Curbside Classic: 1984 Pontiac 2000 Sunbird – We Build Excitement (But Not Necessarily Into Everything We Produce)

The poor J-car.  For all the good intentions and noble aspirations GM bestowed upon it, of the final ho-hum execution there are only two of them that seem to remain in the collective psyche – the Chevrolet and the Cadillac.  Perhaps that is evidence of how the mind remembers the far extremes of any particular experience.

The rugged J-car is one of the few cars GM saw fit to slather upon every rung of the ever-more archaic Sloan-ian ladder, with this Pontiac being the second rung from the bottom.  With the common-as-dirt Cavalier at one extreme, and the decadently tacky Cimarron on the other, it’s easy to forget about the Pontiac version (as well as the Olds and Buick variants).

For 1982, it’s the J2000

It also seems like Pontiac wanted potential customers to forget about these, or at least remain ignorant about them.  Every year for the first four years of its existence the Pontiac J-car had a merry-go-round of names as it was “J2000”, then simply “2000” for 1983, our featured “2000 Sunbird” for 1984, then just “Sunbird”.  Four years, four names, four glorious opportunities to confuse and lose customers.

Speaking of “four”, this never-ending swapping of names reminds me of something I did as a four year-old.  I was given a beautiful beagle pup by my grandfather.  Any boy’s first dog is always a source of excitement and was I ever excited about this beagle.  The problem was I just couldn’t decide upon a name for that energetic creature.  I’d name it something on Monday and then by Wednesday conclude a different name was more fitting, thus changing his name.  By Friday or Saturday the error of my dog’s current name was apparent and I would then name him something else.

That poor dog was all sorts of confused.  It never did answer to anything other than “puppy-dog” due to the avoidable confusion I had inflicted upon him.  In emotionless retrospect, that wonderful dog inadvertently saved himself a lot of mental turmoil by stepping in front of that ’72 Mercury Montego while I was awaiting the bus early in my kindergarten year.  A quick “ka-thump” and the confusion was gone – as was my beautiful beagle.

Yet I was four years old at the time.  By age six or seven I had realized my persistent changing of the dog’s name was creating an abundance of undue confusion for all involved.  The confusion was so bad I cannot remember what the poor dog’s name was the day he died.  That’s sad and regrettable.

For 1983, it’s the 2000

I say all this because it makes me wonder if the model naming department at Pontiac was being run by a gaggle of four year-olds.  This spectacle of chronic model renaming was undoubtedly confusing for the Pontiac diehards, let alone the ordinary customer.  One can almost hear the conversation some imaginary, prospective customer named Ralph had with some well-meaning Pontiac salesman in 1984 (and no doubt some theme of this played out somewhere):

Ralph (full of vim and curiosity):  “Hey, I’m looking for a J2000 for the old lady.  What have you got?”

Salesman (trepidatiously):  “Sir, that car is now the 2000 Sunbird….”

Ralph (annoyed):  “What?  You already cancelled the J2000?  And why did GM introduce the 2000 models so early?  Shit, 2000 isn’t for another sixteen years.”

Salesman (trying valiantly to take one for the team):  “Sir, Pontiac has adjusted the naming scheme on their smaller cars.”

Ralph (really annoyed, with a pinch of confusion):  “Why?  Did the old names get worn out?”

Salesman (hoping this isn’t going to end as badly as he suspects):  “No, sir.  GM is of the philosophy they can leverage more synergies by strategically aligning their naming structure to project more cohesion across the brand.  The 1984 2000 Sunbird…”

Ralph (torqued and feeling his vinegar):  “Hold it right there, bud.  Saying ‘1984 2000 Sunbird’ sounds like you are reading somebody’s obituary.  I’m heading up the street to the Tie-odie dealer.  Hell, they pick a name and stick with it.”

For 1984, it’s the 2000 Sunbird

Can you blame Ralph for being turned off?  In researching the various names given to the SAME BLASTED CAR the (lack of?) wisdom in GM’s doing so has me scratching my head in befuddlement.  It wreaks of indecisiveness along with them scratching their collective butts in desperate hopes of hitting the sales bullseye – which, while reasonably successful with around 160,000 units in 1984, could have been even more successful had they not so merrily and enthusiastically pissed away any semblance of name recognition and brand equity.

For 1985, it’s just “Sunbird”. Why???

While we’ve broached this subject many times, General Motors during the 1980s is a fascinating study in how one could, figuratively speaking, tear up a cinder block in a sandpile.  That slice of history is doctoral dissertation worthy; the question is would it be better fitted for someone getting a doctorate in business or psychology?

Mentioning the waste of brand equity reminds me of something else.  Sorry for the digressions but they all tie together.

A while back Mrs. Jason’s Uncle Dan passed away.  He was my wife’s last uncle, and his passing left my father-in-law as the last surviving child of the ten in his family.  At Dan’s memorial service there were an abundance of poster boards with pictures of Dan from childhood to recent times, the pictures having a span of about seventy years.  Most of the pictures were of Dan with fish he had caught, with many of these pictures showing him holding his catch while standing in some proximity of the car he owned at that particular time.

Dan was a Pontiac man to the core.  It was obvious in the pictures and all three of his children said as much.  He had had several Grand Prix’s, a Bonneville, and a few others.  Note the use of past tense isn’t simply because Dan is no longer of this world.  Why?

By the late 1990s Dan had left Pontiac.  What prompted him to leave Pontiac?  I don’t know.  But I have my suspicions.

For better or for worse, Pontiacs were generally of two forms during the mid- to late-1970s – Full Brougham, such as the Bonneville with its fender skirts and hood ornaments; or Full Testosterone, such as the Firebird / TransAm and those screaming buzzards.  Pontiacs were obviously Pontiacs, and while some of the body panels were shared with other divisions, there was still a degree of uniqueness for those choosing a Pontiac.

Pontiac had spent many years cultivating a unique identity, different from that of Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, and Buick while doing so with cars that had an abundance of similar architecture to the other brands.  If you think about it, Pontiac had reshaped its identity several times in the period between 1955 and the late 1970s.

Okay, so somebody thought tacking a different nose onto what was otherwise a Cavalier would indisputably make this J-car a convincing Pontiac to all who saw it.  It appears the intent was also to remind everyone of the 1977 TransAm, a model made somewhat more prominent due to placement in various movies.  Worse things have happened.  But performing this type of stunt with a car that was meant to usher in the downsized 1980s created a mental picture of being pointed at the future while looking wistfully over the shoulder at what had been.  It is, and was, confusing.  I’m old enough to remember these buggies when new and they seemed to be radiating mixed messages even at that time.

Well, it did at least put a person in mind of a Pontiac.  But any pretense of excitement was lopped off behind that heritage inspired and plastic header panel.

At the bare minimum some number of unique features could have been used in the interior.  If it weren’t for saying “Pontiac” on the hub of the steering wheel, what about this car is distinguishable from an ordinary Chevrolet Cavalier?  What about the use of a retro-themed header panel and marginally different tail lights on a 2000 Sunbird (or whatever Pontiac decided to call it for any year on either side of 1984) was enough to establish a premium of $577 (just under $1,500 in present worth) over that Cavalier?  Same engine, same interior, different nose.  Where were the elements that made it distinctively Pontiac throughout, whatever those could have evolved into?

Dan’s last car would be a Cavalier, purchased well before the demise of Pontiac.  And why not?  It was the same car for less money.

In reviewing the 1,300 words used to this point, a common theme has unintentionally emerged.  In this discussion I’ve mentioned a dead dog, an obituary, and a deceased uncle, all while musing about a compact Pontiac, a product from a euthanized marque.

Why does this 2000 Sunbird keep reminding me of death?  Nothing about that is exciting.

Found May 2013 in Hannibal, Missouri