(first posted 1/7/2017) Some people lust after split-window Stingrays, or ’64 Mustangs, or Ferrari 250 GTOs. Me? One of my dream classic cars, probably my first choice if I had to fill a dream garage, is a 1973-75 Pontiac Grand Am. Some people might find that a tad batty – a humble GM A-Body, really? – but I feel if anyone can understand my desire, it would have to be my fellow Curbsiders.
At a recent car show – All-American Day at Lakeside Raceway – I finally saw the object of my affection in the metal. But for one major cosmetic issue, the Grand Am was all I had hoped it would be.
That injection-moulded urethane fascia – so prominently featured in Grand Am advertisements – may have been impact-resistant but it wasn’t particularly durable in the long-term. And so, when that pointed prow wore away, the owner decided to replace it with the front clip of a humble LeMans. Sigh.
Although the doors didn’t close with a solid thunk, the interior otherwise appeared to have been rather well-made or, at the very least, well-restored. The African Crossfire Mahogany was blemish-free and the upholstery and dashtop were safely kept under cover. The interior of the Grand Am is, without a doubt, the finest interior ever seen in a Colonnade. I love the full console and its shifter, and the instrument panel angled towards the driver. Change the materials and round off some of the edges and it could be a dashboard from today.
The featured car has obviously been converted to right-hand drive, and the current owner told me this was done back in the 1980s by a previous owner. Interestingly, the current owner is a longtime Oldsmobile enthusiast who has owned numerous cars from the Rocket marque including a first-generation Toronado and a couple of Ninety-Eights. If I recall correctly, this is his first Pontiac.
Perhaps the majority opinion among enthusiasts is that these were uglier, more overwrought successors to the classic 1968-72 A-Bodies. They were certainly larger and heavier, but their adventurous styling is part of their unquestionable appeal to myself. The ’68-72 Chevelle, Cutlass, LeMans and Skylark had received visual modifications during their runs that served only to make them look either less attractive, more homogenous, or both. The Colonnades, in comparison, were visually varied from one another despite the use of common parts like their roofs.
The Grand Am was the most daringly styled of the new Colonnade cars thanks to its bulging fenders and swoopy rear deck – shared with the LeMans – and the distinctive prow coupled with a unique grille and extended fender caps. This new grand touring Pontiac aped the Europeans in some ways but certainly not in its exterior appearance. It was also decidedly un-European in its sheer size—coupes rode on a 112-inch wheelbase, sedans on a 116-inch wheelbase, while total length was 208.6 and 212.6 inches, respectively.
Underneath the dramatic sheetmetal was a stronger (and heavier, natch) perimeter frame with larger main rails, to improve side-impact protection. The bodyshells were designed to meet the latest rollover standards as well as rumored ones down the line, hence the eponymous pillared roofline style used by the Colonnades. The new GM A-Bodies were both larger and heavier than their predecessors and, in Grand Am trim, weighed around 4300 lbs.
Suspension componentry was borrowed from both the full-size B-Body and the F-Body pony cars. The suspension consisted of an all-coil setup with front double a-arms and a solid rear axle. There was no independent rear suspension as in many European sport/touring sedans but, to help sharpen the Grand Am’s handling, engineers installed harder bushings, firmer shock absorbers, larger stabilizer bars and wider wheels with GR70-15 radial tires. Although radial tires were first introduced to the Pontiac line in 1967, the ’73 Grand Am was the first application for which these were made standard fitment. Grand Am marketing featured the “Radial Tuned Suspension” name that Pontiac eventually disseminated throughout its lineup.
The Grand Am project was headed by Pontiac engineer Bill Collins, who had been inspired by BMWs he had driven. With the GTO’s performance a shadow of its former self – the name relegated to a $370 LeMans trim package for 1973 – and the muscle car segment atrophying thanks to rising insurance premiums, it was decided the Grand Am would emphasize handling over straight-line performance. Indeed, the Grand Am name signified Grand Prix luxury and Trans Am handling. However, earlier in development the Grand Am was named Europa and clay mock-ups were even built with GTO badging.
Unlike other domestic performance and luxury models, the Grand Am was engineered to have both superior handling characteristics and a comfortable ride. To afford greater suspension travel, the Grand Am’s ride height was raised by 0.3 inches.
Where the Grand Am was most European was inside, with its real wood trim, bucket seats, full console and driver-oriented instrument panel. Ironically, the Euro-inspired Grand Am used the same interior as the decidedly American Grand Prix, although it substituted a large, Mercedes-style steering wheel. The bucket seats adjusted for both backrest angle and lumbar support, something not common on American cars of the era, and provided good lateral support. Seats were available in either Morrokide or a cloth/corduroy upholstery. Plenty of sound deadening was included, resulting in a quiet cabin.
The Grand Am was a domestic intermediate with sporting intentions so, unsurprisingly, the only engines on offer were V8s. Pontiac’s 400 cubic-inch V8 was available with both a 2-barrel carb and a 4-barrel carb. With a single exhaust, the 2-bbl 400 produced 170 hp; with a dual exhaust, it produced 185 hp. Road Test recorded a 0-60 time of 10.4 seconds for the latter and combined fuel economy of 12.8 mpg.
The 4-bbl 400 had 230 hp, while the most powerful engine available was a 4-bbl Pontiac 455 with 250 hp and 370 ft-lbs. This was good for a 0-60 time of under 8 seconds. Only the 400 cubic-inch V8s were available with a four-speed manual, while both the 400 and the 455 came with a three-speed Turbo-Hydramatic auto.
There were two Grand Am variants built as prototypes but which never entered production. One was a Grand Am wagon, of which the lone prototype still survives today. The second was a Grand Am equipped with the hot Super Duty engine which ended up being offered only in the Firebird. The aborted SD Grand Am would have produced 320 hp and 390 ft-lbs, and some were even delivered to magazines for testing before the plan was cancelled.
Pontiac’s advertisements and brochures of the era were beautiful
As you can imagine, the unique Grand Am was praised by the automotive press for its attempt to bring European roadability to the domestic intermediate market. Consumer Guide said the Grand Am had no peer and was recommended over high-line intermediates from Pontiac and other domestic marques, earning Best Buy status. Road Test’s balanced 1975 take on the Grand Am highlighted some of the car’s issues, such as insufficient rear-seat room, hefty curb weight and a subpar seating position. However, they concluded “Pontiac has produced a genuine American GT car” instead of a pretender. Car & Driver, ever the enthusiasts of European engineering, had much to like about the Grand Am saying it “escapes being just another insipid intermediate with an imitation Mercedes grille.” Every media outlet had nice things to say about the Grand Am’s ride/handling balance and tasteful interior, as well as that nose.
In 1973, Pontiac sold almost exactly as many Grand Am sedans and coupes as they did the almost $1k cheaper Luxury LeMans: 34,445 coupes and 8,691 sedans, priced at $4264 and $4353 respectively. An extra $1k in MSRP was hardly chump change, even if the higher price included meaningful additions like variable-ratio power steering and power front disc brakes. But those sales figures paled in comparison to other Colonnades like Pontiac’s own Grand Prix, which sold more than three times as many units. One can’t forget the insurgent Oldsmobile Cutlass line, either. Oldsmobile had a conceptually similar Cutlass Salon touring sedan and coupe (for which 1973 sales breakdowns aren’t available) but their real star was the Cutlass Supreme, an enormous commercial success and soon the best-selling car in the US.
The muscle car market had deflated and the 1974 OPEC oil crisis stunted sales of big V8-engined vehicles almost as much as emissions regulations had stunted the performance of those very same cars. But there was still a market for oversized, V8-powered, 4000-pound intermediates like GM’s Colonnades. Pontiac engineers had shifted focus away from straight-line performance to all-round handling competence. Buyers, however, had shifted focus away from straight-line performance to cushy luxury. Those who still pined for a sporting drive were more inclined to purchase a Firebird, which resurged to popularity towards the end of the decade. Everyone else preferred the prestige of a Cutlass Supreme or a Grand Prix or a Monte Carlo.
Despite an extensive advertising campaign, the Grand Am’s sales continued to disappoint. In fact, they sunk by more than half for 1974 – down to 13,961 coupes and a measly 3,122 sedans. In contrast, the Grand Prix clocked almost 100,000 units and the Colonnades from Chevrolet and Oldsmobile were even more popular. Even the under-achieving Luxury LeMans outsold the Grand Am. Pontiac was having much less luck with its intermediate range than Chevrolet and Oldsmobile, and its flashy Grand Am sadly became the poster child for this. Clay models were made of a ’76 Grand Am which would, like the LeMans, feature rectangular headlights. Some of these models included a dramatically slanted front end and hidden headlights. None of them would see the light of day as the Grand Am was retired after 1975.
One could argue the Grand Am didn’t need to sell in huge numbers and that it served more as a halo vehicle for Pontiac’s intermediate line, lending an air of credibility to Pontiac’s claim of being the excitement division. Despite its European aspirations, the Grand Am was never going to steal many conquest sales from BMW and Mercedes-Benz despite costing half as much, but it did show the market that Pontiac could build a capable grand tourer. Besides, GM accountants had insisted the Grand Am share a lot with the LeMans and it was this commonality that prevented the Grand Am from becoming an unprofitable disaster.
While the Grand Am sold in small numbers, it was a flag-bearer for Pontiac and attempted to keep the flame of Pontiac’s 1960s success alive. It showed that Pontiac engineers understood what made European sport sedans so appealing and that they could create a car that, while hardly a facsimile of said Europeans, employed some of the lessons learned. American consumers could have it all—well, a comfortable ride, attractive looks and sharp handling, but perhaps not good fuel economy. Not yet.
The Grand Am was no quick-and-cheap application of a stabilizer bar, blackout trim and a vaguely foreign-sounding name to make a Euro-fighter. This was no Ford Granada ESS or Chevrolet Celebrity Eurosport. The Grand Am was the ne plus ultra of the Colonnade cars, something that was distinctively American with a dash of something exotic and new. Daringly styled, dynamically poised – is it any wonder the Grand Am is a key member of my dream garage?