Several moths ago I purchased a 1976 Pontiac Sunbird with the intention of racing it at the 24 hours of LeMons.
Since then, the (actually strangely minty fresh) Sunbird went through an incredible transformation, thanks mostly to a couple of teammates who turned out to be really good at this sort of thing. Long story short, the car looks freaking incredible. It is perhaps the most obsessively polished turd I’ve ever laid my eyes on.
Photo Credit to my teammate Aaron.
Powering this thing is a 3.8L V6 making not much more than 100 hp......at 3200 RPM. Yup. We are spoiled these days folks. Your S2000 redlines at 9000 rpm? Pshaw. Our Sunbird redlines at 4000 RPM. And makes nearly 100 hp/liter less than the S2K to boot.
So, what was it like to drive? Heaven. Provided you enjoy laughing at the poor thing while you drive it. The Sunbird was an absolute dog in a straight line. In a huge field of what I imagine was 50+ cars, the Sunbird was faster down the main straight than 6 or 7 of them.
The transmission is a dogleg 5-speed unit, so gears 2 through 4 are arranged in an H pattern, while the seldom used 1st gear dagles off the H down and to the left. In theory, this would be the optimum arrangement for a race car with 5 gears, since 5th would be used far more often than 1st. In practice, OMG WHERE ARE ALL THE GEARS WHY IS THE WORLD SO CONFUSING RIGHT NOW? Which pretty much summed up my first hour in the car. Adding to this, was the fact that the gas and the brake were roughly 5280 feet apart, so any thought of heel and toeing was immediately banished. This led to the curious practice of rev-matching my downshifts right before the apex of the corner, hopefully after I was done braking but before I was ready to accelerate.
For my second stint behind the wheel, I resolved to think of it as a 2 speed to simplify things. Up and to the right was high gear (4th) while straight down was low gear (3rd.) Other than the front straightaway, the entire track could be negotiated in just those two gears, even the really tight stuff. Our 4000 RPM redline meant the engine was pulling pretty much just as weakly at the bottom end of the rev range as it was the top. Torques!
Getting a better handle on the transmission allowed me to start exploring the cornering limits of the car. And weirdly enough, the Sunbird genuinely shocked me with how fantastic it was. We had crazy tires on it, so I expected the grip, but what I didn’t expect was the balance and the docility in the way it went around corners. I thought the car would be utterly unwilling to rotate, which I figured might actually be a good thing, with next to zero steering feedback through its overly boosted steering. Instead, I found the Sunbird would happily rotate off-throttle. And by rotate, I mean rooooottttaaaatttteee. Ther’s no “snap” in that car whatsoever, the oversteer happened so gradually, I felt like a had a day and a half do something about it.
Doing something about it, usually meant throwing a vague amount of opposite lock at the steering wheel while mashing the gas pedal, generally all the way to the floor. Equipped with what must have been the worlds most open differential, the Sunbird would then accelerateish, transferring weight to the back while the inside rear tepidly spun at just above road speed, the engine and the differential arguing with each other over who got to inform me that power oversteer was definitely not a thing that was going to happen.
What would happen was 4th gear’s gradual descent into the bottom of the transmission. Things would be going well when suddenly the shifter would fly out of 4th, pinging the revs and ending any acceleration. An argument would then ensue between driver and car which at first would generally end with “4th...Damnit” but by the end of the day began to end with “Ugh...fine...just have 5th instead.”
Despite transmission woes, I found myself enjoying the car more and more as the day went on. The utter impotence of the engine created a weirdly inflated sense of driver skill. I’d take note of how much less I was using my brakes when compared to all the cars around me. Oh sure, you know, some of it was because they were going way faster at the end of the straight. But only like...some of it.
By the end of my last stint, I was grinning like a madman and the grin pretty much hasn’t worn off. I highly recommend participating in a LeMons race with a stupidly slow car, if you can find a way to make it work.
Sorry my phone camera got dust under the stupid lens.
RIP Tim Richmond.
Spatula + Mirror = Safety!