which it shared some of its architecture.
Here’s a quote from a Car and Driver review of the 1977 Astre, which I found at Wikipedia: “The Astre is the Vega – polished and refined and significantly improved, but still a Vega in perhaps its ultimate state of development..It remained for Pontiac to do what Chevrolet probably should have done in the first place: the substitution of the marvelous old Chevy II cast-iron four-cylinder econo-motor for the much-troubled aluminum-block Vega engine. Sliding in and starting the engine was a revelation because it’s so quiet and smooth compared to the Vega.”
This is quite the compliment they paid the Iron Duke it for being so much smoother than the Vega engine. It just proves that everything in life is relative, because it’s undoubtedly the only time anyone ever paid that unruly lump a compliment on its quietness and smoothness. That does say something about the Vega engine…
The Astre didn’t really go away in 1978; at least not the wagon. It was just re-badged as a Sunbird, and built for two years to round out the Sunbird line with its hatchback and coupe. The Vega wagon also morphed into the Monza wagon in the same way, and it too got the Iron Duke for 1978.
Now someone just needs to find us a Sunbird wagon in the wild, or even a Monza wagon. I wouldn’t be shocked.