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

(first posted 3/8/2012)   If you were looking to buy a 1977-1979 full-size Pontiac today, you would have a long road ahead. Looking online and in Hemmings, you could be forgiven for thinking that all Pontiac built in the late 1970s were Firebirds and Trans Ams. Believe it or not, Pontiac really did offer a full lineup of vehicles, including their bread-and-butter offerings, the Catalina and Bonneville.

It’s no secret that the 1977-96 GM B-body is a favorite of many of us here at Curbside Classic. My personal favorite is the Bonneville, as my dad had one when I was born. In late 1978 or early 1979, his office bought three brand new 1979 Pontiacs from Horst-Zimmerman Pontiac-Cadillac for the investigators to use: blue and brown Bonneville sedans and a silver Catalina sedan. Dad got the brown one. It replaced the silver-blue 1977 Monte Carlo he had been using. He did occasionally drive the silver Catalina (no vinyl roof, red interior) and the blue Bonneville (I have no memory of that one), but the beige over brown Bonneville was his.

It was either Sierra Copper or Heritage Brown, but I’m pretty sure it was brown. It had a beige vinyl roof and beige cloth interior, with the standard full wheel covers. My first car memory was riding in the back seat of the Bonneville while going through the car wash at a Shell station with my dad. This was back when car washes actually had brushes, so it was a while ago. The photo above, although a Canadian-market Parisienne, is very close to what our car looked like.

It has been told many times before, but GM downsized their vehicles at exactly the right time. The 1971-76 B-bodies were the largest full-size cars GM had built, and it was time to trim the fat. Really, there was nowhere to go but down, size-wise. The 1977 Pontiacs followed the format of their corporate siblings in utilizing the ‘sheer look’, as had been first introduced on the first-generation Cadillac Seville. The new Bonnevilles (and Catalinas) were built on a modified version of the 1973-77 GM A-body chassis, but were much more space efficient. In fact, the 1977 Bonnevilles had more front headroom and rear legroom than the gigantic 1976 versions.

The standard engine for Bonnevilles was the 140 hp 4.9L 301 CID V8, with Turbo Hydramatic transmission. Optional engines included a 170 hp, 4 BBL 350 and 180 hp, 4 BBL 400. The Pontiac 350 was replaced with the Chevy 350 in 1978, and the 400 was discontinued in 1979. The lineup consisted of Catalina, Bonneville and Bonneville Brougham coupes and sedans, plus Grand Safari and Catalina Safari station wagons.

Bonneville and Catalina coupes could get an optional Landau vinyl roof. The Brougham added niceties like extra window sill trim, electric clock, power windows and an extra-plush interior trimmed in velour. All Bonnevilles had bright rocker moldings, a unique grille and taillights, and standard rear fender skirts to distinguish themselves from the more basic Catalinas.

1978 Bonnevilles received the usual front and rear styling changes. What had been the 1977 Brougham interior was now the standard Bonneville interior. Broughams had new loose-pillow seating in velour for extra decadence.

The Brougham interior would not have looked out of place in an Oldsmobile or Buick and actually reminds me a lot of the 1978 Park Avenue’s interior. Those who thought the acres of pillowed velour were a bit gauche could opt for the standard Bonneville and get a much more understated interior.

The most distinctive seating option was the Valencia interior. Available in red or tan, it consisted of special striped velour seating and door panel trim. It was an option on the Brougham only for 1977, but in ’78 could be had on any Bonneville.

One of the Bonneville’s best features was the instrument panel. A black trim section wrapped around from side to side and concealed the heating and air conditioning vents. Full gauges were also available as an option.

For whatever reason, the B-body 1977-79 Pontiacs were not big sellers. Perhaps it had to do with the Impala and Caprice offering a similar package for less money. At any rate, when comparing Caprice vs. Bonneville for 1977, there was no contest, with the Caprice’s 284,813 units eclipsing Bonneville production of 114,880. 1978 was slightly better with 125,297 Bonnevilles, but once again, the Caprice ruled the roost, with 263,909 built (figures cited exclude station wagons).

Although I prefer the Bonneville, the combination of rear fender skirts and the rounded rear deck may have made the Pontiac look less attractive than the Caprice to new car shoppers. The Caprice does have a somewhat trimmer, leaner look when compared to the Pontiac.

For whatever reason, the Pontiacs were the least-popular B-bodies, and Pontiac actually eliminated all their full-size cars after 1981. For 1982, the A-body Grand LeMans was given a new front end and renamed Bonneville Model G, replacing the true full-size Bonneville. The Catalina was axed. This proved to be a bad idea in the long run, as after the 1980-82 recession, car sales started picking up again, and Pontiac found itself without an entry in a market that was suddenly showing renewed interest in full-size cars.

There actually was a 1982 full-size Pontiac. GM of Canada did not feel it was a good idea to completely abandon the full size market, so they offered a Caprice-based Parisienne for 1982. The really rare variant was the coupe, built that year only.

Pontiac wound up importing Parisienne sedans and wagons to the US market starting in 1983. Sedans continued to be available through 1986, adding the 1980-81 Bonneville rear sheetmetal in 1985. The Safari wagon would last until 1989, then disappear.

no shelter for old Pontiacs

I found this 1978 Brougham back in January and took some pictures for the Cohort. I remembered seeing it years earlier and was pleased to see it still parked on the same street, nearly ten years later. With the memories of Dad’s ’79, I had to stop and check it out.

It is well equipped, being a Brougham, and also has Rally II wheels and sport mirrors. The color is Chesterfield Brown, with velour interior in Camel Tan. It is also somewhat rare in that it does not have a vinyl roof. It has current tags, so it is still transportation for someone, though I’ve never seen it being driven.

As with just about every other Midwestern Bonneville still on the road, the rear fender skirts are gone.GM must have used the flimsiest hardware to attach them, as nearly every one I’ve seen since 1995 or so have them missing.

Here is a retouched photo of what the car would have looked like when new. Although I prefer the fender skirts, this car does look kind of nice without them, especially with the Rally IIs. I’d add some bright wheel trim around the rear wheel wells, though.

As for our 1979 Bonneville, it was traded in on a maroon 1981 or ’82 Volvo 242DL coupe. Mom had a ’77 245DL wagon, and I think Dad wanted something a little sportier. It turned out to be his last two-door car for almost twenty years. My brother came along in 1983, and Dad got a silver ’84 244GL shortly thereafter. When I asked him about the Bonneville while preparing this article, he really couldn’t remember much about it – we usually took the wagon on vacations, and when he was home he was usually puttering around with the Porsche 356 he had owned since 1973. I guess it must have been a good car, as I’m sure he would have remembered it if it had a lot of problems. The 1977-79 Pontiacs were pretty good cars, even if they weren’t the most popular B-body.