Curbside Classic: 1961 Pontiac Bonneville – Fifth Place Today, But Look Out Tomorrow!


(first posted 2/1/2014)     There it sits, a ’61 Pontiac Bonneville. Although fifth in sales in 1961, this Pontiac encompasses all the critical elements for future success: a Wide Track stance, a lovely split grille, and that intangible Pontiac style. While this Curbside Classic left the factory with four doors, all Bonnevilles came with frameless door glass, and simply opening the windows will give us that wide open hardtop look so popular with the baby boomer generation.

A very complete and original car, it does lack factory wheel covers. I’d love to see a completely correct car, but here in Southern California it seems all Curbside Classics come equipped with alloy wheels. Maybe next time…


1961 was a soft year for cars sales, and Pontiac lost a little ground from the previous year. However, most other nameplates lost ground as well, and two of the nameplates in front of Pontiac (Plymouth and Rambler) were about to slip back into the pack. This allowed Pontiac to move into third place in 1962 and remain there for the rest of the decade. Your eyes aren’t fooling you–this Bonneville really is starting to pull ahead!


This rear view helps establish this car as one of Pontiac’s top models. The big block letters spelling out Bonneville let us know the owner bought a trim level with a lot of chrome, the reverse lights in the bumper say, “I’m no stripped out base model,” and of course triple taillights ALWAYS equal the top dog trim level.


Checking my Catalina statistics, I guarantee it came from the factory with a 389 Pontiac V-8. The 421 didn’t arrive until 1963, and it would be a few years before GM started mixing and matching division engines. Narrowing down the exact 389 is a bit more complicated, as Pontiac offered eight different horsepower ratings on their full sized offerings, at least three of them in the Bonneville. For economy-oriented buyers (probably few), the three speed manual came standard with a low compression four-barrel 235 hp “Trophy V8”; ordering the Hydra-Matic teamed it up with a high-compression version with 303 hp, although there was also an “Economy Special Trophy” that had a 230 hp two-barrel 389 teamed up with the Hydra-Matic and a 2.56 rear axle ratio. And if this hood hides a Tri-Power induction system, it’s the top engine option delivering 318 hp.


Looking at this interior shot, I’m still not sure if this is an automatic or manual. Perhaps the owner removed the shift lever to help prevent theft, or perhaps they added a floor shift I can’t see in this shot. Either way, it seems to have an automatic quadrant display at the base of the steering column.

I didn’t notice any interior modifications outside of speakers in the rear package shelf. You can see the car is very nicely preserved, with a patina that indicates the paint and interior pieces may all be original.


During my walk around, the body sculpting along the side caught my eye. The subtle kick up along the top of the rear door helps mark this as a GM car. Not many manufacturers had the advantage of the Fisher Body division. Using this resource, GM divisions delivered complex body panels that set them apart from the also-rans. Check out the subtle character line running across the C-pillar and then up the roof to outline the window openings. I love those little details that catch the eye. New cars lack such detailing, sacrificed at the twin altars of aerodynamics and fuel efficiency.


Here’s another shot showing the sheet metal sculpture, along with a small fin and an exaggerated Pontiac shield. There really weren’t a lot of notable cars built in 1961, and I think this image helps explain why. A year of flux, designers were abandoning the jukebox styling of the fifties, but were still searching for a new direction. The sheet metal dynamism present in the ’64 Pontiacs hadn’t quite burst on the scene, and the chrome detailing on this ’61 was still a bit heavy handed.


Speaking of detailing, the “Bonneville” script mounted on the side trim was missing a few letters on both sides of the car. Given this Bonneville is 53 years old, I’ll let these little imperfections slide. Most of the Pontiacs built that year have lost far more than an “I” or “L.” The mounting clips for the front spear also appear to be missing in action, but those sheet metal screws provide an even more reliable mounting system, and will keep the trim in place for years to come.

1961 Pontiac Bonneville Ad

How to wrap up this fine Curbside Classic? I’ll defer to the tag line in this ad: “Wide-Track makes it a great day for driving to the tune of a Pontiac V-8.” Looking at that Catalina Convertible, I agree with that sentiment wholeheartedly. The ’61 Pontiac may have finished fifth place in sales, but an underlying greatness would help move it to third place the next year, and that burbling Pontiac V-8 would keep it there for the rest of the decade.