The cars we loved.
Imagine it’s 1977 and you’re in the market for a new American made small car, preferable a sporty one. You’d have few choices, as the concept of a small car itself was still new, let alone a truly sporty one. Oddly it would be Chevrolet who would make the first attempt at making a truly high performance compact, the Cosworth Vega. The Cosworth Vega was a great first attempt that needed a bit more refinement and durability testing.
No such machines came from Pontiac, although it sold a less than hot version of the Vega called the Astre. Pontiac fans looking for a sporty small car would have to wait until the Astre’s successor appeared in the fall of 1977. That car called the Sunbird would be more a looker than tire burner. Then again, most performance cars big or small had been reduced to decal and appearance packages by 1977.
In keeping with what it knew, GM would use the Vega’s H-body platform to produce a string of cars that would include the Chevrolet Monza, Buick Skyhawk and Oldsmobile Starfire. Conventional wisdom suggested that a Pontiac version of the H-body would be the most potent, yet the Sunfire Formula would share its V6 and V8 engines with high trim versions of its sister cars. In Europe GM sold similar car, the Opel Manta but it was not related to the H-body despite similarities on paper. The Manta was of course a superior car, but would never end up at your local GM dealer’s showroom.
Pontiac’s second attempt at a small car carried some of the baggage of the troubled Vega/Astre legacy, prompting the company to offer a 5 year 60,000 mile warranty on cars equipped with the smaller base engine offering. It appeared that Pontiac and GM were taking the smaller car seriously, well sort of. The Sunbird would consist first of a two door coupe, a slick sport hatch and a “looking like a Vega still” wagon still called the Astre. The Astre like small sporty wagons from Opel and Ford was a two door almost shooting brake type.
Right off the bat the Sunbird was fitted with familiar technology. The 2.3-liter “Iron Duke” 4 cylinder could only muster 78 hp with the two-barrel carburetor option. This version of the Duke used an aluminum-block, making it modern by GM standards of the day. Very likely most base versions of the Sunbird were sold with the 3 speed automatic option. A four speed manual was available for the truly thrifty with a strong right arm as the transmission was not considered the smoothest.
While those looking for a sporty version of the Sunbird, all was not lost. There were actually two, a Firebird inspired “Redbird Package” and the more gruff Formula. Both offered some of the visual panache of the Firebird without its performance and thirst. First offered as a three box coupe, it would really come into its own aesthetically when a fastback hatch model was introduced in 1977. Along with hatchback versions of the Monza GT, the Formula Sport Hatch was arguably the most striking version of the H-body.
The sleek bodywork was a direct clone of the Chevy Monza, itself inspired by the Ferrari 365 GTC/4. The Formula wore its name on its sleeve in a font similar to the Firebird. In addition to Firebird-like graphic touches, there were honeycomb style 13 inch wheels on wider tires. A rear deck spoiler and blackout treatments added a touch of stealth.
Under the hood an upgrade from the Iron Duke meant using a Buick sourced 3.8-liter V6 or Chevy built V8 . The 110 hp V6 was hardly worth the weight increase, but had chrome valve covers if you ever had the urge to show it off in the Zare parking lot. To make matters worse, it was tuned more for fuel economy than pure performance, although 24 mpg on the highway was considered good for anyone not driving a VW Rabbits or Honda Civic. The 5.0-liter V8 was available for the ’78-79 model years. A big V8 in a small car sounded like the ideal recipe for a muscle car until you realized that it only made 125 hp.
What the Sunbird Formula lacked in pure muscle it tried to compensate for by improved handling. Larger anti sway bars and wider tires enhanced the torque-arm /coil spring rear suspension. Vented front disc brakes made stopping and re-circulated ball steering kept things simple. Still, the live axle setup could lose composure on anything but the smoothest roads. The Sunbird Formula was more about looks, as the interior could be fitted with ample instrumentation that included a tach and a T/A steering wheel.
One of the criticisms of small cars from GM at the time was that they were just smaller versions of its bigger cars. Engineered not as small cars from the beginning, but the recipient of parts from bigger more inefficient cars. While this argument had some merit with respect to the power to weight ratio and fuel economy, it did mean that many small GM cars could have big car features like more polished interiors with consoles and more comfortable seats. The Sunbird did have this going for it.
The Sunbird was successful for Pontiac with over 479,000 sold between 1976 and 1980. The Chevy Monza sold far more. Formula sales amounted to just a few units per year with 1978 being its best at 3,723. During this time most performance cars had downsized to the point of being mere shadows of what they once were. In addition to its many GM clones, the Sunbird competed with ponycars like the Mustang II and a new crop of small sporty machines like the Toyota Celica and German built Mercury Capri.