Automotive Histories: When The Old Names Died (Part 1)

2005 pontiac bonneville se

In the 1990s, flagging sales had led GM to orchestrate a complete rebranding of the Oldsmobile line. The venerable Eighty-Eight, Cutlass and Ninety-Eight nameplates were scrapped, as Oldsmobile launched the new Aurora, Intrigue and Alero. Unfortunately, Oldsmobile sales didn’t increase as expected and the brand got the axe. This didn’t stop GM from employing a similar strategy during the 2000s, axing 19 nameplates that were 20-70 years old.

2005 chevrolet astro

Chevrolet Astro

Final year? 2005

1987 chevrolet astro

How old was the name?

It premiered in 1985 on GM’s first attempt at a minivan, a rear-wheel-drive, truck-derived offering.

2005 chevrolet astro 2

How was it looking?

With strong towing ability and sensible dimensions, the Astro became popular with boat owners, campers and commercial users. Those preferring a more refined and conventional Chevy minivan had the Lumina APV and Venture minivans after 1990. Despite a facelift in 1995, it was much the same van underneath and had poor crash-test ratings.

2002 chevrolet astro

Did it make sense to scrap the name?

With the death of the Ford Aerostar, the Astro had this capable mid-sized van niche to its self. But buyers were less interested, as sales pretty much halved around 2001/02 and continued to trail off. GM didn’t invest in a replacement and there was really no product suitable for the Astro name. Confusingly, a Saturn Astra was launched in 2008; keep in mind GM also once offered a Pontiac Astre, too.

2005 gmc safari 2

GMC Safari

Final year? 2005

1955 pontiac safari

How old was the name?

If you thought GM’s fascination with names that start with “Astr” was confusing, consider this: two entirely different GM vehicles simultaneously carried the Safari nameplate from 1985 until 1989, one a rebadged Chevrolet Astro van, the other a body-on-frame Pontiac station wagon. The Safari name had debuted on a 2-door Pontiac station wagon in 1955, the arrowhead brand’s Chevrolet Nomad equivalent. From 1957, the name was applied to all Pontiac station wagons as a suffix except for the 1987-89 full-size wagon, which was simply Safari. The final Pontiac to wear the name was the 6000 Safari of 1991.

2005 gmc safari 3

How was it looking?

As the Safari was identical to the Astro but for badges, it was the same story right down to the diminishing sales.

Did it make sense to scrap the name?

Well, it never really made sense to use it on a GMC van anyway. It also sounded quite close to Savana, GMC’s full-size van. Fortunately, both names were nicer than “Vandura” and “Rally Van”.

Pontiac Grand Prix

Final year? 2008

1963 pontiac grand prix

How old was the name?

It first premiered in 1962 on a full-size personal luxury coupe then became an intermediate personal luxury coupe from 1969 until 1987. By 1988, it was used on Pontiac’s mid-size coupe offering and with the addition of a sedan in 1990 and the demise of the 6000 in 1991, the Grand Prix was firmly ensconced as Pontiac’s mid-size nameplate.

2008 pontiac grand prix 3

How was it looking?

By its 2004 revision, it had lost its coupe variant and had less slinky, more squared-off styling. The following year, the Grand Am’s upsized replacement, the G6, was starting to put the squeeze on the Grand Prix from below and GP sales started to wane even with the axing of the full-size Bonneville in 2005 and the introduction of the V8 GXP the same year. The odd size of the W platform meant the Grand Prix was bigger than most mid-sizers but smaller than many full-size sedans.

2008 pontiac grand prix 2

What replaced it?

The FWD Grand Prix overlapped with the new, Australian-built G8 for 2008 but was retired for 2009. It had effectively been replaced by both the expanded G6 range and the G8.

2008 pontiac grand prix gxp 1

Did it make sense to scrap the name?

The name wasn’t too tarnished, as the ’97 Grand Prix had been quite popular with retail buyers thanks to its sporty lines and competitive engines. The ’04 revision wasn’t as well-received, however, and Pontiac relied heavily on fleet sales and incentives. The 2008 G8 that replaced the Grand Prix was such a fundamentally different car – new platform, rear-wheel-drive, even more powerful V6 and V8 engines – that Pontiac saw it necessary to drop the Grand Prix nameplate.

2004 buick regal 1

Buick Regal

Final year? 2004

1973-buick-century-regal-coupe_100443881_l

How old was the name?

The 1973 Century line, the A-Body “Colonnade” replacement for the Skylark, included a range-topping model known as the Regal. The Century and Regal eventually diverged, becoming separate lines riding on separate platforms, until 1997 when they became effectively the same car but with different trim and suspension tuning; the Regal also had an available supercharged 3.8 V6.  

2004 buick regal 2

How was it looking?

While its styling had held up fairly well, the Regal had suffered from the same neglect as its fellow W-Bodies. This generation of Regal had first launched in 1997 and received no meaningful changes during its run. 

What replaced it?

Like the Century, the Regal was replaced by the LaCrosse. Despite its all-new styling, the W-Body mechanicals were much the same and the base engine remained the venerable Buick 3.8. 

2011 buick regal

Did it make sense to scrap the name?

Not really. Buick seemed to realise their mistake and dusted off the nameplate for a new mid-size offering in 2011, a rebadged Opel Insignia. However, they also committed to the LaCrosse nameplate and what started off as a stodgy mid-size sedan has become an expressively styled, near-luxury Lexus ES rival today. 

2005 buick century 1

Buick Century

Final year? 2005, outliving the related Regal by a year.

1936 buick century

How old was the name? 

It first debuted in 1936, using the larger inline eight-cylinder engine of the Roadmaster in the smaller Special body. The Century name came from its ability to cruise at sustained speeds of 100 mph. It was sold until 1942, when the nameplate went into hibernation. The 1954-58 Century followed a similar formula of offering a big engine in Buick’s smaller body; the range also included Buick’s first and only hardtop station wagon. The nameplate again disappeared until 1973, by which time it was simply applied to Buick’s mid-size line.

2005 buick century 3

How was it looking?

Like the Regal, it had launched in 1997 and had scarcely been changed since then. It appealed to a generally older clientele with its inoffensive styling, soft ride and fairly low price, but a Toyota Camry offered higher levels of refinement and quality. The Century had become Buick’s entry-level model and was little plusher than a Chevrolet.

2005 buick century 2

Did it make sense to scrap the name? 

The Century nameplate had once denoted performance, but by 2005 its reputation had very much been cemented as an old person’s car. As the adage goes, “You can sell a young person’s car to an old person, but you can’t sell an old person’s car to a young person.”

2007 chevrolet monte carlo

Chevrolet Monte Carlo

Final year? 2007

1970 chevrolet monte carlo

How old was the name? 

It first debuted in 1970 on a personal luxury coupe based on a mid-size Chevrolet. Unlike many old names, it remained on a personal luxury coupe based on a mid-size Chevrolet right until the end.

2006 chevrolet monte carlo

How was it looking?

The Monte Carlo was a survivor from a genre of cars that had become virtually extinct. Its only real competition was a small collection of Japanese mid-size coupes like the Honda Accord. Sales were fairly steady after 2000 at around 70k annual units, until they dropped by half in 2005 and never recovered. A 2006 revision eliminated some of the fussier details of the 2000 design and added a V8, an option last seen in 1988, but the Monte was axed after 2007.

2006 chevrolet monte carlo interior

Did it make sense to scrap the name?

Yes and no. It was not directly replaced and thus Chevy had no model that could wear the nameplate. Chevrolet was also readying a new Camaro, offering powerful V6 and V8 engines. In theory, Chevrolet could have developed a coupe version of the Malibu and used the Monte Carlo name but perhaps GM thought this would cannibalize V6 Camaro sales.

2005 pontiac bonneville gxp

Pontiac Bonneville

Final year? 2005

1957 pontiac bonneville

How old was the name? 

It debuted in 1957 on a limited-production, fuel-injected, high-performance convertible in the Star Chief line, before becoming its own line in 1958. It was usually applied to Pontiac’s largest and most prestigious model, exceptions being 1971-75 when it was positioned below the Grand Ville, and 1983-86 when it sat below the Parisienne.

2005 pontiac bonneville gxp rear

How was it looking?

While not quite in the same sales league as the related Buick LeSabre, the Bonneville was a relatively strong seller throughout the 1990s. Dramatically restyled and shifted to the G-Body platform for 2000, the interior became a fussy mess – more so than the Aztek and Grand Am cabins – and the exterior was as wild as ever. A V8 returned to the line for 2004 in the top GXP trim and the exterior styling was pleasantly toned down, although the interior was as wacky as ever, but sales were in a downward spiral. In 2000, 65k Bonnevilles were sold but by 2004 that had dropped to approximately 29k. The Bonneville was axed after 2005 with no direct replacement. 

2005 pontiac bonneville interior

Did it make sense to scrap the name?

As the whole Pontiac brand was shuttered just a few years later in 2009, we never did find out what their plan was with model names. Some of their passenger cars had been christened with alphanumeric nameplates – G3, G5, G6, G8 – but there remained real names in the form of Solstice, Vibe and Torrent.

Bonneville was one of the most evocative nameplates in Pontiac’s history; it had connotations of high performance as the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah are renowned for land speed record testing. The name had also never been shifted far downmarket, like Bel Air or LeMans. The G8 would have been an ideal application for the Bonneville name.


Which name fell furthest from grace, and which name went out on a high note? And which name do you mourn the most?

Next week, we’ll look at more of the 17 nameplates and discuss why GM thought it necessary to axe them.

Related Reading:

CCOTY Nomination: 1963 Pontiac Grand Prix

Curbside Classic: 1961 Pontiac Bonneville

Curbside Classic: 1956 Buick Century Riviera 4-dr Hardtop

Curbside Classic: 1970 Chevrolet Monte Carlo