COAL: J-Cars of a Lifetime



(None of the pictures in this article are of the actual cars, but have been gleaned from the Internet using Google image search.)

Parents have a lot of influence over their children’s choices in life. I have found this to be true in the automotive arena as well. Most of my vehicles have been GM cars, in large part because those were the cars I grew up with. In addition to the numerous used/beater Cutlasses, Regals, Bonnevilles, Cutlass Cruisers and Le Sabres, my parents’ first brand new automobile purchase was a brown 1984 Chevrolet Cavalier sedan. Moreover, I passed my driving test in an ’86 Cavalier. Naturally, for me this started a fascination with J-cars that I had to quench at least three times.

Okay…confession time. Here is something I’ve never told anyone until now. I am embarrassed to say that when I was young, aside from the fact that I secretly liked some (not all) songs by The New Kids on the Block, I also drank the Kool Aid regarding the Cadillac Cimarron. Namely, that the Cimarron and by extension, all the J-cars–Cavalier, Firenza, Skyhawk, and Sunbird–were sports sedans. There, I said it. What’s more, I believed that my J-cars, all stock with at best the 2-liter pushrod four, were the equal of my cousin’s ’88 Plymouth Conquest TSI Turbo. Ah…the foolishness of youth!



After the ‘81 Skylark from last week’s COAL, bit the dust, I replaced it with an ’85 Chevy Cavalier station wagon, in metallic blue. The car had a dented left rear passenger door with some rust starting at the bottom. This was the only aesthetic imperfection. The car had the base 2.0 liter, four-cylinder engine rated at an optimistic 90 HP and had no options except the three-speed automatic transmission and a rear defroster. It did not have air conditioning.

However, compared with the “broughamness” of my Skylark, the Cavalier was European and sporty. In my eyes it came very close to my friend’s brand new Corsica. A deal was struck with the owner, a woman named Georgetta, and the car, which we subsequently also named Georgetta, came home with us.


Georgetta actually served us well. Its station wagon body with rear door and extra cargo space proved very useful to us. In time however, a few problems developed. First, one of the mounts for the driver’s seat came loose. This caused some interesting dynamics for whomever was driving the car. Upon acceleration or turning, the driver would at best hear a sudden squeaking noise and at worst the seat would pivot forward diagonally. You would eventually get used to it but it could be very annoying and disconcerting.

One day, as I was driving down the same steep hill where my Buick Century met its end, I looked down to see the red brake-warning light illuminated! You can imagine my fear that history would repeat itself with a head-on collision with a light pole. Except this time I would not be in a large six- passenger sedan but a small subcompact wagon. Thankfully, the brakes were just fine, and it quickly became evident that there was some kind of electrical issue causing the brake light to come on.

I could not stand driving it with that red light on so I took it to an “automotive electrician” — big mistake. When I got the car back, not only was the brake warning light still on but now the check engine light was on as well. This is where I learned one of my few automotive skills, the art of using black electrical tape to cover up annoying warning lights. By this time, the car would also make a strange burping and gurgling sound after shutting down after a long drive. These things, along with the lack of A/C, made me grow tired of Georgetta and I readily agreed to giving it to my Dad, who was essentially looking for a “work truck” in exchange for another vehicle.

Chevrolet 1987 Cavalier

That vehicle was a white 1984 Chevrolet Cavalier sedan. This time it was a CS or more luxury-trimmed model. The upholstery was a bit better; in addition to automatic transmission, it also had cruise and intermittent wipers, plus the factory cassette player had auto reverse and Dolby noise reduction.



The powerplant was the same 2-liter found in Georgetta. An issue was the car’s white paint, which was peeling and in terrible shape. What to do? In those days black cars, instead of being ubiquitous, were considered mysterious, cool, and sporty. I took the car to one of those $99 paint job places (do they exist anymore?) and asked them to paint it black. There were two problems: 1) They didn’t have black, and  2) It would cost much more to paint the car because the previous imperfections of the old paint would have to be removed in order for the new paint to adhere properly. My solution. 1) No black? No problem. Paint it the darkest shade of blue you can find 2) As for the imperfections…just paint over them…I’ll take my chances. After signing numerous disclaimers they agreed to paint the car and I got my black (er…midnight blue) sports sedan.




Despite the horrible paint job, I enjoyed living my delusion for a short time until the head gasket went, causing coolant contamination in the oil and rapid loss of compression. I still remember the sick feeling I had when I pulled the dipstick and was presented with the creamy, milky, goop that was coolant mixed with oil.



I soon began to complain about a radical loss of power, so my Mom asked to take the car to work one day to see if it was my imagination or if something really was amiss. To this day, almost 25 years later, she still maintains that was the worst and scariest car that she has ever driven. Two subsequent attempts to rebuild the engine ended in failure, and we eventually sold it and the Georgetta wagon to some auto tinkerers looking for cheap wheels. I think they gave us $300 for both cars.



Meanwhile, my Mom had a beige 53,000 mile ’84 Pontiac Sunbird wagon that I really wanted. My chance came when she said that she was looking for something sportier. I offered to help her find her new ride as long as I could have the Sunbird when she was done with it. After looking at a Mustang, a Camaro, and a 280 ZX, she eventually settled for a two-door Mazda 626 which left me we with the Sunbird “sports wagon.”



In my previous COAL, I mentioned that the Skylark looked like a smaller Regal. Well in this case, I thought the front of the Sunbird was made to look like a smaller Firebird.

Plus, the instrument panel lit up in red at night…just like a BMW! It even had an exotic engine…a 1.8-liter. This engine, sourced from GM of Brazil, is apparently still produced today. A turbo version, rated at 165 HP, was produced for the Sunbird but mine had the naturally aspirated version, rated at 85 HP.  The badge on the fender read “OHC/FI”…just like a Honda Prelude (right)!  In my mind I had a combination Firebird, BMW, and Prelude…plus it was a station wagon…perfection itself! My own “pocket rocket.” Again, the ignorance and foolishness of youth.




I began to “modify” it to fit in with my vision of it being a “sports wagon.” I tinted the glass, upgraded the sound system, and attached red “sporty-looking” stripes to it.



I even attached stickers that looked like pulses from an EKG meter (still highly embarrassed by this).

In addition, I had the timing advanced in an effort to improve acceleration. This was also the era when all kinds of fuel and oil additives were being sold claiming to improve vehicle performance. I fell for it, hook, line and sinker, and dumped them all into that vehicle.




Actually, that car served me pretty well. It was reliable and got me through most of college. I have fond memories of it being versatile, fun and, yes, reasonably sporty. The car endured so many indignities and downright abuse from yours truly, including regular “speed runs” to bury the needle of its 85 MPH speedometer, neutral drops at least once a week, a few off road excursions, and my attempts on the Garden State Parkway at imitating Cole Trickle from the newly released film Days of Thunder.




My Dad’s 1982 Pontiac Bonneville wagon had gone to its eternal reward, so my Dad needed another “work truck” again. After helping me move into my dorm room one more time, my Dad took over the Sunbird for another  couple of years or so until it eventually died a natural death when the engine gave out after a little over 100,000 miles.




Cured of my J-body obsession for now (there would be more later), its replacement, which I’ll talk about next time, was a bit more crude and primitive.