Dealer Classic: 2002 Pontiac Grand Am GT – Memento Mori

It’s been 15 years since Pontiac ceased to be a going concern at General Motors, and over 20 since this Grand Am saw the light of day for the first time. In those heady days of the nascent 21st century, the idea that Pontiac would cease to exist within the next decade was unlikely at best for those who were inured to the sight of Grands Am and Grands Prix in every parking lot and driveway in the Midwest. Why is it that you always appreciate something that much more when it’s slipping away?

I recently finished the short novel Memento Mori by the late Muriel Spark. It’s an irreverent dark comedy that involves an elderly clique of Londoners receiving phone calls simply saying “remember, you must die.” That is the English translation of “Memento Mori,” a phrase that also found some traction in 16th-century Northern European art. The famous painting above is titled The Ambassadors and hangs in the National Gallery in London. Painted by Henry VIII’s court painter Hans Holbein, its “hidden” skull at the feet of the ambassadors was a gentle reminder to well-off patrons of the arts that they were no more than temporarily corporeal. In other words, get your head straight (and perhaps lighten up a little) because it’s later than you think.

These gentle fireside musings were on my mind as I rambled through the used car lot near my house last week. This bright red Grand Am in juxtaposition with the rest of the mostly drab modern fleet on a drab January day was exactly the cure for my self-inflicted philosophical funk.

The Grand Am as a nameplate has for my whole life existed as if it were a local newscaster. One day, you realize they’ve moved on to a larger market and you had already forgotten they existed. The only exception I can think of is the original Grand Am from 1973 to 1975, which is a cool colonnade if you ask me (nobody did). Unfortunately, I hadn’t checked in yet when the original Grand Am felt a spring in its step, so it’s not the one that crowded every intersection of my memory.

My ambivalence to the Grand Am of my youth changed a bit when I saw how much fun this Grand Am brought to its temporary home. Maybe it’s time to reappraise the once-ubiquitous small coupe.

It’s impossible to forget or perhaps to forgive the lower bodyside cladding that almost all Pontiacs wore for the last 20 years of the brand. Needless to say, there are cleaner ways to finish off the rear valance, but few would evoke that 20-year-old nostalgia.

Ah, there’s your reminder of your eventual fate, my dear Pontiac. The cleanliness of this particular example is spoiled only by this canker of blooming rust below the gas filler. Who knows how much awaits beneath the plastic add-ons.

I was surprised to see that the Grand Am had over 160,000 miles on the clock. That many years and that many miles are almost always terminal for a Michigan-based car of any brand, but this one clearly avoided the death spiral of compact car ownership, each subsequent owner less and less inclined to give even the thinnest of lip services to maintenance. Even the interior looks new, and it lacks the stench of Marlboro Reds and regret so common among Midwestern used cars.

MONSOON! This radio identifies this Grand Am as a top-of-the-line GT1, fully loaded. It even has a moonroof. Additionally, the ignition switch is on the dashboard as God intended, which is something I always liked about my wife’s 2004 Impala. It was the only thing about that car that reminded me of my ’50s and ’60s fleet.

The much-maligned 3400 benefits from some Jim Wangers-style salesmanship: RAM AIR! Pontiac was for some reason compelled to capitalize their wares in 2002. Even if its wheezy V6 didn’t need that smooch of extra cold air shoved down its gullet, “Ram Air” repurposed a Pontiac staple and added something like five extra horsepower, for a total of 175. Although I’ve rarely heard anything good about the 3100/3400 60-degree V6, my wife has driven plenty of miles in two cars with that engine architecture. They didn’t eat their intake gaskets or head gaskets, and we sold them both with nearly 150,000 miles each. I did flush their cooling systems as soon as we bought them used because I’d read not-so-good things about aging Dex-Cool.

I made a mental note to check the Grand Am’s price on the dealer’s website when I got home from my walk. For a very fast second, I thought this might be a fun daily driver, but there is no rational excuse for trading down a decade and nearly 50,000 miles from my Focus. Tempting fate is not really my style.

I was exactly right on the price, by the way: $4995.

That seemed high to me, but given its condition and (sadly) its rarity, perhaps it’s not. (Additionally, it’s no longer on the lot.)

I know some readers will scoff at this car and the dealer’s asking price, and that’s probably fair. But for someone 20 years ago, this was a fairly expensive purchase (over $20,000 in 2002 dollars). With its chrome wheels, red paint, and spoiler, the Grand Am cut a dashing figure in someone’s driveway. It made them feel a little happier, a little more alive. Memento mori, indeed.