Curbside Classic: 1978 Pontiac Grand Prix – GM’s Deadly Sin #14

(first posted 3/2/2011)   Having repeatedly been confronted with the picture of the 1963 Grand Prix in other articles the last couple of days made me think: when exactly did the GP really start its final descent? And then a mental image of this picture of a 1978 GP popped up. I shot this in San Mateo a while back, sitting there so modestly with its dog dish hubcaps and all. The question was answered. The sin of name debasement was rampant in Detroit, but here’s an example as deadly as any.

Let’s bring it out one more time: the ’63 was a stunner, and undoubtedly Pontiac had its work cut out for it in trying to sustain the GP’s halo car image.

By 1967, the GP was getting a bit hippy, and not in the usual sense of the word for that year. But it still managed to convey a certain exclusivity, especially in the ads of the times.

The GP had been downsized before, in 1969, when it rode on a 118″ version of the new mid-sized GM frames. It was a bold step to inject new life into the personal luxury coupe, and ignited that mammoth American love affair with that segment, especially now that it was a bit more affordable. Although now not quite as exclusive, the GP’s stunning good lines (here in what may be my best photo ever, thanks to a setting sun) managed to keep its reputation largely intact.

The 1973 – 1977 Grand Prix was more than a bit challenged to keep up appearances, but its dramatic lines, sculptured beak and very distinctive tail allowed it to hang on, just barely. In this piece we won’t go much into GM’s quality issues of the seventies, and focus more on the styling, and the image the GP exuded, or didn’t. Regardless of how one feels about this generation, it did draw looks, if not always the most admiring ones. The field was now very crowded, and the Cutlass Supreme had somehow captured America’s attention in a way the GP didn’t anymore. Perhaps this GP is too masculine or slightly threatening looking compared to the Cutlass, which exuded a more benign image of gentle middle-class luxury coupe aspirations.

I apologize for the lack of proper front-quarter and rear-quarter shots of this car, which was one of the first I ever shot. What struck me was the side view (top), and how remarkably plain and un-eyecatching it was. This was a Grand Prix? GM’s only effort in trying to maintain any sense of ties to the GP’s heritage was in the beak, but it now too was only a  pathetic little caricature of the dramatic 1971 GP beak (below).

I understand that GM’s first wave of downsizing presented challenges in the effort to shed weight, but really…how about going against the grain and bringing back the round headlights? Anything to get away from that profoundly generic front end.

I suppose it still beats the tail, which has now been utterly plucked of any plumage. How the mighty have fallen.

The GP’s dash is the only bit of attempted flair in this otherwise utterly undistinguished interior. I won’t even bother to show you the ’63’s sacred space.

At least Pontiac acknowledged the GP’s decline with a modest price reduction, from the 1977’s base of $5120 to the 1978’s 4880. But that doesn’t begin to reflect the drastic decontenting that occurred in that transition. The 1978’s standard engine was now the 231 (3.8 L) V6, which brought 105 (net) hp to the non-party. A 301 (5.0 L) V8 version with 140 hp was available, as well as a 150 hp version for the GP SJ. At least the V8’s had a half-way reasonable power-to-weight ratio with the new lighter body. But what about the vaunted GP glamor?

I’m going to do something I usually don’t, and repeat the top picture again, because it tells the sad story of the once Grand Prix better than any more of my words can ever do.