Pontiac G6 Coupe
Pontiac G6 Coupe. Click image to enlarge

Story and photos by Peter Bleakney

There is one thing you can say about the guys and gals of the J-Body tuning fraternity: they are fiercely loyal to their chosen ride. For those not in the know, J-Body refers to the first, second and third generations of Chevrolet Cavalier and Pontiac Sunfire. Yes, they may not be the most glamorous of vehicles, but like a certain Nova Scotian beer, those who like ’em, like ’em a lot.

Over 200 cars showed up at the 8th Annual J-Body Bash and GM Compact Car Show at the St. Thomas Dragway June 4th and as the show’s tag suggests, all types of GM small cars were welcome this year. The show was hosted by the J-Body Club of Ontario, with General Motors of Canada as its title sponsor.

So what is it about the J-Body that inspires such passion from its devotees? After cruising the show and speaking with a number of tuners, I started to see a pattern. First, J-Bodies are cheap to buy. As we all know, entry-level GM cars depreciate faster than week old bagels. Second, the styling is a universal plus,

J-Body Bash and GM Compact Car Show
Click image to enlarge

with the third generation J-Body being a particularly handsome design that has aged well. And third, if I had a buck for every time I heard “well, it’s not a Honda”, I’d have about eleven bucks.

Perhaps the most interesting facet of the J-Body’s attraction is its underdog status and the attendant difficulties these modifiers face in bringing their visions to fruition. Bertrand Rougeau, vice-president of the Quebec J-Body Delta chapter, shed some light on this.

“We were definitely the black sheep of the tuner scene in the early days.” he says. “Especially for the first and second generation J-Bodies, there were no tuner parts available here, so we had to make our own or order from Japan. It was an ‘against all odds’ situation, and many of these enthusiasts are very proud of what they’ve been able to do. Anybody could buy a part for a Honda, but we were on our own.”

Chris Anderson 1998 Pontiac Sunfire

Chris Anderson 1998 Pontiac Sunfire
Chris Anderson’s 1998 Pontiac Sunfire. Click image to enlarge

Judging by some of the cars that were at the show from La Belle Province, the Quebecois J-Body scene is vibrant. Chris Anderson’s white, scissor-doored ’98 Sunfire is a good example of a “work in progress” car. Hailing from Aurora, be bought the car used with 80,000 kilometres, and has been modifying it continuously for three years. He’s put close to $30,000 into it. “I bought it because everyone has a Honda, and in the J-Body scene, the Sunfire is not as common.”

He is especially proud of the interior, which he painted himself. “A custom fibreglass interior would have cost a fortune.” Is he finished? “No, there’s always something new to get. I’ll never be finished. A turbo installation is next.”

Keith Losier Desired Customs Cobalt SS Supercharged
Keith Losier’s Desired Customs Cobalt SS Supercharged. Click image to enlarge

Then there is the other end of the tuner spectrum. Niagara Falls tuner Keith Losier’s Desired Customs Cobalt SS Supercharged was at the J-Body Bash. This outrageous creation shows what can happen when vision, talent and money all come together. It features right hand drive, scissor-doors, a carbon fibre roof, side pillars and wide-body kit, 20 x 10-inch Konig rims, and a full custom interior featuring enough electronics to shame your local Future Shop.

Along with 5.1 surround sound and an X-Box game system, there are two 20-inch LCD TV monitors, one of which is hooked up to the OBD II (on board diagnostics) computer.

1997 Pontiac Sunfire
1997 Pontiac Sunfire. Click image to enlarge

Engine mods include a header, intake, cams, a turbocharger (in addition to the stock supercharger) and custom exhaust. Underneath all this mechanical mayhem is an air ride system with eight-way adjustable shocks.

So how does a car like this come to be? Since 2000, GM has run a Vehicle Partner Program in the U.S., where the company offers select tuners and manufacturers “dollar cars” (that’s right – a car for a buck), with their eye on the development of aftermarket parts for these vehicles. They’ve distributed between 80 and 105 cars per year since the inception of the program.

1998 Chevrolet Cavalier
1998 Chevrolet Cavalier. Click image to enlarge

Keith Losier is one of the few Canadian beneficiaries of VPP, and he and his associates built the Cobalt in only six weeks, logging over 1000 man-hours in this rolling work of art. In this league, it’s all about corporate sponsorship, and the Cobalt is constantly on the road, attending all of the major North American shows.

For 2006, GM of Canada is launching a similar initiative, although the emphasis is more on inspiring the tuner crowd and less on parts development.

J-Body Bash and GM Compact Car Show
Click image to enlarge

This is the second year GM has sponsored the J-Body Bash, and the tuners are just fine with that. They’re very happy that the mother ship is encouraging their subversive activities, and are especially thrilled that GM is making available a number of tuner parts like exhaust systems and supercharger kits for the Ecotec engine.

GM also brought a few new vehicles to the bash, including the Saturn Sky and Aura, Pontiac Solstice and G6 Coupe GTP, and the Chevy HHR, which was a darling of the giant SEMA aftermarket show in Vegas last Fall. Although there were no modified HHRs at the bash, George Saratlic of GM Product Communications predicts there will be a trickle down effect, and we’ll soon be seeing some Canadian tuners modifying the little trucklet.

Drag racing at J-Body Bash and GM Compact Car Show
Drag racing at J-Body Bash and GM Compact Car Show. Click image to enlarge

The J-Body Bash was more than just a show and shine. The cars were judged, prizes awarded, and there was head to head 1/4-mile drag racing and bracket racing. And believe me, you haven’t lived until you’ve seen a couple of Cavaliers wheezing down the drag strip.

Just as I was leaving, the heavens opened up in a spectacular deluge with some hail, thunder and lightning thrown in for good measure. I’m sure the J-Body crowd just rolled up their windows, donned their caps and laughed in its general direction (which was straight up). Heck, these folks thrive on adversity.

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