COAL: 1978 Pontiac Bonneville Brougham Sedan – The Good Life

Our move to Rochester in June 1977 was the beginning of a four-and-a-half year period I’ll call “The Good Life” (TGL). My father often said that timing is everything. Apparently, our timing was spot-on in Rochester; we went more places and did more things than ever before.

I experienced many exciting “firsts” after we moved to Rochester. For example:

  • First time on a commercial airliner (all 20 minutes of it): Rochester to Toronto, Ontario, July 1977. (Also our first time to Canada.)
  • First time I “built” my own bicycle: June 1978. (Also the first of many times I nearly killed myself on this masterpiece.)
  • First mid-winter family escape to Florida: Rochester to Tampa, February 1979. (Also our first time to Florida.)

Another first occurred in February, specifically on Valentine’s Day in 1978: my father came home with his company car–a ’78 Bonneville Brougham sedan.

Add two more doors, a two-tone blue paint job, a side of brougham, then remove the vinyl top. Voila! My father’s company car.


Sporting a two-toned Nautilus Blue/Glacier Blue exterior and Rally II wheels, the three of us took off for a celebratory dinner in downtown Rochester. With the Riviera now hibernating in the garage, the Bonneville was our “do everything/go everywhere” car.

The Mythological Company Car

Now, I had heard of company cars before. But, as a near-11-year-old in 1978, my understanding of it was limited to:

  1. We got a new car.
  2. It was “free.”
  3. It was well-equipped.
  4. We could drive it anywhere.

That told me all I needed to know. It wasn’t until many years later that I discovered not everyone got to pick their own company car and not all company cars were as nice as ours.

In any event, another first for me was that the Bonneville was our first new car as a family. There were so many things to enjoy about it: the trim exterior (although close in length and width to our Riviera), the new car smell, the newness of the interior, the evolution of switchgear and interior fixtures, the improved audio system (with factory 8-track player!), the new car smell (again), the noticeable reduction in road noise, the 20.3 cu.-ft. trunk (twice the Riviera’s capacity), and so on. After a few years of the Riviera’s hot-in-the-summer black vinyl, we all appreciated the Bonneville’s light blue “loose-pillow luxury velour trim” (right from the brochure) seats.

The S.S. Bonneville Brougham’s helm. Instrument panel is aesthetically neat but communicates little beyond speed, time and fuel level. Factory 8-track player is within easy reach.


GM’s successful downsized B-body program is well-documented on CC. I’d argue it was their last product “home run.” Our Bonneville was certainly a good one: it never went to the dealer for a mechanical or functional issue the whole time we had it.

Buying a Car in 1978

My mother and I were thrilled when my father got the Pontiac; the “company car quest” was finally over. At the time, most local dealers acted like:

  • It was your privilege to buy one of their cars
  • They made more money hoarding inventory than selling it to you

I blame some of this on the “Big Yellow Box” and the “Big X.” Kodak (peak Rochester employment: 60,400 in 1982) and Xerox (Rochester employment: 15,000 in 1981) were the predominant employers in greater Rochester during this time. Every spring, they blessed their respective workforces with generous bonus checks; every spring, all retail operations in the area would gear up to help relieve them of that bonus money.

I don’t think the dealers here cared that much about buyers who didn’t work at Kodak or Xerox. In any event, the process was neither simple nor linear; we whiffed at a few dealers before crossing the finish line.

Stop#1: Buick dealer–Lazy

We started at our lame, local Buick dealer on a chilly Saturday morning. I have no idea how this outfit stayed in business as long as it did. They had little showroom traffic and it was easy to see why. Their sales playbook followed the “We might allow you to buy one of our cars, maybe” approach. The only reason we started there was it was close to the house and we didn’t know any better. On their lot that day was a very sexy ’78 Electra sedan with Dark Gold paint, tan vinyl top and Buick road wheels.

1979 Electra Limited with same color scheme and wheels.


Now, January + Rochester = Partially snow-buried Electra. My father requested that they clean off and warm up the car. In the meantime, we’d run a few errands and return in 45 minutes or so to test drive. When we returned, we found the Electra still sitting where it was, still covered with snow, and still no customer traffic in the showroom. After a very short exchange with one or more salesmen inside, we were no longer in the market for a Buick. Why we didn’t go to one of the (at least) three other Rochester-area Buick dealers, I have no idea.

Stop #2: Oldsmobile dealer – Inflexible

A couple of weeks later, on an unseasonably warm January day, my father came home in a Carmine Red 98 Regency sedan. I thought this would be the one. While I was not crazy about defecting from Buick to Olds, my brand loyalty considerations carried no weight so I kept quiet.

Carmine Red 1978 Olds 98 Regency, plain wheel covers and all.


Later that evening, he came home. “No deal,” he said. He wanted wire wheel covers on the 98 he test drove; the Olds dealer told him, “Geez, that one came with regular wheel covers.” My father said, “This is really easy. Just take the wire wheel covers off that one over there and put ’em on this one.” “No can do,” said the dealer.

So, we were no longer in the market for a Buick or an Olds. Again, there were at least three other Olds dealers in the area. But, I digress.

Stop #3: Chrysler (!) dealer–Stressed

Next, we went to our local Chrysler dealer and test drove a New Yorker. Now, my best friend John’s parents were 110% Mopar. They even had a Chrysler powerboat, which I thought was very cool. But, we’d never had a Chrysler. We’d never even discussed having one. Chrysler was reeling at this point, between quality control concerns and slow-selling “too big” full-sizers languishing on dealer lots. I’m not sure what prompted my father to go off-script like that. It may have been the appeal of “going big” one more time.

The New Yorker we drove was similar to this one. At age 10, I was a fan of those wheels; I’m still a fan today. From


Anyway, he drove it. He liked it. But there was one problem: He didn’t want any of the ones on the lot. I don’t recall what they lacked, but he wanted a certain combination. The dealer didn’t want to special order a car. They spun a yarn about how many decades it would take to get it, etc. In retrospect, I get it. The dealer was saddled with a lot full of brand-new full-sizers practically glued to the pavement. But, no deal once again.

Stop #4: Pontiac dealer–Goldilocks (Finally!)

At the Pontiac dealer, he not only hit pay dirt with the car, he hit pay dirt with the salesman. When the “wire wheel cover” request was made, this salesman was ready. He told my dad, “Bob, of course we can set you up with wire wheel covers, no problem. But, they get dirty easily, they’re hard to clean, and the slush sticks to them and makes them dirtier. Personally, I’d stick with the Rally II wheels. They look good and are much easier to keep clean.”

Wire wheel covers: No! Rally II wheels: Yes!


Touchdown! One hundred percent truth, presented in an agreeable manner. After absorbing this, my father agreed. Well-played, Mr. Salesman.

Ide’s Pontiac dealer was once at the top of the hill and the Honda dealer was at the bottom of the hill. Now, the Honda dealer is in the former Pontiac building and used cars are in the former Honda building. From

Hitting the Road

We went many places in the Bonneville. A Virginia junket included visits to Monticello in Charlottesville, Luray Caverns in (surprise) Luray, and Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park. We also made multiple trips to New York’s Hudson Valley, where we visited Washington Irving’s house and Jay Gould’s house (both in Tarrytown), as well as Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s home and the Vanderbilt mansion (both in Hyde Park), among others.

The Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome was another memorable experience along that route. If you like biplanes, monoplanes, and offbeat automobiles you should check it out. Of particular note is the air show, which runs Saturdays and Sundays from mid-June to late October.



When my wife and I went in 1998, over 15 years had passed since my last visit as a child. It was just like I remembered: “dueling” biplanes, ideal summer weather, the museum and concessions.

If the Riviera was “George” the Bonneville was “Weasie.” Get it?

The Bonneville was an excellent highway car: quiet, spacious, comfortable, excellent air conditioning/heat, and excellent audio system (Delco 8-track for the win!). However, it lacked in one critical area: it was slllllooooooowwwwww, particularly when passing. CC’s Vintage Review of a ’77 Brougham in Road & Track backs me up: 0-60 mph in 14.8 seconds? It felt like 14.8 years.

1977 Bonneville Brougham from R&T article: Looks? Yes. Cooks? No.


Like R&T’s test car, ours had the standard 301 V8 with 2 bbl. carb. Around town it was adequate; as discussed previously, GM tuned these malaise-era engines for low-end torque. But when you needed to pass on a two-laner, the Bonneville didn’t have enough Wheaties to get the job done, in my book. It certainly lacked the Riviera’s space-and-time-bending passing prowess.

It may seem like I’m overemphasizing the need for passing power. There is a reason for that: One of the trips we frequently took during the Bonneville’s time with us was between Rochester and Unadilla to visit family.

The road less traveled (with good reason)

Unfortunately, someone boycotted the simple NYS Thruway/Interstate 81 route for several years because someone got a speeding ticket. So, someone decided we’d all suffer and make the trip on secondary roads. Some of the new route ran parallel to the west side of Cayuga Lake, one of the Finger Lakes. It was not a kind trip: Numerous small towns, neglected roads, brake-baking hills, constantly fluctuating speed limits (55 to 45 to 40 to 30 to 45 to 55, oops, another town, 30), slow drivers, farmers on tractors, Amish carts, etc.

The bad route: 96 to 414 to 89 to 79 to . . . can’t we just stay home? Simpler, faster, more picturesque Route 90 appears on right.


There were not a lot of good places to safely pass. When your opportunity came, you had to be ready. If things weren’t just right, you didn’t do it. The Bonneville needed a bit of a running start to pass comfortably. Combined with the overall foolishness of the route we were taking, it made for some stressful trips.

A few years after I started driving, a friend shared an alternate route to cover the same amount of ground. This route runs along the east side of Cayuga Lake.

On this map, Route 90 appears as an L-shape. To me, it’s L for “Love” as in, “You’ll love taking Route 90 if you’ve suffered through the route on the other side of Cayuga Lake.”


The difference is night and day: Fewer towns, light traffic, great road conditions, picturesque views, no farmers on tractors, no Amish carts. And lots of places to pass, if needed. My wife and I have taken this route countless times. I wish I had learned of this route about 17 years sooner.

You know what they say about all good things

Due to a variety of factors, The Good Life ended abruptly in early 1982, as did our time with the Bonneville after almost 50,000 miles and four years. The Riviera was returned to active duty, looking proud and quite out of step with the state of the world in 1982. But, the Buick was not alone. During The Good Life, we picked up a car for my mother. She got her license in 1980 and while shopping for a car to fit her needs, we ended up with the yang to the Riviera’s yin. The result is the subject of our next COAL–a clash of the titans: My father versus my mother’s car.


Related CC reading:

Curbside Classic: 1978 Pontiac Bonneville – No, Pontiac Didn’t Just Make Firebirds In The ’70s