There is no denying Pontiac was cool in the 1960’s and ’70’s. Very few enthusiasts of American cars of the era can say that there aren’t at least a few Ponchos that get their hearts racing on sight, particularly if they have initials for their name or a fiery bird on their hoods.
As expected, more than a few Pontiacs were fielded at the collector car auctions in Scottsdale, Arizona during January. Click through for a sampling of what the Chief had to offer there.
My project of writing up the cars I found most interesting on my auction trip is starting to wind down, with just a few more editions I want to hit. I’ve saved some of my favorites for last, with Pontiac being one of them.
All the Barrett-Jackson and Russo and Steele cars have links embedded if you want to see all the pictures and info the auction houses supply online. The Silver cars don’t have links or prices since they have not posted any post-sale information online.
Most here are probably familiar with the headlines of Pontiac’s history leading up to their glory years. Starting in 1931, Pontiac had been the second rung on the GM ladder (1909, if you count Oakland). Their cars were similar to Chevrolets, but a little more upscale. Over the years, they even developed a reputation for being a little dowdy and boring. Something your parents or grandparents would drive.
When Semon “Bunkie” Knudson became division manager in 1956, he set about to change that image. The mantra famously attributed to him is “You can sell a young man’s car to an old man, but you can’t sell an old man’s car to a young man”. Truer words have probably never been spoken in the realm of car marketing. The first cars to hit the market that had his full influence were the 1959 models, like this 1959 Bonneville seen at the Silver Auction.
This is the first year for the split grille, arrowhead logo, and wide track. The car is pretty far from a #1 condition, but an absolute beaut none-the-less. I don’t know if it sold, but unless it had an overly high reserve, I can’t imagine everyone being able to resist its charms. (update: I found Hagerty reported it sold for $23,760)
I have to say from certain angles, I find this car almost strange looking, particularly the side view. Excessive rear overhang was typical for cars in this time period, but the Pontiac’s seems somehow excessively excessive.
The rear deck is amazing. From the rear, it looks like you could turn on the taillights and back up lights and have it serve as a emergency landing strip for a small plane. Or remove the trunk lid and you’d have a virtual El Camino.
The colors look somewhat muted in the photo, but there are three different shades of green on the seats. Dashboard is handsome, in its fully chromed ’50’s way. From any direction you look at it, it’s a heck of a car.
For 1963, Pontiac settled on the iconic styling theme they would use for the next 5-6 years, encompassing many of their most popular cars. Kicking off the hit parade is a 1963 Catalina which sold at Barrett-Jackson for $19,800. The car has definitely been restored, and probably bears little resemblance to how it looked when it left the factory, but that doesn’t take away any of its charm to my eyes. I love the red color, dog dish caps, 4-speed and the whole package. The late ’60’s steering wheel is about my only quibble with it.
Right next to it is a car that pushes my buttons even more, a 1965 Catalina hardtop coupe selling for $28,050. This one is also not very original, with many non-stock modifications. Not usually my style, but it doesn’t matter, I’d still put this car in my garage any day of the week (assuming it would fit). I love the deep, dark red and even the torque-thrust wheels suite the car well.
I believe the first classic car show I went to was when I was 13. One of the cars there was a ’65 Pontiac that I thought was really sweet looking. This was in the mid ’80’s when cars were mostly squared off, bland and slow. The big Pontiac was a revelation with its long sweeping lines, coke bottle fenders, fastback roofline and stacked headlights, not to mention the lofty pre-smog power ratings. I was smitten and have loved the car ever since.
In the swap meet area of that show I found a Motor Trend magazine from February 1965, which was the Car of the Year issue when they gave the award to Pontiac’s full line. Inside was a road test of each model, my favorite being the 2+2. I sometimes get asked by a non-car person, “What’s your favorite car?” You’ve probably experienced the same thing as a car enthusiast. I’ve found that as hard to answer as asking a music lover what’s your favorite song or even a parent what’s your favorite child. But for my answer, which is true, I always say 1965 Pontiac Catalina 2+2 (with a tri-power 421 and 4 speed manual).
Obviously, this Catalina is not a 2+2, but it is still pretty darned cool. The main visual difference is the lack of bucket seats, the main mechanical difference is the 421 was standard.
I think my general affinity for full-width dashboards may have come from the ’65 Pontiac. The dash is another area that this car stands out with such a simple, attractive design. This car has the radio deleted, but a great detail on the Pontiac dash is the heater and radio controls that are made to match each other. I also like the chrome trimmed pedals, translucent steering wheel and on upper-trimmed cars, real wood veneer.
The only other ’60’s full-size Pontiac I saw in Scottsdale was this 1965 Grand Prix at Russo and Steele, selling for $17,500. An article chronicling ’60’s Pontiacs would be lacking without seeing a set of Pontiac’s incomparable 8-lug wheels/brake drums, so here they are. The Grand Prix shared the shorter 121 in. wheelbase with the Catalina, but had most of the equipment of the longer Bonneville and a unique roof treatment. It came standard with the Bonneville’s 325hp 389cid V8, but as on all full-size models, engines up a 376hp 421 were available.
Just to highlight how different 1965 was from today, or even from 1975, the full-size Pontiac line had 9 different versions of their engines available, depending on model. They also all came with a three-speed manual standard, even the Bonneville and Grand Prix. Three-speed Turbo Hydramatic (Turbo 400) was optional, though probably found on most cars out there. Also available on all models: your choice of 12 different rear axle ratios and a four-speed floor-shifted manual, even on wagons. Bonneville wagons were available with bucket front seats and console. Color choices were impressive, too, with 15 exterior and 8 interior colors.
If I wanted to complain, I would say that this car rides too low in front while the Catalina above rides too high. But I don’t want to complain. How often does one get to see full-size ’65 Pontiacs in the metal? Not often enough to nitpick.
It should not be a surprise to learn that the bulk of ’60’s Pontiacs at high end auctions are GTOs. Barrett-Jackson this year had 17, plus a few customized Tempest/LeMans. A 1964 GTO convertible was inside at B-J, selling for $47,300. Seemed like a good price for a very clean droptop inaugural GTO.
Here’s why most people come to Barrett-Jackson, to see cars like this 1965 GTO. It’s a concours-quality show car, recently restored to be better than new. You won’t find one in better condition, so perhaps the sale price of $154,000 doesn’t seem too astronomical for what is probably the most popular year and model of Pontiac ever. Next to it is a similar quality black ’64 hardtop that sold for $150,700.
The seller provided lots of studio beauty shots like these, which I include here to make up for my terrible photograph. For the record, I think the dog dish hubcaps are super cool, but I do find it funny that what was considered cheap in 1965 and usually jettisoned for some aftermarket wheels on day two, is something people pay six digit prices for today.
If you were more interested in getting a ’65 Goat you could actually purchase and drive, you could have picked up this rather high-riding one for $40,700.
Or a low-riding one for $64,900 . This tastefully modified, super sharp car looked great in person. I’d take it!
For 1966, Pontiac’s Tempest/LeMans line adopted the major styling themes of the full-size line, creating one of GM’s most attractive models ever, in my opinion. GTO became a separate series and had what would prove to be its best sales year ever, moving 96,946 cars (2/3’s with manual transmission). Russo and Steele sold this very sharp 1966 GTO Sport Coupe for $38,000.
Sadly, 1966 was the last year for the sexy triple carbureted engine. I’m not sure what percentage of 1964-66 GTO’s had tri-power, but if you figured based on auction cars, you’d assume most of them had it. Post coupes sold just over an eighth as well as hardtops coupes and worse than convertibles, so this car is a little bit of a rare bird..er.. goat.
Pontiac wisely chose not to mess with success, making only detail changes to their beautiful car in 1967. The newly enlarged 400cid V8 was standard. Triple carbs were gone, but there was now a Ram Air option which gave the top engine the same 360hp rating as the tri-power engine had in 1966.
’66-’67 GTO’s had great looking interiors with a nice round speedometer and gauges, trimmed with handsome woodgrain. A hood mounted tachometer was a bit of a trademark feature and really cool, if not real practical.
The famous Rally II wheels made their first appearance for 1967, though original Rallys were still available.
GM’s new 1968 mid-size platform was a greatest hit for them, with all four divisions fielding versions that are beloved classics today. In my opinion, Pontiac’s rendition was the best looking, at least initially. Feel free to let me know if you disagree in the comments. I think the guy in the background is trying to convince his wife what a great family car this would make.
The lines on the car are clean and handsome, with no excess styling like the Buick and Chevrolet could be argued to have had in ’68-’69. The Endura plastic front end was original and sharp. The car looks great as a hardtop, or a convertible like this 1968 GTO at Barrett-Jackson. It sold for $40,700.
Verdoro Green may be my favorite color in ’68-’69 GTOs.
Same color, more sheetmetal. I found this clean 1968 GTO at Silver. I hope it found a good new home, because I’m sad it’s not in my garage. Unlike the convertible above, this one has the standard exposed headlights.
I came for the color, but stayed for the interior. This car caught my eye with its bench seat interior, which was said to be all original. As with triple carburetors, you might get the idea from auctions that all GTO’s had bucket seats. I don’t know the percentages, but between attrition and restorations, there are surely a much lower portion of Goats with bench seats around today than there were in the ’60’s.
It looks like a GTO, but it’s not. It’s a 1971 T-37 with the GT-37 option. Starting in mid year 1970, T-37 was the new entry level mid-size Pontiac model (supplanting the Tempest). The GT-37 seems to be a response to the success of the Plymouth Road Runner and increasing insurance rates, offering a performance model below the GTO. It came standard with a 2-barrel 350 but the 1971 model could be optioned up to the GTO’s top 310hp (net) 455 . It also came with Rally IIs, white letter tires, dual exhaust, hood pins and stripes (this car missing the stripes).
The T-37 and GT-37 were dropped for 1972 (and the GTO reverted to an option package). Only 5800 GT-37’s were made for 1971, on top of 1,419 1970’s, making it a fairly rare car. This gorgeous cruiser has a 4-barrel 400 and automatic, making 255 net hp if it’s unmodified.
Russo and Steele had a 1977 Can Am, another great car to see if you like obscure ’70’s cars like I do.
By 1976, the GTO was long dead. The Trans Am was gaining in popularity as arguably the only remaining muscle car in the industry. Pontiac figured they could take some of that Trans Am muscle mojo and put it back onto their mid sized car, which could use an image enhancement. Kind of a latter day GTO, but strictly a limited edition proposition. This car sold for $16,500.
Like many of the old ’60’s muscle cars, the Can Am came with a bench seat, the bucket seats and console were optional. If you have a big collection of Steely Dan and BeeGees tapes, don’t worry. The owner is providing the original 8-track stereo with the car, setting it on the seat to prove it!
This particular car struck a chord with me because I once owned a 1976 LeMans coupe (in the ’90’s), white with Rally II wheels and red interior. Very similar to this car, except that it wasn’t a Can Am and was “powered” by the Olds 260cid baby V8.
If I didn’t get my Can Am fix at Russo and Steele, not to fear, Barrett-Jackson had one too! Their 1977 Can Am sold for $26,400, which makes sense because this car looked a bit cleaner. It was described as unrestored and looked very sharp in every visible area. It didn’t specifically mention having original paint, but I saw no evidence of a respray. Probably as nice a Can Am as you’re likely to find.
The Can-Am was a neat package. It had the Trans Am’s optional W72 200hp 400cid V8, Turbo 400 transmission, and the Grand Prix’s dashboard (the only LeMans to have any of those features). Production was short circuited to only 1377 cars, out of a planned 5000, due to a production problem with the unique rear spoiler.
As the lead photo suggests, this article wouldn’t be complete without a healthy dose of Firebird. We’ll start with a 1969 Firebird 400 convertible at Barrett-Jackson, selling for $34,100. Surprisingly, B-J only had three 1st generation Firebirds, all of them 1969’s. Firebird 400’s came, sensibly, with the 400cid V8. 330hp was standard, with two Ram Air packages good for up to 345hp. The seller didn’t specify, so one could assume it has the standard engine turning it’s automatic transmission.
I’m not actually a big fan of ’69 Firebirds. Chevy hit such a home run with the ’69 Camaro, I always thought the Pontiac paled in comparison. The lines aren’t as clean and the detailing is a little fussy. I usually prefer the ’67 or ’68, but this ’69 was really appealing to me. The stance and wheels are just right, plus the dark blue works well with it and a droppable top adds to the charm of just about any car.
Now this is some tasty Pontiac, a 1974 Trans Am Super Duty 455 at Silver Auction. Most are probably familiar with the SD455 story, so I won’t go into detail. Pontiac went all in on building an engine for 1973 with maximum power in a low compression, emissions compliant powerplant, at a time when most other manufacturers were running away from performance. Only 1,296 were made total, with 1002 of them being 1974 models. Power output was 290hp net and 390lbs-ft of torque, with great driving characteristics due to the years of acquired V8 wisdom Pontiac Engineering showered on this engine.
Being a Silver car I don’t know if it sold, but I suspect it didn’t since it wasn’t on Hagerty’s top 10 list. B-J had a fully restored ’74 SD that sold for $121,000, fitting with these being the most highly valued 2nd generation Firebirds.
Similar color but not so fast, Barrett-Jackson had a great looking 1978 Trans Am. It was claimed to be all original except for new paint and graphics, though no mileage was specified. Someone paid $33,000 and I’ll bet he went home very happy.
The coffee table book on the windshield is called Pontiac Firebird: 50 years, the cover of which is a photo of this car’s screaming chicken.
The body condition could not have been any more perfect. I like that it has Rally II wheels, instead of the beautiful but more common snowflakes. It has the more powerful of the two engines available, the W72 220hp 400cid Pontiac V8. With big valves and high lift cam, it was as serious an effort at performance as anyone was making at the time. That was not bad power for the era, the most since 1974 and after 1979, the most it would have again until the 1988 GTA (when genuine Pontiac V8’s were a distant memory). Many people prefer the ’78 front end over the ’79, including me, so the ’78 model is one of the favorite years for many Trans Am lovers. Amazingly, the Firebird never had a problem with giant, ugly bumpers.
If you like the front facelift for ’79-’81 (and I wouldn’t kick it out of my driveway), this 1980 Turbo Trans Am Indy Pace Car was stunning. It looks great in white and silver, and I’ve always loved these Turbo-Cast aluminum wheels. And thanks to the subtle decal package, model identification is no problem with this car! I was an impressionable kid when these were new and yes I built that Monogram 1/8 scale model. So, I clearly have an overly soft spot in my heart for these flashy cars.
It was not nearly so flashy under the hood. The engine was not glamorous looking, but the turbocharged, 4-barrel 301cid Pontiac V8 was a valiant effort to keep decent power in the new CAFE era. It made 210hp and 345lb-ft, so at least on paper, it wasn’t bad output, especially considering that a non-turbo 155hp 301 was standard in the Trans Am. I don’t know a lot about these engines. Does anybody here have any first hand experience?
This car was seriously mint, with 15k miles and original paint, selling for $22,000.
If you like Trans Am’s, and you probably quit reading already if you don’t, this is the car. The Bandit.
Silver came through again, offering this speedy black 1977 Trans Am. As Silver cars tend to be, it was in really good, not perfect, condition. It had enough small flaws to suggest it hasn’t been extensively refurbished, assuming it didn’t spend its first week on a cross-South illegal beer run in hot pursuit by the law. Whoever thought of the gold pinstriping package was a genius, it suits these cars so well.
Burt Reynolds drove his black 1977 Trans Am Special Edition out of the trailer, and into automotive immortality. It was just so black and shiny, and gold, and cool, and great sounding, and great looking…the perfect car for somebody who’s main occupation is showing off. It didn’t matter that it only had 200hp, the movie made it seem infinitely fast.
Smokey and the Bandit vindicated Pontiac’s wise decision to keep building a musclecar that was bold and as fast as they could muster at the time. When that cultural tsunami hit, Pontiac had what everyone wanted and was ready to sell a zillion cars.
About those zillion cars. Pontiac could have easily thrown in the towel on the Trans Am after selling only 10,255 of them in 1974, like Chevy did with the z-28. Or gotten rid of the Firebird completely after 1972 sales of only 31k total. Instead, they decided to stay the course. Their efforts at building the brand were paying off by 1976 when they sold 110k Firebirds, including 46k Trans Ams. Not bad growth, but then the movie was released in May 1977. The first full model year after the movie, 1978, saw 93k Trans Ams sold (out of 187k Firebirds). The crest peaked in 1979 with 117k Trans Ams (out of 211k Firebirds). Not all of that is attributable to Burt Reynolds, of course. It seemed like America would buy tons of just about any car with two doors, and 1978 and ’79 were really good years for the U.S. auto makers generally. Still, the Firebird/Trans Am was the right car at the right time. Just imagine how many they might have sold if they could have placed a Trans Am in Star Wars!
East bound and down!
As a postscript, there was this in the vendor section at Barrett-Jackson. If you love the Bandit enough, you may want to purchase one of these! It’s a highly modified Camaro, obviously.
Hope you enjoyed seeing these Pontiacs as much as I’ve enjoyed revisiting them! Feel free to share your opinions or memories of these cars in the comments.
Follow up article on “what’s the best GTO?”
Other articles in my 2018 Scottsdale auction series: