(first posted 1/26/2017) We’re now slogging through the middle of winter in the Northern Hemisphere, which means it’s a perfect time to daydream about a summer road trip. And what better car to accompany us on such a trip than a full-size, (fake) wood-clad station wagon? Such as this 1989 Pontiac Safari, for instance, which looks very much in its natural habitat cruising along Interstate 70 on a hot summer day.
“Frankly, what would automotive life be like without a ‘woodie’ on the market?” That question was posed in Pontiac’s 1989 sales brochure – on one of the back pages that highlighted the Safari. The question itself was as fake as DI-NOC woodgrain trim. Pontiac officials knew that ’89 would be their woodie’s last year, and frankly, it’s amazing the Safari lasted as long as it did. By 1989, most of the demand for these cars had evaporated, and those buyers who remained were not families with kids to shuttle around, but rather grandparents searching out a proper wagon while such a thing was still made. Plus, a traditional body-on-frame wagon didn’t exactly fit the mold of the “Excitement Division” that Pontiac was crafting for itself.
Despite this conundrum, Safari wagons had deep roots within Pontiac’s history. “Safari” had served as a Pontiac model name since the dawn of the modern station wagon era, initially as the lesser-known 1955 twin of Chevrolet’s iconic Nomad. The Nomad/Safari (“designed for those who prefer suburban and country living”) ushered in the era of wagons as status symbols. For most of the following three decades, “Safari” was used as a label for various Pontiac wagons. Occasionally, several different models wore the Safari label during the same model year.
In the late 1970s, when GM downsized its full-size cars, Pontiac offered Safari wagon versions of its Bonneville and Catalina B-body models. During the early years of the B-body’s reign, wagons such as this were a common sight on roads and in elementary school parking lots. With 8-passenger capacity and over 80 cu. ft. of cargo space, these were the all-purpose vehicles of their day, as the above 1979 brochure outtake illustrates.
Our featured 1989 car is startlingly similar to the 1979 brochure picture. Beneath this consistency, though, Pontiac had a complicated relationship with GM’s B-body in the 1980s. The B-body Bonneville/Catalina (originally offered in 2-dr., 4-dr. and Safari wagon forms) disappeared from the division’s US lineup for 1982. Then it reemerged in 1983 as the Parisienne, but only in the 4-door and Safari wagon forms. The 4-door Parisienne was discontinued after 1986; yet despite small sales, the wagon soldiered on – now simply called the Pontiac Safari. Even with all the name-shuffling, the car itself was remarkably unchanged.
This lack of change was not unique to Pontiac, since all B-bodies were similarly static through the 1980s, but this sentiment is magnified in the Safari’s case because the whole wagon segment was quickly disappearing. Parents, who comprised wagons’ core customer base, were rapidly shifting their automotive allegiance to minivans and SUVs instead.
In the late 1980s, Pontiac branded itself as “The Excitement Division,” and it’s amusing to read sales prose to see how the marketing team correlated Excitement with a lumbering 4,100-lb. wagon of yesteryear. For 1989, that correlation focused on practicality. “Sporty is one thing,” noted the Safari brochure, “but when cargo and crew are on the loading list, capability is everything.”
For the Safari’s final three years, consistency was valued right up there with capability. Very few changes were introduced in those years. Seasoned Safari hunters, though, can easily distinguish one of the 5,146 1989 examples by the single change brought forward for that model year – rear three-point seat belts, the anchors of which can be seen through the side windows.
This particular Safari appears to be well equipped – or at least it sports three options that are readily seen from the exterior: Simulated woodgrain trim, wire wheel covers and cornering lamps. Safari prices in 1989 ranged from $15,569 to about $20,000.
All ’89 Safaris came equipped with GM’s 307-cid 4-bbl. V-8. With 140 hp, this was far from a hot rod, but peak horsepower came at 3,200 rpm and the engine’s 255 lbs-ft of torque peaked at 2,000 rpm, giving the big wagon effortless enough power for moving two tons of traditionalism down the road.
Spotting the differences between Safaris and GM’s other three B-body wagons can sometimes be challenging, for these models epitomize badge engineering. On the exterior, the tail lights differ on all four wagons (spotter’s guide above), as do the grilles.
Inside, Pontiacs offered a three-spoke steering wheel, four round gauge cut-outs and a different dash and trim layout than their closely-related kin. With similar pricing, options and designs, reasons for picking one over the others likely had more to do with dealer stock and brand loyalty than a customer’s affinity for a particular instrument cluster.
Pontiac’s main difference over other GM wagons came in 1990 – there was no 1990 Pontiac Safari, while the other three B-body wagons carried over for yet another year with few changes. Those other wagons even got a new lease on life with the 1991 B-body restyle, but for Pontiac’s full-size wagon, 1989 was the end of the line.
Full-size station wagons are now a just speck in our collective rear-view mirror, yet it’s hard to look at one driving along an Interstate highway and not long to be in the driver’s seat. With this example, it was refreshing to see one being driven in its natural habitat – a long stretch of highway. Such a sight can even make a crowded highway like Interstate 70 look scenic. Well, at least to a Curbsider like me…
Photographed in Montgomery County, Missouri in August 2016.