COAL: 1989 Pontiac Bonneville LE – A 3800 Kind of Love

Note: None of the pictures in this post are of the actual car

Oh, GM 3800 V6 engine, how do I love thee?  Let me count the 3800 ways.  In 1989, I was getting married and was in the market for a newer, better car.  A co-worker had a 1989 Pontiac Bonneville and told me how well he liked it.  I looked it over one day, took it for a ride, and decided that this was the next car I would get.

I located a former GM executive car that had only 3,000 miles.  It was equipped with the 3800 V6 engine, automatic 4 speed transmission, power steering/brakes/windows, and air conditioning.  It also had a split bench seat in cloth upholstery.  Mandatory as I had had many cars with vinyl upholstery that were hot and uncomfortable in the summer.  It was as close to a new car that I have owned in many years.

As has been discussed elsewhere, the 3800 V6 engine has had a long and storied history from 1961 to 2008.  My prior experience with this engine was with RWD Cutlasses and Centuries.  I had rebuilt or replaced three of these engines in cars that I had bought to flip.  It was a simple engine to work on and had good power and economy.  In 1988, the engine was upgraded to include a balance shaft.  With the balance shaft, it was a very smooth running engine as compared to the earlier versions.  It is often said that “Americans buy horsepower, but drive torque,” and this engine had torque.  I was in love.

As compared to the Buick LeSabre and Olds 88 versions of the H-body, the Pontiac Bonneville had more style.  The body was more rounded on the corners and the dashboard came equipped with a full set of gauges.  Pontiac was allegedly trying to emulate BMW by back lighting the gauges in red.  It was more annoying than sporty since the orange dials matched the red markings at night.

The car also had the standard AM/FM stereo radio.  That was OK for a while, but I wanted to listen to cassettes so I purchased as used GM AM/FM/cassette stereo to install.  Later, I came across a GM AM/FM/CD radio that I purchased and installed.  At least in those days, you didn’t have to reprogram the radio with the vehicle VIN.

The cross-lace aluminum wheels were and still are attractive, however, my car came with the plastic “aero” wheel covers shown above.  I always thought they were ugly, but early one morning, someone removed them from my car as it was sitting parked on the street.  I eventually found another used set to replace them.

Note: Typical GM seat belt in the door installation

The Bonneville (and all of the other H-bodies) had the front seat belts located in the door itself.  At least it wasn’t the two part belt with a motor that was prevalent in early 80s cars.  These belts worked well and I had no complaints.  The door latch, however, is another story.

One by one, three of the four door latches refused to open at different times.  Once the door was latched and the failure occurred, you couldn’t easily pull the door panel to work on it.  You had to be patient and hope the door would open when you were at home and had access to tools.  The failure mode was the lack of lubrication in the latch itself.  Once open, you could get some spray lubricant and injected through the part of the latch visible through the open door.

Another interesting failure was the harmonic balancer on the engine.  If you revved the engine right after starting it, you would hear a clunking sound from the belt tensioner.  Traced it back to the failure of the rubber on the balancer.  Now, how to remove it.  The shop manual specified a special tool to hold the flex plate while you wrenched on the crankshaft bolt.  Right.  Just try to find the tool somewhere.  So, I jacked up the car, put a socket on a breaker bar, and positioned the bar such that the cement on the driveway would hold it.  Then I cranked the engine over and the bolt came loose.  Of all the cars I have owned, this is the only one that had this failure happen.

The air conditioning system also failed during my ownership.  The small orifice filter in the suction line clogged, requiring discharge of the system and replacement of the suction line.  The line had to be replaced as GM had redesigned the line and you couldn’t get the old parts anymore.  Most of the junkyard cars I had looked at had the same failure, so used parts weren’t an option.

Overall, this was a good car to own and operate.  I bought it in 1989 and sold it in 2001.  It had over 150,000 miles and probably would have hit 300,000 except for the fact that it was in a “sandwich” accident one morning on the way to work.  It was a bright sunny day and I was stopped at a traffic light behind a Chevy Blazer.  Next thing you know, I was looking up at the ceiling as the seat mounts broke at the front.  I had been hit by a senior citizen driving an Olds Cutlass Ciera.  He said that he didn’t see me.  When the police arrived to investigate, they determined that he had taken some medication that morning that made him drowsy.

My car was driveable, but the right rear quarter panel was badly damaged and the trunk lid would not close.  Likewise, the front of the car was driven into the Blazer in front of me and the hood/grille/lights were badly damaged.  No one was hurt and I was grateful that the Blazer was in front of me.  It prevented me from being pushed into the cross street traffic and potentially being hit by another car.  As I did not have collision insurance, the car was not worth fixing for cash.  When you consider all of the years that I did not have to pay for collision insurance along with the $700 I received from the culprit’s insurance company, I broke even.  These were the days before the Chinese demand for scrap metal caused junk cars to skyrocket in value, so I gave the car to the junk man for free.  I briefly toyed with the idea of looking for a car to transplant the power train into, but my wife said that was a waste of time.

In the end, this car was my introduction to the modernized 3800 engine and I was satisfied with its performance.  I would eventually own several other cars with 3800 engines, three of which are still in my fleet today.