Curbside Classic: 1979 Pontiac Bonneville – Yacht Rock

Recently, there have been a few things from my early childhood that have come back into my present consciousness, eliciting genuine affection.  Having been born in the mid-1970s, in the tail-end of the age demographic known as “Generation X”, I can attest that many of my peers and I have collectively displayed a penchant for irony.  In my college years, I used to play along when all of us in the TV room of our dormitory floor would make fun of things we had come to associate with our parents’ generation.  Sometimes, though, I’d be thinking, “Wait a minute… I actually like that.”  For some of us, it can take a little while to develop the courage to applaud and defend the unpopular things we like.

In one of my recent essays here at Curbside Classic, which featured a final-generation Buick Roadmaster, I had referenced how the downsized “B” platform, when newly introduced for model year ’77, was pretty much universally acclaimed.  A successful downsizing of GM’s full-sized cars meant greater efficiency, maneuverability, and space utility.  As great as those cars were, I had never paid that much attention to them until I started reading about them here at CC, about five years ago.  It wasn’t that I had any particular problem with these cars, but rather it’s that they seemed to fade into the background, much like the radio hits that got significant, recurring airplay on the Adult Contemporary radio stations when I was growing up.

I recently purchased a couple of compilation CDs of what might be termed soft rock or “Yacht Rock” – and I almost can’t handle the smoothness, in the best way.  It’s bliss.  All of a sudden, these collections of songs, TV commercials for which used to elicit loud, unforgiving guffaws from my cohorts, are now absolutely some of my favorite sets of jams tunes.  Many of these songs are of the slick, mega-produced, West Coast ilk, the likes of which I used to hear in lobbies, elevators and department stores when I was a kid.  Such songs featured some of the best session musicians and producers of that time, and big budgets.

This metaphor came to me at the most random of times, but it makes sense to me that the 1977-’79 era of downsized B-Bodies, and specifically this ’79 Bonneville, are the automotive embodiment of Yacht Rock.  In 2019, this car is definitely a “yacht”, and I do not mean that in any pejorative sense.  And despite its obvious patina, I think it rocks just the way it is.  The body is otherwise straight and clean, all lights and most chrome trim is accounted for, and (if I remember correctly) the interior was also in pretty good shape.

To expand on this “Yacht Rock”-metaphor, it’s all in the little details on this Bonnie.  There’s the chrome strip on the hood that culminates in the octagonal stand-up hood ornament.  (Look at the gold filigree sunburst on that miniature work of art.)  This precise level of detail could be likened to Walter Becker’s and Donald Fagen’s insistence on six hours of takes from seven different session guitarists to select the seconds-long guitar solo on their band’s (Steely Dan’s) #11 Billboard Hot 100 hit, “Peg”.  (One of Jay Graydon’s takes was ultimately picked as the guitar solo featured on this hit.)

The icy blue shade of what must be the original paint makes me feel like being out on the water, like a “Cool Change” (Little River Band, 1979) or two are due for me in 2019.  All of this Bonneville’s classy, brassy, shiny chrome is reminiscent of many a live orchestra that was brought in for recording sessions of the ’70s, versus the ’80s-on practice of using synthesizers.  I’ve got a “Lotta Love” (Nicolette Larson, 1978) for this Poncho, especially in the original, unrestored shape it’s in.

There were close to 179,500 Bonnevilles produced for ’79, with three bodystyles and two trim levels, of which this base-model sedan took the lion’s share of sales with 71,900 out the door.  From a sales standpoint, the Pontiacs were mid-pack (below Chevrolet and Oldsmobile, but above Buick), with about 226,500 full-sized models sold, including 47,000 downmarket Catalinas.  From an aesthetic perspective and to my eyes, they give away little or nothing to the Buick LeSabre or Olds Eighty-Eight, though I like the Chevys the best.

Naturally, Chevrolet would “Steal Away” (Robbie Dupree, 1980) with the most full-size sales that year, with its deftly-styled and smartly-priced Impala and Caprice, with over 588,500 units (combined).  Also for ’79, Buick clocked in with 172,000 units (including the Estate Wagon) and Oldsmobile moved about 291,500 units (including the Custom Cruiser wagons).

I have a (very) wide range of tastes in both cars and music, but I must give credit to the other writers (and commenters) at Curbside Classic for having encouraged me to give these cars a second look through their own enthusiasm for them.  The automotive landscape will “Never Be The Same” (Christopher Cross, 1980) as it was back when this Bonneville was new.  U.S. production of many domestic-branded private passenger cars seems to be coming to an end in the near future, which “Hurt[s] So Bad” (Linda Ronstadt, 1980).  This, however, is what continues to make sightings like this old Pontiac all the more special.

Lakeview, Chicago, Illinois.
Saturday, November 20, 2010.

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