In retrospect, my timing on my previous COAL must have been off. I thought I had kept my Caprice Classic through my first year of employment after earning my BS in Computer Science, because that would have been the responsible thing to do. However, I graduated in 1987 and my first brand new car was a 1987 Pontiac Bonneville, so I must have bought it during the model-year closeouts and only a few months into my COBOL coding job. Such is my memory these days.
Whatever disagreements I had with my father about cars, he had fully indoctrinated me as a GM guy (my mother’s Lincoln notwithstanding). Nothing else was really on the table. Certainly not a foreign car. One of my older sisters had a terrible experience with her first new car, a VW Dasher. (Her next new car was a 1981 Skylark X-car, so yeah, that didn’t work out). That said, I knew that the American auto industry was hurting though a combination of poor reliability and rapidly changing tastes. BMW and Audi were in, Cadillac was out, at least according to the car magazines. My thought was to support American manufacturing by buying a car that would show the industry where it needed to go. Voting with my dollars, as it were.
Up to that point the Pontiac 6000 STE was the darling of the buff books, and #1 on my list. That said, the design was already getting kind of stale and the composite headlights added in 1986 rather ruined the unique “6-light” front end.
The new-for-1987 Bonneville SE was the spiritual successor to the STE, and very much touted as a return to “Excitement” for the nameplate after years as a luxury cruiser. I knew to avoid a first-year car, but I also knew that the H-platform had been introduced the previous year as the Olds 88 and Buick LeSabre. Surely any bugs would have been worked out for 1987.
The Bonneville H-body was a looker, in my opinion. Pontiac had smoothed out the sharp edges of the Olds and Buick, making the Bonneville look modern but not as radical or “melted” as a Ford Taurus or Audi. This also made it distinct from its corporate brethren, avoiding the cookie-cutter look so common to GM products in those days. The blackout trim, body-colored grille, fog lights, fat Eagle GT tires and alloy wheels said “sporty” yet “classy” in the visual language of the time. It was very clean, and Pontiac had yet to start applying plastic cladding with a trowel. That would come in 1988 on the Bonneville SSE.
Now that I was a “professional” guy, I didn’t have any issue with owning an “adult” (my friends would say, “yuppie”) car. I could have a kind-of-sporty car and yet still have room to haul several friends around on the weekend. While it was considered full-size car it had similar exterior dimensions to the “compact” 1975 Nova I wanted so badly a fee years earlier. My plan was to keep the car for ten years or as long as I could go after it was paid off.
Since I hadn’t been in my job that long, my father graciously offered to co-sign the loan as he had done for my older siblings. I recall that the Cadillac-Pontiac dealer was rather slimy, and tried to tack on charges for pin striping and rustproofing after I’d negotiated the price. Luckily, I had been warned against such tactics.
My Bonneville was a very sharp, metallic, gunmetal grey in monochrome instead of the optional two-tone. The car was not fully optioned, having cloth seats instead of leather and the regular Delco AM/FM/Cassette audio system instead of the Bose unit. I would have liked the cool audio controls on the steering wheel but they weren’t a deal breaker.
The dashboard! Whatever overwrought stylistic sins Pontiac committed in 80’s, that red fighter-pilot dashboard lighting never ceased to impress anyone who rode with me at night. The gauges (or “gages” as the manual insisted on calling them) were relatively complete and laid out in a no-nonsense manner. I don’t think I’ve owned a car since that looked as good from the cockpit… err…. driver’s seat.
The 150hp 3.8 liter engine was fast enough for me, and the handling compared to my previous cars was a revelation. I wasn’t one to drive aggressively, though I did get my first speeding ticket in the Bonneville while driving to work early one morning. I was easy pickings for the town police who knew that people came down a certain hill fast, especially when there weren’t a lot of cars around.
A few months into ownership I began to realize that they hadn’t worked all of the bugs out of the H-body after all. My first indication was a blown camshaft sensor. The Bonneville ground to a halt and I was later told that the sensor had literally shattered to pieces, taking the camshaft with it in the process. The necessary part of this recently updated engine was, of course, backordered for two months while I drove around a used Buick Electra dealer loaner (which I only got after browbeating the dealership about the promises the salesman had made about such things).
After that incident the car was basically fine for about five years. The soft Eagle GTs had a penchant for wearing down after about 10,000 miles. After two rather expensive sets of tires my wallet decided it was best to switch to Pirellis. The grip wasn’t quite as good but I didn’t have to replace them every year.
My commute was very short, so outside of the occasional trip to Boston to visit friends I wasn’t putting a lot of miles on the car. It was after five years and 72,000 miles (coincidentally, the length of the warranty) that things started to go bad. It was as if the car got a signal that it was time for parts to start flying off the car.
I exaggerate, but every two to three months something would go wrong. Not enough to take the Bonneville off the road, but enough that it needed to be brought into the shop. I don’t recall every repair, but usually it was oxygen sensors. It ate oxygen sensors like candy, causing the CHECK ENGINE light to flare up regularly.
Despite the car being garaged the paint started to fade, especially on the roof. I saw that on a lot of 80’s GM cars. I would have loved to replace the car at that point, but it didn’t have THAT many miles on it. Besides, I’d just bought a condo so a new car wasn’t in the budget. I had the car painted and that fixed the cosmetic issue, at least. Maybe it was sheer stubbornness and my desire to stick to my ten-year plan, but I stuck with the Bonneville. With each problem fixed I thought that surely all would be well from then on.
After I’d had the Bonneville for nine years and 110,000 miles I’d had about enough of it. Problems were starting to creep up monthly at a cost of $200-$300 per repair. Why not put that toward a new car payment? So I went shopping for anything EXCEPT a GM car. I still wanted to buy American if I could, though.
My father, meanwhile, thought the Bonneville was an excellent car and wanted to buy it from me. I tried to dissuade him but he persisted. A thousand dollars later it was his. He invested a few thousand more in repairs and it served him reliably for years after that. Go figure. Granted, he was retired and wasn’t driving much at that point. He liked the car so much that in the following years he bought Bonnevilles of the next two generations for my mother and himself, one of which was the last car he ever owned.