(first posted 2/22/2013) The year is 1977: Jimmy Carter’s inauguration is followed closely by the introduction of brother Billy Carter’s eponymous beer. The musical stars align in a bid to provide supermarkets and TimeLife™ with an endless supply of goose-down-soft “rock”; meanwhile, Elvis expires at Graceland. In Detroit, the Renaissance Center springs forth from the downtown waterfront, signaling a new era. GM wasn’t ready to make the transition just yet; while making great strides in the market with its “downsized” full-size cars, the General still had one foot firmly planted in the early ’70s with its “Colonnade” mid-sizers.
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In 1977, GM had an unprecedented mission: to actually downsize its full-size cars. Their efforts paid off in the form of new full-size bodies from every division, and the silhouettes of each remained a huge presence on American roads throughout the 1980s. The chances are quite good that you’ve either owned (or spent considerable seat time in) a “downsized” GM. For me, it was my family’s ’79 Impala Coupe, which was followed by an ’85 Caprice Classic that my father still refers to as the greatest car he’s ever owned. A sea change was certainly afoot among the Detroit Three…but what of the left-behinds?
GM’s intermediates were forced to endure another year of the Colonnade body style first introduced in 1973. Although generally derided as overgrown mid-sizes, the Colonnade series of vehicles did manage to produce some good looking rides. Pontiac, still hanging on to its ’60s Wide-Track heritage of sport and luxury, managed to produce some of the better-looking cars of the era, even though they were still saddled with B-pillars and Federally-mandated bumpers.
In particular, the ’73 Pontiac LeMans and its later brethren were able to manage what is arguably the best rear-end styling treatment of all the Colonnades; their graceful, “brush-tip” integration of the 2 1/2-mph rear bumper (5 mph rear bumpers arrived in ’74) flows nicely into the fender and door sheet metal and looks particularly good in profile.
While the look was definitely successful in coupe form, the sedans were another story. Their steeply sloped rear trunk, combined with the extra length of the sedan greenhouse, makes for a somewhat awkward outline, and no amount of Landau goodness can mask the fact that there’s just too much glass in the upper half of this Colonnade sedan.
Nonetheless, the Pontiac overlords did what they could for ’77 as they participated in GM’s crash diet, which finally hit the mid-sized cars in 1978. Our feature car is a 1977 Pontiac Grand LeMans, in ’70s-tastic Buckskin Poly with a Light Buckskin vinyl roof. As a Grand LeMans, it sits at the top of Pontiac’s mid-sized lineup, followed closely by the LeMans Sport Coupe and the plain ol’ LeMans.
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So what did ponying up for the “Grand” get you in a Pontiac mid-sized car? Not a whole heck of a lot, really. You could get “seats richly upholstered in cloth or Morrokide”, along with “thick, cut-pile carpet” underfoot…a “Grand Prix-like” instrument panel…and that was about it. Wait, there was one more thing:
…a lovely octagonal stand-up hood ornament, done up in the classic style of monogrammed bath towels. Grand MansLe? Either way, it was a bonafide symbol that the owner had arrived on schedule to the Brougham party, likely with Hall and Oates playing at a tasteful volume through the (optional) AM/FM/CB radio in the dash.
You’d need those soothing sounds to drown out the choking noise coming from under the hood, as the Grand LeMans was a prominent victim of the emissions era. Starting out with the base Buick-sourced 3.8-liter 231 V6, the Grand LeMans was also available with the ill-fated Pontiac 301, as well as a couple of old standbys: the Pontiac 350 & 400 cu in V8s, each sporting a four-barrel carb and putting less than 200 hp to the ground—two once-mighty engines now reduced to hose-adorned wannabe gas misers. Like 99.9% of ’77 LeManses, our feature vehicle is equipped with the venerable Turbo Hydramatic, though technically a three-on-the-tree was available.
Note the prominent ship’s prow and slight point in the middle of the grille…this understated vestige of Pontiac’s once-iconic design language would hang around for quite a few more years. This is also a prime example of GM’s approach to 5-mph bumpers—a huge hunk of rust-prone steel, pre-drilled with slots for the jack. Our feature car has a dainty set of rubber nudgers in case it needs to do The Bump with a lesser vehicle, and nicely integrated turn signals reside between them.
A Grand LeMans also got you this tasteful light bar across the trunk, though the inside “lights” were simply reflectors. And again, we’re reminded of Chris Rock’s screed on planned obsolescence: “They got metal on the space shuttle that can go around the moon and withstand temperatures up to 20,000 degrees. You mean to tell me you don’t think they can make an Eldorado where the [flippin’] bumper don’t fall off?” Luckily, this Poncho hasn’t quite reached that point.
So there we have it, the final postscript to the Colonnade era at GM. The Bicentennial Hangover of 1977 would give way to a brief period of optimism before Jimmy Carter (possibly under the influence of Billy Beer) introduced America to a new energy crisis and the great “malaise” era in 1979. During that brief respite, GM would finally shed its attachment to the Colonnade cars while introducing an all-new series of mid-size platforms. I, for one, still raise a glass of beer to the Colonnades…and to paraphrase Billy Carter, I’ve tasted a lot.