What I Learned Trying To Flip Two Dirt-Cheap GM “J-Body” Coupes That Nobody Wants

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“If you don’t want it then I guess we’re just going to junk it, but mom really doesn’t want to. She loved that car and bought it new,” an old friend told me about her mom’s “busted, old yellow car,” which immediately alerted my auto rescue spidey-sense and had me immediately intrigued. Here’s how my unhinged Autopian thoughts turned at that moment:

-Less than 1% of all cars produced in North America are yellow

-Old cars rule

-O’Doyle rules

-This sounds like it will be cheap to buy

-I can save a car from the scrapper

-I can save a yellow car from the scrapper

-She hasn’t told me what type of car this even is

-I’m already sold

This was the Spring of 2020 and the entire world was just about to close down for a hot minute, and though I didn’t know this at the time, I did know one thing: I love saving old cars from demise (I’m coming up on car #111, saved from certain death), love a challenge, love yellow and would’ve said yes even if I could look into the future.

[Editor’s Note: In case you’ve forgotten, Stephen Walter Gossin is the cool-dude musician from North Carolina who loves to fix up old junkers — really crappy ones, and that’s coming from me — and get them back on the road. He wrote an awesome piece about why the much-maligned Pontiac Grand Am is actually better than you think, and another great one about how he got six years of service from a Dodge Stratus Coupe (actually a cool car!) that he fixed up. -DT). 

My friend didn’t give me much more detail than what was conveyed above, so in my head I started thinking of which models came in yellow around the early Aughts to narrow down what this mystery car might be. A sweet-ass Stratus Coupe? Nope, didn’t come in yellow. A Grand Am? Nope. A Jaguar XK8 (foreshadowing!)? Not even close to yellow, ever. A Civic? Who knows what happens to those cars by the time the 3rd owner gets to them. The mystery was still intact until I arrived at the address I was given.

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The car turned out to be a 2005 Chevy Cavalier Coupe “LS” with a 5 speed manual transmission. Yes, you may remember this car from the first article David and I ever did on Ye Olde German Lighting Site here. Already I was over the moon. Usually when someone offers a car in these types of scenarios it has:

A) the wrong number of doors (4) 

B) the wrong(ish) transmission (auto) and 

C) the wrong color (silver, white, black, grayscale, gold, rust, wallpaper, rattle-can, camo, meh, etc.)

This car, however, did not. It ticked all the boxes for me. Its timing chain tensioner had failed, which caused the interference engine to have an internal conflict (piston, meet valve; valve, meet piston) and was then subsequently parked in a backyard for about six years. The tires went flat and turned into semi-squares, the paint’s clear coat burned off in the Carolina sun, an errant riding lawn mower dented the right quarter panel, the dash plastics cracked, the headliner adhesive heat-failed, and more.

None of that mattered. We’re not here to lament maladies caused by Father Time and poor engineering. We’re here to kick ass, drink lemonade and save some cars. And we’re all out of lemonade…er, uh, something like that.

Scrap value for the car was about $120, but the yard deducted $50 to come pick it up. $70 frickin’ dollars of scrap value – a pittance (it helps if you say it in the Dr. Evil voice). Knowing how quickly costs add up on a rescue like this, I said I’d beat the scrap offer, but not by much. My friend didn’t care – she was just glad it was going to be saved. I made a promise that they’d have first refusal once it was rolling again, handed her $100 for the keys and the title and started down the path to save it with a big smile on my face.

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If only that smiling guy would’ve also had a Delorean Time Machine and 1.21GW of electricity/a flux capacitor/some plutonium so that he could see that the same guy would not have the same smile a few weeks down the road.

J-J-Jay-to-the (Platform)

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A quick background refresher on these cars for the poorly-informed. The GM “J Body/J Platform” came out in 1982 and replaced the H Platform which spawned such notable-yet-beautiful losers as the Monza and Vega. The J Body came in every flavor of body out there (except for shooting brake and pickup): two, three, four, and five doors coupes, convertibles, wagons, sedans and hatches. Plus it had four and six cylinder powerplants and auto and manual transmissions. J-bodies were sold as Opels, Vauxhauls, Pontiacs, Chevys, Oldmobiles, Cadillacs, Buicks, Isuzus, Holdens —  literally every brand under the GM umbrella, except for GMC — and lasted for 24 years. 16 different models were “on the J” up until 2005. The last two standing models on the J, the Cavalier & Sunfire, were made from 94-05 with a refresh happening in 2000. 

There’s enough substance to the under-appreciated (and frankly, over-maligned) J-Body to cover this entire website for a week, so here we’re just going to focus on the final models in the final years of the J in North America: the 3rd generation of the Cavalier and Sunfire. Hell, even just covering these last two nameplates on the J, you can still take a weird detour and end up at the Toyota Cavalier or the 4th and 5th gen Chinese Cavaliers (still being sold!). David had requested some background on these cars, but man, there’s a ton to be said about the “J.”

My busted 2005 “LS” was the last year for the North American Cavalier and the last year for the J Body. The LS model featured the new “Ecotec” (nascent “green” cred through marketing before that was even a thing) motor with 140 hp and 150 lb⋅ft of torque mated to a Getrag F23 5-speed. Honestly, it’s a good pairing. After towing mine back to my place, I immediately started piecing the puzzle together and saw a receipt for a diagnostic charge from Firestone in the glove box indicating that the engine had internal damage and an estimate that was the shop equivalent of the Heisman Trophy (pushing you out the door with a very high integer). I sent a text and confirmed this with my friend: She said her mom was driving the car and it suddenly cut off and that was it. They towed it to Firestone -> Heisman -> here we are.

These engines aren’t that complex, and there’s a ton of room in the engine bay, so popping the head off was almost as easy as the 17 times David has done it on an XJ 4.0 engine, which is world-renowned for never having any engine problems. (Is slightly talkin’ smack to your editor and boss OK? Taking chances here; possibly due to the Stanley Tucci Tuscan Negroni in hand). [Editor’s note: I can’t fire anyone who wrenches on shitboxes. I don’t have it in me. -DT]. 

Wrenching On The J

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I placed the car on ramps and started removing the front cover, exhaust manifold, intake manifold and all the rest, and realized that this wasn’t going to take very long or be very hard – I was breezing through it! This was a key element to this repair, since the yellow car on ramps with its hood up screamed “Heeey HOA!”

I believe the paint color on this car is indeed what caused the brutal, unforgiving, unreasonable gaze of my HOA to be pointed my way, which then caused me to reach out to David for advice, which then caused him to realize that his celebrity influence extended past Torch’s zone-of-residence in NC (all to the way to coast, in Wilmington NC), which ended up bringing me here with a few car stories in hand to you fine folks. Thank goodness for “Rally Yellow” and HOA-peril, I guess?

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Popping the head off was probably the easiest head-repair job that I’ve done. I was actually quite proud of my lukewarm driveway wrenching skills and with how seamless it went. I sent the head to the machine shop, cleaned it up and popped it back on the following weekend. Everything went back on about as easily as it came off, so I prematurely cracked a celebratory beer and went about torquing and fastening up the final bits whilst thinking in a self-congratulatory/wholly unwarranted manner that one day I should write for an auto website about my car rescues. 

Well, Icarus flew too close to the sun out of hubris and melted the wax off of his wings, and S.W. Gossin drank a bit and didn’t notice that he failed to align the last roller-rocker on the head (see photo). After twisting the key with baited anticipation, sheer horror/terror befell me. The sound of the cam thrusting the roller into the side of the head (cracking it) was probably ten times worse than Icarus’ screams as he fell from the heavens to his demise.

“Just walk away” is probably the best advice any wrencher can give another. I put down the beers and hung my head as I closed the hood and started thinking about all the time and agony my dumbassery and half-drunk hubris had cost me.

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Nothing motivates like failure, though. I ripped that cracked head back off the following day even more quickly (since now I knew this engine fairly well at this point) and sent it straight to the metal yard for a sweet $7. Then I hopped over to the local Pick-N-Pull, found a seemingly well-cared-for J, and grabbed its head in about two hours (again surprised with how easy it was).

I paid wicked close attention on the 2nd head install, poured about 3 gallons of fresh gas into the tank, and got the car to fire up without any drama for the first time in six years (see video). It was a great moment that taught me a lot about humility and about not getting ahead of yourself. Especially not half drunk. Was the fact that this rescue required two heads my fault and not the car’s? Absolutely. Could GM have designed those roller rockers to fit on their respective boss/perch a little better? I think so. Am I still a little burnt by this? Perhaps.

Once you complete a rescue like the above, the first thing on your mind is: “How the hell is this thing firing on a 50/50 mixture of fresh and six year old gas?!” The second thing you think about is, let’s take it down the block to see how it drives! 

Well the square tires immediately let me know that this drive wasn’t going to be an enjoyable one and that my dental fillings might not make it back to my house with me. The initial reaction to the engine torque and power was that they were both actually not bad at all, and the trans shift feel was OK as well. Then the GM cost-cutting legacy hangover from the 80’s/90’s that persevered into the mid aughts also reminded me why few out there truly covet these cars. Everything about the interior felt like state-funded high school cafeteria-grade levels of seating comfort, and the ride had more flint than Flint, MI or than a noncrystalline sedimentary rock made up of silicon dioxide (SiO2). [Editor’s Note: I don’t know what “ride has flint” means, but I’m excited for Stephen to enlighten me in the comments. -DT]. The weirdly low beltline made the car seem like it had a huge greenhouse and that you were sitting on it, not in it. Add the rubber-band steering feel, rock-hard plastic everywhere, and the car felt thoroughly depressing. A first drive in a new-to-you car should be exhilarating. This was the opposite.

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It made me actually question why I did two head jobs on it, made two trips to the machine shop, made one to the DMV for the title, paid for a tow, spent a day at Pick-N-Pull, bought two new head gaskets, etc. for such a bummer ride.

Look, I completely subscribe to the Mercedes Streeter Church of Acolytes, and love anything with a motor. But loving these wheels and this motor cost time, effort and money, and yielded nothing of the magic that was found in Mercedes” Smart/bus/VW/etc travails. I just wanted a little magic, that’s all.

This isn’t by any means a put-down of the J-Body or of the Cavalier; they’re fine for what they have always been: cheap transportation. It’s just that this particular car just couldn’t bring the payoff I was hoping for considering all the investment it required.

I ended up spending about $900 to get the car up and running (including the purchase price), and sold it to a very weird dude who was way into Cavaliers for $2,550. Granted this was in the “before times,” and the used car market is much different now. I didn’t do this for money or profit, I did it because I love saving old cars, and love the ecological impact of getting the most miles out of the carbon expenditure that was involved with creating the vehicle. But I had to ask myself: Would I want to go through the whole rescue event again (all the time, effort, mistakes, and ripped up knuckles) for $1,650 in profit? I’m not so sure. Time is the most important factor – there’s only so much of it for each of us, and I’m not certain that this yellow plastic-fantastic was the best usage of mine. 

Here’s the final tally:

-$100 purchase

-$50 head gasket (x2)

-$30 head bolts (x2)

-$25 valve seals

-$25 window motor

-$25 wipers

-$50 junkyard fuel rail to fit 2nd head (they were oddly different)

-$30 spark plugs

-$175 machine shop costs

-$115 title work at DMV

-$75 AC recharge

-$20 new cam bolts (should be replaced when removed)

-$45 Dex Cool, fuel filter, gas etc.

The above begs the question about ensuring that you’re choosing the best candidate for your project and time. Honestly, I’m still conflicted over it. The same feeling David expressed as he walked away from the then-perfected black XJ for the last time after years of toiling over it. As you may have pieced together by now, I’m not the greatest at separating emotion from purchases since…

The Fire of the Sun

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…I found another J-Body in a similar state of disrepair shortly thereafter and started down the exact same path once again. An “Arrival Blue” 2003 Pontiac Sunfire coupe that was listed on the local Wilmington, NC Craigslist for a paltry $600! The thought was that the second time will definitely serve as redemption for all the dumbassery I foisted upon myself with the Cavalier.

This poor car, an automatic, was the quasi-property of a poor woman, who had purchased it as her first car as a teenager. The guy who sold it to her signed the NC title incorrectly and promptly moved out of state to New Mexico. The poor woman was stuck with a Sunfire with a bad title, and by extension, no fire-from-the-sun to share and exhibit on NC roadways. She sadly and reluctantly parked it in a backyard after trying to contact the prior owner without any luck.

And there it sat. And sat.

It sat long enough that the tires went square, the battery died (does this sound familiar? See “Cavalier” above), wasps started nesting in the crevices of the body work, mold, mildew, pollen, the works. Regardless of all of the above, the “Arrival Blue” paint still caught my eye on the ad. I’m a sucker for any non-grayscale tone and blues are awesome. I thought to myself: “Self, how many blue coupes are you going to find (that still surprisingly run!) for under $1K?!” The car was posted for $600, but I was able to grab it (without a valid title) for $400. That’s a straight-up David Tracy-style cheap car superscore. Granted this isn’t a 4×4 in Michigan, but to each their own.

The bad title meant that the first order of business was to bond the title through the state DMV. This is a process that is entirely wrapped up in state government red tape and one that scares most buyers off from purchasing a car with a title issue. I had never bonded a title before, so I figured that it would be a good learning experience to do so. One meeting with a DMV officer with both the woman who sold it to me along with Yours Truly, one vehicle inspection, one notarized affidavit, one $100 bond from my insurance company, one four month wait, and a new title was all mine.

Wrenching On The Sunfire

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Well this certainly didn’t go as planned since the car had sat for so long that the rear brake lines had rusted out. Any stopping would have to be done via e-brake. That meant towing was involved. Once the car was home, there was an internal conflict about whether to run new rear brake lines or just to take it to my usual shop. Doing the brake work on my back, in my driveway, in the winter didn’t sound too fun, and I’d purchased the car for so cheap that I decided to let the shop run the new lines from the master cylinder back to the wheel cylinders. 

This was actually an excellent idea even though it cost twice the amount I paid for the car ($800). 

You can always tell when a repair job is annoying and not fun at all when the shop calls and gives you a higher bill than expected and says “everything was rusted and snapped off/broke/gave us hell!” I like wrenching but I really don’t like drilling and tapping snapped wheel cylinder bolts.

[Editor’s Note: I’m not saying Stephen’s call to go to a shop was the wrong one. This job is rough, but as a veteran Michigan wrencher who has snapped far, far too many brake line fittings into wheel cylinders, I can tell you: The answer is to just buy pre-bent lines and new wheel cylinders. The lines will be a bit pricey at around $200, but the wheel cylinders are affordable enough despite being beautifully anodized. -DT]. 

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Upon picking up the car from the shop, my first drive started off with the expectations I had from my Cavalier experience. That completely changed when the front suspension tried to emulate The War of 1812 and send a very loud BAM(!) into the cabin about 600 yards from the shop. The right strut assembly spring had snapped in half from rust/sitting. At this point my faith in J-Bodies was almost cemented. “Wow, The General definitely doesn’t deserve a salute on this one” say I on the drive home with a busted spring.

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After painting the fading clear coat on the hood, replacing the right strut/spring, fixing a bad AC line (Schrader Valve), replacing the battery, dealing with the bonded title, snagging new wipers (they’re not cheap anymore!), adding fresh oil and gas, and dealing with cleanup, I was more than ready to part ways with it (and thrilled that I didn’t have to do any engine work). There was that same feeling that I had with the Cavalier of just needing more from the car. There was just no magic. 

I posted it for a price that made it the cheapest running, inspected car with AC and no Check Engine light for sale in Wilmington ($2,400) and readied myself to show it. That showing took a hot minute, as I received a very tepid response to the ad (even after FB “boosting” it for $15). 

I realized that a car like this has a very limited market penetration. So many buyers want four-doors; they want crossovers; they prefer a liftback/hatch. If it’s a 2-door then they want speed. This car had none of those things.

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After playing text-tag with a few buyers for a few weeks, I finally sold the car to an aspiring 15 year-old Honduran rapper as his first car (his mother bought it for him). He told me that he was going to write a rap song about the car. As a life-long rock music genre aficionado, I told him to follow his dreams. There was a self-aware moment that had me holding back from impressing my 42 year old musical tastes on a 15 year-old, and telling him that rapping about a Sunfire was a bad idea.

J-to-the…meh?

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So, after saving two J-Bodies, here’s what I have to say: If you really, uncontrollably love them (like the quirky buyer I sold the Cavalier to does), then go for it. If, like me, you think they’re pretty cool but not the greatest out there, have caution. These cars have a $2,500 sales ceiling even in the best market (which is the current used car market) and sometimes the cost to get a ~15-20 year old GM economy car (read: plastic) to a decent condition exceeds that. Especially when you factor in your time. 

Like I’ve said above, I’m not in this for the money, but rather for the love of cars and for the ecological aspect. Many cars (once rehabbed) will have a market value that makes the time you invested in them worthwhile. These cars have a hard, sad value cap. Of course, top examples can get more in certain locales, but let’s be serious here – how many top-shelf Sunfires and Cavaliers do you really have access to in 2022?

Saving cars is a worthy endeavor for any Autopian. Saving coupes, even more so, as they’re slowly going the way of the Spectacled Cormorant. When you cut a couple doors off, there’s a little bit of “extra” baked into the ethos of the vehicle. Saving a fun-colored coupe with a stick (Cavalier) ticks off a good many boxes on The Autopian List of Boxes. “Arrival Blue” is wicked radical.

I’ve rescued about 110+ cars from backyards at this point over the past 20 years and I can’t wait to save the next 110 cars over the next 20 years. If you can get them cheap enough and if you’re also good with a wrench (at least 50% David Tracy Level – yes it’s an actual scale of wrenching ability), then these cars are a fantastic cheap buy for transportation, fun, horse-trading or whatever. If you don’t have the skills, the time, or the love for these excellently-painted and handsome cars, then go get yourself a sweet-ass Dodge Stratus Coupe or a solid-buy Grand Am.  I don’t think too many dirt-cheap GM J-bodies will be around for the next 20 years, but I’ll certainly approach the next one with the battle scars and the hazed-over, glassy-eyed hangover from those last two.

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89 Responses

  1. Call a pig and pig and walk away. No lipstick applied.

    Those J-body cars were/are sad. My last engaged encounter with them was a friend’s late 90s Sunfire. I would have taken my old X-body Chevy Citation over that Sunfire. The car drove like it was constructed with an Erector Set and motor of limited,….everything. That Sunfire started breaking all sorts of stuff at around 15K miles and 2 years. It made it to 63K and 5 years in spite of failing paint, side view mirrors just falling off, missing teeth on the flywheel (replaced at least once), seat frame failures, fuel pump failure, alternator, AC failures and most interior plastic having at least one crack in it. The critical failure was the transmission gears deciding to escape their metal enclosure. That car single handedly has been responsible for my friend having bought nothing but Toyotas for the past 20 years.

    1. That sounds like my step-sisters experience. Her dad leased one for her circa 1999-2000 and while it always started and ran it seemed have consistent minor problems that a under 3 year old car shouldn’t have. It was replaced with a vibe that lived up to Toyotas reputation for reliability.

    2. Some early J-bodies, while still not great, weren’t too bad compared to what was being made at the time. By the late 90s, they were worse than the competition and arguably worse quality.

  2. I worked on loads of those cars back in the day, and leave it to GM to once again find the perfect drivetrain for the car and then cancel it. I don’t recall every engine they came with, but a few of the standouts are:
    1) the Iron Duke 2.5L, which had cam gears that made more noise in dB then the engine had horsepower.
    2) the OHC 2.2L, which was notable for being the least interesting engine GM produced in that era.
    3) and last, but definitely least, the 1.8L SOHC “Brazilian” motor, which featured a cam box sealed to the head using anaerobic sealant, which might have been a first for GM. The sealant only worked if the surfaces were spotless and nearly perfectly flat… guess what they often weren’t? That’s right! Clean OR flat! But at least it had TBI fuel injection… a turkey baster could atomize fuel better than those TBI injectors, so they blessed every car GM used it on (which was a LOT) with terrible drivability.

    And that’s only the four cylinders!

    I can appreciate wanting to keep fixable cars running, especially after the scourge that was Cash for Clunkers obliterated several generations of perfectly fine used cars, but the J-body cars are not anything I had or have any fondness for.

    Regardless, an interesting read.

    1. I made a point of not buying any car made from the 1981 MY until the late 1990s. 1981 saw the first wide use of ECUs. The 80s saw successive generations of ABS, FI, etc. Each was superseded every two or three years or so. You don’t want to buy a used car where the “rebuilt” production base is small. Our newest car for many years was a 1980 Pontiac LeMans with a 229-ci Chevy V6, until we replaced it with our first-ever brand-new car, a 1998 Pontiac Grand Prix GT coupe, with the generally reliable 3800 Series II V-6.

      1. They ran good enough but once the injector got a little dirty, fuel would pool in the intake manifold due to poor atomization, which would cause weird running problems depending on the ambient temps. Luckily for GM, most people didn’t even realize they had a problem because they were used to ignoring drivability issues.

        I’m betting you would notice the poor drivability if you were to drive that car now.

  3. J bodies are a perfect candidate for getting a cheap broken car running for yourself or a needy friend. Not flipping.

    They’re crap cars that just run and run and run. The only thing that really gets them is rust.

    My neighbour scrapped his ’96 two years ago (it was his mother in law’s who stopped driving). It was still running. He got better offers from the scrappers than anyone interested in buying it.

  4. Jaguar XK8 foreshadowing? Pretty green cat hiding in the background of one of the pictures? I’m intrigued.

    I’m also very, very thankful that HOA’s pretty much aren’t a thing in Canada unless it’s a shared development (condo apartment or townhouse basically). We’ve got some asinine bylaws (like work vehicles being theoretically banned from parking in personal driveways overnight, although it’s only enacted because some busybody complains), but nothing on US HOA scale (at least from the horror stories the internet provides).

    I had a ’97 Cavalier as a college beater, a trade-in at the dealer I worked for when I bought it. 5-speed, coupe, sunroof, and I put over 50k kms on it with no issues except an exhaust hanger rusting out. I wouldn’t go looking for one, but it was great transportation. It’s a shame the styling got progressively worse over the 3rd gen’s lifetime, and that they seem to have managed to cheap it out even more (albeit putting the Ecotec in towards the end).

    1. As long as I get the green light from David, Im hoping to regale the denizens of this site with my nearly 3 year battle with that large green cat seen in the background of one of the photos in the article.

      It has certainly been a fight.

  5. Stealing the use of “meh” as a color descriptor. That’s exactly the color of my $500 1995 Corolla.

    As for the J-bodies, my favorite one is the one I first had contact with: the Cadillac Cimarron. The butt of a thousand jokes, but if you think of it not as “the worst Cadillac” but rather as “the best Cavalier,” it becomes a much nicer car.

    1. My fellow car-guy high school friend loathed the Chevy “Cadaverlier,” as he called it, and said that the Cadillac Cimarron was “just a Cadaverlier with power seats.” But yeah, “the nicest Cavalier” does sound different. A Cavalier LTZ, if you will.

  6. When the pandemic started in 2020 my sister who lives on the west coast came to the east coast to stay with my parents. She left her car there so she bought a 2003 Cavalier for $800. Car had 224k miles and a bad heater relay but was otherwise in decent shape for the age and miles. When she went back I got the car for free and have put about 10k miles since. It’s barebones and not even remotely exciting to drive, but it’s surprisingly reliable, has cold A/C and gets better gas mileage than my truck. I did a little research and found that there’s quite a few people with over 300k miles on theirs. And strangely, they do have somewhat of a small cult following

  7. The J bodies were cheap junk, but they were junk with a purpose. Sometimes you need a beater that can fulfill the basic transportation role without requiring much of an investment from you. So you’d buy a Cavalier/Sunfire off Craigslist for $800 and keep it barely alive for a couple of years with junkyard parts and low expectations. That’s where these cars came into their own. They were laughably outclassed by the competition as new cars, but they had just enough of the GM cockroach DNA in them to keep running despite their flaws.

    1. Cockroach DNA. Heh. One of the most unkillable cars I’ve ever known was a friend’s 1994 Chevy Corsica. He had bought it at a fleet auction – it was a former company car for a meat company. He got it with 127,000 miles, and it was sailing well past 300,000 virtually trouble-free miles when I moved out of state. Sure, the dash looked like the floor of Death Valley, and the rear driver’s side window was propped up with a piece of broomstick behind the warped door card, but it got him where he was going drama-free every time. A terrible yet terribly reliable car. The air even still worked.

    2. It seemed like every GM sedan/coupe from that 1995-2005 era was going to have something expensive but unnecessary break by 40,000 miles, but still be running/driving/mostly there at 140K.

      I had a Gran Prix where the volume knob on the CD player didn’t work, the auto-tinting rearview mirror was permanently tinted, and the cover for the DS headlight just literally fell off the car, which necessitated replacing the whole headlight assembly. It was still running fine at 120K when it was the cream filling of a three car oreo.

  8. Having owned a late 80’s J, ’89 Sunbird SE 5speed. My college self loved it, seemed really sporty to me at the time.

    I appreciate your time on this, and you are pretty HOT btw lol

  9. Nice stories. Just up the road from you, I bought a non-running Buick Lucerne in March of 2020 for $400. Got it running, and, well, the head gasket was blown from it having the bejesus heated out of it. Replaced the engine (3800s are cheap, plentiful, and actually sort of small in that engine bay), started about making the car look cosmetically like a Buick with 111k miles should, and sold it for a tidy profit.

    And then I bought a J-body. Not as a fix and flip, but, as a backup trackday car (it has had tons and tons of stuff done to it by the previous, original owner). ’98 Quad4 is a little different than yours, but, neat cars. I do understand everything you say about the drive, except for the exhilarating part – there’s something quite exhilarating about not knowing which part of the car is going to fly off, and, is it going to be a critical part for the car’s turning or stopping. Slowly bringing it back to life, but, other projects just keep getting int he way.

    1. “3800s are cheap, plentiful, and actually sort of small in that engine bay”

      In a G-body engine bay, which can fit a gigantic Northstar, a 3800 looks positively tiny, as if you could reach in and pull it out by cradling it in your arms like a baby. Sure makes for easy access, though.

  10. I did some research. It is definitely better for the planet to recycle a reasonably efficient post-catalyst car than to manufacturer a new one. Their manufacturing carbon footprints are already well amortized so any miles just rack up emissions and the CO2 created is about the same as a new ICE car. Mother Earth commends you.

    Conversely, my rescue puppies, a ’64 Corvair and a ’76 BMW have a pretty quick crossover vs. a modern car with fancy emissions and a catalytic converter so Gaia is not pleased.

    1. Can you help me convince my wife that a new Civic Si is better for the environment than a hybrid anything? I’m not convinced that large, lithium battery packs with yards of circuit boards is really helping the earth.

      If the government would actually regulate industry pollution, I’d feel more motivated to go full electric. That, and my low emission car is negated by 100feet of rolling coal.

    2. The flaw in the logic, however, is the fact that *the new car has already been manufactured* by the time you buy it. Keeping older, savable cars on the road doesn’t actually stop new cars from being built.

    1. Carl Zeiss started a microscope company in 1846 in Jenna. Then lots of stuff happened, including World War Two, the division of East and West Germany and Zeiss into the Stuttgart and Jenna (communist) based companies followed by German reunification, and oh hell just read about it here https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jenoptik

      After the reunification of Zeiss, all the leftover commie bits of the business were labeled as Jen(na)optic.

      It sounds similar to the site that must not be named that many of the principles on this site used to work at.

      Not really a lightning company but “integrated photonics group that divides its activities into three photonics-based divisions Light & Optics, Light & Production and Light & Safety.” kills the joke.

      Got it now?

  11. I had a friend from high school with the same yellow Cav. She loved those things. Her car before that was a blue Cav manual with no tach. She picked up the yellow manual after and I think ended up with a silver auto after that.

    I was friends with a guy in college who had a burnt orange Sunfire. Im pretty sure he just had it because as you point out, it was cheap transportation.

  12. I have been the bashfully proud owner of a J-body (a 2003 base coupe in silver) for the last five years. I bought the car in college to save gas–100 miles a day on a 4×4 truck is unsustainable–and ended up keeping it because its been a great little car. It definitely lacks any modern gizmos, but it has a stick shift, A/C, and a radio, and gets 34 mpg. Even with the onset of Covid and WFH, I haven’t been able to bring myself to get rid of the little car; its paid for, reliable, and some day I might need it again.

    All that said, a j-body wouldn’t be my first choice of car if i ever needed to replace it; rust is a definite issue here in the midwest, and the build quality of these cars is on par with a cut-rate sandwich. (Seriously, I think a cozi-coupe has better fit and finish). But for basic, cheap transportation, its hard to beat an old GM J-body.

  13. I owned a Chevy Cavalier in the coupe. Silver, sadly. Of the cars I have owned, it would be the last one the list to own again, for the reasons you listed. It doesn’t have the utility or the speed or the fun. My Chevy Citation had four doors and a liftback (and a V6, but it was not quick, either). My Explorer was so much more useful. The four-door Focus was more fun AND more practical. The Civic was more fun and practical despite a CVT. The Niro is more efficient and more practical. And pickups are a whole other class and very practical.

    All that said, I do like the idea of saving a yellow car.

  14. Great write-up once again – you nail the Aristotelian mean between nuts n bolts and big-picture.

    Back in the day, I had enough for a J-body but decided to spring for an L (a Beretta) instead. I liked her, we moved cross country twice, we won a regional autocross trophy together…but not enough to keep/invest long-term resources in it b/c likewise, I didn’t see her having a lasting future. I rarely see any on the road anymore (though I see even fewer Corsicas, so that says something I guess).

    And please make it your goal to always ensure the Stratus appears somewhere, visual or otherwise, in your posts!

      1. I had a Beretta GT (Hah, “GT”) with the V6 and 5-speed in high school/college. It was a surprisingly decent car to drive from Denver to LA, even towing a small trailer. I could get 30-35 MPG out of that on the highway. I always kinda wanted one of the GTZ cars with the sawblade wheels and ground effects and graphics. One of the rich kids at church’s parents bought him one, and I was always kinda jealous. I have an irrational soft spot for those, even knowing they were terribly built cars that weren’t fast and didn’t handle well.

  15. I suspect that the front spring on the blue car failed because the upper bearing failed. This causes the spring to metal fatigue when the wheel is turned. Ford Taurii were notorious for this happening. Ford’s recall fix was to put to guard in place to prevent the broken spring from puncturing the tire.

      1. Or the more recent example where the Maverick engine might blow up, but instead of fixing the engine they just punched holes in the underbody shields so the flammable fluids wouldn’t pool up and start on fire. Or at least that’s what I assume they did based on the recall wording.

  16. The early 2000’s Sunfire seemed to be the default car that a parent would buy new for their kid who just got their license.
    Me and my siblings had a little more style. My sister and I both drove 89 Chevy Caprice wagons. Mine was brown/woodgrain and hers was green/woodgrain. THe Chev’s were followed up with a Ford Country Squire and then a Nissan altima for our younger siblings.

  17. “I did it because I love saving old cars, and love the ecological impact of getting the most miles out of the carbon expenditure that was involved with creating the vehicle.”

    I love this. I really hate how the auto industry convinced us cars are disposable. I daily drive a Renault 4 and stuff does break every now and then, but everything seems designed to be easily fixed (currently in the process of swapping the old ignition cylinder with a new one). But I remember a time when these cars were so undesirable, you could buy one for a song. My father bought his 3rd Renault 4 (a 1983 he bought in 1998) for the equivalent of $50, adjusted to inflation. I know people who gave theirs away to whoever would bother taking them. So many of them ended up in junkyards because of minor issues, or without any issues at all other than the fact that they were taking up space.

    Automakers have been getting away with convincing us cars are disposable for decades because it’s way more profitable, carbon footprint be damned. Right now they should be working on making electric conversion kits for old ICEs that are affordable and easy to install. The only reason this specific part of the electric transition has been sidelined is that it undercuts the industry’s bottomline of building and selling more new cars (something that’s completely at odds with the need to curb emissions and cut back on resource extraction and energy consumption). I find it infuriating that there’s no global push for regulation in this field.

    1. If they’ll let me, I’ll have some “Empire Strikes Back”-type of endings in upcoming pieces, since (as Boris Johnson says) “thems the breaks” with rehabbing shitbox cars.

      Even the unfortunate endings are good learning experiences though, so not all is lost.

      Thanks for reading and for the kind words – cheers!

  18. I still miss the hell out of my ’98 Cavalier. My wife bought it in 2012 for $800 with 214k miles, I took ownership of it in 2014, and by the time it fought a fire hydrant in a torrential downpour in the dark in 2017, it had 258k miles and still ran absolutely great.

    Rust was definitely starting to have its way with the car, moreso than when we bought it, so I’m not sure it would have protected us like it did a year or so later.

    Is my ’17 Volt I bought to replace it a better car? In every single sense of the word – and it’s cheaper to drive (cost of purchase aside). But there was just…something…about the Racecav that was the best. Mostly because you didn’t have to give a shit, and with a car like that – you always had right of way.

    And, with a set of General Altimax Arctics on it, it was an absolute BEAST in winter. Legitimately unstoppable.

    1. I agree with you. I had a ’97 Z-24. My first car. I had Goodyear winter tires on it in the winter time, it was hands down the best car I ever drove in the snow. I currently have an AWD Equinox, and I previously had a Subaru and a Jeep among others, and that Cavalier was just better.

  19. Oh man, the J-Body. Back in ‘01 my then girlfriend needed a car for commuting to her first post-college job. I went with her and we looked at Civics, Focuses (Focii?), Corollas, and lightly used Integras and got taken as seriously as a couple of 22 year old car shoppers are. Unbeknownst to us, her father had gotten a deal on a new Cavalier (I believe the sales price was in the four figures) and basically presented it to her and said pay GMAC $250 every month.

    Folks, these cars were just as bad new as they are now. After having looked at the competition, I was astounded that GM had the balls to put this thing on the market. Loud, thrashy, gutless engine. Hard Play-Skool grade plastics with sharp edges everywhere. Seats that felt like a stack of kitchen sponges on a metal platform.

    The front tires made noise during low speed parking lot maneuvers. They screamed in agony coming down the hills on a trip to western North Carolina. On top of all of this was a piss-poor safety rating even by early aughts standards.

    Stephen should have sent these to the scrapyard, only because I don’t know if he has the powers necessary to do what was needed, which would have been to condemn them to Hell.

  20. Loved this. I think next is a smallish turbo kit and you can learn some more.

    One ebay exhaust manifold for likely under $150 and you are ready to bolt up a turbo. If you keep boost low around 6-12ish and put 93 in it, I’d bet you find it’s more fun than you thought.

    I did something similar when I fabricated a massive HY35 turbo off a 6 liter Cummins onto my built 1.9 ALH TDI.

    Stock was around 90hp and being a diesel there is no knock to worry about and no recirc/bov needed as there is no throttle, no sensors other than MAP and no exacting AFR requirements that require retuning. I rebuilt the injection pump with larger head/plunger and got that puppy up to 330ish whp and still got 50mpg. Started towing a double-wide 16ft ATV trailor and even off boost it has torque for days at 20:1 compression.

    I say you only are getting started. Turbo the manual trans and use a 5th injector under boost to keep AFRs in check before you tune it. 🙂

  21. Not going to lie I was half expecting these cars to become hobby stocks. Its where a lot of these cars end up. I did something similar to this with an 03 Cavalier in 2008. Got it with 67k about to go to the junkyard, had it for 9 years before the PA/MI winters got to it. Did a similar thing to a Prius a few years later with 285k. Went all around and got it as my daily driver. My goal is to take it up MT Washington in the next year or two.

  22. Oh man, the first car I ever bought with my own money was a blue ’05 Sunfire. I can’t say I miss manual locks or the driver side lock cylinder that would freeze in the winter, forcing me to open the passenger side and reach over to unlock the driver door, but at the time I needed cheap, reliable transportation and it was exactly that. It was also a manual, so immediately 100x cooler than this one. 😉

    Now I’m vaguely tempted to find one of these for triple digits and fix it back up…

  23. “I’m not in this for the money, but rather for the love of cars and for the ecological aspect.”

    Thank you for what you do! Back in the late 1980s, a friend of mine said his mom wanted his rusty ‘76 Camaro (305-2bbl, three speed stick floor shift) out of her garage where it had been sitting for the last six years. He gladly sold it to me for $1 (I needed to pay $0.07 sales tax in Ohio to get a new title). The rear drum brakes were rusted hard non-rotating, despite my hammer and chisel work. I had to have it towed home but with a new battery the car fired right up with the old gas in the tank. I drove it for another year or two and sold it running well to the next owner.

    Thank you also for not wearing the all-too-common backwards baseball cap in your video. Kids these days!

  24. I thought of you the other day when I saw the ad for a Sebring convertible on Craigs for 600 bucks. Looks great, bad trans…been there for a long time. But asked myself is this even worth the bucks/effort to get it rolling again? Great story btw.

  25. After reading this article, one thing comes to mind: It must be absolutely hellish to work on cars in places that salt the roads, I don’t think I’ve ever seen rusted-through brake lines and I’ve been a mechanic for 35 years…in California. The traffic sucks and the housing prices are insane, but old cars hold up pretty well except for the sun eating the clearcoat.

    1. I’ll raise you a 84 Buick Century in Montreal in 9 years of life:

      Rusted out every brake lines (some twice).

      Rusted through fuel line

      Rusted out fuel tank

      Seized due to rust parking brake.

      Multiple mufflers.

      The catalytic converter (the straight pipe that replaced it never rusted)

      The obligatory rocker panels and door bottoms.

      Rear fenders

      Rusted out rear axle suspension points on the body (that was the death blow) while bringing it to the garage for a rusted out brake line.

      Seeping oil pan due to rust (noticed at the time of death)

    2. Im originally from Utica, NY. The sea-salt spray here in coastal NC (Wilmington) isn’t the best for steel, but it’s nothing compared to what those true heroes up North have to deal with.

      Most cars don’t make it past their 13th winter without perforations up there.

  26. My best friend drove a red 2004 Sunfire two-door in high school and for a couple years after. Called it Prudence. Lots of fond memories driving the back roads for hours with her in that little car, to get away from everything. Even got to practice breaking and entering when she locked her keys in one day. Thank goodness for a slightly broken sunroof. I only drove it once, although I drove a J-body Saturn (I think it was anyway) on multiple occasions. The driving experience can be summed up as: it was a car. Nothing more, nothing less. But whenever I think of fond memories about cars, that Sunfire always comes to mind, and I always smile if I see one driving around.

  27. I’m beginning to believe everyone here has the same problem.

    I know I do. I’m only in the 40s-50s in terms of cars, but I’ve now put 6 Escape Hybrids back on the road!

    Rather than, you know, deal with this problem, I’m thinking The Autopian needs to spearhead a 501(c)(3) entitled “The House for Wayward Cars” and allow branches be run out of everyone’s houses so we can do what we do best, but with some sort of preferential tax status. We’re not looking for profit; we just want cars back on the road.

    I’m going to go work on my rookie numbers now. Happy wrenching.

  28. My experience with J cars was mostly the 80s sort and involved girlfriends. The first was late 84 in a nearly new whatever the Oldsmobile J was and measured against our 74 Volvo and 77 Accord it was found wanting. Neither as eager as the Honda nor a solid as the Volvo. The second was my future wife’s 88 that was an ex fleet car and noteworthy for not having a heated rear window and for launching a spark plug..Compared to my 84 Jetta it was shite so we sold it and bought a Ford Ranger S, I’m still sure which freaked out her parents more, the truck or the engagement ring. The last was a friend’s beat up stripper Sunbird that he drove for probably 10 years. It was a black coupe, manual and no AC, so hot in the summer. He got a good bonus one year and bought a Subaru Forester manual which was far more appropriate for his hobby of hiking and trail building. So the US J car represents a second tier better than no car option but I’d still like to try an Opel Ascona

    1. Oldsmobile Firenza! Their inspiring slogan at the time was “we’ve had one built for you.”
      My dad was an Opel Man; he had one Ascona A, two Ascona B, and two Ascona C. The C was the J-car, but we had the five-door liftbacks. The last one had a 115hp 2-liter engine, which was ample for the much lighter Euro-spec car and it was built with much more care.
      But the first three cars were much cooler – RWD with Opel’s gutsy 1.9-liter CIH engine.

  29. I had a rusty ’86 Toyota “1 Ton” truck that I used for work and was told to get a company car for myself as the truck gave a bad image. Oh and it had to be cheap as I could find and new.

    So the cheapest I could find in June 2002 with rebates and stuff was a base silver 2002 Cavalier coupe with 2.2 l ohv 4 and 5 speed, crank windows, no tach, no A/C.

    After 3 years I bought it from the company depreciated cheap and got another eight years out of it.
    Over that total time I replaced some suspension pieces, the full exhaust (advertised as stainless meant just the pipe), the water pump (GM 5 year silicate coolant crap), front brakes, a power steering hose, 1 set of belts, a battery and a few sets of tires.

    I put over 200,000 km on it, rust killed it, while it still looked OK from distance it had areas of knife contoured urethane foam dressed with rattle can silver. I felt safe enough in it, but I couldn’t use it for occasional family hauling with a clear conscience, so I donated it to charity and I got a surprising $600 tax receipt in the mail.

    All in all it was a good reliable automotive appliance and dependable third car, but I don’t miss it.

    1. Jack, if only I could post pictures here in this response.
      I’ll start lobbying David for the greenlight on an article on that car – it’s a fun and frustrating tale.

      Check out the linked German lighting article for introductory info on that car until then and thanks a ton for reading and for the comments!

      Like your style, my man!

      1. So they DO still exist in the wild! This is amazing…can’t wait to hear her story!

        On the weekends, sometimes I ride my motorcycle way out of the city, to the areas with the beautiful huge houses and the backroad twisties. Little traffic, no cops, and as long as you’re not being an idiot, no problems.

        In between the various sets of hairpins and sweepers, there’s time to just cruise and observe, and there’s one house that I always remember – in the distance, at the top of its long drive sits…a Chrysler Maserati TC.

        This is an area filled with a zillion Teslas, lots of high-end European, and a few Navigators/Escalades, all current model. So I just know there’s a real story about why someone who lives in a neighborhood like this would feel compelled to hang on to perhaps objectively the worst 1980s car buying decision possible. I’m sure it’s utterly glorious.

        (and yeah, I’m sure it’s a TC…has that unmistakable opera-window-ed hardtop)

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  31. A flinty ride (or a ride with flint in it) is a ride with a harsh, yet brittle feeling. Like, the car has stiff springs, but it also feels like it’s going to break as it hits and bounces off a bump instead of sticking to the pavement.

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