COAL: 1979 Pontiac Sunbird – A Beige Car In A Beige Land

Ed. Note: We have a new COALman!  Please welcome michaell to the crew.  Pictures (except for the last one) are representative examples from the web.

In the spring of 1982, I was just about ready to graduate high school. The ’65 VW Bug my parents bought for me was being troublesome, and it was time for me to up my financial responsibility and get my own car. Dad still wanted input into what I bought, which is how I came to be the owner (along with the local credit union) of a 1979 Pontiac Sunbird. This was the two door coupe, beige with beige vinyl interior, 4 speed manual transmission and the ubiquitous 2.5L “Iron Duke” engine. The car and I had plenty of experiences – some good, some bad. Allow me to share them with you in this first of my COAL submissions….

The Sunbird had less than 12,000 miles on it when I bought it – it was owned by an elderly couple who, I think, were downsizing to just one car. If I remember correctly, the purchase price was $3850, though my dad and the owner agreed to put a lower number on the bill of sale to save on the taxes (here’s hoping the statute of limitations has expired for this transgression, else the State of California will be interested in this post).

The car was basic – no A/C, no tach, AM radio only. The engine sounded industrial, but I was quickly able to figure out how to shift by ear. The back seat was almost useless, and the trunk was unbelievably shallow. Despite these deficiencies, the Sunbird was a definite upgrade over the VW.

Being a teenager in car-crazy California, I immediately set about customizing it to make it mine. This involved dragging my older cousin – the one with the know-how and the tools – into my projects, which included the following modifications:

  • A pair of both white and yellow driving lights mounted under the bumper, switched so they worked independent of the headlights
  • A Kraco (remember these?) AM/FM/cassette stereo and a pair of box speakers mounted on the rear parcel shelf – the shelf was too shallow to mount speakers into it, so I had to buy speakers with a bracket that mounted on the shelf.
  • And, the piece de resistance, a sunroof – nothing brought me more fear than watching my cousin draw the template on the roof of my car and whip out a skill saw. But, the installation went off without a hitch.

I loved having “my” car –the freedom to go where I wanted, when I wanted. After a couple of semesters at the local community college, I enrolled at a college in Phoenix. I packed my worldly belongings into the back seat and trunk, and off I went. I took a bit of a detour – rather than taking I-10 from LA to Phoenix directly, I took the southerly route down I-5 to San Diego and across I-8 to Yuma, where another cousin and his family lived. The car performed pretty well on those long stretches of highway, though I found that after I arrived in Yuma two of my tires were pretty much bald, so a quick stop at a local Firestone store corrected that issue.

Phoenix in the early 1980’s was quite different than the Phoenix of today, in terms of the road network. I-10 did not connect all the way into town, but rather ended in Buckeye, about 35 miles west of the city. Surface streets were needed to go the rest of the way. And, instead of the full network of highways that now cross and surround the metro area, there were only two – I-17 that ran north and south on the west side of town, and I-10 that ran east and west.

I settled into my new routine – school and work. As I had moved to town in February, the weather gradually warmed up. I think the local weathercasters were contractually obligated to use the term “warm” so long as the high temperature was only 2 digits; when the highs got above 100 they could finally use the word “hot”. In a car with an aftermarket sunroof, vinyl seats and no AC, this meant that yours truly started to get quite miserable every time I got behind the wheel.

I offered my parents two choices: 1) add factory AC to the Sunbird, which would have run about $2000, or 2) invest in a pair of real sheepskin seat covers, which were about 20% of the cost of the AC. Within a week, I had a new set of seat covers installed in my car. Those, along with the tried and true “2-55” approach to climate control (2 windows open, 55 MPH), kept me reasonably comfortable for most of three Phoenix summers.

Later that year, I was running errands when a lady attempted to make a left in front of me at an intersection. I T-boned her, which resulted in my car spending a couple of weeks at a local body shop, and me some quality time with a chiropractor. That incident was the beginning of the end of my time with the Sunbird, though I didn’t know it yet. After I got the car back, it never did run right. Not being mechanically inclined, I and the car spent a lot of time at both the closest Sears Auto Center and Union 76 gas station/garage. First, the heater core was in need of replacement, then I found out that a pair of motor mounts had been broken in the impact. As I had driven the car with the engine leaning to one side, I suspect this screwed up the linkage between the engine and transmission, making it difficult to get it into and out of reverse. While I got the motor mounts replaced, I lived with transmission issues, as I didn’t have the money to fix it properly or ditch the car in favor of something else.

On one occasion, I took the car back to CA for a break between semesters. A classmate who lived in the LA area came with me, and on the return trip, my younger sister and her best friend accompanied us. Right where I-10 ended outside of Phoenix, we heard a loud “BANG” and the car slewed to the right. I was able to navigate the car to the side of the road, where I discovered that the right rear tire tread had delaminated from the belts, and the rubber had dented the fender behind the wheel. Another pair of new tires were necessary.

My car had these same wheel covers

Still, the car never left me stranded – it wouldn’t start in hot weather consistently, which was about 9 months of the year, but I was always able to get it started eventually. Another mystery ailment, I suppose. I took it on road trips to the Grand Canyon and Sedona a couple of times, and, other than the aforementioned issues, it ran well. Friday nights were spent cruising the road that surrounded the Metro Center mall.

After the accident, reverse was a so-so proposition, and got worse the longer I had the car. During my last semester of school, I finally decided it needed to go to a transmission specialist to figure out the problem, once and for all. On my way to the repair shop, I was in the right lane of a three lane arterial road, and I looked over my shoulder – as I was taught to do – to move into the middle lane. However, at the same time, the car in front of me slowed to make a right turn into a business. I was between lanes when turned back around. I saw the problem, which was unavoidable. My right front collided with the left rear of the car – which was some sort of 70’s American full-size. I think the bumper of that car suffered a small dent, while the front corner of my car was demolished. The insurance company decided to total the car, and I received a check for $2000 in return for the title.

I was able to find a photo of the front two thirds of my car; you can spot one of the driving lights under the front bumper.

It was an inglorious end to a car that was both frustrating to live with yet provided me with my first true taste of freedom. I got one speeding ticket and a few warnings from the local police when I used the driving lights without the headlights, and the car had somewhere around 50,000 miles on it when it met its end.

As I still had a couple of months of school left, I had to find a replacement pretty quickly – the result of that search will serve as the subject of my next installment.