What is this sorcery? Pontiac Sunbird Turbo!

When I saw a 1991 Pontiac J-Body on Craigslist with an asking price of $4500, I had to take a closer look to determine the level of crazy involved. It’s weird enough to see a Michigan-plated car listed for sale in Florida without acres and acres of rust, but what caught my eye was the bright red underhood photos and the word “turbo.” It wouldn’t have surprised me so much if the car was boxier and the model year something closer to the mid-’80s, but it’s unusual to see a mass-market car that traipsed into the ’90s before shedding forced induction.

Most carmakers ditched their boosted four-pots in favor of V6s by the early ’90s. The market had soured on the turbo promise due to reliability problems and uneven power delivery. It just wasn’t cool anymore. The Sunbird’s turbo four was replaced with the General’s venerable miserable 3.1-liter V6, a la the Cavalier, for 1992.
The LT3 engine is an Opel design and was used Brazil, Korea, and US-market cars. It was surprisingly potent, pushing  165 horses and 175 torques, which makes it all the more baffling that they replaced it with a 135-horsepower V6. But that was the way of the world United States: Only Japanese sports cars like the Mazda RX-7 and Toyota Supra and the occasional domestic oddity like the GMC Typhoon and Dodge Daytona IROC R/T would continue to carry turbos after 1990.
This car has just a few small updates: an aftermarket steering wheel and a cheap-looking stereo with navigation. It shows all the signs of being owned by a Michigan snowbird who keeps the car garaged and drives it to his Florida summer home. It appears rust-free (especially for being in the rust belt) and shows little wear inside. The odometer, the ad says, shows just 73,000 miles.
Even the convertible top looks like it’s in good shape, which is remarkable: Any of these still running have tops maintained with duck tape.
If you want this oddity, find it on Craigslist in Daytona Beach Clinton Township, MI for less than five grand.

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  1. JayP Avatar

    What’s the deal with the valve cover?

    1. Fuhrman16 Avatar

      That is a rather odd arrangement. I’m assuming OHC doesn’t need much room for rockers and what not?

      1. JayP Avatar

        I’m guessing the “valve cover” is for looks and a space for gasses to accumulate. The cam is down in the head. Funny the workaround to avoid 10 feet of intake or a bubble in the hood.

        1. WinstonSmith84 Avatar

          The distributor is driven off the camshaft and you can see where the cam pulley is on the other end, so it isn’t that low.

  2. dead_elvis, inc. Avatar
    dead_elvis, inc.

    1990s SAAB & Volvo would like a word with you.

    1. Alan Cesar Avatar
      Alan Cesar


  3. wunno sev Avatar
    wunno sev

    man, that Priest video. it’s always hard to tell when traversing cultures – whether separated by geography, language, time, or some combination – what is intended as satire and what is done in earnest, but there’s no way they were making that video with a straight face. there’s no way.

    1. Alan Cesar Avatar
      Alan Cesar

      I don’t know if I could’ve picked a better example of how weird the ’80s was, except for maybe the Plymouth Duster ad. Which makes me think that either all of the ’80s really was sincerely that awful, or it was all satire.

    2. Alan Cesar Avatar
      Alan Cesar

      I don’t know if I could’ve picked a better example of how weird the ’80s was, except for maybe the Plymouth Duster ad. Which makes me think that either all of the ’80s really was sincerely that awful, or it was all satire.

      1. wunno sev Avatar
        wunno sev

        hm. it’s definitely very ’80s, but that Duster ad is a bit more tongue-in-cheek than the Priest video. maybe? or maybe it’s way less tongue-in-cheek!
        it’s easy to think that they had zero self-awareness in the ’80s, but that’s what they’re going to say about skinny jeans and the vinyl revival in 40 years, so i really shouldn’t be throwing stones here.

  4. WinstonSmith84 Avatar

    Hopefully regulation-driven turbos will fade from the market once again and truth and beauty will reemerge into the light.

  5. dmdukejr Avatar

    I bought an ’84 Sunbird convertible circa 2001 for $700. The turbo had failed (twice!), so the previous owner had just removed it. It was… not fast. But man, that was a fantastic car for the summer.

  6. Beef Malone Avatar
    Beef Malone

    For the time, these cars were surprisingly quick and responded well to basic mods. It’s too bad you only see the convertibles left around anymore and no GT coupes.