Curbside Classic: 1979 Pontiac Bonneville Brougham Coupe – Who Needs A Cadillac?

Given the number of times I’ve mentioned the ’79 Bonnie sedan my dad had when I was but a tot, it probably won’t come as a surprise to you if I profess my love for the 1977-79 Pontiac Bonnevilles one more time. That said, these B-bodies were not nearly as popular as their Caprice, Delta 88 and LeSabre brethren; as products of GM’s de facto sporty division, perhaps these luxo-cruisers seemed a bit anomalous. Nevertheless, when fitted with Brougham trim and ordered with an indulgent eye on the option list, these cars could do everything a Coupe de Ville did in terms of comfort, ride and handling–that is, everything but offer snob appeal.

As I mentioned in a previous ’72 Catalina CC, Pontiac’s full-size cars sort of floundered during the 1970s. They were perfectly serviceable as daily drivers, but had lost the ’60s style and flash for which they’d been renowned. Exactly what was a big Poncho supposed to be now? A cut-rate Electra 225? A slightly more deluxe Impala? A plus-sized Grand Prix? Even Pontiac didn’t seem to know, and they suffered for it. But things started to pick up with the downsized ’77 Bonnies and Cats, at least to an extent.

I think we all know that the 1977 General Motors B-bodies were introduced at the perfect time. Their clean, uncluttered “sheer” styling, efficient packaging and unexpected room made for a lineup of fine family cars. Although the Chevrolets promptly blew the other divisions’ Bs out of the water, the platform’s inherent goodness helped increase the sales of all the GM full-sizers, including Pontiac’s.

By this time, the midsize segment dominated by the Cutlass Supreme claimed the vast majority of coupe sales; although GM still offered full-size coupes, they were seen far less frequently than their sedan counterparts. The Bonneville (and its Canadian-kin Parisienne, seen above) was quite handsome indeed–perhaps so much so that by the late ’70s, the Catalina was no longer the largest-selling full-size Pontiac. Buyers desiring a big Pontiac opted for the flossier Bonneville and Bonneville Brougham models, leaving the LeMans to other shoppers who simply wanted a plain sedan.

That was probably just fine with Pontiac, which certainly made more profit on a Bonneville. It was easy to distinguish a Bonneville from a Catalina, since the Bonnies had a more “important”-looking grille, wider taillights, fender skirts, a gold sunburst hood ornament, and sunburst side badging on sedan C-pillars and non-Landau-roofed coupe B-pillars.

Frankly, the Catalina (and its Canadian Laurentian counterpart) was starting to look a whole lot like a fleet special that was more (recently departed) Bel Air than Impala–and even less like Catalinas of just a few years earlier. The Bonnevilles simply did “Brougham” so much better.

Between 1977 and 1979, Bonnevilles stayed pretty much the same, save the annual de rigueur grille and taillight updates. The ’79s also lost the chrome wind-split between the rectangular headlights, which were moved closer together, and the cool snowflake alloy wheels had been moved to the option list.

The 1977-1979 model lineup stayed the same, starting with the entry-level Catalina and moving up through the Bonneville and Bonneville Brougham coupes and sedans. One model that did not return for ’79 was the Di-Noc-clad Grand Safari, which was now dubbed the Bonneville Safari. Sadly, it didn’t offer the Brougham’s loose-pillow velour seating.

That ultra-cosseting, floating-pillow velour split-bench seating is the very reason why you’d choose the Brougham. What’s more, this was when interiors came in real colors like red, green, blue, tan, black and white, and not just sepia tones. When properly equipped, these cars could be as luxurious as any Cadillac.

image: ebay.com

Load up your Brougham: Add the snowflake alloys, whitewalls, Astroroof and power everything, and you had an awfully nice car–all for thousands less than a Coupe or Sedan de Ville. Just about the only thing you couldn’t get was a leather interior.

The Bonneville Brougham was a fine automobile, one built before the bean counters completely took over GM and accelerated its nosedive into trouble. The problem was that most folks passed up the Bonnie in favor of the Caprice Classic, which offered essentially the same car (and luxury options) for less money.

Actually, the Pontiac occupied a sort of anti-sweet spot: It not only had a higher sticker price than the Caprice, but for just a few more dollars Bonnie shoppers could buy a more prestigious Delta 88 Royale or LeSabre Custom. Even in the late 1970s, each GM brand had a distinct identity that reflected one’s station in life, and buyers knew it.

While a Bonneville Brougham cost less than a Delta 88, it was ever so much more prestigious to tell everyone at work that you got a new Oldsmobile as opposed to a new Pontiac: “A Pontiac, huh? So then it’s basically a Caprice…right, Bob?”

Hey, under the skin all the B-bodies were pretty similar; still, for whatever reason, Pontiac’s versions consistently owned the bottom of the B-body sales charts. When I posted my ’78 Bonneville CC last winter, it was suggested in the comments section that the Pontiac Bs were the least attractive of the bunch. Well, everyone is entitled to their opinion. Mine is that the Bonneville looks best–however, I freely admit that I’m biased.

image: PontiacChief’s photostream at flickr.com

Dad’s ’79 was the very first car I can remember, and also the first car I remember riding in as a toddler. That car really made an impression on me. Why else would I have such a serious jones for them 30 years later? I know, I’ve said before that if I ever got a Curbside Classic of my own I’d want a ’90-’92 Cadillac Brougham. Finding one of those would be easier than finding a ’79 Bonnie sedan, but I have to admit that I’d take the Bonneville over the Caddy.

As expected, the Bonneville Brougham was the swankiest full-size Pontiac. Peppered with extra features inside and out, the biggest difference from the basic Bonneville was inside. There was loose-cushion velour seating with a 60/40 divided front seat, a fold-down center armrest, deep-pile carpeting, electric clock, custom chrome-trimmed pedals and a ‘luxury’ cushioned steering wheel. Even the trunk was Broughamified, with velour carpeting on both the floor and the spare tire cover–how decadent!

Yes, the Brougham was quite the cushy, well-equipped car, with poofy seats, extra sound insulation and a bright red arrowhead adorning its chromed nose, but it just didn’t sell like the Caprice. However, the 1977-79 Catalinas and Bonnevilles did sell significantly better than their 1976 predecessors.

Pontiac was quick to point that out in the 1978 sales brochure:

“We called them ‘the right cars, at the right time.’ And we were right. Because America’s drivers purchased over 40% more 1977 full-size Pontiacs than they purchased 1976 full-size Pontiacs.”

And the numbers only got better. In 1977, 114,880 Bonnevilles were sold; 125,297 moved in 1978; and 1979 sales totaled 162,491. Not bad, but still a blip on the radar compared with Caprice sales of 284,813, 263,909 and 261,470 for ’77, ’78 and ’79, respectively. While that isn’t good news for folks seeking an affordable collectible, perhaps it still will work in the Bonneville’s favor as time goes by. The relative scarcity may one day enhance both its value and survival rate.

Yes, these cars are my favorites, but sadly are quite rare here in the Midwest. Besides the ’78 Brougham sedan I wrote about previously, over the past two years I’ve seen only a pale green ’79 Bonneville coupe at the junkyard and a white ’78 Catalina sedan (all before my camera-carrying CC days). Then, just a few weeks ago, I quite happily found this silver ’79 Brougham coupe. That’s the whole list. On the other hand, I’ve seen probably two or three dozen ’77-’79 Caprices during the same period.

That I even spotted this platinum beauty was pure chance. For some reason, while on my way to 16th St. I took a rarely-used street in Moline. When I glanced to my right at an intersection, I spotted this Bonneville. What luck! It was even a ’79, like Dad’s.

There was a fresh-vegetable stand across the alley, so after taking a longing glance at that coupe, I headed over to see if one of the customers there was the owner. Dan, the owner, turned out to be a very nice guy who was flattered that I was interested in his old car. I told him my Dad had owned one, and I asked his permission to take some pictures. Dan said that would be no problem.

Dan is the one-and-only owner of this Brougham, which he purchased brand-new at Horst-Zimmerman Pontiac-Cadillac in downtown Rock Island, trading in a ’73 LeMans. He’d also looked at Bonnevilles at Perry Snower Pontiac-Buick, in Moline, but since they wouldn’t deal the silver coupe in Rock Island became his. What I find interesting is that Horst-Zimmerman was right across the street from Illinois Casualty, where my dad worked as an investigator. I find it fascinating that at the same time Dan was doing the deal on his silver Bonneville coupe, Dad was most likely about 50 feet away, sitting at his desk  while his brown Bonneville sedan sat in the parking lot. Small world!

Dan’s Bonneville is equipped with many options, including power windows and door locks, a gauge package, Landau roof, sport mirrors and Rally wheels. He said the car cost about $10,000 in 1979 and that they’ve been through a lot together since then. Dan related an amusing story of a hit-and-run in which the driver of an early ’80s Town Car took off after hitting him. Fortunately for Dan, the “master criminal” behind the wheel left his license plate behind for Dan to take to the local constabulary! Aren’t stupid criminals amusing?

Currently, Dan’s Bonneville has just shy of 90,000 miles on the odometer. It’s not a show car, but still very nice for a thirtysomething-years-old car in the Midwest. Dan still has the fender skirts, too. As you can see, the interior is really nice–and, I’m sure, still very comfortable.

I did a little digital editing of this shot to add fender skirts. It must have been awfully sharp when new–sporty and Broughamy. The fender skirts make the Landau top work a little better, though the non vinyl-roofed Bonnevilles looked even better with their stainless steel B-pillars and razor-edged rear quarter windows.

After taking way too many photos than I needed to (I TOLD you I liked these cars!) Dan and I parted ways. It was great to get to check out his car up close, and chat with its original owner. Big cars like these really were GM’s forte, as confirmed by the many, many B-bodies (but far too few Pontiacs) still in circulation around here. What a shame, since they really were the best ones!