Have you ever wondered why certain cars are still on the road?
This is not to dismiss a particular vehicle, but to point out something that has scratched heads amongst enthusiasts and people in the automotive world. In every community or region, one car has popped up that made you think "why are they still running?" "Did they really sell that many of them?"
The interesting point about such vehicles is the fact that the brand no longer exists. These are mobile orphans that defy the laws of vehicular life.
One such car is the Pontiac Grand Prix. Seeing so many on the road these days from North Dakota into Iowa, Illinois and Michigan point to one such success General Motors had in spite of bankruptcy and recalls. For a car that shared a platform across most of the brands prior to 2009, this one continues to drive on.
You do not see just one or two. You see hundreds…even thousands. They are seen in urban neighborhoods, the suburbs and rural communities. Their condition range from pretty clapped out to gleaming modified machines. Some have kept the most desirable models – the GXP – towards collector condition in hopes of seeing an uptick in their values.
The point of this is to see its worth as an orphan that has become a common sight in the Midwest, if not across the country.
The Grand Prix's history goes back to a time when the idea of the personal luxury coupe was starting to form for mainstream brands of the time. Ford and Studebaker began to form this class by two products. The Thunderbird gained two rear seats for 1958, which began the popular progression of the class. Yet, the Studebaker Hawk was the one that first developed the concept. They began as a hardtop coupe in 1962, yet the style continued and was given separate status within the next couple of years.
GM was developing an answer to the Thunderbird and Hawk in the guise of the Buick Riviera. However, Pontiac had a different approach. John DeLorean was the head of Pontiac at the time and was truly influenced by the luxury cars of Europe. He figured that the best way to get in on the Thunderbird business is to simply go big, but attain some of the best of what the competition is already doing.
Within its full-sized lineup, they created a high-line model that would only be available as a hardtop coupe and a convertible. It would be sporty, with available bucket seats and a console with a shifter. The Grand Prix was given a higher status than the top-of-the-line Bonneville by 1965.
Throughout the 1960s, Grand Prixs were part of the full-sized lineup, distinguished by special trim, interiors and given speciifc engines at the top of the range. Some grille textures were chnaged to even separate the GP from the Bonneville and Catalina. In the meantime, the personal luxury coupe was experiencing major growth, thanks to the Thunderbird, Riviera and the front-drive Oldsmobile Toronado. By then, Studebaker had already folded, despite the introduction of the Avanti – if given the chance would have changed the American coupe earlier than it did. American Motors and Chrysler did not have a proper response to the Thunderbird, Riviera and Toronado, though they had coupes that would have been positioned to do so. The Rambler Marlin and Dodge Charger were seen as beautiful and upmarket, but were eventually aimed at the muscle car crowd.
If the Grand Prixs of the 1960s had a true rival, it would be the Chrysler 300. It had since been a part of its full-sized lineup and given a status above the Newport and New Yorker. It also had been given specific interiors, trim, grillework and engines to distinguish what its is. While the GP was rising steadily above the Pontiac ranks, the Chrysler 300 began a steady downfall in its significance. By 1968, both Pontiac and Chrysler had to do something with their full-sized sports models. Chrysler introduced the fuselage body for 1969 – including a more distinguished 300. However, it remained on the full-sized chassis.
GM took a more dramatic approach to the Grand Prix. Instead of keeping it on its full-sized platform, a new GP was built off the A-Body mid-sized chassis. That frame was stretched to give it presence. A new body design was introduced, as was a new interior. Considering the kind of power the GP used on the larger frame, those same engines were put on the smaller one – giving a lighter power-to-weight ratio for more true performance.
The new GP was introduced for 1969. It took North America by storm. It certainly changed the personal luxury coupe for good.
The significance of the 1969 Grand Prix created a shockwave across Detroit. Putting this on a mid-sized platform was the smartest thing to do. You saw many cars doing exactly the same throughout the 1970s – mainly because there was an oil crisis to get through. Notice how many of these models fell into this pattern. For 1970, the same platform yielded the introduction of Chevrolet's response to the personal luxury coupe – the Monte Carlo. The while the 1971 Dodge Charger began to develop into a personal luxury car, the Mercury Cougar of the same year grew into the mid-sized platform to compete with the GP. AMC would join the fray with its fastback 1974 Matador coupe. The mighty Ford Thunderbird became a victim of the oil crisis and downsized onto the mid-sized chassis for 1977.
The GP's legacy was not done. While the full-sized models downsized for 1977, the next year saw the A-bodies reduced in size. The Grand Prix's long hood, sharp nose and scupltured rear end would by de-emphasized for 1978 in the downsize. Still, there was enough distinguishing design traits that would give the GP some identity in the face of badge engineering. It would be a long time until we saw the renaissance of the GP – albeit a completely different kind of car.
That renaissance began with the 1988 model. It was the first GP on a front-wheel drive platform. The size was further reduced, though cabin space was increased. It would also yield the first four-door GP. Its legacy as solely a coupe still existed, but GM insisted that it would be the family car offering for Pontiac – slotted between the Grand Am and the Bonneville. For a few model years, it would have to share showroom space with the Pontiac 6000, the offering that was supposed to sell to families even in spite of a four-door Grand Prix. In the end, the GP would win simply because of its legacy and added space.
If one thing that would distinguish front-drive GPs from its competition was a trademark Pontiac design feature – plastic body-side cladding. In its jeyday, the Grand Prix used more of it than any model Pontiac sold well into the 1990s. It would also be the first Pontiac to devolute it as it developed further and changed into the Millennium.
What we see today are running examples of front-drive Grand Prixs that are easily recognized by certain design traits. The dual kidney grille, which BMW people gringe upon seeing it adorned with the arrowhead badge in the middle. A coupe-like roofline that had been massaged in later versions to ensure the continuity of its coupe heritage. A cockpit interior awashed with red lighting all around and canted towards the driver for more control.
One could say the same about the smaller Grand Ams and G6s, but the Grand Prix had presence for its time. You could see one coming miles away. It became a full-sized model again by default of market conditions. Yet, Grand Prixs had more sportier trim than its competitors in the big car segment, albeit very plasticky and not great to the touch.
Why are many Grand Prixs still on the road?
That is a good question. Pontiac stopped selling the front-drive GP in 2008 – two years before the brand was sent into the dustbin. A survey of various communities of all economic strata and location – urban, suburban and rural – will see the GP very popular amongst pre-owned car consumers and owners. It shows off a sporty side with a dose of V6 power and space for a family inside. It also shows off an edge with its digital readouts and good quality audio system. There's an OnStar button on the rearview mirror that is worth subscribing to. It might not be the mostr desirable car in the marketplace, but it certainly has its fans.
Those fans may have Grand Prixs equipped with more performance under the hood. The last generations saw Buick's old 3.8liter V6 with a supercharger on top of it. With 240-260 horsepower on tap, it evoked a time when a 455 cubic-inch V8 would propel the GP across the highway with authority. Supercharged GPs practically did ghe same thing, but they would have to yield to an even greater model.
For 2005, the GXP gave the Grand Prix one last dose of high performance. A 5.3liter V8 was wedged into the front-drive engine bay with 303 horsepower on tap. These cars were tire-chirp worthy. If you want to bank on a classic, the GXP would be it.
However, the most common GP you will find these days would be the last two generations of four-door sedans, powered by a 195-200 horsepower 3.8liter V6. The old Buick offset V6 is one of the most durable motors ever made – a match made in heaven for GP owners. You do not think in terms of fuel economy with one of these babies. With the regular V6, it is simply all go.
Here is another question I had: Why are GPs not previlent in, say, the West Coast? In 2008, I was visiting Los Angeles to reconnect with friends from Reseda. The rental car I ended up with was a Pontiac Grand Prix. Keep in mind that Southern Californians are very particular about their cars and would run to a premium brand before considering a more practical model. Or, rather, an Asian-branded vehicle. In this same location – my hometown – I felt odd driving around in a GP. In essence, only a few people would in their right mind own a GP in Southern California. That is, of course, they did not have the money for a premium car or would rather drive a Toyota or Hyundai before even looking at a Pontiac.
It might be a regional thing – the Pontiac Grand Prix, that is. Yet, for the time it has roamed this earth, seeing these big sedans roam the streets and rural byways of the Midwest are a sign that the Arrowhead is far from forgotten. It already has a second life – as everyday transport.
All photos by Randy Stern