Curbside Classic / CC Fiction: 1974 Pontiac Grand Ville – A Love Gone Horribly Wrong

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(first posted 9/25/2015)    I had first spotted this penultimate-year ’74 Grand Ville from the train during my weekday commute when it was parked in a lot near the famous Aragon Theatre in Chicago’s Uptown district.  As is often the case, I hadn’t felt like deboarding on my way home to get some shots of it, as by the end of the day I just wanted to be home.  But from the train (and, granted, from a distance), this Grand Ville looked indeed grand – resplendent in triple black, with Pontiac Rally Wheels, and shiny enough to blind you.  In the back of my mind, I always thought there would be some other opportunity to photograph it at another time.

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Then I lost my job of ten-plus years and was granted that wish.  Layoffs are no fun, as many folks will tell you.  For four months during an economic recession, my Monday-through-Friday consisted of a very different type of work day – a full morning of internet searches, research on other occupations and geographic locations, and initiating and returning both printed and electronic correspondence.  It was on my return home from an on-site job interview in the Loop that I again spotted this Grand Ville street-parked off the L tracks in my former neighborhood.  This time, I decided I needed a closer look.

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What I saw broke my heart.  Almost parallel to my job situation before the layoff when this car looked pristine, I was now jobless and the car was trashed.  Rusted to tatters.  Grille busted.  Dents everywhere.  I’m drawn to tragic things, and so I obsessed over this car’s decline for days after getting these photos.  This car seemed to have aged ten years in just about two or three.

My mind raced through an imagined scenario from the points of its most recent couple of transactions, and also to the events leading up to this one-time flagship’s near-complete destruction.  An estate sale, following the death of a family matriarch or patriarch.  None of the adult children or grandchildren want it – too big, too old, too thirsty, too “ugly”.  “Sell it,” is the imperative decree from the executor of the estate.  It’s bought at auction by a used car salesman who sees an opportunity to flip it and clean up on this honey of a low-miles Poncho.

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A middle-aged, working-class gentleman, a lifelong Chicagoan – with the lines on his face telling the story of his hard-earned wages and equally hard living – sees it parked in the front row of the used car lot.  He decides the Pontiac’s commanding, imposing presence mirrors his own persona perfectly much moreseo than his ’86 Celebrity wagon.  While the Chevy still runs well enough even if it looks none-too-pretty, he plans to give that car to his adult son and his girlfriend who need it, who have a young son and another baby on the way.  He doesn’t know or remember that large Pontiacs from this era had a propensity to rust quickly, and badly.  He only knows this old car looks sharp and has heft, weight, presence, and appears to be built like a tank.  He decides he deserves this cream puff, and the right time is now.

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The next day, he signs and drives it off the lot, making a full cash sale, anticipating the excitement of showing off his new-to-him classic to his ladyfriend and bowling buddies.  His son picks up the Celebrity, and he watches him drive it away.  His thoughts drift to next summer’s car show at Marie’s Pizza in Mayfair, near his childhood home in his old Chicago neighborhood.  Winter comes, and the car starts and runs reliably the entire season, never leaving him stranded.  The 455-c.i. big-block V8 runs smoothly, and the heater is among the best he’s ever experienced – like a small furnace.  They certainly don’t make ’em like this anymore.  A shame Pontiac went twenty-three skidoo, he thinks to himself, his quiet satisfaction with his purchase still very much with him.

The interminable Chicago winter finally passes and the very next spring, after the first car wash following the big thaw, it’s apparent that rust mites have already started to make a feast of the lower portions of the fenders, doors and quarter panels, and even under the vinyl roof.  He stares incredulously as he traces his right index finger over rust bubbles forming over the driver’s side rear wheel well.  “What the… how can this be?!?” he asks himself, filled with slow-burning rage.  “I paid $5,000 CASH for this thing, and it has already started rusting to shit!!”

In the weeks following this discovery, one of his buddies, the proprietor of an auto body shop, confirms the onset of a terminal rust situation.  His friend tells him the rust can probably still be mitigated at this point, but it would likely end up costing more than the car would be worth in top-tier condition.  The man’s anger turns slowly to deflated resignation with his realization that he just doesn’t have the money for this.

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Another year comes and goes, during which he has stopped caring, almost completely, about the possession he had once hoped would be a cherished investment.  As the car disintegrates almost visibly as he watches, he has by now made a habit of taking his life’s frustrations out on the car.  After a particularly hard shift at work, a bump into a protruding parking barrier busts out the neoclassic, radiator-style grille.  The 455 big-block now moans woefully and raspily like a lifelong chain-smoker, through a dissolving exhaust system now irreversibly perforated.

The car retaliates by continuing to swill gasoline like a drunkard to malt liquor, emptying its owner’s already meager wallet.  Theirs is a mutually-abusive, codependent relationship, which ends when one last mechanical mishap sends this once-treasured classic to the crusher in the span of just five years of his ownership out of forty from the factory.  Thus, a car that had lived so long in such pampered condition comes to an inglorious end.

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…And, scene.  My colorful imagination aside, I feel I’m also a reasonably logical, sensible person.  I understand that a vintage car purchase is usually driven primarily by emotion above all else, including reason.  However, and depending on the specific circumstances, if I stumbled upon an example of my dream car for sale that was in decent shape and for a really good price, would I be willing to allow it to be purchased by someone else with better wherewithal to take care of it properly, instead of buying it myself?  Could I risk letting go of The One that I may lament having lost for the rest of my life?  In my tale above, I’ve clearly made a few assumptions.  (It made for more fun in writing this piece.)   But in real-life, I also understand how a once cared-for classic can turn into mere transportation, no matter how charmed a life it might have led up to that point. Sometimes, life just happens.

All photos are as taken by the author in Chicago, Illinois, with the Pontiac photographed in Wrigleyville on Wednesday, January 26, 2011, and the Aragon Ballroom photographed in Uptown on Saturday, August 8, 2009.

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