Look at the swell little wagon in the photo above. Wood grain, a four-speed manual transmission, an efficient-ish four-cylinder engine sending power to the rear wheels — it’s a nice car that you probably don’t know about: The Pontiac Astre. Here’s what you need to know about it. And yes, I did mean to say “need.”
I’m sure you’ve all been waiting for this article for months, possibly years. You are consumed by your dearth of knowledge about the Pontiac Astre — a car built in the 1970s, never known by 99 per cent of the population, and forgotten by 99 per cent of the 1 per cent who did know it at one point in time. In other words, it’s only Bernie Sanders’ biggest enemies — the one per cent of the one per cent — who still have the Pontiac Astre in their hearts. But I’m here to fix that inequity through enlightenment.
I’ll begin by pointing out that there was a two-door panel “van” version. This seems like an important thing to get out right away, because look at how awesome this is:
It came standard with a single seat only. Pontiac discusses this amazing cargo-hauling machine in a Canadian-market brochure from 1974, writing:
Our little van has just one seat and there are two compartments hidden beneath the load floor. The driver’s sate is full-foam, and comfortable all day long. And if your business calls for two-people travel from time to time, just order a second seat up front (extra-cost option).
OK, I should probably take a step back back, here. (The panel van had me a bit excited). The Pontiac Astra is basically just a Pontiac version of a Chevrolet Vega, a car beloved by most until it revealed a propensity to fall apart in the silliest of ways, as former Jalopnik writer Murilee Martin wrote back in 2010 in his story What If The Chevy Vega Had Been A Good Car?. Here’s a caption from the piece:
…the Vega stood apart as the quintessential pile-o-shit car. All of them suffered from the “100-year-old man syndrome,” in which the act of attempting to repair one problem causes five new problems, and the same stuff would break over and over again. An entire generation of GM customers defected to Japanese marques as a result of the Vega’s suckiness.
‘But it didn’t have to be that way! On paper, the Vega design looked like a huge jump into the future for The General: aluminium-block OHC engine, rack-and-pinion rope-and-centre-pivot steering, lightweight unibody construction, the works. On top of all that, it looked much better than most of the cars coming across the Pacific. Sure, it had a solid rear axle, but so did most of the competition. The problem was that GM rushed the Vega into production before the engineers were done with it, Fourteenth Floor politics and general organizational dysfunction led to confusion and labour strife, and many of the futuristic features and techniques planned for the Vega resulted in disaster. Baffles in the engine’s water jacket oil pan were supposed to make nose-down train shipping of new cars possible but resulted in overheating problems. Full-immersion rustproofing didn’t work. The finished car was hundreds of pounds heavier than initially planned.
So now we’ve established that this Pontiac Astre is just a rebadged version of “the quintessential pile-o-shit car,” which is probably why nobody knows or remembers this machine, and likely why you’re tempted to click the “back” button on your browser. But stick with me here, because though it’s a crap-can, the Pontiac Astre is worth reserving a small space in your memory bank for, because it’s actually pretty damn cool despite its crappy “H-body” genes.
The Astre, available in Canada starting in 1973 and 1974, and in the U.S. the following model year until 1977, was available in quite a few body styles including hatchback, Coupe, Safari (i.e. Wagon), and Panel Delivery. Under the hood was an aluminium 2.3-litre “Dura-Built” overhead cam four-pot mated to a standard three-speed floor-mounted stick, though a four-speed manual and a three-speed auto were also available.
Starting in 1976, you could even get a five-speed, and in 1977, the three-speed option went away, and a new engine option became available for the first time in auto history: The Iron Duke.
It was a cast iron motor that became ubiquitous in the GM lineup, and would eventually be known primarily known for its lack of power, though it did develop a decent reputation for longevity. Depending upon your view of the Iron Duke, you might say one of the darkest periods in GM’s history all started under the hood of the 1977 Pontiac Astre.
The 2.3-litre engine made anywhere from 75 to 85 horsepower and right around 54 kg-ft of torque. The Iron duke brought power up to 90-ish ponies and torque closer to 130 lb-ft. That’s not exactly a lot of grunt, but the curb weight was only around 1,134 kg, so that output should have been fine.
Both engines could be had with GM’s then-relatively-new High Energy Ignition System, and both had two-barrel carburetors bolted to their intake manifolds, though early 2.3-litres offered single-barrels.
Even though there wasn’t a truly “quick” Astre, Pontiac did offer some cool buzz models, including the Astre Formula and Astre “Li’l Wide Track.” The photos above show the former, while the latter is down below. The graphics on both models look awesome.
Brakes were discs up front, drums out back, and suspension was a double A-arm at the nose and solid axle at the tail, with coils at each corner. This is all fairly basic, but then again, this obscure car was an econobox.
One could option up an Astre to be quite a nice(ish) vehicle. You could get woodgrain on the exterior panels and interior trim, power steering, a tilt steering wheel, air conditioning, a window defogger, thick cut-pile carpeting, various seat fabrics in different colours, and a limited slip differential.
In 1978, the Pontiac Astre bowed out, though the wagon was just renamed the Sunbird.
Here’s a 1976 Astre:
Here’s the 1978 Sunbird. It looks like the same car, because it is the same car:
Gosh that two-door wagon is handsome, even if the vehicle may have been a total shitbox.
Anyway, as I write this I’m realising that maybe this is a ridiculously forgettable car, though a two-door, rear-wheel drive, manual transmission wagon with woodgrain body panels is still cool even if it does crap out far more often than it should.
This article was originally published in June 2020.