I love birds. There’s something about hearing their songs in the morning during this time of year that makes me thankful to live in this forest-like neighborhood on Chicago’s north side. I’ll admit that there have been times when a robin’s call (and there is a loud robin that lives not far from me) around 4:30 AM makes me wonder if that bird is a little overzealous to get that worm. I’ll bet it succeeds, though. There are a couple of other birdcalls I recognize in general, including that of a cardinal, which will usually have me craning my neck to look into overhead tree branches to see if I can spot it. My favorite bird would have to be any of the seventeen species of penguin. I have even gotten to pet a Magellanic penguin once, during a Penguin Encounter at the Shedd Aquarium, downtown.
I’ve put serious thought into trying to understand why I love birds so much. I’ve decided that part of the draw might be that they seem to represent freedom. Almost all North American birds have the ability to fly away, unbothered and at will, from any situation they please. Their coordination and eyesight are mindblowing, not to mention their endurance, as many migrate vast numbers of miles as the seasons change. And then, there are penguins, none of which can fly, but all of which can swim as if flying through the water. The Gentoo is the fastest species, capable of moving underwater at up to 22 miles per hour. Emperor penguins are truly fascinating, enduring harsh, Antarctic weather conditions, sharing parental and “grocery getting” duties, and recognizing each other by their calls, since they are indistinguishable amongst themselves by sight.
General Motors seemed to have the corner on naming automotive products after birds in the U.S., which they did in many instances. The only other “birds” from domestic makes that I can think of at this writing are Ford’s venerated Thunderbird and the AMC Eagle. Buick had used the Skylark name going back to 1953, on an expensive, specialty convertible. Gradually, the name would become the name of their large compact, which would grow into an intermediate. This name was then applied to another compact for ’75, where it would remain for the rest of its life. Pontiac had introduced the Firebird in mid-year ’67 as the division’s entry into the specialized sporty compact market. For three years starting in ’78, there were even one-year-only, color-coordinated versions of Firebird’s Esprit submodel called the Sky Bird (’78), the Red Bird (’79), and the Yellow Bird (1980). These three were openly marketed as “chick cars”, but I’d drive any of them today and wouldn’t care for a minute what anyone thinks.
The Sunbird was originally introduced for ’76 as Pontiac’s variant of the rear-drive, H-body Chevrolet Monza, which was itself based on the Vega. The Sunbird name would disappear when this car’s front-drive, J-platform replacement would appear as the “J2000” in mid-1981 as an ’82 model. I do remember “J2000” sounding really high-tech when I was a kid and these cars were new, but then I was confused when they were renamed the “2000” the next year. Nineteen Eighty-Four would see these cars renamed the “2000 Sunbird”, so after a four model year absence, the “Sunbird” name was back on a small Pontiac before being replaced with “Sunfire” for ’95. I prefer “Sunbird” to “Sunfire”, for the record. A bird just seems more tangible than a flame as a name for a car, even if both could mess you up.
I was in high school when our featured ’90 model was manufactured. The LE four-door was the most popular of the five Sunbird variants offered that year, with almost 58,000 of them made against 56,000 LE coupes, 13,000 SE coupes, about 5,000 turbocharged GT coupes, and 13,000 wagons. The Sunbird sales tally for 1990 was just shy of 145,000 cars. Its Chevrolet cousin, the Cavalier, would sell 311,000 copies, while Ford’s Escort would move 196,000 units. Over at Plymouth, which was continuing its slide into irrelevancy, 80,000 Sundances were sold, while Dodge moved 94,000 Shadows.
There were two variations of 2.0L four-cylinder engine available in the Sunbird for ’90, with 96 horsepower on the base engine, and a whopping 165 hp for the turbo, the latter of which was standard on the GT and optional for the convertible. The turbo’s torque steer has been brought up here at CC before, but I’ve never experienced it firsthand. The closest I would ever come would be as riding as a passenger in my friend Anne’s mom’s Sunbird Turbo sedan, a car for which she had traded a nice, third-generation (GC) Mazda 626. As I recall, Anne’s mom loved the 626. She grew to loathe the Sunbird, eventually dubbing it the “S***bird”, which made us kids giggle. Things just kept breaking on it. To be clear, I don’t remember Anne’s mom ever mashing the accelerator in that car and watching her struggle to keep the Sunbird in her lane, but I’ve read plenty of others’ stories about doing just that.
I’m sure that Turbo ‘Bird might have made all kinds of squawks and squeaks if pressed, and I’m also positive that it was a predator to my friend’s mother’s checkbook before that Sunbird was finally set free (or euthanized, as I seem to recall it ended up being subject to Michigan’s “Lemon Law”, though I can’t say for sure). The normally aspirated mill in our featured car probably protested much less audibly, though probably not as smoothly or quietly as any number of Japanese cars available for purchase in 1990. This car’s basic design had been for sale for close to a decade by the time this one left the factory.
Going back to the Sunbird’s name as it relates to its substance, I suppose one could say that, like a bird, it is little and cute. It also went “cheap, cheap” out of Pontiac dealerships for the lesser versions of it, like this LE. In terms of the solar connotations of its name, one could say it appeared to have a sunny disposition, which fewer could probably say about its more aggressively-styled Sunfire successor. The only real application of the “Sunbird” name on these cars that ever really made sense to me was either on yellow examples, as a metaphor for the sun (or a canary), or on the convertibles, which let the sun in. Or maybe at least with a sunroof? Its 2.0L four-cylinder engine for 1990 had a combined EPA rating of 24 mpg (21 city / 29 hwy) on regular gas with a three-speed automatic, so it ate like a bird. Sort of. It’s a moot point in 2021, as Pontiac has been defunct since the end of 2010. Perhaps this bird’s status as extinct made it that much more of a special discovery on this particular Saturday afternoon.
Edgewater Glen, Chicago, Illinois.
Saturday, April 17, 2021.