COAL: 1989 Pontiac Sunbird SE – Welcome to Payments!

With the Cutlass gone, it was time to turn my attention to a new car search. I had no wheels and had my first real job that I had get to.  I had a patchwork of rides to get me to work a few days, but I needed a car and soon. I wanted something sporty and wanted to stay in the GM family. Making barely $10 an hour, options were limited as far as what I could afford. A used car would have been smarter, but there was no stopping me on the new car idea.

So, it was one of two flavors of J-cars:  the Cavalier, or the Sunbird. Hands down the Sunbird appealed to me more. There was the SE version, which had the pop-up headlamps and rally wheels. It had been refreshed a year earlier and got a new single overhead cam 2.0 liter sourced from GM- Brazil.   A friend of a friend knew the owner’s daughter at a local Pontiac dealer, so I had a connection of sorts. She was running the place for her folks and was rather nice. They had a nice metallic burgundy SE manual tranny on the lot, with AC, cruise and a cassette deck. Everything I needed, nothing I didn’t.

I believe it was stickered at $11,300, but with first time buyer discount, rebates and my brothers GM employee discount, it came in just under $10,000, and a $200 monthly payment. I could swing it and the deal was done, or so I thought. On the pick-up day, I was worked over by an over-aggressive F&I agent, who as it turns out was the little sister of my connection. She wouldn’t take no for an answer in selling rustproofing, extended warranty and number of other things I couldn’t afford nor really needed, which left a bad taste in my mouth. I held my ground and she backed off when she saw I was getting visibly angry. Oh, and I got a nice little payment coupon book as well, payments due on the first of the next 48 months. It would be regular car payments for me from that point almost continuously well into my 40s.

GM produced the J-body from 1981 to 2005, and it underpinned models globally and in various iterations outside North America for Opel, Isuzu, Holden, Vauxhall and Daewoo. Suffice to say, when this platform finally was retired with the introduction of the Chevrolet Cobalt in 2005, it was a more than bit long in the tooth. Performance tests of the day that I researched stated 0-60 MPH came in about 11 seconds. Slow, but competitive for the class and for the time. On the highway it would get about 30 MPG. It looked far sportier than it was, but it had a pleasing sound and with the manual, I thought it fun to drive.

Many people dogged the J bodies. You’ll find people who had horrible luck with them and people who drove them for 10 years. I had a friend who had a Honda Civic from the same period. Certainly, the Civic was a well built and holistically better car than the little Pontiac. But it was also at least $2K more to purchase. I cannot recall the last time I’ve seen any J-cars, much less a Sunbird, in these parts.

The Sunbird was a very good and reliable first new car for me, and it took me a lot of places. Back to see my old college friends in the Grand Rapids area, to countless out of town weddings, camping…and miles piled on quickly. At 60,000 miles, the water pump was replaced in what was a cheap repair.  Other than that, it was brakes, tires and oil changes which I usually did myself.

One morning in the autumn of 1992 I went outside to leave for work and noticed the Sunbird was gone. There was an almost perfectly clean rectangle in the bare cement surrounded by fallen leaves where the Pontiac was parked.  She had been stolen! Wait..what? Who the hell would want to steal a Sunbird? Police reports were filed, and as far as I was concerned, it was likely that the full weight of all area law enforcement agencies would soon be mobilized to find my car. Later that day, the Madison Heights police (the next town over) had called and it had been found in a drug store parking lot barely three miles away. I went to see it…it was smoked in, and the steering column sleeve was torn away.

Aha!  It seemed that miscreants had left a clue: a tape in the cassette deck. It was “Master P and the Royal Posse”, or something like that. I deftly removed it and headed straight back to the police department, holding the edges. Surely, they wanted it as evidence and to dust for prints to move the investigation forward. I would be called to review a police lineup. An inside job perhaps? Someone right under my nose, from the neighborhood?  The desk officer said it likely was kids stealing it randomly to go joy riding, or stealing it to steal another car, or criminals stealing it to commit another crime.  There would be no investigation, I could keep the tape, and the officer told me I was lucky I got the car back in once piece. In other words, “run along junior”, and he went back to his paperwork. She was fixed within days and it was back to smooth sailing, and by the spring of 1994, after not quite 5 years of ownership, 107,000 miles were on the odometer.

The end came one weekday in early May of 1994 as I was making a left had turn on a yellow barely a half-mile from home. A large late 70s Olds Regency was trying to make in on the amber. I shouldn’t have went…knew I shouldn’t have went…and BLAM! She hit me in the right rear and spun me around, hard. She was going at least 35.  The cops came and 10 minutes later, a motorist came back to say she saw the whole thing and said the lady in the Oldsmobile ran the red light. She was ticketed. The cars rear axle was bent and the rear passenger quarter panel was caved it.  The Sunbird wasn’t drivable and was sitting facing the wrong way on the other side of the road, looking pretty sad. Good grief!

It capped off a very bad 8 month stretch for Carlsberg66 on the personal side dating back to the previous summer. Up until February of ‘94, I had a serious girlfriend for 3 years.  We were engaged and wedding plans were made. She was having second thoughts and it was an emotional roller coaster for me. We ended up calling the wedding off at Christmas of 1993, and a short time later, broke it off for good. We would never see nor speak to each other ever again. Logically, I knew it was for the best. But I was really struggling: down and out, heartbroken, and in a major funk. I was in grad school at that time. My head just wasn’t into it that semester and I got a C in my class, a failing grade. It meant academic probation and additional drama I didn’t need. There was just not a lot to look forward to at that point for me.

The car was towed to a collision shop where it was deemed very fixable. I didn’t realize it, but I could simply decline the fix and get the money (net any liens) and the car would be turned over to the insurance company who would auction for salvage. Hmmm. The owner of my company had a car he was looking to get rid of that I was very interested in, but the timing wasn’t right. I had a big life change with the breakup and had made plans to finally move out of my parent’s house in early July. I’d had the Pontiac for almost 5 years, and for 3 of those years my fiancé had a lot of seat time in that car. Maybe I needed a vehicular change as well to help me move on?   “Well, how much would I get?”, I asked the adjuster. “$3,100.00”.  And in an instant, I knew I would be getting another ride very soon, and I was happy. Things were looking up.