Cohort Classic: 1970 Pontiac Executive Safari – Our Kind Of Brown Station Wagon

pontiac safari1

A running joke in the comment threads mocks the strain of enthusiasm for the mythical object of today’s four-wheel lust: the brown, turbo diesel, manually-shifted station wagon.  Could this faction be reconciled with Curbside Classic’s more red-blooded demographic with a vehicle that fulfills the desires of both tendencies?  If so, I propose that this Pontiac survivor be in the running as the car nut’s ambassador of peace.

Pontiac Safari2

As the alternative to the Vista Cruiser and Buick Sportwagon, this final-year B-body received a very generous makeover for what would be a single-year run.  Despite its bizarre name, which brings to mind business executives piled into the back of a Land Rover, the big Pontiacs were GM’s only full-size, upmarket wagon line-up from 1965 through 1969, until Buick rolled out a one-year version of their Estate Wagon on the B-body for 1970.  Until then, though, either you went with a Chevy wagon, or you got a stretched A-body from Buick or Olds.

ZAF 71 CAT 3 SEAT FFGJ

1970 would be the last year for the second-most-exclusive Executive nameplate; the Bonneville replaced it after the new Grand Ville received top billing between 1971 and 1975.  The arrival of the gigantic 1971 bodystyle was presaged by the abandonment of the loop bumper in 1970 and front vent windows the year before.

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I’m aware that consensus favors the ’69 Grand Prix-inspired restyle, seen at right, but I feel that it’s a bit fussy.  Far be it for me to pooh-pooh such an elaborate grille-cum-bumper assembly, but the decision to fill all that width with body colored panels with circular openings strikes me as somewhat excessive.  It’s a theme which would look a lot better on a narrower car.

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But say what I will, it was nevertheless fresh looking, making Dodge and Plymouth wagons look casual, while lending this GM offering a degree of formality greater than that seen on Ford’s more popular and conservative Country Squire, which had incidentally copied the earlier Pontiacs’ design theme.

1970 Pontiac Prestige Brochure-45-46

None of that mattered once you were inside the car, and as a lighter (than the 1971-1976) 1970–the last year before compression ratios began their downward spiral–there was plenty of response from the standard 400 CID engine, with two-barrel carburetor and a 10:1 compression ratio.  If its 290 gross horsepower and 428 lb-ft of torque weren’t enough, the 455 was available in two states of tune, along with a low-compression (8.8:1) 400 with a taller standard rear axle ratio for those with a more realistic understanding of their wagon’s intended use.  Curiously, the high-compression 400 came with the option for an even taller 2.43:1 rear axle, not available for the low-compression version.  On the other hand, the 455 in its more modest state of tune was available with the shortest 3.23:1 axle not available on the 455 High Output (with its very healthy 370 gross horsepower and 500 lb-ft of torque).

Fullscreen-capture-8302011-81534-PM.bmp-700x394 1966 Bonneville pictured

The years from 1965 to 1970 saw the full-size Pontiacs tumble in the sales charts, with the brand starting out in third place above Olds and Buick only to slide into sixth by the end of the bodystyle’s run.  This wasn’t so much because of any fault of the car itself, but may have had to do more with the fact that Pontiac’s image leader, the Grand Prix, was now built on a smaller chassis, meaning that Poncho’s full-sizers no longer benefitted from any strong association with a halo model, helping erode any reputation for performance over in-house rivals.  The arrival of the enormous 1971s didn’t reverse this trend.

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Also by this time, GM was beginning to solidify its understanding of competitive handling, and revised suspension geometries and Saginaw power steering made for improvements across the corporate B and C body line-up by 1969.  If full-size GM performance is what you’re into, these very late ’60s models are where to look, even if Pontiac was slowly losing its edge.

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Perhaps the new interiors could shoulder some of the blame.  The interior of this 1970 isn’t bad per se, but it lost the distinctiveness of earlier versions.

1966catalina interior

Consider the interior of this lowly ’66 Catalina.  Sure, the A/C vents are uncomfortably perched atop the main dashboard molding, and the metal bottom half may look less hospitable, but the intricacy and detailing are superior to that of the 1970’s smoother looking unit.  What’s worse is the mid-decade Pontiacs, lower in the Sloan-hierarchy, could rightfully point to their interiors as being more expensive looking.  This was no longer the case by 1970, by which point Pontiac’s dashboard was a rather sober looking affair, except compared to Chevy.

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It’d be rough going for Pontiac in the ’70s, with the exception of such cars as the Grand Prix and Firebird, which had to contend with competition from Chevrolet, primarily.  The larger cars and midsize sedans, on the other hand, gave buyers an increasingly muddled message, and our featured car, shot by Eric Clem, helps illustrate the slow forfeiture of the brand’s restrained and purposeful design.

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The dynamic image was one Pontiac’s managers would nonetheless cling to through the bitter end, with increasingly bizarre attempts to distinguish their products with added decoration, but without any decisively unique design ethos over the ensuing years of increasingly corporatized design, success would never come as easily as it had just five short years before this wagon was built.  That doesn’t mean we can’t love it for what it is, however.  Sales aside, full-size Pontiacs were very likable up through the abrupt downsizing of the Bonneville in 1982, wearing their chrome jewelry quite well, and very often in brown, as is the case with this high-octane family hauler.  Given the choice between our featured car and a brand new Jetta TDI wagon, I would opt for Wide-Tracking over Fahrvergnügen.

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Related reading: 1966 Pontiac Star Chief Executive: Executive Privilege1968 Pontiac Catalina: Let’s Go Wide-Tracking