(first posted 1/22/2016) In our last installment, we looked at five Pontiacs that attempted to channel the brand’s sporty image to achieve commercial success. Alas, none of them were particularly successful. This week, we look at three more Pontiacs that attempted to prove Pontiac built excitement… and two that tried a decidedly different tack.
Star Chief Custom Safari Transcontinental
Years produced: 1957
Total production: 1894
The Bonneville name first appeared in 1957 on a limited production, fuel-injected convertible flagship model. A collectible today, the evocative nameplate was quickly applied to Pontiac’s flagship full-size. But there was another limited production Pontiac that year whose name would never be used again: Transcontinental, or as it was officially known, the Star Chief Custom Safari Transcontinental.
This exclusive wagon was priced at a rather lofty $3,636, approximately the same price as Buick’s gorgeous new Century Caballero hardtop wagon. For the asking price you received a 347 cubic-inch V8 and numerous special features not found on lesser Safaris. The rear quarter trim was similar to that of the new Bonneville, and the roof was topped with chrome luggage racks. Inside, leather trim was standard. The front bench’s passenger side could recline, a neat feature for the time. If these niceties weren’t enough, you could lux up your Transcontinental further with the full gamut of power accessories including power windows.
While the Transcontinental outsold the 2-door Safari that year despite a mid-year introduction, Pontiac opted not to continue the line for ’58.
Grand Prix Turbo
Years produced: 1989-90
Total production: 1000 (STE Turbo Sedan), 3500 (ASC McLaren Turbo Coupe)
By the 1980s, Buick had assumed the mantle of GM’s turbocharged division, offering everything from Skyhawks to Rivieras with the technology. As the decade came to a close, GM changed the trajectory of their second most prestigious brand and the boosted Buicks all disappeared. For a while, it seemed like Pontiac was to become the new home of the turbo.
If that was the plan, GM didn’t stick with it. The Grand Am received a 2.0 turbo four from the Sunbird for 1987, but by ’89 it was gone. The wild 20th Anniversary Trans Am, with the blown Buick 3.8, was a one-year, limited-production model. Even the long-running Sunbird turbo was axed in 1991 in favor of a naturally-aspirated 3.1 V6 variant. And yet, despite this context, GM’s LG5 engine – fitted to the Pontiac Grand Prix ASC McLaren coupe and STE sedan – is still an exceptionally peculiar footnote in the history of the excitement division, a brand that was selling up a storm in the 1980s and was the third best-selling brand of 1988.
Manufactured for only two years, this turbocharged 3.1 V6 was unusual in that it was never offered outside of the Grand Prix. No other W-Bodies from other divisions, nor any other Pontiacs, would receive the engine, developed by ASC/McLaren Specialty Products.
A turbocharged coupe came first, introduced in 1989 and priced just over $5k higher than a standard Grand Prix coupe. For the extra money, though, you received a lot of major differences over the already well-praised coupe (Motor Trend’s 1988 Car of the Year). The turbocharged and intercooled 3.1 V6 produced 205 hp and 225 ft-lbs of torque, 15 fewer horses than the Taurus SHO’s 3.0 V6 but 25 more pound feet of torque. The turbo engine also received a lowered compression ratio (down to 8.78:1) and new intakes. Unlike the SHO, the Turbo GP was only available with a four-speed automatic transmission; the SHO wouldn’t receive an auto for a few years. 0-60 was accomplished in under 8 seconds.
Standard features included GM’s slick head-up display, six-way power driver’s seat with three-position lumbar support, anti-lock brakes and keyless entry: impressive kit for 1989. There were also full power accessories, dual exhausts and a driver information center. The only options were a moonroof, CD player and leather seats. The turbo GP also had more aggressive cladding, functional hood louvers and 16-inch cross-lace alloy wheels.
The turbo coupe was intended to be a limited production model, and indeed it was. However, the 1990 STE Turbo sedan was even rarer with just 1000 units produced. The standard STE sedan came standard with the 140 hp 3.1 V6 and a five-speed manual; MSRP was $18,539 while the STE Turbo sedan listed for $23,775. Both models, using a trim level name borrowed from the Pontiac 6000, were differentiated from lesser Grand Prix sedans with monochromatic color schemes with color-coded wheels and a Mercury Sable-esque full-width front light bar, although only the turbo featured the hood louvers.
According to contemporary reports, both the turbo coupe and STE sedan had a surprising lack of both turbo lag and torque steer. While the steering was lacking in feel, the Y99 rally-tuned suspension provided competent and controlled handling with little understeer. The W-Body platform was rather heavy though, and the turbo Grand Prix models weighed around 3,300 pounds: heavier than a Taurus but lighter than the MN-12 Thunderbird.
Another derivative of the 60-degree Chevy V6 would replace the turbo 3.1 for 1991. This was the Twin Dual Cam 3.4 with identical horsepower figures, slightly less torque (down 10 ft-lbs) but an available five-speed manual. It was made available in the STE sedan as well as a new GTP coupe with a unique front end. The best part? Prices were down by around $3k.
Years produced: 1970-71
Total production: 7221
In the late 1960s, the muscle car era was in full swing and GM offered a wealth of options, including the car that helped kickstart this trend: the Pontiac GTO. Plymouth had experienced a great deal of success with its good value Roadrunner, so Pontiac decided to field an inexpensive, entry-level GTO of its own. Somewhere along the way, that model, the GTO Judge, ended up launching with a higher price than the regular GTO. Take two: the 1970 1/2 GT-37.
The 1970 1/2 T-37 was introduced as the cheapest hardtop in Pontiac’s A-Body range, priced at $2683, and the GT-37 was a $198 option package available on it. You didn’t need to have selected the GT-37 package to get a bigger engine, as all A-Body Pontiacs were now available with not only the 350 cubic-inch V8, but even the previously GTO-exclusive 400 cubic-inch V8. The GT-37 package thus was a handling and appearance package, adding heavy-duty springs and shocks, hood-locking pins, dual exhaust, a floor-mounted 3-speed manual with a Hurst shifter, ’69 Judge striping, and Rally II wheels in GR70/14 white-letter tires. The interior was deliberately plain with a bench seat up front – no buckets were available – and less sound-deadening.
For 1971, Pontiac dropped the Tempest name and the T-37 became part of the LeMans family. A two-door pillared coupe was also available with the GT-37 package and all LeMans had a bold new grille. Performance of the 350 and 400 took a hit, lowered compression robbing the 400 of 50 horsepower. However, the 4-bbl 455 and 455 HO were now available in the GT-37 although not many buyers took notice: 5015 of the 5802 ’71 GT-37s built came with the base 350 2-bbl V8, with just 54 455 HOs built.
The GT-37 and T-37 names were gone for 1972, but inexpensive performance lived on in the new LeMans GT model. While the GT-37 had never had the whimsical advertising campaign and decorative touches of the Roadrunner, it seems only fair to assume it would have been a similarly strong seller had it launched the other side of 1970.
Firebird Sky Bird, Red Bird & Yellow Bird
Years produced: 1977-80
Total production: 4,248 (1979 Red Bird)
Pontiac was enjoying a huge resurgence in Firebird sales in 1977 and a lot of that was on the backs of hot-selling Trans Am models. But Pontiac wanted to offer a complete range, and so offered the base coupe, sporty Formula, sportier Trans Am, and the more luxurious Esprit. For 1977, the Esprit received the first of three special edition models. First would be the unique and beautiful Sky Bird.
Photos courtesy of jpezrox’s CarDomain page
It was dubbed Sky Bird because of its Lombard Blue over “Blue” paint and color-matched cast aluminum “Snowflake” wheels. It wasn’t just the wheels that were color-matched, as the vinyl or velour interior was blue as well. Artsy and rather feminine decals adorned the exterior, as did subtle pinstriping. Sky Birds could be had with or without a rear spoiler; if you opted for the spoiler, you received another bird decal. The grille was painted in both exterior colors to help complete the look. The color scheme was like nothing else on the road.
As the Sky Bird was based on the Esprit, the choice of engines included the 3.8 Buick V6, the Pontiac 301 with a 2-barrel carb, and the Pontiac 350 with a 4-barrel carb; the Oldsmobile 350 was used in California. According to Pontiac literature, both the Pontiac 400 and Oldsmobile 403 were optional on the Esprit as well. A 3-speed manual was standard with the 3.8 with a Turbo-Hydramatic optional; other engines could be had with the auto or a 4-speed stick.
The Sky Bird packaged continued for 1978 and was featured prominently in Pontiac’s full-line brochure. Changes included a new two-tone grille and the engine-turned aluminum dash was now tinted blue; Pontiac V8s and the Oldsmobile 403 were gone, replaced by a 2-bbl Chevy 305 and a 4-bbl Chevy 350. By mid-year, the Sky Bird was gone.
Its replacement was the Red Bird, once again sporting a two-tone paintjob but this time in two different shades of red and with gold accent striping; the Snowflake wheels were painted red. The interior, too, was red with gold metal trim.
The heavily facelifted ’79 Firebird retained the Red Bird package, with similar gold accent striping around the relocated grilles and redesigned taillights. Engines carried over but the Pontiac 301 returned with either a 2- or 4- barrel carb, the latter of which was the only Red Bird available with a 4-speed stick. Considering red Firebirds were not exactly uncommon, the Red Bird was the least distinctive of the three special edition ‘Birds.
The Yellow Bird of 1980 was nothing if not dramatic, with a paint job as bright and colorful as the original Sky Bird. Decals, wheels and striping was the same as it had ever been, but now the paint was two-tone yellow over a darker yellow. The taillights also received yellow ribbing. It was only the interior that was less distinctive than its predecessors, as it was a plain tan albeit with gold engine-turned metal trim borrowed from the Trans Am. Performance took a turn for the worse: the 4-speed was gone, although a 3-speed standard remained in the 3.8 V6. V8s were the Pontiac 301, Chevy 305 and the new, lackluster Pontiac 265.
The Yellow Bird would be the last of these special edition ‘Birds and did not return for the second-generation’s final year in 1981. Unfortunately, production numbers cannot be found for much of these special editions’ time on the market. The package itself cost around a few hundred dollars, but it was certainly worth it for some of the most visually distinctive pony cars ever made. Of course, it helped that these Firebirds were also arguably some of the most beautiful pony cars of all time.
(Those seeking more information on these gorgeous ‘Birds should visit this link.)
Years produced: 1977
Total production: 1377
“Remember the goat!” Can Am ads declared. CAFE and the Oil Crisis had all but killed the muscle car, already mortally wounded from rising insurance prices and changing consumer tastes. The GTO had been de-emphasized by Pontiac, with the ’73 GTO receiving virtually no publicity and the related, “European-style” Grand Am instead receiving the marketing dollars. For 1974, the GTO shifted to the compact Ventura, featuring a 350 cubic-inch V8, and the following year it was gone. Perhaps rising Firebird Trans Am sales had convinced Pontiac a GTO revival would be successful.
1977 was no year for performance, but given the context, the Can Am was very racy. It was powered by Pontiac’s 400 cubic-inch V8 with a 4-barrel carb, putting out 180 hp at 3,600 rpm and 325 ft-lbs of torque at a low 1,600 rpm. 0-60 was accomplished in around 10 seconds, around the same as a ’75 LeMans with the 455. Californian Can Ams and those sold in high-altitude areas received the Oldsmobile 4-bbl 403, with identical horsepower figures but 320 ft-lbs of torque at 2,200 rpm. Californian and 49-state Can Ams could be told apart by the decals on their shaker hood scoop: those with the Pontiac V8 read “T/A 6.6” while the Olds V8 versions read “6.6 Liter”. Regardless of engine, the Rally RTS handling package came standard with heavy-duty stabilizer bars front and rear; standard also was a Turbo-Hydramatic transmission (no stick was available), power front disc brakes and rear drums, and power steering.
The shaker hood wasn’t the only visual difference from the regular LeMans coupe. Every Can Am was painted Cameo White with tri-tone accent striping and badges as well as rear quarter window louvers. GR70 x 15 steel-belted radials encircled body color Rally II wheels. The interior used the nicer instrument panel of the Grand Prix.
’76 Grand Am All-American concept
A ducktail rear spoiler completed the look, and this is one of the most important parts of the Can Am story as it was this spoiler that resulted in the Can Am’s premature death. This distinctive design element had been borrowed from the 1976 Grand Am All-American show car, another all-white Colonnade Pontiac that debuted for the Bicentennial. When the Can Am was spearheaded with the help of Jim Wangers, the marketing man who helped create the GTO, 5,000 units of the Can Am were planned. Each Can Am, after manufacture, would be sent to Detroit outfit Motortown to have the spoiler fitted as well as the stripes and shaker hood.
They broke the damn mould. And they didn’t have any backup tooling. Despite an extensive print adveritising campaign created by Wangers and enthusiasm from both critics and consumers, not to mention the fact the spoiler was just one small part of the Can Am package, the powers that be decided to axe the Can Am leaving those on the waiting list furious and critics disappointed. The Can Am may not have been as powerful as GTOs from a decade prior, but it handled capably and even had a compliant ride. With the production run stopped after just 2 months, there was more production capacity for the immensely successful and profitable Grand Prix. Was this the reason the project was so hurriedly abandoned?
Although Pontiac always offered a lineup of plain-Jane sedans and wagons in addition to its sporty models, the brand was always most successful when its advertising and marketing focussed on performance and driving excitement such as during the late 1960s and late 1980s. Had GM executives like Bob Lutz had their way and bankruptcy proceedings not forced GM’s hand, Pontiac would have reportedly become a niche performance brand with a small stable of focussed vehicles like the G8 and Solstice sold at dealerships alongside Buick and GMC vehicles. While this would have made the brand a much more low-volume entity, it is fascinating to imagine what could have been. Instead, Pontiac’s untimely death ended up creating another raft of desirable limited-run models like the G8 GXP, Solstice GXP… And, alas, the Aveo-based Pontiac G3. Let’s just forget that last one, shall we?