COAL: 1978 Pontiac Bonneville Coupe – Attainable Luxury

My 1978 Bonneville after a detail.


Last spring, after letting my son start to use the 1994 Volvo 940 as a daily driver, I decided to jump again into the search for another vintage vehicle.  I still missed the 1977 Chevrolet Impala sedan I used to own in Minnesota and scoured the local Craigslist ads for a similar box Chevy.  Oddly enough, the PNW doesn’t have as rich a supply of older domestic cars as the upper Midwest, even though cars last a long time out here, so this ended up taking more time than expected.  (I also considered online auctions and consignments, but, over the pandemic, prices have gone way up for well-kept vintage GM large cars.) Then, right around Memorial Day, I saw a C/L post for a clean, 84K mile 1978 Pontiac Bonneville coupe for $3600, located 40 miles away in Sequim, Washington.  I felt like Captain Ahab spying the elusive white whale and swung into action.

In many ways, the Bonneville was the “holy grail” of GM large cars for me.  When I was 11 or 12 years old, I started to collect new car brochures and I remembered the Pontiacs of the late 70’s. They seemed to incorporate, in a graceful manner, many of the design elements of older vehicles (like fender skirts and hood ornaments) with the newer boxy profile of more modern cars. This was a weird time for Pontiac – in the hierarchy of GM divisions, it represented a step up from the basic Chevrolet with a performance upgrade.  But what did that mean in the era of increased fuel efficiency and emissions regulation? When GM downsized its large B-body cars for 1977, it tried to give each division the opportunity to express some aspects of their individual design personalities, yet, for the first time, started using common engines and performance platforms.  While an overall successful engineering effort, as many have observed, not every division experienced the same sales success.

Like the other divisions, Pontiac had a long history of full-size coupes – but the body style was under pressure as buyers moved into the personal luxury brougham coupe craze during the 70’s.  As a result, there was more competition from mid-sizers within the division (like the Grand Prix), outside the division (like the Olds Cutlass Supreme) and other manufacturers (like the Ford Thunderbird and Chrysler Cordoba).  In 1978, GM introduced downsized versions of its personal luxury coupes with generally positive results in the market.  (Other manufacturers did the same through the early 80’s.). Over time, the full-sized coupe occupied an increasingly smaller share of car sales.  The last full-size Pontiac coupe left the market in the 1981 model year, ending the long-standing Catalina name and Pontiac’s production of V8 engines.  The Bonneville name continued on as a rebadged mid-size sedan only until a shift to front-wheel drive in the late 80’s.

The Bonneville coupe I found on Craigslist had spent 42 years with the same owner, spending most of its time under a cover in a carport next to 4 separate garages filled with cars.  The seller was an elderly man in his 80’s whose children had encouraged him to start selling his cars.  They had each chosen other vehicles from his collection, which included mostly Ford Motor Company models, including a 1965 Ford 500 that was his pride and joy.  While the Bonneville had been used years ago for road trips and other pleasure drives, it hadn’t been driven consistently in years.  The seller liked to do his own servicing and the car clearly had been well-maintained, but increasing age now impacted his ability to keep up with the overall demands.  The car overall was in very good condition – the claret colored full vinyl roof was pristine and the overall condition of the similarly colored body was straight with generally minor imperfections. The carmine red velour interior showed some minor wear on the seats, but the dash was pad was not cracked.  There was some fading of the red trim and the headliner sagged, but nothing that couldn’t be repaired or refreshed.  The A/C still blew cold, all the gages worked on the dashboard (the full-gage package option), and the cruise and tilt steering also worked.  Finally, the tires were new, the 301 V8 and transmission worked well with minimal fuss, and the upgraded aftermarket dual exhaust sounded cool.  In all, a wonderful time-machine.

Luckily, I was the first person to see this gem and quickly jumped on buying the car.  For the price, it was a great deal.  Even with putting some money into interior fixes, a new battery and some updated maintenance, as well as a great detail, I was way ahead.  With the overall mild PNW climate, I can drive the car all year round and have begun taking it to some local cars and coffees.  Later this year, I hope to make it to some more car shows and perhaps take a trip to visit one of my sons (either to Vancouver or a longer one to Los Angeles).  Overall, driving the car has been a joy.

Photo taken by a local auto journalist – the evening light shows the car well.


My 78 Bonneville coupe represents the end of an era – when the car market was in transition and middle class folks looking for something luxurious and more indulgent still could find something they could afford on the market.  It has the same basic honesty that I found in the 77 Impala sedan – a no-nonsense competence.  Yes, it lacks the power accessories and design flashes of some higher-end Cadillacs and Lincolns from its time, but it offers the same comfortable ride in a package that still manages to keep up with current travel demands.  To me, that is a car worth keeping.


Further reading:

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

Curbside Classic: 1979 Pontiac Bonneville Brougham Coupe – Who Needs A Cadillac?

Vintage Review: 1977 Pontiac Bonneville Brougham