This car could be viewed in two ways. Was it a comically tarted-up version of an outdated economy car? Or was it an optimistic statement that the malaise era was drawing to a close? Both statements are probably true, which illustrates why the late 1980s car market is so interesting to examine in retrospect. And this car’s vanity license plate suits it perfectly – this car embodies the Spirit of ’89.
General Motors’ J-car lineup needs little introduction. Launched for 1982 as subcompact import-fighters, the cars quickly earned a reputation for being crudely built, slow, noisy and uncomfortable… not quite the Honda fighters that GM had hoped for. Pontiac’s version (initially called the J2000 and later Sunbird) differed from Chevy’s Cavalier by… um… mostly badges and a unique beak. So much for the Sloanian Ladder.
Being slow and uncomfortable didn’t stop the J-cars from selling by the zillion, because they were cheap to buy, and there was still considerable resistance to Japanese cars among North American consumers. Regardless, the fact that by the late 1980s, these cars remained largely unaltered, was surprising. Even more surprising was the emergence of upmarket, sporty variants offered by Pontiac and Chevrolet.
Convertible versions of the Sunbird and Chevy Cavalier debuted in 1983, priced at roughly 60 percent more than equivalently-equipped coupes.
A year later, Sunbird received an optional turbocharged engine – a whopping $1,500 option in 1984… that’s $3,800 in 2020 dollars (Cavalier’s sport model, the V-6 Z24, debuted until 1985). Sunbird’s 1.8L 4-cyl. powerplant was typical of 1980s turbocharged engines, developing decent amounts of power, but in a limited and high RPM range (150 hp @ 5,600 rpm at first, increasing to 165 hp @ 5,500 rpm with later models). Unusually for the era, the engine made do without an intercooler.
Naturally, the Sunbird’s turbo and convertible offerings jelled together to form a new top-of-the-line offering, the turbo convertible. And what could be more ’80s than that? Just a few years earlier, convertibles were nearly extinct, and turbos seemed exotic – but both made significant inroads throughout the car market during the decade. When the J-cars launched in late 1981, whoever would have thought that such a car would soon be offered as a turbo (like a Saab!) and a convertible (like a Mercedes!)? Yet it happened.
Yes, the Sunbird turbo convertible was a somewhat crude application of each of those concepts. The turbocharged engine was great for horsepower enthusiasts (165 hp was quite a lot in 1989), though one had to push it hard to get meaningful performance, and when that performance arrived it was chaperoned by its buddy, torque steer. The Sunbird GT’s “Level III” performance suspension cornered well, but was stiff enough to remind drivers of its presence even on smooth pavement. Meanwhile, the convertible’s structure was predictably squirmy. However, did any of that matter? This was a fun car, bought by people who remembered the not-so-distant past when it seemed that cars like these would never be made again.
By 1989 when our featured car was produced, the J-cars (those that remained, as the Cimarron and Firenza bowed out early) were largely archaic, but GM still sold more than 400,000 of them – mostly bargain-oriented Cavalier sedans or coupes. Our featured car was born an outlier within the J-car world. Not only was this a Sunbird, but this was one of the most expensive Sunbirds imaginable. In a year when the base Sunbird LE listed for $8,849, a GT convertible like this started at $16,899. Add some choice options like air conditioning, cassette (or CD player!), and cruise control, and one ended up with a sticker price exceeding $18,000. That’s in the ballpark of the much more refined Toyota Celica GT convertible, or the roomier Chrysler LeBaron. Whoever bought one of these really wanted a Sunbird… or received a hefty discount.
Spending $16,000+ on J-car may seem illogical, but this car wasn’t about quantitative measurements or ratings or a perfect balance of performance metrics – this car was about optimism. Everyone who bought one of these recalled the then-recent past when complaints about too much power or too-stiff performance suspensions were never heard. This car embodied the optimism of its era; despite some rather flawed products, things were getting better, little by little.
Happily making the best of what you had… that was the Spirit of ’89.
So shine on, Sunbird, and forget all of that pesky criticism. We need some more optimism around here, after all!
Photographed in Springfield, Virginia in July 2020.