Car Show Classic: 1960 Pontiac Bonneville Vista Hardtop – A Few Extra Inches Of Prestige

A hangover from the Saturnalian revelry of the 1959 models, the facelifted 1960 full-size General Motors line seems to inhabit a peculiar place.  More subdued than their immediate counterparts, but still in some ways a product of the 1950s, these toned-down, handsome cars paved the way for a truly successful decade of full-sized products, especially at Pontiac.  In years hence, luxury cars such as this Bonneville didn’t have to prove their value by adding inches, but in 1960, if a customer was willing to spend the extra money, s/he wanted something to show for it.  In the Bonneville, s/he got it.

Pontiac’s upward trajectory, of course, truly began in 1959 with the “Wide-Track” advertising theme and the introduction of the split grille; the 1960 model, however, is noticeable for being the only Pontiac of the 1960s without it.  According to Norbye and Dunne’s Pontiac 1946-1978, the 1960 models were already finalized when designers realized how popular and successful the split grille was.  According to Pontiac chief stylist Jack Humbert, “We recognized it was such a strong mark that we took it again for 1961.”  They obviously stuck with it for decades on various models after that.

The 1960 Bonneville was differentiated from the lowlier Catalina, however, from the rear of the car.  In the 1960s, General Motors wanted the extra money spent on a Bonneville, Olds 98, or Buick Electra to be overtly tangible to not only the buyer, but also the buyer’s neighbors and friends.  The easiest way to accomplish this was to add length to the wheelbase and trunk; therefore, Bonnevilles and the like always tended to appear a little tail heavy.  In 1960, the Bonneville’s wheelbase was one inch longer than the Catalina’s (124″ compared to 123″), and the Bonneville was seven inches longer (220.7″ compared to 213.7).  In the decade of ostentatious rear overhangs, however, this was no demerit at all.

By the 1970s, treating additional size as a symbol for additional luxury was no longer as fashionable, as evidenced by the just-as-expensive-if-not-more-so Seville.  Ford had already set that tone in 1958 with the Thunderbird (a tone they ignored as the 1970s approached), and Buick would famously dabble with “downsized” luxury with the Riviera, but for the most part, road-hugging weight ruled the day in 1960.

A styling characteristic Pontiac shared with the other GM brands in 1960 was the “flying wing.”  Mostly used on four-door models, the wraparound rear window was one of those unique styling touches that GM did so well.  One could argue that wraparound rear glass was nothing new (think Studebaker Starlight coupe), but the overhanging roof made it truly stand out, and General Motors’ popularity ensured that it was accepted as a mainstream feature, at least for a few years.

The money spent on a Bonneville was also reflected in a more opulent interior with showier upholstery patterns.  The ample room for both leg and hip was standard on all Pontiacs in 1960, no extra charge.

The dashboard of this 1960 Catalina looks plain indeed when compared to the swankier Bonneville.  The extra-cost Ventura option on the Catalina would even the score to some extent.

The wood and aluminum trim and upgraded steering wheel on the Bonneville reminded the driver every day that s/he had spent Bonneville money on this thing.

Under the hood, the Bonneville also earned a four-barrel carburetor over the Catalina’s standard two-barrel Rochester.  A heavier car needs more power to pull it around, and no self-respecting Bonneville owner wanted to be out-dragged by a mere Catalina (Super-Duty models notwithstanding).  With Hydra-Matic, an option that was almost universally chosen, the Bonneville’s standard 389 was rated at 303 horsepower.  Tri-Power was optional.  This Bonneville also has power steering and power brakes ($108 and $43 options, respectively).

The factory price for a Catalina Vista was $2842.  The Bonneville Vista actually outsold it in 1960, with a base price of $3333. Surprisingly, the weight penalty for the Bonneville was a mere 80 pounds.  Perhaps less surprisingly, the Bonneville Vista was the best selling model in that line, over the two-door hardtop and convertible.  *All statistics from Gunnell and Kowalke’s Standard Catalog of Pontiac 1926-1995.

Although the downsized 1961 GM full-sized cars were probably the first models that ushered in a true 1960s design ethos, the 1960 models offered a stylish and appropriate transition into the new decade.  Pontiac was on to something great, split grille or no, with its facelifted Bonneville.


Related reading from the CC Archives:

CC 1959 Pontiac Catalina Vista Sedan: Wide-Tracking to Success   PN