Cohort Classic: 1975-79 Pontiac Ventura & Phoenix – Seeking Greater Fortune

Photo courtesy of nifty43

In Spanish, “Ventura” means fortune. Pontiac must have felt they were suffering from a spate of mala ventura in the 1970s, their electrified image and popularity in the 1960s transitioning to an uncertain brand identity and disappointing sales. The Ventura was one of many Pontiac under-performers in the 1970s and so it was quietly dropped and replaced with the Phoenix. Perhaps GM imagined the Phoenix would make their compact car sales rise from the ashes. They didn’t.

Pontiac had always sold tens of thousands of plain-jane Tempests and Strato Chiefs but, in the 1960s, the Pontiac brand had used aggressive, muscular styling and the halo effect of the performance-oriented Firebird and GTO to storm the sales charts. By 1969, Pontiac was the third best-selling brand in the US. But as performance became an ugly word with rising insurance premiums, stricter emissions standards and the oil crisis of 1973, the brand could no longer rely on its (decreasingly) gung-ho performance models to boost the brand’s image and sales.

Instead, Pontiac awkwardly attempted to be a cut-price Buick with plush models like the Grand Ville and Luxury LeMans. It was, after all, what the market seemed to want: economy or luxury, preferably both. Pontiac’s efforts to reposition themselves achieved mixed results. The Grand Prix personal luxury coupe sold commendably well, if not at Chevrolet Monte Carlo levels, but their intermediate and full-size sales flagged. During the 1970s, Pontiac’s LeMans was regularly outsold by its platform-mates from Buick and Oldsmobile and, of course, Chevrolet. The full-size Catalina, Bonneville and Grand Ville similarly lagged next to other GM full-size models.

The first-generation Ventura, launched in 1971, was a lazy rebadge and a foreboding sign of even more lazy rebadges to come. Shortly thereafter, Buick and Oldsmobile also released rebadged Chevrolet Nova clones, the Apollo and Omega. The Ventura outsold them but fell well short of the Nova.

The redesigned 1975 X-Bodies, boasting a new front suspension similar to the Camaro’s, were slightly more differentiated visually but any pretence of following the Sloan Ladder principle was abandoned. North American buyers wanted economical compacts and every GM division’s dealers wanted cars to sell to them. As a result, Oldsmobile went downmarket with the price leader Omega F-85 coupe and Buick offered the Skylark S. Pontiac even undercut the Chevy Nova’s base price—in 1975, the cheapest Ventura coupe retailed for $3162, while the F-85 was $3203, the Nova $3205 and the Skylark S cost $3234.

Photo courtesy of A Guy In Vancouver

If you were expecting anything exciting or different from Pontiac’s compact, you were out of luck. The base engine in both the Nova and Ventura was Chevrolet’s 250 cubic-inch six. You could opt for Oldsmobile’s 260 cubic-inch V8, available with a new five-speed manual, but this was also available in the Omega. The biggest engine available was Buick’s 350 cubic-inch V8. Trim levels initially consisted of base, Custom, SJ and Sprint. A 1975 GTO, based on the Ventura, was proposed but never reached production.

Each year of the second-generation Ventura carried a different front-end design; this is a 1977

Anything the Ventura did, the other X-Bodies did as well. If you wanted a sporty appearance package, there was the Ventura Sprint but also the Omega SX and Rally Nova. A more luxurious interior? Nova LN/Concours/Custom; Omega Salon/LS/Brougham; Skylark S/R; Ventura SJ. If you wanted Pontiac’s new 301 cubic-inch V8, you could get that in both the Ventura and the Buick Skylark. The Ventura, therefore, was for people who wanted a compact and liked their local Pontiac dealer. Or it was intended for people who couldn’t haggle their local Buick or Oldsmobile dealer down enough on price.

The only feature unique to the Ventura was Pontiac’s Iron Duke four-cylinder, introduced as a credit option in 1977. Considering the standard-fit Buick 3.8 V6 was regarded by many as underpowered, the Iron Duke was hardly a feature worth crowing about, even if Ford and Chrysler didn’t offer four-bangers in their compacts.

The range-topping Ventura SJ almost seemed special. It had bucket seats and a console as standard, as well as Pontiac’s Rally Tuned Suspension. It also was sized closer to the European sport sedans Pontiac fancied as competition for their Grand Am. But where the Grand Am received extra effort in the form of an attractive dash not shared with lesser LeMans models, as well as a daring front fascia, the Ventura SJ resembled a base Ventura with bucket seats and a firmer suspension. Which, in essence, is exactly what it was. It was also starved of marketing while the Grand Am had been advertised extensively on TV and in print media. The Grand Am was hardly a roaring sales success but the Ventura SJ smacked of a missed opportunity to target aspirational domestic car buyers and reassert Pontiac’s identity.

To GM’s credit, they had attempted to broaden the scope of the 1975 X-Body ranges by offering the more luxurious trim options consumers were clamoring for. However, Ford had developed a machine that could print money—the Granada. With upscale styling inside and out but humble, relatively economical Maverick underpinnings, the Granada was a profitable vehicle that was exactly what economy and cost-conscious consumers were looking for. GM’s top-line X-Bodies were much subtler in appearance and suffered for it, even if they were dynamically superior.

photo courtesy of dave_7

Halfway through 1977 model year, Pontiac introduced the Phoenix sedan and coupe. Changes from the Ventura included a more formal nose and ribbed, chrome lower body mouldings. The Phoenix was initially intended to slot between the Ventura and LeMans, like the Granada slotted between the Maverick and Torino/LTD II. However, like the Maverick, the Ventura was axed after 1977.

While the Phoenix had initially arrived in one well-specified trim level, for 1978 the range was expanded to include a hatchback; the line was split into base and plusher LJ trims. Engine offerings were mostly the same as the Ventura: a standard Buick 3.8 (231 CID) V6 and optional 2.5 (151 CID) four-cylinder and Chevy 5.0 (305 CID) 2-bbl V8 engines, but no longer any Pontiac 301. The largest engine available was now the Chevy 5.7 (350 CID) 4-bbl V8, but only in California and high-altitude counties. Those regions missed out on the standard three-speed and optional four-speed manual transmissions.

The Phoenix was no longer Pontiac’s premium compact and had to fulfil both roles. While you could kit one out with a V8, bucket-and-console interior and Pontiac’s RTS, you could also buy a base model with a plain full-width bench and a 105 hp V6 that groaned under the weight of the 3000 pound body.

In 1977, Pontiac shifted a total of 90,464 X-Bodies, less than a third of total Chevy Nova sales. For the first year of the Phoenix flying solo, sales dropped to 76,527 units despite the arrival of the new base trim. Furthermore, the vast majority of those sold were the new base sedan and coupe, outselling the LJ sedan and coupe by around 4-to-1 (curiously, the base hatch was the slowest seller; it was never offered in LJ trim either). These figures were disappointing. The Mercury Monarch outsold the Phoenix. So too did the Buick Skylark, although the Oldsmobile Omega’s pathetic sales figures made the Phoenix’s look good by comparison.

While the Phoenix wasn’t dramatically different from the Ventura, it still represented an investment of marketing and development dollars and it couldn’t turn around Pontiac’s compact car sales. Why GM chose to release the Phoenix so close to the end of the RWD X-Body’s run was a mystery. It did serve to introduce the Phoenix name which would be used on Pontiac’s FWD X-Body in the 1980s, but the RWD Phoenix lasted just 2 model years—the abbreviated 1977 run, a full year in 1978, and a truncated run in 1979 as the FWD cars arrived early.

The new FWD Phoenix also didn’t have any buena ventura. It was somewhat of a turkey, falling behind the Chevrolet Citation and Buick Skylark in sales and then self-destructing after word spread of the new platform’s reliability issues.

The flight of the first-generation Phoenix represented the confusion reigning at Pontiac as GM tried to massage luxury into their models to stop the bleeding. By 1980, Pontiac had fallen below Buick and a dynamic Oldsmobile in sales volume. The 1970s had been rough for Pontiac but, fortunately, the 1980s would be a new dawn for the brand. Pontiac doubled down on its “excitement” brand marketing and offered more dynamic and, crucially, visually sportier cars and sales took off much like they had after similar efforts in the 1960s. A new compact, the Grand Am, lead the sales resurgence. While the Pontiac Phoenix never rose from the ashes, the Pontiac brand did. The excitement brand finally enjoyed some buena ventura again, for a while.

Related Reading:

My CC: 1972 Pontiac Ventura II – Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained

Curbside Classic: 1975 Chevrolet Nova Custom – ‘X’ Marks The Spot Of Its Uncertain Future

Vintage Review: 1975 Chevrolet Nova LN – Chevy’s Take On A BMW

Curbside Classic: 1977 Oldsmobile Omega F-85 – The Fully Clothed Stripper