A good friend recently told me of a 1978 Pontiac Phoenix he spotted for sale near our Bennington, Vermont, office with an asking price of just $2,200. It was a four-door sedan that boasted just 40,000 miles managed by a then-optional 305-cu.in. V-8 and automatic transmission power team. Inside was a standard interior fitted with a vinyl bench seat, along with what was reported to be factory air conditioning. While the cabin looked surprisingly clean, the exterior exhibited “nice patina,” which was to say faded blue paint complemented by ample surface rust on horizontal panels. The Pontiac had not run in some time, either, as it had just been pulled from storage.
Not that its mechanical health would have been a great concern to fellow Hemmings editor Dave Conwill or me. The 305 was a veteran V-8 in GM’s lineup by the time this late-decade replacement was introduced to take over for the Ventura as Pontiac’s X-body. Even up here in northern New England, any parts that would have been required to revive all eight cylinders wouldn’t have been difficult to locate or costly to source.
Sure, it may not have looked as stunning as it once did, but at just $2,200, the thought was, “How could you go wrong?” Both of us have teens who will be license-eligible very soon, so we’re on the lookout for cheap wheels that can pass state inspection; up here, cars that meet that criteria have become quite scarce. Heck, the Phoenix itself has become a rarity, a comment I made in passing as we looked this example over. During my days on a local stock car team, I witnessed a fair share of this Pontiac’s X-body brethren get unmercifully thrashed past the point of existence.
That was during the mid-’80s to early ’90s, when local circle track racing at the entry level was still relatively inexpensive. Anyone with enough raw talent, or, at least, a preconceived notion they were going to be the next Darrell Waltrip, could have sauntered into their local junkyard and found a high number of base X- and G-body cars from General Motors that had complete, rust-free foundations to work with. Any corrosion on the body panels was a moot point—most of that would be cut away during the transformation to race car. The junker’s engine would be swapped out, so its condition didn’t matter much, either.
These once-commonly-discarded commuter cars became highly coveted after a few brilliant wheelmen figured out that the 1968-’72 GM A-bodies, which had been a circle-track stock car staple since the late Seventies, were as much as a few hundred pounds heavier than the competition. On top of that, growing interest from vintage muscle car enthusiasts was driving up the values of those models. The A-body racers were priced out seemingly overnight.