(first posted 6/9/2014) A running joke in the comment threads mocks the strain of enthusiasm for the mythical object of today’s four-wheel lust: the brown, turbo diesel, manually-shifted station wagon. Could this faction be reconciled with Curbside Classic’s more red-blooded demographic with a vehicle that fulfills the desires of both tendencies? If so, I propose that this Pontiac survivor be in the running as the car nut’s ambassador of peace.
As the alternative to the Vista Cruiser and Buick Sportwagon, this final-year B-body received a very generous makeover for what would be a single-year run. Despite its bizarre name, which brings to mind business executives piled into the back of a Land Rover, the big Pontiacs were GM’s only full-size, upmarket wagon line-up from 1965 through 1969, until Buick rolled out a one-year version of their Estate Wagon on the B-body for 1970. Until then, though, either you went with a Chevy wagon, or you got a stretched A-body from Buick or Olds.
1970 would be the last year for the second-most-exclusive Executive nameplate; the Bonneville replaced it after the new Grand Ville received top billing between 1971 and 1975. The arrival of the gigantic 1971 bodystyle was presaged by the abandonment of the loop bumper in 1970 and front vent windows the year before.
I’m aware that consensus favors the ’69 Grand Prix-inspired restyle, seen at right, but I feel that it’s a bit fussy. Far be it for me to pooh-pooh such an elaborate grille-cum-bumper assembly, but the decision to fill all that width with body colored panels with circular openings strikes me as somewhat excessive. It’s a theme which would look a lot better on a narrower car.
But say what I will, it was nevertheless fresh looking, making Dodge and Plymouth wagons look casual, while lending this GM offering a degree of formality greater than that seen on Ford’s more popular and conservative Country Squire, which had incidentally copied the earlier Pontiacs’ design theme.
None of that mattered once you were inside the car, and as a lighter (than the 1971-1976) 1970–the last year before compression ratios began their downward spiral–there was plenty of response from the standard 400 CID engine, with two-barrel carburetor and a 10:1 compression ratio. If its 290 gross horsepower and 428 lb-ft of torque weren’t enough, the 455 was available in two states of tune, along with a low-compression (8.8:1) 400 with a taller standard rear axle ratio for those with a more realistic understanding of their wagon’s intended use. Curiously, the high-compression 400 came with the option for an even taller 2.43:1 rear axle, not available for the low-compression version. On the other hand, the 455 in its more modest state of tune was available with the shortest 3.23:1 axle not available on the 455 High Output (with its very healthy 370 gross horsepower and 500 lb-ft of torque).
The years from 1965 to 1970 saw the full-size Pontiacs tumble in the sales charts, with the brand starting out in third place above Olds and Buick only to slide into sixth by the end of the bodystyle’s run. This wasn’t so much because of any fault of the car itself, but may have had to do more with the fact that Pontiac’s image leader, the Grand Prix, was now built on a smaller chassis, meaning that Poncho’s full-sizers no longer benefitted from any strong association with a halo model, helping erode any reputation for performance over in-house rivals. The arrival of the enormous 1971s didn’t reverse this trend.
Also by this time, GM was beginning to solidify its understanding of competitive handling, and revised suspension geometries and Saginaw power steering made for improvements across the corporate B and C body line-up by 1969. If full-size GM performance is what you’re into, these very late ’60s models are where to look, even if Pontiac was slowly losing its edge.
Perhaps the new interiors could shoulder some of the blame. The interior of this 1970 isn’t bad per se, but it lost the distinctiveness of earlier versions.
Consider the interior of this lowly ’66 Catalina. Sure, the A/C vents are uncomfortably perched atop the main dashboard molding, and the metal bottom half may look less hospitable, but the intricacy and detailing are superior to that of the 1970’s smoother looking unit. What’s worse is the mid-decade Pontiacs, lower in the Sloan-hierarchy, could rightfully point to their interiors as being more expensive looking. This was no longer the case by 1970, by which point Pontiac’s dashboard was a rather sober looking affair, except compared to Chevy.
It’d be rough going for Pontiac in the ’70s, with the exception of such cars as the Grand Prix and Firebird, which had to contend with competition from Chevrolet, primarily. The larger cars and midsize sedans, on the other hand, gave buyers an increasingly muddled message, and our featured car, shot by Eric Clem, helps illustrate the slow forfeiture of the brand’s restrained and purposeful design.
The dynamic image was one Pontiac’s managers would nonetheless cling to through the bitter end, with increasingly bizarre attempts to distinguish their products with added decoration, but without any decisively unique design ethos over the ensuing years of increasingly corporatized design, success would never come as easily as it had just five short years before this wagon was built. That doesn’t mean we can’t love it for what it is, however. Sales aside, full-size Pontiacs were very likable up through the abrupt downsizing of the Bonneville in 1982, wearing their chrome jewelry quite well, and very often in brown, as is the case with this high-octane family hauler. Given the choice between our featured car and a brand new Jetta TDI wagon, I would opt for Wide-Tracking over Fahrvergnügen.
Related reading: 1966 Pontiac Star Chief Executive: Executive Privilege, 1968 Pontiac Catalina: Let’s Go Wide-Tracking
Count me in as a fan of the pre-1969 styling. I’ve never understood those innermost circular chrome caps on the 1969 Pontiacs, giving them a six-eyed look.
You mean the 1970 models.
It looks like the front-clip is designed separately from the rest of the car. And very randomly. Did the guys at GM styling just throw darts on a board to see what treatments were supposed to go where? There’s no corresponding lines whatsoever between the front and the rest. It just doesn’t belong. Plug-and-play front clip.
Yes, but you’d be surprised; it seems that the 1970 front-clip is preferred over the ’69 and the ’68.
There’s no accounting for taste.
The 1970 front clip is more distinctive than the front clips of the 1968 and 1969 models, which always helps in the collector car market. At the time, however, I recall that it was controversial and not very popular.
The original plan for the 1970 models was to have a good portion of the grille painted to match the body color. The goal was to have the front of the full-size cars match the style of the 1968-69 GTO and 1969 Grand Prix.
While this car was being finalized for production, John DeLorean moved from Pontiac to Chevrolet. The new general manager (I believe it was James McDonald) was much more conservative in his tastes.
In his view, Pontiacs were a step up from Chevrolets, and more expensive cars had more chrome, so the front of the proposed 1970 full-size Pontiac needed more chrome to match its place in the GM/Sloan hierarchy.
He didn’t like the front that DeLorean that had approved for the 1970 full-size models. It was too late to make major changes, but one thing he could do was add more chrome to the grille. Which he did.
At least, that is what DeLorean claims in his book.
They’re horn ports, I believe.
The circular chrome grilles cover the horns.
They served as grilles for the two horns, one horn behind each grille.
Not even Art Fitzgerald and Van Kaufman can make the post 69 front end appealing to me. And I looove 60s Pontiacs.
I was small when the ’70 Pontiac still roamed the Earth and I don’t remember seeing that many of them. I always liked the headlights on these, but not the grille. Even then, aged three, I thought that Pontiac was working way too hard to put that pointed prow into their front ends, compared to the designs from just five years before. Yes, I had opinions on automotive design even then.
And on dashboards: Didn’t emerging safety standards (i.e., padding) have as much to do with the boringization of dashboards during the ’70s as anything else?
You recall thinking, at the tender age of 3, that Pontiac was: “working way too hard to put that pointed prow into their front ends…”
Wow. I am truly impressed with your precocious marketing instincts. No doubt you graduated University at 10, received your MBA at 12 and went directly into GM’s marketing ranks at 14 (you took a gap year to learn real world hands-on automotive repair). You chose PMD as the divsion most deserving recipient of your management gifts…
Using this timescale then, do we have you to thank for Pontiac’s unrelentingly dismal sales record during the 80’s and 90’s? And were you the one who finally put a gun to the brand’s head in 2009?
It’s called an eye for design; some of us have it, others haven’t.
Cars are rolling sculpture and easily compared with one another. I have every reason to believe that Jim–or any attentive kid–could recognize what he saw as misplaced ornamentation at age three because I myself can recall my own preference for certain shapes over others at a similar age.
+1 Absolutely bang on Perry. Even as a 4-5 year old, I could tell if a car was modern or dated looking. Or even if it’s styling was weird or different. I remember the very first Karmann Ghias I saw, creeped me out. As they seemed even more dated/strange than the Beetle, to my eyes.
Same here, too. But I loved ’59 Chevys!
“And on dashboards: Didn’t emerging safety standards (i.e., padding) have as much to do with the boringization of dashboards during the ’70s as anything else?”
Yes, I believe this had much to do with the more “boring” dash boards. Dashboards were moving away from using steel for the structure to using more plastics. This allowed for the dashboards to abosrb energy in a crash, vs the nicer looking steel dashes that didn’t.
In the 1970 model there was 1/16″ to 1/8″ steel under the vinyl/plastic dash covering bonded to a dense foam rubber that was maybe 3/4″ thick for most of it with the protruding surround around the instrument cluster full depth foam rubber which one could bend with your fingers.
On the passenger side the long rectangle with the wood grain vinyl applique was directly on the steel. I had drilled through that area to install a 1/4″ stereo headphone jack for the radio and the 8 track, the latter of which was mounted on top of the transmission/driveline hump.
The 1970 Pontiacs seem like a preview of what many now call the malaise era, or a 70s Edsel.
Nothing wrong with Edsels!Even though I’m a Ford and Mercury fan I think the Pontiac beak turned out nicer than the Ford and Mercury snouts.I don’t know what happened but Pontiac lost a lot of it’s glamour when John DeLorean left.Apart from the Firebird there was little to interest me in the 70s though I’ve since become a wagon and especially woody wagon fan
My grandma’s last new car was a 1969 Catalina sedan, so I was intimately familiar with the 69 Pontiac when the 70 models appeared. I was fascinated by the 69’s Endura bumper, but the 70’s front had a real cobbled-together look, sort of like something Studebaker might have done a decade earlier to try and make a maximum impact without changing any major panels.
I will also agree with your observation about the interiors. Grandma’s prior car had been a 64 Catalina, and an uncle had a 65. Both of those cars, even as base model sedans, had rich, beautiful interiors. Grandma’s 69, on the other hand, was dreadfully drab and cheap (though not nearly as bad as what would be offered for 1971). I’m sure that some of that was safety-related, but much of it was also cost cutting.
My wife was stopped at a stop sign in our 1970 Corolla wagon when she was rear-ended by a woman driving a late 60’s Pontiac. We had a big dent in the middle of the hatch and the Pontiac was not damaged. After that whenever my wife saw a Pontiac, she used to call them the car with the raper front end.
That high-compression 400 with the super tall rear gears was similar to Olds’ Turnpike Cruiser, designed specifically for maximum highway mpg.
Only the high-comp 400 was available with the supertall rear axle, but the low-comp came standard with one which was close, at 2.56:1.
So, two approaches to high-mpg, one with a high and one with a low compression ratio.
I got the impression from your article, which was excellent btw, that low compression engines are better for fuel economy? Higher compression generally improved the engine efficiency which improves fuel economy and power. In this era many of the “economy” engines were low compresson mostly so they could run on regualr fuel, not because the lower compression was better for fuel economy. It makes sense that the higher compression engine receives the steeper gears, all else being equal.
That 66 Bonneville is about the best looking wagon I have ever seen. And it’s even in my favorite color! Never was a fan of the enlarged ‘nose’ on the later models. The small one on the 66 looks good. Still, I could see this in 1970, towing a 30ft Airstream with the kids in the rear of the wagon, laying out on sleeping bags and pillows playing “slug bug”. Nice article.
+1. It’s an absolute stunner.
I’m an admirer. The Bonneville wagons of 1965-69/70 were the most luxurious GM wagons, with a much broader array of options than the Olds and Buick intermediate wagons offered. The Bonnevilles featured carpeted rear areas with shiny metal strips at intervals to create a durable cargo floor. However, any option available on Bonneville wagons could also be had on the slightly cheaper Executive wagon first offered in ’67 (which came with woodgrain vinyl siding – I didn’t know until the above brochure photo that the fake wood was available on the ’70 Bonneville wagon as well). My family owned a ’65 Bonneville wagon followed by a ’67 Executive wagon with all the options, including cornering lights, vinyl roof, 8-track stereo (first offered in ’67), cruise control, etc.
In 1965 and ’66 (and perhaps ’67-’70) fender skirts came standard on all Bonnevilles except the shorter-wheelbase wagons, so someone forced them onto the wagon pictured here, and they don’t look quite right. For 17 years starting when I was a teenager I owned a ’66 Bonneville convertible this color, with the skirts.
Dad had the 1970 Executive Safari. Pontiac seriously softened the front suspension over the 1964 and 1967 he had and the front was always going out of alignment.
Chewed up a lot of tires. His last of 5 Pontiac wagons, switched to Chrysler T&C.
The interior of the ’66 Catalina does look great, but it’s helped by the fact that it has the optional Ventura custom interior. The chrome window frames are the giveaway.
Actually that is standard Catalina interior. Pontiac was masterful in the way it merchandised interior/exterior combinations. Bright window moldings (along with full wheel covers and bright rocker moldings) were part of optional Decor Group on Catalina and were standard on all other full-size models. Ventura was technically a luxury package on Catalina models although it was merchandised as separate model in advertising materials. Ventura interiors were virtually identical to Executive interiors in 1966.
Didn’t know the technIcal name for the optional Decor Group onto the Catalina, but my point was that this Catalina has it, which certainly improves the look. The Ventura was interesting because, as you point out, it was like a quasi model at this time. Wonder why they even bothered, as it probably stole sales from the Executive.
One thing I love about these wagons is how GM cut a step into the bumper for the 3-seat models.
Also, I have a dim memory that for a while in the 60s, Pontiac offered a rear mounted radio in its station wagons that you could remove from the car. I checked the old car brochure site, but couldn’t find any reference to this. Ring any bells?
Lastly, you have to wonder what Buick was thinking, offering the Estate Wagon for 1970 only – unless it was a trial run for the dealers since they knew they would have a full size wagon in 1971.
If it’s before 1971 or after 1976, I’m there.
The ’69-’70’s were a good period for GM full-sizers. Good bones for a nice driver.
As of Nov 03, 2014. I inherited my great uncle’s factory ordered 1970 Catalina SW with the upgraded drivetrain (455 – 400 – 323 ) with/for towing and speed. He took delivery on may 7, 1970. The car was built in linden NJ. It took about six weeks after he worked the deal using his 1963 Starchief SW in trade. What urged him to order was Nixon’s jan 1970 speech about creating the EPA with lower comp/ restrictor plates/ unleaded, etc.. He wanted the highest comp/hp available, which was the YH 455 @ 360 hp. He ordered a 6 passenger w/o dressy extras. It has the first year load leveling, AC, Disc, HD suspension. This car is incredibly powerful. I drove it with the leaded super high test of that era and I believe it could do 140 mph w/o straining, even though it weighed 5100 lbs. I acquired it in 2000 and keep it stored. I believe the fuel today is harmful. I’d like to sell it. I have no idea the value. I do know 1970 cars suffered a major junking in 1974 and 1979 during the two gas shortages. Cars were much cheaper then. People junked them. I always say there are more muscle cars today than were ever produced.
The front end of those big ’70 Pontiacs reminds me of the late actress Nancy Culp’s face.
….. except that Miss Jane Hathaway & her boss, Mr. Milburn Drysdale , always pulled up in Chrysler products.
Miss Hathaway alone often drove a Valiant (top of the line Signet, of course), while Mr. Drysdale, bank president, drove Imperial convertibles. (Did he wear a chin-strap to keep his bowler hat on?)
Good one, Darwin …… now can I just un-remember this, to make room so I can find my keys!?
And that ’66 Bonneville wagon is spectacular!
I had a ’69 Catalina coupe in that exact same green. It was a great car until it got smashed. I particularly loved that bumper as it would take a pretty good collision and still remain undamaged.
I followed it up with a ’70 Grand Prix base model. Now THAT was a car of a lifetime.
I also had a 69 Bonneville wagon for a brief period of time but it proved to be a maintenance nightmare. Comfortable ride, though.
I have a soft spot for the ’69 Catalina wagon, as that was one of our family cars when I was just old enough to start considering cars. It was primarily my Mom’s car, medium/dark green with wood-grain vinyl.
Well, there are always trade-offs… As mentioned in my 2014 comment above, our 1965 Bonneville wagon was replaced by a ’67 Executive three-row wagon, and the advantages of the ’67 (energy-absorbing steering column, previously unavailable options such as cornering lamps and 8-track stereo) far outweighed the loss of the elegant 1965-66 sheetmetal (and, in Bonnevilles, the loss of real wood dashboard veneer). My relatives who lived down the street then bought a ’69 Executive wagon, and although it too had new mechanical and safety improvements over the 1967-68 cars – steel door beams, larger wheels, two-way tailgate with step cutout in the rear bumper – it also had grown that terrible beak and had lost its vent windows, and switched to the utterly undistinguished ’69-’70 dashboard (although it still retained the Indian-head high-beam indicator).
But at least up through ’70 they were (for the time) reasonably well built. Then everything went to hell with the Safari and Grand Safari of 1971-76. Cheapness, lack of long-term durability, a complicated rear opening setup with no real tailgate. Lamentable.
I’m glad somebody brought up the Chief Pontiac high-beam indicator – it’s something I only recently learned was a feature of ’60s Pontiacs. I was a bit baffled as this logo had otherwise been discontinued since 1959. Why were they still using it, of all places, on the high-beam indicator? Also, what was the last year to have these? They were gone by the time of my dad’s ’77 Bonneville.
Speaking of which, even if the ’77=’81 wagons lost their distinctive Pontiac exterior style (a result of having to share sheetmetal from the A-pillar on back), the dashboards on these models were a worthy successor to those on the late-’60s models, with a similar full-width flat surface, woodgraining that improve every couple of years, full gauges (except, I think, a tach), and a nice padded ledge atop the whole thing. They also were the last to have real Pontiac engines in them. When the Pontiac B-body wagons were revived as the Parisienne, engines dashboards, and front sheetmetal were sourced from Chevy, robbing the Pontiac wagon of any notable distinctiveness.
Agreed that the 1977 dashboard was a return to form.
As far as I know, 1970 was the last year of the Indian head high-beam indicator light (which had only been used on the full-size cars). I remember driving my ’66 Bonneville on empty highways late at night with the high beams on and the dashboard lights turned off, so that the orange-red Indian head silhouette (about 6 mm wide) was the only thing visible below the windows.
I know some Cadillacs from that period had a Cadillac crest shaped indicator. My family had a ’66 Dodge Polara when I was growing up; the high-beam indicator was the middle of the Dodge “fratzog” logo glowing red. I wonder how widespread this practice was; did any other brands do this?
In the meantime, a photo of the beautiful 1981 Bonneville Brougham interior and dashboard, lest anyone here not remember it or confuse it with the (still nice, but decidedly Chevy) Parisienne/Caprice dash.
The sixth picture down gives a great example of the beauty and Bs of Pontiac advertising. Those Art Fitzpatrick and Van Kaufman paintings even pulled me in when I was a kid, and I are justifiably lauded as truly excellent examples of advertising art. They are also known to depict cars that are much” lower longer and wider” than they really are are. Usually you get a vague feeling that they are a bit exaggerated but in this instance comparing the AFVK rendering with the actual front end 2 pictures before you can clearly see how the medallions/heating elements onboard of the headlights have way more space around them than in reality. Nevertheless i would love to live in those worlds!
The AF/VK adverts nearly always exaggerated the width of the cars, and also made the wheels smaller with less airspace around them than in reality, the better to drive home the “wide track” image.
I have a hard time deciding whether Pontiac or Volkswagen had the best 1960s print advertising. Both are legendary.
Bang-On Axlehop! I read the article, examined the images and was going to post the exact same observation. Ironic that some of the widest cars of that era were depicted as even wider! As a teen, I was MESMERIZED by those 60’s and 70’s Pontiac brochures with the illustrations rather than photos…the cars were low, wide and elegant…the surroundings were surreal dreamscapes and the people were perfect. I was thrilled when Dad bought a 67 Bonneville and thought it was the most beautiful car ever. Sadly it turned out to be the worst car Dad ever owned.
1960 full-size Pontiac wagons look fantastic, inside and out.
Those early 1970s bloated things with the generic plastic interiors were awful.
The big Pontiac Wagon I desire is the ‘64 – it’s only issue is the flat side glass.
While I liked the ‘66 Cat Whisker Grill never cared for the ‘65-‘68 big Ponchos (especially the Edsel looking ‘68s). The ‘69s was a nice refinement over the ‘68. The horn ports on the ‘70s are awkward, but I kind of like it’s weird classic face. In my opinion the 1971 front end is really ugly, but the ‘72 is an nice improvement of the 1970 look.
I can see why sales of the full-size Pontiacs went downhill, it’s also easy to see why the 1970-72 mid-size Pontiacs never sold at the same rate of sensational ‘68 & ‘69 Models.
Buick & Oldsmobile seemed to do a better job of updating cars in the early 1970’s
’67 was the better looking front end for the full size Pontiac . Usually stack headlight seem always odd ( except for ’65 galaxie with lexan over it ) but here the integration was more gracious .
My Father bought a new 70′ blue Safari Pontiac wagon. Our first road trip was to Fort Hood Texas to see my mom’s baby brother who just got back from Vietnam with the 1st Cav. On the way down there from Topeka Ks, the cruise control went out somewhere in Oklahoma. My father was not a happy camper after that. I took my drivers test in that Beast. Loved that car !!