Curbside Classic: 1994 Pontiac Trans Sport SE – Can U Get A Witness?

'94 Trans Sport Front

(first posted 5/31/2013)     I come here neither to praise nor to bury the Pontiac Trans Sport. The market did the latter quite some time ago, not only with this model, but with Pontiac as a whole; no, all I have in mind today is to drink deeply of its, er, singularity for a little while.

The Pontiac of Minivans

The story of the GM U-body ‘Dustbuster’ minivans is comprehensively dealt with here. Launched as 1990 models intended to outdo the highly successful Chrysler minivans in both styling and innovation, GM went all in, offering  Chevrolet (Lumina APV), Oldsmobile (Silhouette) and Pontiac (Trans Sport) versions with mild–and in retrospect, probably insufficient–differences in styling and equipment.

pontiac trans_sport_1986_1

All three shared the same front-wheel-drive architecture, galvanized space-frame chassis with composite body panels, ‘modular’ seating, initially rather anemic power from a 3.1-liter V6 and, most notably, futuristic and angular styling based on a well-received 1986 show car.

For mid-90s Pontiacs, “sporty” seemed to consist of two main elements: acres of ribbed plastic cladding, and integral driving lights (gratuitous rant: that clueless owners seemingly would leave on all the freakin’ time whether or not they were actually needed). The example shown here, which I spotted at a small airfield near San Antonio, certainly fits that description.  It can be identified as a ’94 by a face-lifted (and slightly shortened) front end, reshaped front wheel wells, toned-down cladding (compared with the ’90-‘93s) and black roof panels, which were body-colored for the ‘95 model year. Although it’s a little hard to see in the photos, “3800” emblems just ahead of the front wheels indicate that this one is powered by the optional 3.8-liter V6, first offered in ’92 and rated at 170 hp in the featured car. I couldn’t tell whether this one has the power-operated sliding door that debuted on the ‘94 models.

'94 Trans Sport Front 3/4

Gazing down its well, lengthy, length, reveals numerous interesting and amusing (to me at least) details. There’s the whole grille arrangement: apparently, all that intake area could not satisfy the still-perceived need for a few mail-slot inlets above the bumper. Just that last bit of insurance against overheating, I guess. Headlights: clearly swapped in from the contemporary Bonneville. Saved a few bucks in development costs there, presumably. Wheel wells that were rounded up front and squared-off (as in the original version) at the rear: they ran out of budget at the B-pillar? Lastly, my personal favorite–a large ridge molded into the dash (at the upper right in the interior photo), apparently because looking down that looonnng nose from inside tended to unnerve some drivers.

'94 Trans Sport -- Pilot's station

As is well known, the Trans Sport, while not a total flop, didn’t exactly fly off the lots. I couldn’t find solid sales figures, but a good bet would be 30,000 units (or less) per year until 1997 brought a much more conventional-looking redesign. Seems that not enough folk were sufficiently devoted Star Trek fans wanting a vehicle that looked like one of the Enterprise’s shuttles.

Shuttle Gallileo

Then there’s the whole issue of just what ‘sporty’ actually means in the context of a 3,800-pound front-wheel drive kiddie hauler. Lastly, as with many GM products of the era, cheapening out on the fittings might also have played a negative role. That said, the perusal of various Pontiac forums indicates that these were relatively reliable and long-lasting vehicles, although electrical, starting and drive train faults are mentioned here and there.

1994 Pontiac Trans Sport 04 rear 3_4

For whatever reasons, there don’t seem to be many of these things left on the road. When I do see one, it is most often the Olds version, so I feel oddly privileged to have caught a TS in decent shape. Although I’m not exactly a minivan man, I’m down with off-the-beaten-path vehicles in general, and more so when they represent dead branches of extinct car lines. I’ve lived with Pontiac so long that it’s hard to imagine that in another few years, they’ll likely be as forgotten as DeSotos.

So, in this case, did “Pontiac Build Excitement”? I leave that up to you.