Curbside Musings: 1990 Pontiac Bonneville LE – The Cool Adult

1990 Pontiac Bonneville LE. Edgewater, Chicago, Illinois. Friday, July 9, 2021.

I really enjoy meeting and getting to know my friends’ children, many of whom are now young adults.  These sons and daughters often remind me of their parents, my peers, when we were that age.  It’s interesting to see which traits these teenagers and young twenty-somethings possess that resemble those of the parent I had known from years ago, and how they’ve developed their own personas, demeanors, and aesthetics.  It also makes me recall what it had felt like to meet my parents’ friends when I was younger, which was sometimes fun, awkward, or some combination of the two.  When my mom was my current age, she and her friends just seemed so old.  It’s also hard to believe that the ’56 Pontiac I wrote about a couple of months ago was as old when this Bonneville was new as this car is now.  Let that blow your mind.

1990 Pontiac Bonneville LE. Edgewater, Chicago, Illinois. Friday, July 9, 2021.

I have a genuine interest in the happiness, success, and well-being of my friends’ offspring.  I’ve been blessed with a strong gift of recall while, if not perfectly accurate all of the time, has enabled me to remember many thoughts, feelings, and sensations experienced throughout my life.  Not that this happens often, but whenever I meet with a friend and their kid, I’ll find myself inadvertently slipping back into using words I might have said as a college student in the mid-’90s.  These include random slang terms like “diss”, “rad”, or the ever-present “awesome”.  I might catch myself in the moment, and then try to use a more age-appropriate synonym.  Most of my parents’ friends seemed to be affiliated with the university or church, and most spoke textbook-proper English, but I liken my use of old slang today to one of them telling the teenage me that my Sony Walkman was “hip” or “groovy”.

1990 Pontiac Bonneville LE. Edgewater, Chicago, Illinois. Friday, July 9, 2021.

This actually would have been fine.  I think that even then, I had a sense that different generations had jargon, identity, and an ethos that was specific to their respective age groups.  Watching the original Roseanne sitcom (which I still love) reinforced this idea.  Just thinking of my parents having been younger once was fun, and I used to spend untold hours turning the pages in the family photo albums to see what they and their friends had looked like in the ’60s and early ’70s.  It takes a special gift for someone from an older generation to successfully relate to and engage with teenagers and young adults in a reciprocal way.

1990 Pontiac Bonneville LE. Edgewater, Chicago, Illinois. Friday, July 9, 2021.

I had mentioned in an essay from this past February how I had been involved in the Flint Youth Theatre program, which facilitated interaction not only with other teens, but also with adults in a setting that didn’t involve authority, responsibility, or the threat of real discipline.  I now realize that experiences with the FYT and involvement in my church’s youth group must have set some sort of template in my mind for how I would later try to listen and relate to not only my own nephews and nieces by blood, but also to my extended family of choice.  Adults who can successfully set boundaries, yet still empathize and gain the trust, admiration, and buy-in of youths, are to be respected.  I remember thinking that being around such “elders” at that time helped take the edge off of wondering what my own adulthood would eventually be like.

1990 Pontiac Bonneville SSE print ad, as sourced from the internet.

The first front-drive, H-body Pontiac Bonneville, introduced for the ’87 model year, was very much like the “cool adult” of full-sized cars.  I liken it to a grownup, because it was a full-sized car, as contrasted with something like a Grand Am or even a Grand Prix, both of which had the size and footprint of a younger person.  It definitely looked cool enough when new for me to have had a large poster of one included among the car ads that covered one of my bedroom walls.  The persona and image of even the lower-tier Bonneville contrasted sharply with that of its Buick LeSabre and Oldsmobile Delta 88 divisional counterparts.  Below the greenhouse, the new Bonneville looked slick and futuristic, its push-button exterior door handles notwithstanding.

1990 Buick LeSabre print ad, as sourced from the internet.

I forgave its boxy roofline because the rest of the car looked so good.  There was no coupe, but I didn’t miss it.  I consider this one of the best efforts of the Irv Rybicki styling era at General Motors.  Look at our featured 1990 Bonneville in comparison with a same-year Buick LeSabre, pictured above.  If the Bonneville was the fun, youthful, engaging substitute teacher you wanted to lead your class for the day, the LeSabre was the stern traditionalist who didn’t allow talking or gum, or would give out only so many hall passes for the bathroom for the hour-long period.  Granted, the sporty, top-line SSE did seem a bit desperate in a look-at-me! kind of way, but it spoke to me and I’m sure others in my age group who equated added plastic stick-ons and electronics with extra sportiness.

Powering our featured car is Buick’s 3.8 liter V6 with 165 horsepower, which was the only engine available in a Bonneville that year.  Also according to a license plate search, this one was originally built in Wentzville, Missouri.  By 1990, this design was in its fourth and second-to-last year of production.  About 85,800 units were sold, down just over 10,000 from the year before, and from about 123,800 first-year ’87s.  It should be noted that the flashy SSE accounted for a significant 13 – 15% of sales from its ’88 introduction through the end of this series for ’91, even outselling the SE in that last year.

1990 Pontiac Bonneville LE. Edgewater, Chicago, Illinois. Friday, July 9, 2021.

I feel like this generation of Bonneville would have been acceptably cool to drive around for a teen, if one could secure the keys from the ‘rents (oops, I did that thing again).  I have a friend whose parents, both GM employees at the time, had a new SSE that was nothing but trouble.  For all of its electronic, gee-whiz gadgetry (its electronic Driver Information Center, multi-directional power seats, etc.), something always seemed not to be working right.  Maybe this would be like the “cool adult” who always has the latest phone but can’t get it to function properly.  Regardless, it was a pleasant surprise to run into what felt like an old friend in my neighborhood a few years ago.  The jury’s out as to whether my friends’ kids think I’m cool, but like this 1990 Bonneville, I’m still here and in decent shape, so that counts for something.

Edgewater, Chicago, Illinois.
Friday, July 9, 2021.

Print ads for the 1990 Pontiac Bonneville SSE and Buick LeSabre were sourced from the internet.