COAL: We Build Excitement…In Baltimore–1986 Pontiac Grand Am


 (None of the pictures in this article is of the actual car but pictures borrowed from the Internet using Google image search)

I had just given away the best car that I had ever owned to this point. Why? Because I was leaving for grad school in Baltimore, 180 miles away, and my car was getting close to 20 years old (ancient in those days), plus I was looking for something newer and more fuel efficient. I had a small stipend given to me by the organization sending me to grad school which I used to purchase my next vehicle.


Thar car turned out to be a 1986 Pontiac Grand Am sedan with about 55,000 miles on it. It was a boring/ugly shade of brownish gold with a crack in the windshield.


And under the hood…my old friend the 2.5 liter Iron Duke rated at 92 horsepower. The car looked just like the picture above except it had four doors. In researching this article, I found that there are very few pictures of the ’85-’91 four door Grand Ams available online. Especially the early ones with the sealed beam headlights.


Along with the Buick Somerset and Olds Calais, the Pontiac Grand Am was built on the N body platform intended to replace the X body which was sold until 1985. The Grand Am was marketed as a sporty car for the 80’s yuppie set. Chevy’s X body replacements were the similar L bodies consisting of the Corsica and Berreta.


Despite the brown color, the car’s “sporty” theme was an 80’s sort of way. For starters it had a tacky digital looking dash mimicking actual digital dashes of the day. Light and wiper controls were also pod mounted which was considered high tech back then.


The seats were also patterned after small sport sedans. The interior contained absolutely no wood trim or living room easy chair seating.  There were even headrests for the rear seat passengers, unusual for the GM cars of the day.  Another novelty was that the power window switches were on the console, another nod to “sport sedans.”

Before my big move to Baltimore, a few repairs and modifications were undertaken. The cracked windshield was replaced as well as a headlight switch which melted shortly after getting the car. I remember going to the parts store and requesting one. They only had switches for the ’73-’75 Grand Ams available! My part had to be ordered. This is when I learned that the Grand Am name predated 1985. We also replaced the stock AM/FM radio with a head unit with a cassette player. The previous owner said the AC “just needed a charge.” He was right, after getting it charged it was blowing ice cold. I’m sure I don’t have to say it but…of course, in a few months it needed another charge as it was no longer blowing ice cold.


Anyway, I packed the car, which was actually a lot roomier than it looked, and headed down to school. My parents followed me with the rest of my stuff in my Mom’s newest J car, a Buick Skyhawk two door sedan, and helped me move into my new school in the Roland Park section of Baltimore.

While at school, I had an internship twice a week about 5 or 6 miles away. So having a car was advantageous. In my free time, it also took me shopping, dining, and socializing. In addition, it also allowed me to go home to New Jersey whenever I wanted. The car was very good on gas and was not bad in terms of performance. It did not have the off the line torque of my Caprice or Camaro but could keep up with traffic reasonably well. Acceleration was more than adequate with a little bit of torque steer. That is, once you hit 80 or so, after that, the steering wheel began to vibrate and the engine noise approached motorcycle levels serving as a warning that you were nearing the limits of its performance envelope. It did handle pretty well and its trim dimensions inspired confidence in tight spaces and emergency maneuvers. -

I was lonely and homesick in Baltimore but not for long. At my internship I met the young woman who would eventually become my wife. The car took us on our early dates and also provided us with privacy since neither of our living situations at the time afforded us much alone time. We spent many hours in that car taking it all over Maryland. I remember it as comfortable, quick, and versatile and also quite economical. This was important because I left school at the end of that year and began looking for a job. The car was great there too, taking me to my many job interviews.

Because I was out of school, I needed a place to live. Because I wanted to be close to my girl, I looked for a job in Baltimore. That search took a few months which left me essentially homeless in the meantime. I alternated between staying at Mom and Dad’s, Motel Rooms, friends’ couches, and yes, one or two nights in the Grand Am at various rest stops. Thankfully, I found gainful employment by the end of the summer and moved into an apartment in early September.

When the car hit 68,000 miles, the Check Engine Light came on. This was not unfamiliar to me. Like the Iron Duke engine in my Skylark and Century, it came equipped with an early version of GM’s Computer Command Control (CCC) for the emissions system. Like my Skylark, the CEL illuminated around 68,000 miles and would go on or off intermittently despite attempts by many to clear/read/resolve the trouble code. It was determined that in order to really fix it, I would need a new CCC which everyone (including the mechanics) believed to be a waste of time and money. While this problem was annoying, the worst was yet to come.


It started with an oil spot. I checked my oil, it was a little low so I topped it off. The next time I returned home to New Jersey I had my mechanic take care of the oil leak. No problem, leak fixed, no more oil spots…for about a month.

Oil Stains 1

Then the oil spots returned. A few small spots at first, eventually worsening until the spots it left looked like the picture above. The place I worked for was located in a residential neighborhood in Towson, Maryland. There was no parking lot by my office so I parked in front of the house across the street. I remember how embarrassed I felt when the owner of that house came into my office and begged me not to park there anymore because I was ruining his curb appeal…he was absolutely right.


I found it puzzling that despite the massive environmental disaster I was creating, the dipstick registered full. It was leaking like crazy, yet the crankcase always showed full.


To this day, I don’t know how I could have overlooked what the problem was. It became crystal clear one day on York Road when a huge amount of smoke began pouring out from underneath the car and the car was barely crawling forward. What an idiot I was…the oil leaking out was not motor oil…it was transmission oil! The entire time that the car was leaking, I never bothered to crawl underneath to see what kind of fluid was leaking…I just assumed that it was motor oil.  Because of my stupidity/laziness, all the trans oil was now gone so the transmission was cooking itself! I pulled into a gas station, bought a few bottles of ATF, and believe it or not, the transmission was fine. In addition, despite my past experiences with the 2.5 liter Iron Duke, the one in the Grand Am continued to run strong and reliably.


That’s pretty much how I rolled for the next few months, I’d fill it up with trans fluid and it would be good for about two weeks. Of course the two weeks, became one week, the one week became….you get the picture. Towards the end, my trunk had a case of ATF at all times. It was especially awkward when I drove people around and had to pull over abruptly to pour fluid in. I recall a trip back from New Jersey when I had to pull over about eight times to top it off. I’m still amazed that the transmission itself did not fail. By the way, my mechanic confirmed that one of the main seals was compromised and the cost to fix the problem was far more than I could afford.


With no money,  a new life in Baltimore, and the necessity of a car, I needed a solution. This will be the subject of my next COAL.