Curbside Classic: 1965 Pontiac LeMans – The BMW 3 Series Of Its Day

(first posted 2/19/2011)    Take a good long look at this handsome car. This beauty was one of the best in that beautiful decade of the sixties. Are you seeing its magnetic attraction yet? Well, this slightly rough survivor might need a little help; try squinting a bit. I sure saw it when I was seventeen; I simply couldn’t keep my eyes off a black coupe exactly like this. And as a consequence, I learned a painful and lasting lesson. OK, better stop looking and keep reading.

For 1965, the mid-sized Tempest/LeMans/GTO were finally bequeathed the distinctive stacked headlights that were such a hit with the 1963 full-sized wide-tracks.

The 1963 Grand Prix was one of Bill Mitchell’s masterpieces, and this LeMans is a virtual knock-off. No other GM division could equal Pontiac’s success in transferring their halo car’s styling across its whole line. Even the cheapest Tempest looked good; they all shared the clean lines and unadorned flanks of the GP. And there’s more than a touch of Riviera here too. The LeMans was truly the favored child in the GM mid-size gene pool.

And its parents were not disappointed. The 1965 LeMans handily outsold its corporate mid-size siblings. And that’s where the competition mostly ended. Does anyone even remember the forgettable 1965 Fairlane coupe? GM utterly dominated the mid-sized sector, which helped propel GM to a 50+% market share and its largest profit that year to date, a handy $1.7 billion ($11.5 billion adjusted). Yes, the mid-sixties were GM’s final golden years. Market share and profits (inflation adjusted) would never again be replicated. And its cars would never again look so good, like this LeMans, glowing with self-confidence and understated elegance.

Like most non-GTO LeMans, this one sports the almost ubiquitous 326 cubic inch V8. A small-bore version of the Goat’s 389, either 250 or 285 horsepower were on tap, depending on whether a two-barrel or four-barrel carb was on (non-super) duty. Despite its two-speed automatic, the un-GTO was reasonably brisk. The LeMans was the perfect date car and a great Saturday night cruiser, as long as you resisted stop-light drags. That’s what the real GTO was for.

Pontiac’s innovative OHC Sprint six was still one year away, so the standard six was a 215 CID number that was strictly a Chevy six with the bore (or stroke?) jiggered to come up with a distinct number. This was still a time when using identical engines across divisions was a no-no, and this was as close as it got then.

Pontiac moved almost 200k LeMans/GTO’s in 1965. The following years saw even bigger numbers, but by 1970, the party was over. Just like the excitement decade of the sixties flamed out, so did Pontiac’s glorious ten-year run in the number three spot. Why? John Z. DeLorean, Pontiac’s dynamic General Manager during the sixties moved on to Chevrolet, and…DeLorean (and cocaine).

Pontiac styling became fat and blobby, as did the cars themselves. Performance had defined Pontiac in the sixties, but that orgy crashed. By the early seventies, Americans were looking either for the (faux) trappings of luxury, or heading down that other cultural divide of imports, especially those from Japan and Germany.

Those that stayed true to GM mid-size coupes found their landau-roofed object of desire in the Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme Brougham Coupe. The baton was handed off, and the over-named Olds ran right to the very top of the sales charts, for a number of years, too. Oldsmobile became the new Pontiac; at least in sales.

In image, BMW became the new Pontiac. It’s not a coincidence that just as Pontiac was diving into the horrors of its mid-seventies dark night of the bloated (Grand Am) soul, the new BMW 320i became the…LeMans. Handsome, cleanly styled, fun(ner) to drive, and, once again, the perfect date car. And just like the LeMans, the 98hp 320i wasn’t really fast. But it was the thing to be seen in, as the 3Series still is today. The fact that it looked just like a GTO, minus a few badges, didn’t hurt in the least. Many LeMans soon started sprouting GTO badges prolifically, not unlike the many M badges on 328s.

In high school, I had a weekend job at a small corner gas station. A kid my age who knew the owner dropped by regularly at the end of the day, sometimes to help out, but mostly to minister to his shiny black ’65 LeMans coupe. He’d change the oil and primp his beloved ride.  And he always gave me a ride home, or we’d go cruising. All the while, my jealous eyes were magnetically glued to the Pontiac.

In between my endless covetous leers, I vaguely noticed that he always wore a jacket, even in Baltimore’s sweltering summer heat. One day I suddenly realized he was working with one hand in his jacket pocket. With the thoughtlessness that seventeen-year olds are notorious for, I loudly berated him for his laziness in using only one hand. He gave me a hurt-puppy look, but said nothing.

Later, the owner told me that the kid had blown his hand off playing with fireworks. I felt like a total idiot. After all these months, I hadn’t even noticed that he could do almost anything I could do, even with one hand in his pocket. Yet I was intimate with every detail, nook and cranny of his beautiful LeMans. It was a painful lesson I had to relive every Saturday after work, as I trudged home. The rides had ended.