Once upon a time, roads and parking lots in the United States were teeming with the Pontiac Grand Am. When GM’s third attempt at popularizing its model name appeared in the fall of 1984, it was when I was at an age when I was finally allowed to be dropped off at the mall without adult supervision. It was a rite of passage for many of us who were born in the ’70s & ’80s to be able to go to the mall with our friends, play video games at the arcade, eat in the food court, and, like, totally blow our weekly allowance. At a time before online shopping was the norm, many of us did actual walking instead of letting our fingers and computer mouses (mice?) do so, virtually.
In my recollection, by my teenage years in the early ’90s, it seemed like at least one in ten cars in the parking lot of one of the Flint area’s three malls was an N-Body Grand Am. The G/A seemed like such a Michigan car – a sporty-looking, relatively affordable compact that had just enough fashionable plastic to fit in with that era’s high-tech image, while still being within reach of the salaries of many working class adults. It also fit in nicely with Pontiac’s “Excitement Division” identity with the introduction of a 125-horsepower 3.0L V6 on the SE variant for ’86, then with the turbocharged, 150-hp 2.0L four-cylinder borrowed from the Sunbird Turbo for ’87. Our lower-tier featured car, however, is likely powered by a 110-hp 2.5L Tech IV, and probably weighs about 2,600 pounds.
I feel like much of the Grand Am’s evolutionary changes in both physical appearance and general image mirrored my own gradual shifts in many personal preferences in those formative years. You know how it is, when you become a teenager and suddenly many of the things you had cherished just a few years before – certain cartoons, t-shirts, toys, and even friends in some truly unfortunate scenarios – suddenly fall (hard) out of your favor. It then becomes “cool” to trash the things you used to really like when you were oh, so much younger in order to distance yourself from the you that didn’t know quite as much as you did by that later date.
For me, the N-Body Grand Am was one of those objects, being a car I genuinely liked at first. By the dawn of the ’90s, though, and also aided by these cars’ sheer ubiquity, they had suddenly seemed to become the object of near-universal derision as emblems of aspirational, blue-collar crapitude. Some of the “car guys” with whom I went to school who dreamed of owning and restoring their own Chevelles and Camaros used to complain about having to drive their mom’s Grand Am on weekends. I would have gladly traded my family’s ’84 Ford Tempo with such individuals, but at that age, access to a car (any car) was all that really mattered to me.
When I stumbled across this example last month, it was truly a shock – almost like running into an old acquaintance from high school. These Grand Ams weren’t just the most plentiful of their N-Body platform-mates (which included the Buick Somerset / Somerset Regal / Skylark and the Oldsmobile Calais / Cutlass Calais). Initially, they were genuinely popular, well-liked cars, selling in excess of 200,000 units for each of the four model years between ’86 and ’89, and falling just short in ’90 with 197,000 units sold. My own personal pendulum has swung back from adverse selection against things that may be nice and/or popular, back to just liking what I like. It may be a bit of my nostalgia speaking, but I don’t hate this car!
While I don’t necessarily want one of these Grand Ams (even in pristine condition), I like that they were a reflection of the tastes of much of the Middle America that shaped a lot of who I am today. Much like the signage in the corridors of many malls at the time this car was new, the G/A was a symbol of what many Americans wanted. Sure, its plastic cladding soon spread across Pontiac’s entire model lineup and also became as passé as bolo ties and tight-rolling your Bugle Boy trousers at the cuffs, but at this car’s introduction, that look seemed very much in vogue. The fact is that now, I’m more than a little sad that the American mall, and its subculture that I remember so fondly from adolescence on, seems to be going the way of Pontiac.
We still have many brick and mortar malls and retail stores for the time being and, hopefully, will continue to do so for a while. What a treat, though, around this past holiday season – when malls are traditionally bustling with activity – to see an example of one of the most popular “citizens” of their parking lots, at a time of year when, in my mind, malls and Pontiacs in general were still totally awesome.
Edgewater, Chicago, Illinois.
Sunday, December 17, 2017.