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).
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.
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.”
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.
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
It was a Cavalier wearing a mask of a Trans Am. Fooled no one.
I’m gonna put on a mask of Keanu Reeves and see if people think I’m John Wick…
Confused, they may call you, “Neo”.
Every badge GM had got one except GM Holden in New Zealand they found two one from Australia 1600cc economical but gutless and another rebadged Holden from Isuzu in Japan it had a 2.0 four more power good economy but woeful roadholding, my father had the smaller engine type I rode in it once to the airport when I left the country, he later clean swapped it for the Japanese built version which went up hills better but cornered worse, he totalled it one morning on his way to work which solved that problem and ordered a new VL Commodore that afternoon, I suspect he was a little underwhelmed by that too as he shopped at the Toyota store next time and again after that,
This Pontiac version looks ok until you get to the back then its the generic styling they all had, but I like the Pontiac snout, the J cars have all but disappeared now only the odd Toyota/Chevrolet Cavalier is still getting about people keep them mostly because they have no resale value so while they still run they drive them.
The heck of it is that this front and rear made this one of the most attractive of the J variants.
We used to see a lot of these in central Indiana – there were a lot of GM employees and retirees and their families around back then, plus this was just a GM stronghold in general. Frankly, I had never paid much attention to the name changes. I remember the J2000 but Sunbird reminds me of the late 70s Pontiac version of the Monza coupe.
There were once a lot of Pontiacs in my world, between neighbors and extended family. Even my mother had one, the 74 Luxury LeMans. But they did indeed have trouble maintaining a consistent image. I love your title.
Agreed about it being the looker of the bunch. If having to pick a second, I’m inclined to go with the Buick version.
There is an Olds version still in daily use locally. I simply have not been able to catch pictures of it.
“In this discussion I’ve mentioned a dead dog, an obituary, and a deceased uncle…”
Along with alluding to an obituary for a 16-year-old (…”1984 2000 Sunbird sounds like an obituary…”)
For the car itself, Pontiac at least started off with a different engine than Chevy, the Brazilian OHC 1.8.
Pontiac’s feint towards alphanumerics started with the T1000 had debuted for ’81 and added the J2000 a few months later (the J bodies were a midyear launch); by fall there was already an adjustment with the 6000 debuting sans platform letter with the other two dropping theirs for ’83. The logic of then transitioning to Sunbird – which it should’ve been all along – while the 1000 and 6000 kept their numbers to the end and the latter’s obvious heritage nameplate, LeMans, being used on the former’s replacement, just adds another layer of bafflement.
Let’s also remember that Pontiac dropped their full sized car. Some ding-dong at Pontiac thought that the gas crisis would be forever, and they decided to become some kind of imported car-ish GM division. So, yeah, they went with numbers, went with small cars, went with Malaise as their divining rod and sold themselves short.
Pontiac did a pretty decent come-back after this time, but their early 1980 flops were quite costly, weren’t they?
IMO killing the full-size was one of the few right moves they made in this era. For that matter the Bonneville Model G shouldn’t ever have happened, except maybe for a stopgap ’82-3 wagon.
Big floofy Broughams were *not* “We Build Excitement”, and should’ve been left to Buick/Olds. Unfortunately freestanding Pontiac dealers were still the norm and they raised a stink – understandably, every dealer wants to be in every segment. So of course they reversed course the very next year, with a side order of diminished differentiation. There was absolutely nothing for the customer in the ’83 Parisienne they couldn’t get in a Caprice, it was purely a response to dealer pressure.
If Buick, Olds and Pontiac had been a single franchise with a single dealer channel they could’ve all focused their lineups and brand image much more sharply and might all probably still be around. And maybe if GM had only had to develop two versions of every platform – Chevrolet and Not-Chevrolet – they could’ve made well-distinguished class leader out of all of them.
The switch to the Brazilian OHC engine on the Pontiac version didn’t occur until the 1983 model year. The 1982 J2000 offered the same crummy, underpowered, carbureted pushrod engine as the rest of the J-cars.
The Brazilian OHC engine became option on late 1982 models – those so equipped have a badge on the front fender denoting this
As I recall the 6000 was supposed to be the A6000 and the Fiero was to be the P3000.
Yes! The dealer ordering guides listed the former as the “A6000”, so the change must have been at the last minute.
Wow, I saw this car in Hannibal in the spring of 2015! I remember the date because it was shortly before I began writing for CC, yet I was thinking of doing so. In order to do that, of course, I’d need pictures of cars… and then I came across this Pontiac. Sadly, I didn’t stop and take pictures, but immediately afterwards thought it would have made for a great CC. I’m glad to see it here.
I also remember when I saw it that I thought it was an introductory-year ’82 model, because I’d long since forgotten that the “2000” name was used in various forms for three years.
From what I recall, Sunbirds listed for about $200-$300 more than Cavaliers, but I bet that since Pontiac had difficulty getting its message across with this car, that most Sunbirds were discounted down to (or below) Cavalier prices.
This is indeed it. I took these pictures about ten minutes after I found the ’72 C-10 that was featured last week. This Pontiac was parked quite near the Mark Twain boyhood home.
For a town of only 17k, Hannibal is a haven for CCs; almost as good as Lebanon.
You raise two excellent points in that 1) why would the budget conscious shopper spend a significant amount more on a J2000 Sunbird when an identical Cavalier could be had for less, and 2) cars like this signaled Pontiac’s death so early on. The annual changing of its name has always baffled me.
What I will say is that especially in higher trim, the J2000 Sunbird was a reasonably attractive car, probably the most so of the original J cars.
Agreed about the Pontiac J being the most attractive of the bunch. I guess that little extra on the outside really was worth the premium???
Can’t forget that if you got the turbo engine, Pontiac made sure you and everybody in a fairly large radius of your (already rusting) car knew that “This man is driving it with a TURBO” (In shouty caps, of course). Two front fender callouts, raised lettering and matching stripes on the intake manifold, engraving on the steering wheel, and a badge on the tail lamp trim.
Having owned a 1984 Cavalier in college, these were frustratingly close to the good cars that they could have been (and should have been).
On the positive side, I thought the body integrity was very good: Mine was solid, with nary a squeak or rattle. The panels were all straight, and the panel gaps were all relatively small and consistent. And in true GM fashion, the A/C was better than pretty much anything available from Japan at the time.
But, oh, the mechanical problems. The power steering that only worked to the right, and not the left. The radio that required banging the dashboard to get all four speakers to work. The horrible throttle body fuel injection that never ran right. The four-speed transmission at the time the Japanese were offering fives. And so on.
There is a good reason the name changes occurred. The X Cars. The X Cars blew up GM’s reputation in 1980, by 1981, the million selling X car sold squat. So the J cars, which had been planned to bank off the success of the X cars, found no love or bank. Instead of a welcome by the dealers and market, there was a snarl. The J cars used too much of the X car to present themselves as something other than Satan’s sedans. So that J2000 became a 2000, then a 2000 Sunbird, then a Sunbird. Throughout the name evolution, the anger of the market towards GM small cars abated until the X car was buried in 1985. So the little J cars were on their own, trying to prove that they wouldn’t implode during their first year of operation.
The Vega soiled GM. The Chevette didn’t hurt – but didn’t help their reputation. The X cars melted what was left of any GM small car credibility. This seriously damaged the J car launch. The story ends well, however.
With the demise of the X car, the J cars came out of their bigger lemon’s shadows. The C cars helped assuage the market’s feelings that perhaps GM could make a FWD sedan that didn’t consume itself. After 1985, probably due to the fiscal disaster GM faced with their billion dollar lemon, the J car and the C car hung around for the next 15 years. Eventually, they proved themselves to be about as dependable a car as the average American compact, during this time.
The early 1980s weren’t supposed to be a GM nightmare. Their plans didn’t include the X car disaster. So that spectacular failure harmed the next FWD compact cars that were planned to come on line. It took the burial of the X cars for these other cars to find their market. Name changes were understandable.
Besides, that little Pontiac was a swell looking little J car!
Poor little dog…
Other than the J-car, was there any other platform that was used by all five of GM’s US car divisions?
And I mean with no modifications or wheelbase stretches, which would rule out the B/C/D bodies and the RWD X/K bodies.
Similarly, this sounds like the making of another good CC question: which car from the same manufacturer had the most different names with no other changes during its entire model run?
Usually, two seems to be about the norm.
By far and away that’s going to be the first generation Suzuki Sidekick:
Japan: Suzuki Euscudo / Mazda Proceed Levante
US: GEO or Chevrolet Tracker, Suzuki Sidekick
Canada: Asuna Sunrunner / GMC Tracker / Pontiac Sunrunner
Spain: Santana 300/350
I would not be shocked to find a Holden version but I’m not aware …
The Sidekick was sold as a Suzuki Vitara in Australia.
Holden did sell a version of the smaller Suzuki Samurai (known as the Suzuki Sierra here) as the Holden Drover.
Ignore me; I totally misread what you really meant.
I can’t think of any, about the next closest would be the A-car, except that Cadillac never got one. Which is probably for the best, even though an A-body based Cadillac would have been a better vehicle than some of the things that Cadillac actually did sell in the 80’s.
The GMT360, also known as the Chevy Trailblazer should get an honorable mention though for being sold as a Chevy, GMC, Buick, Oldsmobile, Isuzu, and Saab.
If only the rest of the car had been as well executed as the nose.
But a good nose does not a good car make! That sounds like it could be a famous quote, either Shakespeare or Yoda…
This essay reminds me of how Chevy tried to “expand” the market by creating the Z24 out of the Cavalier. From J2000 to 2000 to Sunbird, et al, it’s marketing gone wild.
I echo Tom’s “frustratingly close to the good cars they should have been” sentiment.
And for MY $$, they only got worse. Last Cadaver, I mean, Cavalier I drove around 2004 was like PUNISHMENT. Neighbor’s Sunfire (another name change!) was better but this CC only reinforces my overall sentiment that Pontiac had NO reason to exist after 1982.
Because by this time, their mere existence was only hurting Chevrolet…not so much in sales at the time but PERCEPTION – Chevy was going downmarket while Ford, with its attitude that the flagship brand would be protected even if it hurt Mercury, went upscale in peoples’ minds.
My Parents bought an ’84 Sunbird after my sister/brother-in-law had bought one earlier that year (I think it was the only new car my sister bought). It replaced a ’78 Chevrolet Caprice wagon that was in a fender bender that my Dad didn’t want to get fixed.
He should have fixed the Caprice…their Sunbird turned out to be the worst car he ever bought. Right off the bat, less than 2 months old, it shreaded its timing belt (we were visiting 6 flags in Ft. Worth, my Dad comes to pick us up in a rental…the Sunbird died when right after they dropped us off at the park.
My Sister’s car was better, despite living up in Vermont, rust finally did it in…not so my parent’s car…it threw a rod at under 50k miles…new engine under warranty, after that, they gave the car to my youngest sister to take to college (not much of a gift, it turned out) and my Mom got a new ’88 Tempo that she had for 19 years (not very exciting, but it did keep going awhile). Meanwhile, the power steering lines went on Sunbird (the car was only 4 years old at this time) and my sister who was too poor to have it fixed drove around with a container of power steering fluid that she used to top it off.
Finally at about 80 k miles, it threw a rod again…enough was enough…and my Dad junked the car..my sister got the first 200 SX (the first of 4 200/240 SX’s that my 2 younger sisters were to own..my middle sister still has her ’97).
I had offered her my Scirocco after I bought my ’86 GTi, but it didn’t have air conditioning nor automatic, both of which were requirements for her.
Lots of other small things went on the Sunbird in the brief time it was in my family…it must have been made on one of the bad days of the week, but in general was not a good car.. turned out to be my Dad’s only Pontiac, though he did eventually return to GM for his last 2 cars (both Chevy Impalas).
Their Sunbird looked just like this one (4 door Silver with grey interior)
I’ll give them this…it was a cool jingle.
Autoextremist Peter DeLorenzo worked on the “We Build Excitement” campaign and it put a lot of people in the showroom.
They had some good ad campaigns.
And these commercials were done before legal stupidity set in… you know, whereby showing a car merely pulling out of a parking space required a disclaimer at the bottom saying, “Professional Driver on a Closed Course – Do Not Attempt”.
GM was really good in the HVAC department. Making steering racks? Not so much.
WE had a Frigidaire great fridge, they just put wheels on it.
GM sold the Frigidaire refrigeration unit to White Consolidated Industries early in the Roger Smith era. WCI also bought Kelvinator from Nash an Franklin/Hamilton from Studebaker. I believe they bought the International Harvester line of appliances too. All lanquished until bought again by Electrolux who owns the Fridgidaire name today, though it’s still not up to GM-era quality.
While I doubt that somebody would get all the way to a Pontiac dealership and then leave after getting upset at the car’s ever-changing name, your point is well taken. The shame with the Pontiac J-Car (other than the ever-changing name) is that of all the J-cars, it actually looked half-way decent. The front styling actually appeals to me in a way the rest of the J-cars do not, even though I know underneath they are all substantially the same. I do see on Wikipedia that the 2000 Sunbird and later models could be had with a turbo-charged engine that on paper looks pretty punchy, so maybe that might be redeeming. However, that’s only on paper.
Also, and I suspect that I am a few decades late on this one, but I’m sorry about your dog.
I had a 4 spd. turbo Sunbird from ’84-88. Once it got to 3000 rpm, it was a rocket, but you’d better hold on to the wheel. I went through 2 clutches in 50,000 mostly sedate miles, sold it to my brother, and he burned out the turbo within a year. Honda dealer gave him their best Civic stereo in trade. The Cavalier had more comfortable seats.
Nice essay, Jason, though the way you so casually slipped in the hammer blow of your beagle’s demise caught me way off guard. Poor little beagle, whatever your name was.
Regarding the car, it is amazing to me that so much floundering and indecision can occur among supposed professionals heading an established company that expends hundreds of millions of dollars producing a product as intensely complex as an automobile. All the engineering, supply chain management, assembly and distribution systems…and the damned marketers can’t even decide who it’s for and what to call it.
That’s sort of the definition of “design by committee.” No clear vision and lots of people trying to make their mark. And GM is made up entirely of committees.
Reminds me of the Steven Wright joke:
“I bought a dog the other day. I named him Stay. It’s fun to call him. ‘Come here, Stay! Come here, Stay!’ He went insane. Now he just ignores me and keeps typing. He’s an East German Shepherd.”
Great piece, Jason. (And your poor beagle! I’m sad now, so thanks.)
I seem to recall that the ’83 2000 convertible that was introduced that year was called the “2000 Sunbird”, and then for ’84, the entire range (not just the convertible) was renamed “Sunbird”.
This car is a ringer for one that used to belong to one of my neighbors around the year 2000 – same periwinkle color, and everything. I remember when the car first showed up, and it looked *mint* – like a time capsule. I had several thoughts at the time: either my neighbor had purchased it and way overpaid for it from a used car dealer, or he had acquired it from a deceased parent.
Over the next two years, I watched as little dings and dents started appearing, as the paint started chalking – making the finish look a lot like what we see here. I seem to recall the car being towed away at some point and never returning, and I thought it was such a sad end to a car that, while nothing really special in terms of year/make/model/etc., had seemed to have been so lovingly preserved by its former owner.
I wondered what kind of contempt that car had fostered in its owner to treat it so carelessly.
Yes, as you say, in ’83 the convertible had a different name than did the sedan and coupe. Truly bizarre.
There’s more to the dog story than what I’ve mentioned here. Let’s just say I’ve only had one dog in the forty-odd years since.
GM has never wanted to be in the business of “economy” cars. They aren’t profitable enough, and GM is in the business of making profits, not cars.
“We build excrement “ would be more fitting in this case!
Excellent article and find Jason. Thank you.
Back in ’82, I thought the J2000 hatchback was by far the best looking of the J cars. Especially in red. Pontiac’s unofficial color of the early 80s.
Though the J car hatchs were very modern looking, I thought the earlier Sunbird/Monza was a more stylish design.
Exactly this. I had the same thought earlier today.
I remember at the time thinking the J cars were cool for modern small cars. However, they struck me as significantly generic looking, especially compared to the departed Monza.
The Monza/Sunbird styling had more character.
My first new car was a 2000 Sunbird. Two tone maroon over gray, rally wheels and a formula steering wheel. Never had any problems with it.