What is it?

1980 Pontiac Phoenix was one of GM’s infamous X-cars

Last week, we showed you a roof and an open hatch and asked you to identify the car. The 1980 Pontiac Phoenix was among the first year of General Motors’ now-infamous front-drive X-car compacts.


You might recall that other front-wheel-drive sedans, coupes and hatchbacks in that group were the Chevrolet Citation, Buick Skylark and Oldsmobile Omega. Our teaser had that hatch, so it couldn’t be a Buick or Olds, which were only sedans and coupes.

You will see that the top of the fender back to the taillight is a straight line. The Citation’s fender curved upward. By deduction, dear Watson, the only possible answer is the Pontiac.

Moreover, Pontiac and Buick had rounded wheel openings, but Chevy and Olds squared them off. There might be other ways to tell them apart, but those are enough.

“Getting back to the Phoenix, our clue last week was meant to keep you from confusing the X-cars in your head: “Consider that this car was raised from the ashes by converting it from rear-wheel drive to front-wheel drive midway through its life.”

Pontiac debuted the Phoenix in 1977 as a rear-driver. It lasted through 1979 before being moved onto GM’s front-drive platform. As for being “raised from the ashes,” remember that in Old World legend, the phoenix was a mystic bird that lived for hundreds of years before collapsing in flames and rising, renewed, from its own ashes. Not exactly a smart name for a family hauler, but then, Pontiac had almost called its Firebird the Banshee (a spirit foretelling death).

We had to trim entries to get everyone on the page, but everything is intact on our online What Is It? Chosen from the correct entries was the name of Paul Wilke, of Mare Island, Calif., who wrote:

“Today’s photo is a four-door Pontiac Phoenix from either 1980 or 1981. While the car in the photo is the exact color of my first car, a 1980 Pontiac Phoenix, I didn’t have the hatchback that your photo reveals. I had the two-door, nonhatch version, which I was grateful for, because that hatch version might be one of the uglier cars to come out of the GM stable at that time.

“I paid $1,100 for my Phoenix in 1986, which my dad matched what I could afford from my meager earnings from working at Burger King in high school. Tolerating having you and your clothes smell like Whoppers and grease was worth it to have my first car.

“And I loved that car despite its clunky transmission, ratty cloth seats and a dashboard that didn’t really give you much detail. (It’s the only car I’ve ever had that I needed a proper temperature gauge for. Instead, I suffered many an overheated afternoon with only the red glow of a dummy light to guide me to the side of the road until Dad, in his much more reliable 1985 Audi 100, could come pick me up or provide me with a jug of Prestone.)

“The ‘Phabulous Phoe- nix,’ as we called it, was my primer in all things car maintenance, with my dad teaching me the basics of changing oil, installing shocks and – a must for me at the time – upgrading the car stereo system. Its one major flaw on the maintenance front was an unfortunately placed oil filter that was damn near impossible to get to from under the car; you practically had to take the front right wheel off to get to it.”

We thank Paul for his entry. Other readers identifying the vehicle were:

AUGUSTA: James Wall cited the similar 1984 Chevrolet Citation as a possibility and said the Dodge Charger front-drive coupe of that era looked similar. He settled on a 1983-84 Plymouth Horizon.

Gary Engen said: “It’s a 1980 Pontiac Phoenix LJ five-door hatchback. The rear-drive Phoenix was introduced in 1977 as a two-door coupe or hatchback. Then the second-generation Phoenix came out in 1980, slightly downsized and changed to front-drive two-door coupe or a five-door hatchback. Sales were weaker than expected, and after a history of quality and drive issues the model was discontinued after 1984.

“In the 1982 time-frame I had a co-worker who purchased a front-drive 1980 or 1981 Phoenix. It wasn’t a bad-looking car and had a cool four-speed manual transmission and nearly as much room in the back as my Oldsmobile station wagon. He had problems, though, from the start and commented about a stalled engine, electrical problems, a leaking sunroof and frequent trips to a mechanic for repairs. It’s no wonder the Pontiac Phoenix can be found on lists of the worst cars of the 1980s.”

Tony Brunson said: “This week’s What Is It? is the second-generation of the Pontiac Phoenix. This is the five-door hatchback. The first generation was a rear-drive. This is the front-wheel version of it. Not exactly one of GM’s finest rides, in my opinion.

“Good one last week (1955 Packard Clipper). I did not know or find it. Thanks for the challenge. Could not wait until Friday to know.”

Barry B. Dickson said: “The clue was a dead giveaway; the car is a Pontiac Phoenix. It’s clearly a second-generation (compact, front-wheel drive), made from 1980 to 1984. I’m not sure which of those years it is. What appears to be the exact same photo that appeared in the paper popped up in my Google searches labeled 1980, 1981 and 1979. Can’t be 1979, and I’m guessing 1981.

“As far as having any memories about these cars, I have to say that this whole class of cars (X- and K-cars) was of little interest to me back in the early ’80s. In those days, it mattered to me that I had a positive relationship with the vehicles I chose to own and drive. These cars were designed for folks who did not care about that. Lots of cars have ‘personality.’ Some just plain don’t.”

Paul Gonzalez had some precise memories: “I never rode in a Phoenix, but a friend of mine whom I carpooled with had a Chevrolet Citation, which was basically the same thing. The one thing I remember about it was the fact that the manual window cranks operated the opposite of what all other cars did. You had to go clockwise to roll the windows down, and counterclockwise to roll them up. It was irritating to have to stop and think about which way to crank the handle to open or close the windows.

“Also, the back door windows were fixed. They didn’t open at all!”

Victor Loftiss wrote: “The car is a second-generation Pontiac Phoenix, from when it was front-wheel drive. I was living and working in Columbus, Ga., in 1984 when a co-worker and I had to drive to another town for a training seminar. We took his front-drive Phoenix and he complained about the car the entire way.

“The Phoenix was the only thing left to him from his divorce, and since he was complaining so bitterly, I couldn’t help but point out to him that if he hadn’t run around on his wife, he wouldn’t be driving a Phoenix, nor would he be living in a crummy studio apartment in the funky part of town; he didn’t appreciate my impersonation of Captain Obvious.”

CANTON, Ga.: David Anderson said: “If not for this week’s clue, I would probably have responded with Chevy Citation. The Phoenix, of course, is the mythological bird that can rebirth itself from its own ashes over and over, emerging just as strong, or stronger each time. Unfortunately, the Pontiac Phoenix was reborn only once, in 1980, and then died a very ignoble death only four years later in 1984 and has never been seen again.

“The Pontiac Phoenix, Buick Skylark and Olds-mobile Omega were all originally ‘born’ in 1977 as GM corporate rebadged Chevy Novas. Each model had its own unique front and rear treatments along with interior modifications so that the 80 percent corporate content was masked with 20 percent brand content.

“Even Cadillac was in on this Nova-sharing experience with the first-generation 1976-79 Seville but the only shared component there was the basic chassis platform – more than reversing that 80/20 content model.”

EVANS: Bill Harding sent in a photo he found on which the car’s name had been misspelled “Pheonix,” which he called just one of the car’s defects: “What we have here is a serious misspelling of the word ‘Phoenix.’ No one is perfect, though, so mistakes do get made. Since the subject of perfection has been broached, the Phoenix, along with its X-body siblings, “The most serious defect concerned the braking systems, which were engineered with the same rear-wheel braking percentages that GM used on its rear-wheel-drive cars. The result was an alarming tendency for the front-drive autos to swap ends under moderate-to-heavy braking on slick roads. These defects were in all of GM’s X-body cars. It took GM three years to acknowledge and fix the problem.

“I once owned a 1980 Phoenix that had a four-cylinder ‘Iron Duke’ engine with a four-speed stickshift. On a rainy April afternoon, I was driving in Chicago on Interstate 94. The car in front of me was cut off by an inconsiderate motorist who just had to get into our lane. I had to brake to avoid rear-ending the guy in front of me. When I did, my car did close to a 90-degree spin. Luckily, no collision occurred, but I did have to shower and change clothes afterward.

“Later that week, I received a recall notice, telling me to bring my Phoenix to my dealer to have the braking system ‘serviced.’ The service included re-proportioning the front/rear braking bias, plus they replaced the front calipers and rotors and the rear drums and shoes. This fixed the car’s braking, and not just on wet roads. The dry-road braking was noticeably better, too.

“My Phoenix was a very reliable vehicle, and that 2.5-liter four got great gas mileage.”

Jeff Keevil said: “The 1980-1984 Pontiac Phoenix and all the other GM X-body cars are something I’d like to forget.”

Larry Heath said: “This was the introduction of GM’s first mass-produced front-wheel-drive cars. There were similar models introduced by Chevy, Olds, and Buick. The cars were available with four-cylinder or V-6 engines with either a four-speed stick or three-speed automatic. The only styles initially available were as a two-door sedan or a five-door liftback. These cars were not real popular and had a reputation for not being reliable. The boomer generation had been accustomed to rear-wheel-drive autos, and it took time for the front-drive concept to gain more acceptance.”

Paul Perdue said: “This week’s car is a 1981 Pontiac Phoenix hatchback. Thanks for the ‘raised from the ashes’ clue that pointed me to the Phoenix.

I didn’t have one but I did have a 1980 Pontiac Sunbird hatchback. I had a lot of rental property back then and the hatchback was great for carrying tools and supplies. I drove it for 11 years and they gave me $300 when I traded it in for a 1991 Chevy Blazer.”

Wayne Wilke identified the car correctly and wrote: “The Pontiac Phoenix was one of the infamous X-cars along with the Chevy Citation, Olds Omega and Buick Skylark.

All were GM’s first front-wheel-drive medium-size cars that debuted in 1980. All had the same chassis, engines (four or six cylinders), transmissions and accessories. Sheet metal, chrome and doodads varied a little.

“I bought a new four-cylinder, two-door Skylark in June 1980. I had been accustomed to Pontiac big V-8s (1972 Catalina and ‘76 Grand Prix) and the Buick’s small four-banger was a huge disappointment. Also, the Skylark’s brakes and cooling system could be best described as ‘hinky.’

”The car’s only good points were that the alloy wheels were really good-looking and the front-wheel-drive was very good in the ice and snow (I was north of the Mason-Dixon Line). A mistake that I made in addition to buying an X-car was that I ordered it with an eight-track sound system.Fortunately, I had to sell the Skylark in early 1982 with only 12,000 miles on it, for I was transferred to Germany. Company policy was that personal cars were to be sold at the time of the transfer and Blue Book value was guaranteed. Yup, I landed square in the ‘briar patch’ and replaced the Skylark with a Mercedes.

GROVETOWN: Byron Ray Wren said it was the sibling Chevy Citation, having had a neighbor in Grovetown who drove the Chevy. That car was made from 1980-85, he added.

Jeff Lovejoy said: “The car is a 1981 Pontiac Phoenix hatchback. I knew right off what this one was because my father had the four-door sedan version and would always comment about how ugly the hatchback version was and how glad he was that didn’t get that model. Well, Dad, no offense, but looking back the Phoenix model that year, they were all ugly!”

Ruth and Jimmy Sapp said: “You stumped us the last two weeks, but we are pretty sure the car this week is a 1981 Pontiac Phoenix. We enjoy your contest!”

JOHNSTON, S.C.: Lee Williams said: “My first reaction to the photo was the Chevy Citation. But I knew the Citation was never rear-drive because of the ads showing the car hauling a boat trailer with no rear wheels. You had me stumped for a few days until halfway home from work I made sense of the clue: rising from ashes.”

KEYSVILLE, Ga.: Glenn Widner said: “This week,s car is a 1981 Phoenix four-door hatchback. Most of them came with GM’s ‘Iron Duke’ four-cylinder. The Phoenix started out with a rear-wheel drive in 1977, but were front-wheel drive starting in 1980. GM and Ford were frantically trying to match Toyota and Nissan/Datsun for durability, but they didn’t this type effort. “

MILLEN, Ga.: David Thompson thought it looked like a 1981 Datsun Maxima five-door hatchback.

PERRY, Fla.: Larry Anderson said the clue about the ashes tipped him off that it was a 1981 Phoenix.


Can you identify the make and model of this car? If you’re drawing a blank, you might saunter downtown to a fancy opera house with a cocktail in your hand.

You can enter through our online form at chronicle.augusta.com/whatisit. Or, you can email glynn.moore@augustachronicle.com. If your email fails you, leave a message at (706) 823-3419.

Before Wednesday, tell us your name, city and any personal stories you have about a car like this. If you call, please spell your name and leave your number. Please don’t lift information verbatim from other sources, because we want your accounts.

Entries might be edited for space and content, and they will be printed Friday.

– Glynn Moore,

staff writer