In the fall of 1977, my father came home in a new car, a black 1977 Bonneville Brougham. It looked pretty much like this, but with a black vinyl top.
The interior, however, looked like this:
It. Was. Stunning.
Here’s the story. When I was 16, my dad started looking around for a car for me so that I could take over the driving duties for my own and my 2 younger brothers’ activities. His initial plan was to buy me a new diesel Rabbit, but then changed his mind over the summer–I don’t quite remember why—and decided to give me his ’71 Pontiac Catalina and get himself a new Pontiac. He had been a Pontiac man ever since he and my mom brought home a new ‘65 Catalina in that metallic jade green so popular at the time. I remember the first time I saw the ‘65 parked in front of our house and my mom explaining to 4-year-old me that I could no longer stand in between them on the front seat like I did in the ‘56 Desoto they had just traded in. (It wasn’t because of any child safety reason—this was still the ‘60’s, way before the nanny state and baby on board window stickers– but because they didn’t want any dirt on the new seats.)
The ’71 Catalina was also a COAL. I was actually with my dad when he picked it up new at Grossinger Pontiac near Chicago’s Germantown neighborhood, and always liked it. I remember trying to talk him into getting the almost identical Bonneville Brougham parked next to it because it had the 455 cubic inch engine but he said he didn’t want the 2 mpg penalty.
The ’71 Catalina looked pretty much like this:
My dad liked the style of the downsized ’77 Bonneville, and had mentioned that he was thinking of buying a demo to save some money. At the time, most dealerships had “demonstration models” on hand for potential customers to test drive before either choosing a brand spanking new one from the lot or custom ordering one, which was much more common then. The demos would then be sold off at the end of the model year, usually at a substantial discount and with relatively few miles. Trying to hasten my ownership of the Catalina, I started to call local dealers to see if there were any demos in their inventory.
I found one at the dealership nearest my high school, a two-tone blue with a blue velour interior that I thought would suit my father’s conservative style. Unfortunately, by the time I got him to come see it, it was already being prepped for its new owner. I then called Grossinger Pontiac, where he bought the ‘71 Catalina, and the receptionist told me they had 2, a white one and a black one. I asked if by chance either one had the Valencia velour interior, which I had seen in the ’77 brochure and thought looked really cool. Why, yes, the black one, she said. Over dinner that night, I mentioned to my dad that there were a couple of demos he should see on the way home from work, but I didn’t hold out much hope, since white wasn’t really his color, and there’s no way he would go for that wild interior.
The next night he came home with a smile on his face and announced that he had bought a new car, a black Pontiac Bonneville. I figured that there must have been another black demo, or that the receptionist had gotten the interiors mixed up, or that he had bought a new car, not a demo.
Nope. The next night, there it was, in all its glory. My dad told me as soon as he saw it he instantly liked it, and made a lowball offer. When they countered, he said thanks but no thanks, and headed for the door. He almost made it out before they called him back and struck a deal—if memory serves, $6400, only $500 more than the other dealer wanted for the two tone blue one. It turns out that this was the dealership owner’s personal demo, fully loaded. I couldn’t believe it. In my mind, this was a bona fide luxury car that looked better than a contemporary Cadillac, with options my soon-to-be Catalina didn’t have, like power locks and windows, tilt sports steering wheel, power driver seat, am AND fm stereo, with speakers in the front AND back, power antenna, vinyl roof, Rally II wheels, cruise control, velour interior and the 4-barrel 400 cubic inch V8! It was awesome.
I remember the first time I drove it about a month later. We were driving to Michigan to spend Thanksgiving with relatives. After we got past Gary, Indiana, my dad pulled over and as I took the wheel for the rest of the trip, Eric Clapton’s version of “Cocaine” came on the radio. Every time I hear that song to this day, I am instantly transported to that slightly snowy stretch of the I-94 in November of 1977.
The last time I saw that car was a few years later when my dad drove me to O’hare Airport to catch a flight to Los Angeles after I got accepted to UCLA. A few years after that, my brother’s friend drove him down to his college in Champaign-Urbana in the Bonneville, but on the way back to return the car to my dad in Chicago………got hit by a train. Apparently he let his foot slip off the brake pedal as he was looking through the map book, didn’t feel the car drive onto the railroad tracks, and didn’t notice the freight train approaching at 20 mph. My brother’s friend survived without a scratch. The Bonneville, not so much. It must have been an interesting phone call.
Fast forward about 30 years. My dad was living in Florida and had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. While discussing his treatment with my brother, we half-jokingly came up with the idea that finding a Bonneville with that distinctive Valencia interior for our dad might help spark some memories from that time in his life. Within a few days I found one on eBay in Missouri with a clean interior but in buckskin metallic, not black, with only 46,000 original miles. We decided to go for it, with the plan of shipping it for restoration to my brother in Tennessee, who is a born mechanic/engineer/gearhead that spent several years after college as a pit crew mechanic for a race car team.
We won it for the starting bid of $2750. The exterior had some dents and paint issues, but overall not bad. The interior was almost immaculate, and the engine and transmission were strong, but my brother ended up replacing or overhauling the brakes, radiator, water pump, carburetor, shocks, tires, headliner, exhaust, air conditioning compressor, and some other stuff I’ve forgotten. He also spray-painted the cream colored vinyl roof a medium shade of tan to better match the paint. I couldn’t find the correct sports steering wheel, so he swapped the standard one with one from a Trans Am, which is actually what my brother had done to my dad’s car after I had left for college. I hadn’t had much luck searching for a set of Rally II wheels to replace the stock steelies and finned hubcaps until on a lark I searched on Craigslist for Tennessee, and found a set about 20 minutes from my brother’s house. If that’s not the universe wanting this to happen, I don’t know what is.
In mid-August of that year the car was road-worthy, and I flew to Atlanta to join my brother on the drive down to Florida, armed with some period-appropriate music heavily weighted with Led Zeppelin. Here’s the Bonneville at a rest area somewhere in Georgia.
When we took our dad for a ride the next day, he didn’t seem to react to it at all. Oh well.
My youngest brother, who had never been a “car guy” and regarded our project with a sort of detached bemusement, flew in to join us at my dad’s house that morning. He had stopped at the local liquor store to stock up on some beer on the way in, and at my request had gotten me some Pabst Blue Ribbon in addition to the German beers my brothers preferred. PBR was my dad’s beer of choice while we were growing up because of its strong hops flavor, but I never really developed a taste for it until I was in my 40’s. While we were all at the table eating lunch, my dad apparently recognized my can of PBR, took a drink out of it, then looked at me and smiled. Noticing this, my youngest brother piped up: “Too bad about the car, but good job with the beer!”
That night I showed my brothers an episode of Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives that featured a restaurant called The Whale’s Rib in nearby Deerfield Beach. My dad was already asleep, so the three of us took the Bonneville there for dinner. On the drive back after a delicious meal, we reminisced about all the great driving vacations we took in the original black Bonneville. We also noted how smooth this old body-on-frame car felt cruising on the freeway. The handling was atrocious, of course, but I don’t think any modern car is as smooth.
My dad passed away at the end of that year. When my brothers and I returned to Florida the following summer to finalize his estate, I took pictures of the Bonneville so we could list it for sale on eBay. As I was reviewing the pics, I noticed how immaculate the interior still was: no cracks on the dash, rear seats looked barely sat on, spotless tan-colored seat backs. Look for yourselves.
It occurred to me that this could be one of the last Valencia Bonnevilles left in this condition, and if I ever wanted one in the future, I probably wouldn’t be able to find one at any price. Besides, there’s no one I would’ve trusted as much with a mechanical restoration than my brother. It was now or never, and I just couldn’t let it go, so with both brothers’ blessings, I made arrangements to get it shipped out to me.
Although my brother had buffed out the paint, it had faded again and the body needed a little work, so I toyed with the idea of painting it black. A few years ago I was on my way to a body shop to get an estimate when I stopped for gas and a gentleman fueling his late ‘70’s vintage Mercedes coupe came over to ask about my car. The next day, I logged on to Curbside Classic (I had been a reader for a year or so) and saw the following headline: “Nate Finds A ’77 Pontiac Bonneville With Rare Valencia Interior.” Oh wow, I thought, there are still some Valencia Bonnevilles out there. As soon as I started reading the article I realized it was my car, and immediately sent the link to my brother.
Among the 64 comments that were posted was advice against a color change, with detailed and experienced explanations why it could be potentially disastrous. That led to my postponing any decision on restoration for a few more years. Then one day I came across an article on color sanding, and got an estimate of $400 from a body man that came highly recommended. Here are the results.
Next, I took it to a highly recommended upholstery shop to replace the disintegrating vinyl top with one that matched the paint even better, then got new tires and a car wash.
I now have what Jay Leno calls his favorite type of classic car, “original and unrestored,” or almost original anyway, and couldn’t be happier with the results. The dents are still there, and it will need a few touch-ups, but at least now it’s presentable.
There was a car show out here last year called “Malaise Daze” celebrating mediocre cars of the 70’s, 80’s, and early 90’s. I thought about entering the show, but I just don’t think this car belongs. The downsized B-bodies were an actual improvement over the previous generation, and the 400 Pontiac V8 was not much different from the one used in the contemporary Trans Am. Maybe models with the 301 V8 and TH200 transmission were mediocre, but not this one.
I’m glad I kept this car. It was a byproduct of the only positive aspect of my father’s disease, the fact that my brothers and I became closer than ever during the time we shared in the duties and responsibilities of his care. If I ever let it go, I’d hope it would be to someone who is a fan of this particular model, such as CC contributors Joseph Dennis or Tom Klockau.
But not yet. Because every time I drive this car I can’t help but smile.