COAL: 1991 Pontiac Grand Prix GTP- Gargantuan Timing Problems

So last week I told how I had decided that I “needed” a second vehicle. While I was still very pleased with my truck, and planned to keep it for a long long time, I felt that with all the driving I would be doing after graduating from high school and going off to college, I needed something a little newer and practical. Okay, so the truth is, I just wanted another car to play with! The need to have a choice of what I wanted to drive had set in and its something that I still feel to this day. I like having as many cars as I can, and like to keep the stock rotated pretty regular for freshness.

Now I was born and raised in a Ford family, and never really considered owning and driving anything but Fords. My mom still had her 1988 Ford Club Wagon that was like part of the family, and my dad always had FOMOCO vehicles as company cars. Crown Victoria’s and Grand Marquees for as far back as I could remember. Although once the Explorer was introduced, the switched to Explorers, much to my dad’s dismay.

My dad is from a small rural town in North Carolina. A part of the country that was deeply invested in tobacco and NASCAR racing. In places like that, and during the time my dad was growing up, there was a real divide between Ford guys and Chevy guys. My dad grew up listening to NASCAR races on the radio with his dad. His dad always drove Fords, most all of the other “MacBrides” drove Fords, and some of the hottest cars around his town were some “specialty built” Fords. He has told me great stories about being a little boy and being in his house or yard and being able to hear a particular car coming from a distance away. He would run out into the front yard to watch as this fella would come screaming past his house in his 1963 1/2 Fastback Ford. Rumor was that when this guy bought the car new, it was sent to Holman Moody to have the engine built. Not sure exactly what the car was used for, but you can take a pretty good guess.

My dad said it was the same color as this car and had a 427. Legend has it that he never let anyone look under hood and that nothing could touch this car including the law.


Now when my sister was turning 16, my family was trying to decided on a good car for her. Of course I was deeply interested in helping search, because I’ve always loved searching for cars. I remember finding a car that I thought was pretty cool and it fit the criteria of what we were looking for. There was only one problem, it wasn’t a Ford. No, it was a 1989 Buick Lesabre T Type. I still remember the exact words my dad said when I told him about the car. “I ain’t going to buy no Buick” My dad is a very well educated man, a graduate of Georgia Tech, an electrical engineer, and all around very smart guy, but mention the possibility of buying a GM product in those days, and I guess the old farm boy in him took over. She ended up with a ’89 Thunderbird LX.

So back to my car search. I guess you could say that I had a little automotive secret of my own that I wasn’t sure I was ready to share. While I was a Ford man myself, I also found myself attracted to a lot of other cars as well. One in particular being the Pontiac Grand Prix GTP. I was a bit hesitant to cross the line and buy a GM product but then I remembered that my dad had done the same thing in the past.

When he and my mom had got married he was still in school at Georgia Tech and they needed a vehicle badly. He actually bought a new Chevy Vega, price being the most determining factor of the purchase. I don’t need to go into to much detail explaining how that one turned out. Lets just say it suffered from every weakness that the Vega became known for and blew its engine within a couple years. But I really found the Grand Prix’s to have a great athletic look to them. The GTP with its plastic fantastic body cladding and lacy wheels looked great to my 18 year old eyes. I searched the local Auto Trader magazine for several weeks when I found an ad for a 1991 Grand Prix GTP.

This is exactly what mine looked like

It was a one owner car, with just under 100k miles. I called the number and the owner agreed to meet me in the parking lot of the local K-Mart that evening. I took one of my best friend with me to check it out. As soon as I saw the car, I knew I wanted it. It was blue, with the aluminum lacy wheels, not the gold ones and it didn’t have the spoiler on the trunk lid. That was my favorite look for these. It also had PONTIAC written out across the top of the windshield in bold white letters. I really liked that as soon as I saw that too. The owner seemed to me to be a nice clean cut business man, that’s what I remember thinking to myself anyway, and I thought “well good, its probably not been driven to hard”. Once I got in the car I was blown away by all “cool features and buttons and screens!”

Such advanced tech!

It was so different than my simple old truck. The seats had power adjustments for EVERYTHING! They must have been 15 way adjustable seats, It had a super cool compass that showed a graphic of the car and what direction it was going, and that steering wheel! It was filled with buttons for the radio controls.

I thought all this stuff was so cool, and it all worked as well. But the coolest, part about the whole package was the heads up display on the windshield. We are talking real Top Gun, advanced technology here people. Not only would it display the speed, it would shown the turn signal indicators, and other cool stuff like the check engine light! Wait, I’m getting ahead of myself here. The owner told me that the tires were about 3 weeks old, “very good, they are awfully wide, I’m sure those were expensive, all the more reason to buy it”

 Once we took it for a test drive, he told me that NASCAR driver Rusty Wallace had driven this very car around Atlanta Motor Speedway when it was brand new as part of some promotion and that the PONTIAC lettering on the windshield was put on at that time. Well Rusty Wallace was one of my favorite drivers at this time, so if I wasn’t already planning on buying this car before, I really was now. I agreed to meet him at his house the next Friday when he got home from work to buy the car. I had my mom take me over there and the deal was done in about 30 minutes. The car was running good, and I had the windows down and sunroof open, just enjoying the experience of driving it home for the first time.

My mom was following me in her van, and informed me that it had blown some black smoke from the tail pipes a couple of times. No matter I thought, probably just blowing out the catalytic converters! I really cant recall how soon it was after I bought it, a day, 2 days, maybe 4 at the most, before the car started to run poorly and the check engine light came on. Both on the dash and displayed on the windshield by the oh so cool HUD. The guy I bought it from had told me the shop he used for all his repairs and it was pretty close to my parents house.

I took it by there one day after school to ask them about the car, and see how much it would be to diagnose the problem. When the shop owner saw the car, he immediately recognized it and informed me that he was very well acquainted with it. Not what you want to hear when your 18 and just spent all your money on a new car! I didn’t know much about this engine at the time, the GM 3.4 double over head cam 24 valve V6.

What a pain in the butt to try and work on.

I soon learned that this was a very problematic engine and that this car had spent a LOT of time in the shop. I honestly don’t remember what was wrong with it that first time, but I remember had something to do with the timing being off. My new ride was in the shop within days of buying it and I didn’t get it back for a good 2 weeks. It was close to $1000 to fix the thing and I was feeling cheated. I called the guy I had bought it from and told him about the situation and surprisingly, before I could even bring it up, he offered to pay 75% of the bill. I was very thankful and gracious for his kindness, and was happy to get the car back.

When I got it back it ran better than ever and seemed pretty quick to me. Granted it was an automatic and not a 5 speed, but it was fun, and looked good! I had a solid week of it running well, and then boom, it started running like crap again and that dang check engine light came back on. Both on the dash, and staring back at me on the windshield through my kind of cool HUD. I pulled it into the shop of my auto mechanics class that pretty much majored in all 4 years of high school and discovered the problem to be some leaking vacuum lines. Not a huge deal right? Yeah except on this car they were VERY had to get to.

The car was back out of service for a week while I worked on trying to replace the vacuum lines that were buried way down deep in the belly of the beast. But once that was done, it was back in action! Oh happy days are here again! I got it all put back together and running on a Friday, and picked up my new girlfriend from her house in it. I had owned the car now for probably 4 weeks at this point and she hadn’t even gotten to see it yet because it was always in the shop. We got in and were getting ready to go to the high school basketball ball game, and then on to some other planned activities and I remember feeling excited for her to experience my cool ride. I cranked the car up and BOOM! Something went boom under the hood, very loudly and the car was now running poorly and sounded different under the hood.

I opened the hood and discovered that apparently the boom was a backfire through the intake which in turn blew apart the air cleaner cover. While the car was running crappy again, and the check engine light was back on, both on the dash, and on the confounded wind shield through the $@#&% HUD, it did sound really cool with the open intake! It really growled and was misfiring, so it sounded like it had a big cam in it and so I played it off for the night.

Unfortunately I don’t think my girlfriend was overly impressed with it and after I drover her car one time I could see why. She had a 1992 Acura Legend coupe and that car was far superior to my Pontiac in every way. “Hmm, maybe there is something to these imports after all.” Funny how different these two cars were and yet the same on paper. Both were front wheel drive coups, both produced 200 hp, both were their respected manufactures top offerings, but they were so vastly different to drive. Her car was also a good second faster than mine in a 0-60 drag race.

her car was also like mine in the fact that it did not have the optional rear spoiler. At least my car was a better color than hers!

And so the cycle went on for a couple of months, fix the car and drive it for about a week, then either put it in the shop or fix it myself again for about a week. The thing started to behave and run good for more than a week at a time towards the end of my senior year of high school and I actually drove me and a few of my closest friends to Spring Break in Panama City Florida in that car. On the way down, the car started making a funny noise when I would apply the brakes.

Now the route we chose to take, put us mostly on small state highways out in rural Alabama. This route was chosen because we wanted to avoid the State Troopers as best as we could, no need to explain why. It was out on one of these sparsely populated areas that the “funny noise” the brakes had been making, presented the actual issue. I was slowing down for a stop sign when a loud metal on metal sound occurred. I pulled off the road and jacked up the front passenger wheel and removed it. There I found the top bolt that holds the caliper to it bracket had come out and the caliper was now riding the inside of the wheel. Thank goodness the bottom part of the caliper was still on the rotor or I would have pushed the piston right out of the caliper and had a much bigger issue to deal with.

I got very lucky and was able to find the bolt lying on the road about 30 yards behind the car. The only problem was that it was some kind of hex head and I sure didn’t have anything like that in the car. One of my friends, flagged down one of the few cars that actually came up on us and got a ride into the closest town and took the bolt with him to find a tool to tighten it back up. Meanwhile, the rest of us hung out on the side of the road and actually had a grand time as pretty much the only people that passed us were other kids on their way to the beach also. We were given food, beer, phone numbers, and for once I wasn’t mad at the car for breaking on me!

This became a regular issue on this car. The passenger front caliper would loosen itself up and the drivers side would tighten its self. I got to where I would just tighten it up every two weeks or so as preventive maintence. I once broke 2 ratchets trying to loosen the drivers side caliper bolts though.  That summer before leaving for college, I did a few things to it. I had the windows all tinted 5%, and had some glass pack mufflers put on. I typically don’t like loud exhaust on anything but a V8, but it actually sounded pretty good on this car. It  wasn’t the angry bee buzz of a 4 cylinder and just gave it a bit more character.

I did do one thing that I thought was rather clever at the time, but seems stupid now. The hood had those cool vents running down both sides, and I honestly can’t remember if they were functional or if I made them functional by putting vent holes in them, (I want to say they were actually functional heat extractors) but at any rate, I disconnected the windshield washer fluid tube from the hood, and aimed it to spray on the exhaust manifold so that when I hit the washer button, it would blow steam out of those hood vents. I thought it looked cool and mean, everybody else just thought it was overheating…

Heading off to high school graduation. This is the only picture I have of my actual car.

In the fall of 1998 I headed off college in the Pontiac just as I had planned. I was living in a dorm room with one of my friends from back home. Being confined to a small room that had to be shared with someone else meant there was very little space for anything other than your essential items, thus no tools or car care products. What was I going to do when the car messed up again as I knew it inevitably would? I decided that the first weekend that one of my friends was going to go back home, I would go along with them and drive my trusty 87 F-150 back down.

So here I was living in a dorm and having 2 cars, well at least I was back to having a choice again about what to drive! One day while driving to a friends house who lived out in the country about 10 miles off campus I happened to drive past a very interesting vehicle with a for sale sign in the window. This vehicle soon took over my every waking thought and I had to make it mine. I quickly lost all interest in the troubled GTP and decided to dump it quick while it was still running. I drove it back home and took it to a Car Max dealership and sold it to them for whatever poor cash offer they made me. It was enough however to buy this next glorious thing that I had found and fallen in love with.

So I guess you could say my first experience owning a GM car was about like my dad’s.  He says the Vega was fun to drive when it was actually running, as was the Pontiac. But those times were to few and all the other problems both of these cars had did nothing more than push the both of us deeper into the Ford camp.