Most of us Curbsiders are aware that Canada made its own variants of US cars. Of those cars, Canadian Pontiacs are some of the better known. Although they had similar styling to American counterparts, they were typically built on the smaller Chevrolet chassis making them slightly smaller overall. Pontiacs were part of the medium price field in the US, but in Canada Pontiacs competed in the low price field. Canadian Pontiacs were exported to other countries, such as those in the British Commonwealth. However, other than then the occasional used car being brought across the border, Canadian Pontiacs were not sold in the United States. There was no reason for Canadian Pontiacs to be sold in the US market, particularly since they were marketed completed differently in each country. That was until 1983. This was when the Canadian Pontiac Parisienne immigrated to the United States and was added to the US market Pontiac line-up.
Before we get to that story, let’s do our obligatory history lesson on the Pontiac Parisienne. For the 1955 model year, Canadian Pontiacs adopted a new formula which remained for many years; they used Chevrolet chassis, engines and body shells. The end result was a slightly smaller and differently proportioned car with styling that was very similar to US models. Canadian Pontiacs used a unique model line-up which was closer to Chevrolet model for model than the US market Pontiac. In the mid-1950s, Canadian Pontiacs had three models, the Laurentian, Pathfinder Deluxe and the Pathfinder. This mirrored Chevrolet’s Bel Air, 210 and 150 models.
In 1958, Chevrolet introduced the new Impala as a subseries of the Bel Air, and GM of Canada also released a similar Pontiac model, called the Parisienne which was a subseries to the Laurentian. For 1958 the Pontiac line-up was Parisienne, Laurentian, Strato-Chief (formerly the Pathfinder Deluxe), and the Pathfinder. In 1959, the Parisienne became a full model, just like the Impala and the Pathfinder was dropped, just as Chevrolet dropped the Del Ray. The three model line-up remained for a number of years, just like Chevrolet.
Canadian Pontiacs were highly successful. Pontiac gained market share through the 1950s and by 1960 was Canada’s number two selling brand after Chevrolet, with production levels 94 % of Chevrolet’s. By 1962 Pontiac became the number one selling brand in Canada, a title it held in until the 1965 model year. It’s easy to see why it was so successful. These low priced Pontiacs had styling very similar to their US cousins, but were priced very close to Chevrolet. A Pontiac for the price of a Chevrolet, undoubtedly thrifty Canadians couldn’t pass on such a deal.
Throughout the 1960s the Canadian Pontiac model line-up reflected Chevrolet’s. Chevrolet had its Impala Super Sport, Pontiac had its Parisienne Custom Sport (later the Parisenne 2+2). Chevrolet had the Caprice and Pontiac had the Grande Parisienne. This pattern continued for the most part until 1970, with a few minor exceptions. For the 1971 model year, things got really muddied. GM of Canada started to sell a mixture of American Pontiacs and Canadian Pontiacs. Canadian Pontiacs no longer used Chevrolet bodies and chassis; they used the same body and chassis as US market cars. The only remaining Canadian models were the Laurentian, which was essentially a stripper Catalina and the Parisienne Brougham, which was very similar to the US Catalina Brougham. The engine line-up was a mixture of Chevrolet and Pontiac engines. The smaller engines, like the 350, were typically a Chevrolet V8 while the larger 400 and 455 engines were Pontiac V8s (there were exceptions).
Canadian 1969 Pontiac Full-size Model Line-up
Canadian 1974 Pontiac Full-size Model Line-up
This Hodge podge of US and Canadian models continued until 1977, when things returned to a simpler line-up. Canadian full-size Pontiacs reverted to three models; Parisienne, Catalina and Laurentian. This line-up mirrored the Canadian full-size Chevrolet line-up of Caprice, Impala and Bel Air. The sheet metal, styling and interiors on these 1977-81 Canadian Pontiacs were essentially the same as the US counterparts. The Parisienne was similar to the US Bonneville, the Catalina was similar to the US Catalina and the Laurentian was a stripper Catalina. The engine and drivetrain on these Canadian Ponchos went back to using Chevrolet engines, with a powertrain lineup that was the same as the Chevrolet B-bodies (there were a few exceptions in 1980-81). This model lineup was satisfactory for the Canadian market but things changed after the 1981 model year. That’s when the decision to discontinue the B-body Pontiac in the USA forced a change to the Canadian Pontiac line.
As is well known, GM went on a downsizing binge in the late 1970s. In 1980 the fuel prices were sky high and big car sales were tanking. The 1977 B-body sedan may have been much smaller than the leviathan 1971-76 full-size cars, but they were still very large cars. So it seemed like a logical move for GM to continue to downsize its cars. GM had planned to eventually downsize almost all of its cars, other than the specialty vehicles like Corvette, to smaller FWD platforms. However, GM was a hot mess during this era and so things didn’t quite work out that way.
There were rumors during this era that GM planned to eliminate the full-size RWD B-bodies in the early 1980s. The 1982 FWD A-body sedan was to be the new mid-sized sedan and the old RWD A-body (renamed G-body for 1982) was to replace the larger B-body cars as interim full-size cars until the new FWD replacements were released. For reasons that were never clear, this really didn’t happen, except for Pontiac. For the 1982 model year, the Lemans was dropped and the Bonneville moved down to the G-body platform. The Pontiac B-body was dropped; making the G-body Bonneville Pontiac’s largest offering. Over at Chevrolet, the Malibu received more Caprice-like styling, but remained a mid-sized car which sold alongside the mid-sized FWD Celebrity, while the Caprice/Impala continued as the full-size offering.
This small Bonneville may have been an acceptable solution stateside, but it was not acceptable at GM of Canada. The Buick-Pontiac dealers in Canada had long relied on the full-size Pontiac in its line-up as it was a strong seller in the low priced full-size field. Canadians liked their Pontiacs. So with its limited resources, GM of Canada had to come up with a solution.
The answer was in the Chevrolet Caprice. Oshawa was still producing the Chevrolet Caprice during this time and so it could be used as the basis for a new Pontiac. To change the Chevy to a Pontiac, GM of Canada created a new Pontiac grille, new tail lights (in an Impala tail panel), along with unique Pontiac trim and emblems, and a Pontiac specific two-tone paint job. Compared to the 1981 Pontiac Parisienne, the 1982 lost most of the unique Pontiac features, like the Pontiac dashboard, interior and sheet metal. So it become a badge engineered Chevrolet, but it is somewhat understandable considering the context of the situation at hand.
The full-size model line-up was greatly simplified for 1982. The Laurentian and Catalina were no longer offered, reducing the model offering to the Parisenne and Parisienne Brougham. Both trim levels were offered as a 2-door coupe, a 4-door sedan and a 4-door station wagon. Mechanically, the cars were pretty well unchanged from the 1981 models and were identical to the 1982 Chevrolet Caprice/Impala. The only difference was the Pontiac base was the 231 cid 3.8L Buick V6, rather than the 229 3.8L Chevrolet V6, as was the case in 1981.
Stateside, the Bonneville Model-G continued as Pontiacs flagship full-size car for the 1982 and the beginning of the 1983 model year. Interestingly, GM of Canada did not sell the Bonneville Model G in Canada during 1982 and 1983. Instead, the Canadian RWD G-body Pontiac was called the Grand LeMans, which was literally identical to the Pontiac Bonneville, save for the nameplates and a Canadian engine line-up.
The US dealers were not overly happy with the Bonneville as a substitute for full-size car, in particular with the increase in large car sales. So the quick and easy solution was to import the Pontiac Parisienne from the Canadian market to the US market, which occurred in the latter half of the 1983 model year. The 1983 Parisienne was mostly unchanged from the 1982 models, with the most notable change being the 2-door models being dropped. The US and Canadian market cars were for once nearly identical, with the only differences being in the engine emission configuration. At this time Canadian emission standards were far less stringent than US emissions. So US cars used computer controlled carburetors while Canadian cars used mechanical carburetors. Since Oshawa already built both US and Canadian Chevrolets B-Bodies, doing the same for the nearly identical Parisienne wasn’t a problem.
The 1984 model year was the first full year of production for the Parisienne in the US market, but it saw only a few minor changes. The biggest change related to assembly. It was during 1984 that GM’s Oshawa plant stopped production of all B-body cars, including the Parisienne. So, for the 1985 model year, production of the Canadian Parisienne moved to the United States. With this change, the Pontiac division stepped in to make the Parisienne less of a badge engineered Chevrolet. The old sheet metal dies for the 1981 Pontiac Bonneville/Parisienne quarter panels were dusted off and put back into action. This change also included the addition of fender skirts. The front sheet metal remained unchanged, meaning it used the Chevrolet fenders and hood along with the Pontiac grille. Pontiac made more effort to differentiate the interiors for 1985, with the Parisienne Broughams interior living up to its name. The 1985 effort certainly tried to elevate the car somewhat above Chevrolet, unlike the 1982-84 models which were more of an alternative to the Chevrolet.
1986 was the last year for the Parisienne, and other than minor changes to the engine line-up, it was mostly unchanged. While 1985 Parisiennes’ only gasoline V8 engine was the Chevrolet 305, for 1986 Parisiennes received the Chevrolet 305 V8 or Oldsmobile 307 V8. For 1987, the 4-door sedan was replaced by the new full-size FWD sedan, the H-body Bonneville. The full-size wagon continued for 1987 to 1989, but was simply called the Safari wagon. And so with that, the great Parisienne model name became a historical footnote in the automotive landscape.
Today, many non-Canadians dismiss the Parisienne as just a badge engineered Chevrolet Caprice. Some don’t realize that the name had a long history of being a highly successful and reputable car sold in Canada from 1958 to 1986. The 1982-86 Parisienne might not have been the best of the lot, but it is historically important and one of the only times the GM imported a foreign market Pontiac into the US. It was also good enough to appease the demand for a real full size car in the US market until the release of H-Body Bonneville. Furthermore, these final Parisiennes, while hardly original or innovative proved to be good reliable cars that served many families, mine included, for many years of service. And for those reasons, it should be remembered.