Curbside Classic: 1984 Pontiac Bonneville LE – Better Than A New Volkswagen

Who would be driving a 33-year-old Pontiac on a late winter afternoon when the roads were wet with messy, melting snow?  That question was on my mind as I admired this Bonneville’s near-pristine condition, with no body damage, still-lustrous original paint, and a perfectly preserved interior.  Seemingly contrary to its condition, its presence at a supermarket parking lot on a cold March day suggested its use as a daily driver.  As I photographed this car, a young man walked up, smiling in a way that suggested he was accustomed to people admiring his Bonneville.  He was the owner – and suddenly the puzzle of the car’s condition and location became clear.

The car’s owner – we’ll call him Nick for this article – looked to be in his teens or early 20s, and this is his first car.  He bought it three months earlier from a neighbor who had inherited it from an elderly relative, and Nick seemed to love the distinction that comes from driving a unique vehicle.  Nick, though, is not a car guy.  He couldn’t recall his Bonneville’s precise model year, or whether it had a V-6 or a V-8.  Yet he talked enthusiastically about how comfortable it is and about how his friends love it.  Despite being separated by decades, Nick’s comments likely parallel the reasons for which people bought these cars originally – not for technological or design advancements, but for comfort and social respectability.  In fact, Nick and his car can help explain some of the Bonneville’s original appeal.  In describing his car, Nick noted that he prefers driving it to his mom’s new Volkswagen.  That’s quite a statement, so let’s take a look at this car.

Nick’s 1984 Bonneville traces its roots to 1978, when General Motors’ A-body intermediate car lines received the company’s second wave of downsizing.  The A-bodies included sedan, coupe and wagon offerings from four divisions, among them Pontiac, which initially marketed its car as the LeMans.  The LeMans earned a reputation as a solid, reasonably roomy, comfortable, but unexciting car.  Though LeMans was the most visually interesting A-body sedan (with a pointy beak and slightly angular rear), little distinguished it from its Malibu, Century and Cutlass brethren.  Sales were good, but not great.

Priced below the full-size B-body Bonneville/Catalina and above the compact Phoenix, LeMans occupied the middle ground of Pontiac’s lineup – until Pontiac’s Great Sedan Shuffle of 1982.  For that year, Pontiac killed off its full-size cars entirely, and coronated the existing intermediate sedan as its new flagship.  To drive home the point that it was now the division’s top-end car, the LeMans was given a facelift and was renamed Bonneville.  Not just Bonneville, but “Bonneville Model G” – as if to show off GM’s new letter designation for this car range (from “A” to “G”).

“G,” however, wasn’t Pontiac’s lucky letter.  While sales of the Bonneville Model G increased by 36% over the ’81 LeMans, it was not nearly enough to compensate for the 60,000 B-body sedan sales that Pontiac lost by discontinuing its biggest cars.  Analysts have criticized Pontiac in retrospect for eliminating its full-size offering for 1982, but the decision was made with some forethought.  GM had planned on discontinuing its entire B-body lineup by the mid-1980s in response to the energy crises and the resulting sales plunge experienced by all big cars.  Pontiac simply tried to be an early adopter of that new order.  But instead of fading away, big cars found renewed interest once gas prices stabilized, and Pontiac officials soon regretted their decision.

The best thing that can be said about Pontiac’s premature termination of its full-size cars is that the mistake was quickly fixed.  Midway through 1983, the B-body Pontiac returned – this time assuming the Parisienne name.  For the next three years, Parisienne and Bonneville (the awkward “Model G” suffix was dropped after ’82) were both marketed as Pontiac’s luxury vehicles.  As the ads said, buyers now had a choice.

Source: Edmund’s New Car Prices, 1984.

 

“Choice” was an appropriate term, because the RWD Bonneville and Parisienne, as well as the newer FWD 6000, all overlapped considerably in price.  Any potential customer who could afford one, could afford either of the other two.

Pontiac’s slogan in mid-1980s was “We Build Excitement,” which seemed particularly true for enthusiasts of traditional luxury – probably not what the slogan was intended to represent.

Source: Standard Catalog of Pontiac, 1926-2002

 

Despite the price overlap, Bonneville sold reasonably well, especially for a car that was designed in the previous decade.  Our featured year of 1984 was the high-water mark for Pontiac’s A/G-body sedans, with 73,000 Bonnevilles being sold.  The future, though, was coming into focus at the other end of Pontiac showrooms, as the new A-body 6000 gained steam.  In 1984, rear-drive Bonnevilles and Parisiennes combined to outsell front-drive 6000 sedans handily – however it was the last year for which that would be the case.  After 1984, these traditional cars were increasingly viewed as relics.

Curiously, for a sedan marketed as a luxury car, the base Bonneville outsold the more upmarket Brougham by more than 2-to-1 in 1982 & ’83.  To persuade apparently miserly Bonneville buyers to order some more options, for 1984 Pontiac introduced an LE model to bridge the base-to-Brougham gap.  Nick’s Bonneville is just such a car.

The LE package only cost $227 on top of the base Bonneville’s $9,131 list price.  For that extra expenditure, buyers received minimal upgrades, highlighted by plusher upholstery with slightly contoured front seats.  Even with the LE in the lineup, most buyers still opted for the base model.  Among 1984’s 73,389 Bonnevilles, 56% were base models, 24% LE’s and 20% Broughams.

Nick said his friends jokingly call his car a pimpmobile.  I’d prefer a classier nickname, but their humor is somewhat justified.  After all, cars with cushy bright red upholstery accented by a forest of fake burled wood are not exactly common these days.

This particular Bonneville is well equipped, with a power split bench seat, air conditioning, power windows and locks, a cassette stereo, delay wipers and cruise control.

Of course, no discussion of G-body sedans would be complete without acknowledging the cars’ most memorable quirk – rear windows that don’t roll down.  Nick shrugged off this quirk with indifference; the fixed rear windows are inconsequential to his enjoyment of the car.  Chances are that most original owners felt similarly, even though in hindsight GM’s cost- and space-saving measure is largely ridiculed.  Incidentally, the rear vent windows do open, and they are power operated in our featured car.

In an era when car buyers chose between dozens of stand-alone options, cars often reflected their owner’s personality and priorities.  In this car’s case, it appears the original owner prioritized appearance over performance.  Optional features such as a full vinyl roof, wire wheel covers, and painted pin striping give the black Bonneville a stately appearance.

Meanwhile, this car was not equipped to “add performance to the pizzazz” (as Pontiac’s 1984 brochure eloquently described).  Nick’s car was ordered with the standard engine, a 3.8-liter 2-bbl. V-6 that developed 110 hp, though for an extra $375, customers could choose a 150-hp 5.0-liter V-8 (a diesel engine was also optional in 1984, for a whopping $801).  Other available performance-oriented options included alloy wheels, a full instrumentation package, and wider tires, but these options were all skipped on our featured car.

A trunk lid sticker indicates this car was originally sold in Midland, Texas.  Dry West Texas air may explain the Bonneville’s lack of rust, and the car’s condition suggests that it was garaged for a good portion of its life.  Its geographic origin also explains the lack of a rear window defogger on an otherwise well-equipped car – at $140, it was likely considered unnecessary for a hot and arid climate.

Bonnevilles occupied a very traditional corner of the 1980s sedan market.  With rear-wheel drive, body-on-frame construction, softly-sprung suspension, and velour-and-fake-wood interior, Bonnevilles didn’t pretend they were anything other than traditional.

Likewise, this was clearly a G-body sedan, with a strong family resemblance to GM offerings from three other divisions.  If it seems surprising that Pontiac was able to sell over 70,000 Bonnevilles in 1984 (with a design that was 7 years old by that point), consider that Bonneville’s cousins sold in similar amounts.  These cars took advantage of a significant market for traditional sedans in the mid 1980s.

Befitting a car whose purpose was to satisfy traditional consumers, little changed on the G-body Bonneville sedan from year to year.  For our featured year of 1984, for example, the main changes were slightly updated bumper rub strips.  The Bonneville was well suited for its intended audience, and no changes were necessary.

But nothing lasts forever.  One detail that Nick knew about Bonnevilles was that Pontiac introduced an updated model for 1987.  “They’re not as interesting,” he said.  He’s right.  The ’87 Bonnevilles were more modern, front-wheel drive, and fuel injected, but today they just seem like older cars.  Nick’s ’84, by contrast, is a Classic, and a rolling embodiment of “They Don’t Make Them Like That Anymore.”  And that, of course, is its appeal.

While they were up-to-date in the 1970s when first introduced, GM’s A/G-body sedans showed their age by the time our featured car was built, and some consumers considered them downright archaic.  By any objective measurement, numerous other mid-1980s cars were more technologically advanced, faster, more responsive and more efficient.  But for the 300,000+ customers who bought Bonnevilles between 1982 and 1986, none of that mattered much – the Bonneville made them feel better than did those other cars.  Which brings us back to Nick’s comment that he likes driving his Pontiac more than his mom’s Volkswagen.

Is this Bonneville better than a new Volkswagen?  One would be hard pressed to find any measure of performance, engineering or safety in which the Bonneville excels over a newer car.  But it is, quite simply, neater to look at and to be in.  Those incalculable qualities not only explain why a teenager in 2017 would enjoy owning one of these cars, but also why older drivers three decades ago chose them over GM’s newer A-bodies, or any number of domestic or foreign competitors.  The Bonneville’s appeal lies not with a critique of its attributes but rather with its aura.  Not everyone understands that line of reasoning, but for those who do, Bonnevilles can be very satisfying cars.

As for Nick, who knows how long he will ultimately own his Car of a Lifetime?  But whether it ends up being a long- or short-term experience, I wish him all the best in enjoying his Curbside Classic.

 

Related Reading:

CC: 1984 Pontiac Bonneville Brougham – GM’s Deadly Sin #8   Paul Niedermeyer

CC: 1983 Pontiac Bonneville Wagon – Don’t Ask Questions, Just Roll With It   Brendan Saur

 

Photographed in Falls Church, Virginia in March 2017.