Slightly Kooler Than a Kammback: The Pontiac Astre Safari
You're there. Its a hot Saturday in July and the pavement is radiating the remains of the daytime heat. As usual, there's a lot of manevering through the busy lot, and some cruisers have saved their buddies a primo parking spot right up front where all the cool cars and action are. Everyone has spent the day detailing and tuning up their street machines to impress the crowd. Tonight there's also some live music to keep the public happy. Rock and roll and leaded racing fuel exhaust...this is what its about!
Its all fun and games for the folks with high dollar hot rods and muscle machines, until a tiny Pontiac Astre Safari station wagon rolls in and takes tradition...and tells it to go jump in a lake. The blue compact doesn't make much noise with its stock V6 and single exhaust. The owner glides past the throngs of onlookers while wearing a smile, knowing that he has the only car of its kind at this particular show. There may be a half-dozen '69 Camaro coupes in the parking lot, but only one Astre Safari. He finally circles around, and parks way out in the back 40. He exits, and suddenly the modest little car draws a crowd. A huge crowd.
"What is it?" says one admirer.
"I think its a Vega" says another.
"It kinda looks like a Firebird" says yet another.
After a few minutes of commotion, the crowd goes about their business and back to looking at the Camaro Z28's, GTO's and the Mustangs. The cruise night has returned to the usual scene...but for a brief moment, the Astre drew more ooh's and aah's than when it debuted in the mid 70's. It stood up to the bullies over the years and still looks pretty good for being 30-something. Plus, its at a show hangin' with the big dogs. At least for a moment.
How did that happen? Because a Pontiac Astre Safari is slightly cooler than a Vega Kammback. Only slightly cooler. You see, that's how the nerds get to date the cheerleaders once in a while...they sometimes just slightly cooler than the guy next to them.
Chevrolet's Vega Kammback Wagon and Panel Express debuted with the rest of the H-body Vega lineup in 1971 and remained in production until 1977. Meanwhile, in Canada, our neighbors to the north could purchase a similar Pontiac Astre. General Motors re-badged the Vega as they commonly did, and by 1975 U.S. consumers could choose between a small, quick-to-rust Chevrolet or a small, quick-to-rust Pontiac. Pontiac chose to remain consistent in their use of the name "Safari" for the Astre station wagons just as they did with their LeMans and Grand Safari full-size models. But the one thing the Astre had going for it? It looked like a baby Firebird. It was all bark and no bite, but it had really nice lines, thanks to Vega Chief Engineer Ed Cole's choice of William Munser to lead the styling team for the cars. Munser had previously worked on the Chevrolet Camaro / Pontiac Firebird platform, so one can trace the lineage back to the F-body coupes without too much work. See for yourself...
|The 1975 Pontiac Firebird Photo Credit: auto-passion.forumsactifs.com/|
And now, the cruise night Astre. If you squint real hard, you can see the resemblance.
GM produced the Astre Safari wagon alongside the Chevy Vega at their Lordstown, Ohio and Sainte-Thérèse, Quebec plants and shipped them using their Vert-A-Pac Southern Pacific railway cars that stored the Vegas and Astres vertically to allow for more capacity in each rail car. A lot of engineering went into these cars, even though we think of them as "malaise-era" oddities today.
This Pontiac model pictured appeared at a local cruise night last summer, and I couldn't help but take notice. You simply don't see these cars anymore. That makes sense considering the Astre Safari had a production run of 13,125 in 1976. Its blue color appears to be a repaint, and may not be 100% stock, but is close to many hues such as Bimini Blue or Starlight Blue that GM offered on other makes that year. California and high-altitude destinations received an optional Buick-derived 3.8 liter V6 engine, which this Astre has. Some would argue the bulletproof 3.8 is the main reason this car is still on the road.
|Other engines included the 2.3 liter overhead cam engine that often suffered mechanical troubles early on, and later a 2.5 liter "Iron Duke" 4 cylinder that would remain in GM's stable of engines for FWD cars such as the Citation, Century, and Cutlass Ciera in the coming decade. Many 4 cylinder H-body cars have been subjected to a V8 swap and some drag racing throughout their lifetime.|
Much like the Vega, the Pontiac Astre suffered a death by a thousand cuts. The platform that started off as a critically-acclaimed "Car of the Year" in 1971, later became known as the "car that rusted in your driveway overnight". Many people told stories of Vega ownership that included failed transmissions with missing parts, fenders rusting completely out after only one year, and total engine failures of the 2.3 OHC motor. With the later introduction of the Pontiac Astre, GM had an opportunity to correct a great deal of problems that plagued the Chevrolet model, and they did, but it was too little...too late.
Here's a quote from a 1977 Car & Driver review of the Pontiac Astre, its final year of production.
"The Astre is the Vega-polished and refined and significantly improved, but still a Vega in perhaps its ultimate state of development..It remained for Pontiac to do what Chevrolet probably should have done in the first place". -C&D
Ouch. Well, back to the drawing board, right?
General Motors tried to give the public what they wanted: smaller, fuel efficient, affordable cars. What they did was try their best, and it missed the mark a little bit. But they learned from this experience. Running into the cruise night Astre Safari was like running into an old friend at a high school reunion. The geeky little kid has grown into a respectable member of society. It overcame the odds and made it through high school in one piece. I think that's all we can hope for. If you should come across a Pontiac Astre in your travels, give the owner a high five and ask how the heck it survived.