NOTE: Not my Grand Prix, but very close.
In the early spring on 1996, with the Escort on its last legs and my (not) cost saving ownership about at an end, it was time to car shop earlier than planned. The Escort, with its body rot, was drivable, but I was on borrowed time. I started out considering a brand new 5 speed manual Sunfire GT and test drove one at Rinke Pontiac and liked it. But…after the salesman wanted to stretch me out to a 72 month note and a still too high monthly payment, common sense prevailed, and I decided to shop preowned.
Yet again, staying in the GM world, I wanted something that was a bit bigger, and more substantial. I was thinking W-Bodies: Monte Carlos, Cutlass, Regal. But the standout to me was the Grand Prix. GM had a refresh with the 94’s inside and out and toned down and cleaned up the widely panned excessive body cladding that was a terrible disease amongst Pontiac designers of the day. The interior was refreshed in what was a more sensible layout with better (and fewer) switchgear and higher quantity materials. In my opinion it was the best proportioned and most athletic looking of the all the W bodies.
I ended up spying a white Gran Prix on the used car lot at Key Oldsmobile-Nissan-Isuzu (now a mosque). Built in 1965, it looked more like a ski lodge than a car dealership, but it must have really been something back then. It was the sportier SE model with body cladding and the boy racer in me was immediately drawn to it. And with just 14,000 miles on it, it was a creampuff in old school automotive parlance. And coming from hooptie life in the Escort, it was a quantum leap in every way.
I test drove it, threw out a low-ball offer which was emphatically not accepted (they rarely are), got on the losing end of a stare down, then walked out. But this was “the one” and I kept thinking about it. Days later I called Key’s used car sales office back using a fake, gruff voice and asked if it was still there – it was. Then I abruptly hung up. Then in my normal voice called again a few hours to set up another visit. “Was that you who called a few hours earlier,” they asked. “What? Me, uh…no”. Why I exhibited this very strange behavior I cannot say. I came back on a Saturday and I got it for $13,200 + tax, netting me a payment of $242.00 per month, manageable. They even gave me $300 for the Escort. This was a smokin’ deal. I saved thousands over buying a new Grand Prix or even the Sunfire I cross-shopped.
1963 Pontiac Grand Prix – The Real ‘Prix!
Life was good in my new wheels and it was the nicest car I’d ever had. Driving it? It looked sporty but wasn’t. It was nothing like the iconic Grand Prix that debuted back in 1962. All the fun and mystique surrounding the marquee had long since been platform-engineered and wrung out of it. Performance from the 160 HP “60 degree” 3.1-liter V-6 was adequate, with a 0-60 time of just under 9 seconds. Economy was OK for a larger size car, somewhere in the mid-20s on the highway. It was roomy, comfortable, and had a pleasant sporty sounding burble from the dual exhaust. A 10-disc CD player in the trunk and better speakers were soon added from Mickey Schorr’s Car Audio.
A short time after ownership, I started noticing something strange. The front passenger wheel was rubbing on the inside of the wheel well during left turns. Figuring this was a warranted issue, so off to a local Pontiac dealer it went. I got a call a few hours later from the local Pontiac dealership, and the news wasn’t good. The car had been in an accident, or someone had driven it over something very immovable, like a parking block or big rocks. The engine cradle was bent, as were control arms, and a bunch of other suspension bits that were bad that I can’t remember 22 years on. Feelings of anger that I’d been had set in. I got the diagnosis in writing and called Key Old’s and set up a time to sort this out.
The dealership general manager, salesmen, service manager and used car manager were all there. The remediation of this issue was level-headed and handled professionally. I sensed a desire to make it right and through this, I found out something very interesting. I asked why this issue wasn’t caught before they put it on the lot for sale. At least back then, Michigan law stated that a dealer didn’t have to inspect the car, legally speaking. They bought it at auction, prepped it, and it was on the lot with a for sale sign the next day.
So, Option 1: they would take the car back, provided I bought another used car from them. They would work out the financials and give me a deal on another car. Option 2: they would repair the car at no charge. Their own suspension tech agreed with about 75% of the other dealer’s service assessment. Nothing else there on the used lot was even remotely interesting so I decided to keep it and accept the repairs. They gave me a loaner during the fix and in a couple of days, the car was ready. As I drove off, I noticed that my old Escort was still there along a back fence, looking very unloved and sad. I sure hope it died peacefully.
All told, I had the car for almost six years, from 1996 to early 2002, more than long enough to pay it off and keep it long after. I was putting on 18-20,000 miles a year, a lot of it work related. And a lot happened to Carlsberg66 during that ownership period, most of it good.
At the time of purchase, I was weeks away from finishing my MBA, after five years of night school. My 30th birthday was coming that August. At that point, I had a very steady girlfriend, and love was in the air. I was getting yearly raises at work as well as more responsibility. I liked what I did, and the people I worked with. It was the roaring 90s, the economy was booming and anything seemed possible. About eighteen months later, in the fall of 1997, I cobbled enough cash together, about $7,500, to finally get into my first house. I guess I was finally a grown up.
I was married in June of 1998 to a girl I met at work. We had a lot of fun times in that car as a young, childless and carefree couple. In 2000, we moved into our second house, where we remain today. In 2001, we welcomed our first child, a boy, Adam, and he took many trips in the backseat as an infant.
It was a generally reliable car until about 100,000 miles. The transmission failed, and I wrote a $2,500 check to fix it. About 18 months later, I endured a major combination punch to my pocketbook. After work one cold winter day as I was pulling out of a filling station, I put it in drive then WHAM… another transmission failure and another $2,500 check. It had 134,000 miles on it, and I was hoping for another couple of years of use with the new tranny. After that fix, maybe a month later, it threw a rod and the car was basically worthless, at least to me. The body and general condition were still very good. Mechanic Randy at the corner shop who services all my cars to this day gave me $1,000 for the car. He swapped in a rebuilt 3.1 and his daughter drove that damn car for another 4 years with a new heart.
While this won’t go down as a great ownership experience due to costly repairs, and ultimately a life-ending catastrophic powertrain failure, I still have a lot of fond memories of the Grand Prix. It was a good time of my young life. Many have a tremendous amount of affection for the Pontiac brand and its history. It was sad to see it go quietly into the night back in 2009. Anyway, it was time to car shop again. Would this be the time I finally broke away from GM, daring to be different?