It’s been a Herculean effort, I’ve struggled mightily while toiling far and wide to find a first-year example of the Citation that sold over 800,000 times in the 1980 model year and has however thus far eluded me (the two I’ve featured here were both 1981 models). Today though I can rejoice, for the heavens presented me with not that, but perhaps even better, the comparatively much rarer Pontiac version, the Phoenix, in SJ “We Build Excitement” guise, no less. I don’t know if it gets any better. Or worse, as the case may be.
Could it be that this car was the beginning of the end for Pontiac? Sure, they hung on (and arguably even thrived for a while) until 2009 but perhaps the X-car debacle laid the groundwork for the eventual end. Let’s all marvel at this survivor that likely won’t have people asking where it is so they can take all the bits off it to save for posterity like it was a DeSoto Firedome or something.
Of course, did it really survive, or was it just in suspended animation behind someone’s shed for the last thirty or so years? The complete fading of the bumpers down to that weird yellow foamy plastic that GM (and Ford) seemed to use in this era would seem to indicate that along with the somewhat strange rust although the pitting of the leading edges does suggest that it saw a fair amount of use in its lifetime.
The SJ package started out as an option and eventual became its own trim level a couple of years down the road. Basically it consisted of what we would consider the “Euro-ing” of a car, or at least how we understand GM considers that, i.e with lots of show and minimal more go. So you got black nacelles in the grille, black-out trim (but chrome drip rails!), “rally” wheels, body-colored sport mirrors, additional acoustical insulation (?), rally “RTS” suspension, and perhaps the most notable extra expenditure, P205/70-13 tires as standard instead of the regular 185/80-13s. (Of course they were also available without the SJ package).
Every Phoenix got several of these bird badges scattered across the car to help people visualize the mythical bird’s ascension from the ashes. In retrospect this turned out kind of weird as the prior generation Phoenix wasn’t horrible, but this one absolutely was and produced its own ashes to be placed in the dustbin of history, never to rise as a nameplate again. Perhaps they should have been mounted upside down or something. This particular one is on the B-pillar.
We’ve obviously discussed the Deadly Sin that is the Chevrolet Citation (Original Sin?) numerous times, so I shan’t belabor the point too much, but when Pontiac saw what Chevy was about to debut they obviously wanted part of the glory. So to the badge engineering department the plans were sent and some changes were made, externally most notably in the grille, lighting all around, and of course the quarter-panel of the hatchback as seen here – the lower edge continues straight instead of kicking up a bit as in the Chevy. As a result it looks a skosh droopy.
I actually prefer the plain but honestly so front of the Citation, the Pontiac version to me doesn’t look interesting, I suppose the way the middle juts forward a little bit is sort of how Pontiac did things to thrust that (missing) arrowhead forward. I wonder if future societies will idly dig in the dirt of this location and then be made to wonder what tribe of natives used red translucent plastic arrowheads…But I digress.
At least this owner decided to spec the 2.8l V-6 producing 115hp at 4800rpm and 150lb-ft of torque at 2000rpm. Actually after perusing the brochure it seems that while there was a Federal Certification as well as a California Certification in regard to the engine choices, there was also an Altitude Certification column in which only the V6 was available. The brochure took pains to note that while the in other areas available 2.5l Iron Duke was built by Pontiac, the V6 was a Chevrolet engine. Further, the transmission would be a column-mounted 3-speed and the axle ratio 2.84 whereas a manual 4-speed option was available in other markets with the six.
I’m pretty sure that dealer tag was from Nagel Motors in Casper, Wyoming, (elev. 5118′) lending credence to the high-altitude theory.
But back to the engine only because I wasted more pixels on a second shot, it was of course GM’s first dalliance with transversely mounted front wheel drive and while the V6 is clearly more desirable than the Iron Duke, that’s all a matter of relativity.
Unfortunately the trunk was locked, for once the keys were not in the ignition, so an exterior view is all we get here. This one does have the optional rear cargo cover and hints at the luscious color within. You’ll just have to imagine the 40 cubic feet of load area with of course the mother of all liftover heights to scale first with that Sony Trinitron you picked up before the 1981 Super Bowl. Because, of course, back then the couth did not drive pickup trucks to the electronics store.
Let us all admire the bird on the trunk lock. It, plumage and all, swivels to the side to allow access to the key hole as opposed to the Chevy with its utterly undecorated orifice.
As with the other quarterpanel, this side also exhibits some weird rust patterns, perhaps the steel used in the Oklahoma City factory wasn’t prepped correctly or something and of course rustproofing technology wasn’t quite as advanced as buyers would have preferred. The blackout trim on the rear window is most evident here, having absconded to varying degrees from most of the other surfaces that it once adorned.
Obviously this is from a time when choosing leaded gas was still something people could easily do, it would seem difficult to miss that label, and note the gas cap which admonishes the user to check the engine oil. That fuel filler cavity is the roughest piece of bodywork I’ve seen in a while, it looks like someone used a ladle with the body seamer paste.
The interior, or at least the dashboard, offered the greatest point of differentiation to the Chevy, starting with the three-spoke wheel. Of course this car has the bucket seats which also got you the “console” which to modern eyes begets the question of what console am I speaking of. It’s there, that little divider thing between the seats, you might need to squint.
This Phoenix is somewhat lavishly equipped with a very fancy wiper delay for the intermittent function. Of course it somehow is not in the same place as the wiper switch but never mind that. Note the two vents on this side. Oh, and the exposed Torx-head bolts, four in number for that one little panel.
Holy toledo, I see six more vents! Has there been another car with eight vents in the front? And look at all those gauges, excuse, me, “gages” in GM-speak. And each one is held in with multiple Torx-heads, and the same with the vents below. I can’t count that high, how many is that in total now? Or are they all fake? The HVAC and stereo are thankfully oriented as horizontally as the great plains between here and Detroit, as opposed to those of the Chevy that were rotated 90 degrees due to no good reason whatsoever.
A slightly different angle allows a better look at the “gages” in the top row, surprisingly being multi-color and fairly attractive even to the modern eye. From left, a temp gauge (pegged at hot), oil pressure gauge looking like it’s at idle, then the voltmeter playing dead since there is no battery, and finally the clock, showing six o’clock high…
All the way at the bottom of everything is the cassette deck if it wasn’t obvious (under the radio), and the rear defroster switch is next to the radio under the lighter.
Ahead of the driver is the instrument cluster with eight more Torx-heads, an 85mph speedometer and a very large fuel gauge. No tachometer in sight. The odometer reads 40-something thousand miles, but it it most likely missing the 1 in front. I can’t bring myself to believe that it’s turned over twice though.
Here’s the whole dashboard in its unrestrained glory, pretty much looking like a big bird barfed its guts out inside the car.
I mean, really? This is the right hand area of the dash. Did Pontiac not employ any design personnel? Or anyone else with any sense of aesthetics? How does anyone think this looks purchasable? Then again, what do I know, it seems that while Chevy moved 800k+ of their car, Pontiac still managed to shove 178,291 of these down the production line in this model year. Of course by 1982 that would be down to less than 50,000 units.
While the rear bench isn’t in the full down position (it tilts up to allow the seatback to fold forward) the space back here still looks acceptable. The red velour looks plush, and the rollup window winders take me back in time to my family’s ’77 Pontiac Ventura, they are the same items.
Seeing as how this is a 1980 model but produced well towards the end of the very extended model year (production started in February 1979) I may convert my Herculean task to a more Sisyphean one, and now try to find one actually built in 1979. After producing well into the seven figures of these by the time this one rolled down the line, perhaps GM learned a thing or two and that’s part of the reason this one managed to hold on for so long.
Looking back, it’s simply staggering that GM was able to produce and sell well over a million of these turkeys when the Chevy and Pontiac totals are lumped in with the Buick Skylark and Oldsmobile Omega in the X-car nest. And shocking that so many eggs all got put in the same basket only to get thoroughly scrambled when they broke in various ways over the first and second years…This particular Phoenix will actually rise one more time, but it’ll be on the forks of the forklift taking it away to the crusher, surely leaving a slightly different image than Pontiac intended. America might remember the bird it got from Pontiac, but perhaps not as Phoenix the car.