Curbside Classic: 1969 Pontiac Grand Prix – Who’s The Fairest Pontiac Of Them All?

(first posted 8/3/2011)     Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest Pontiac of them all? Pontiac’s golden decade, starting in 1963, has plenty of contenders. The ’63 full-size Pontiacs, headed up by the mile-stone Grand Prix shocked and revolutionized the whole industry. Some love the swashbuckling and hippy ’65 GP, or the even the more voluptuous ’67. The midsized Le Mans and GTO has its fans, as does the ’71 Firebird . But the ’69 Grand Prix may well be the one, for sheer dramatic effect, proportions, and its more restrained size. 

Like (almost) all of my CCs, this was not a staged shot in any way. I was driving out West 11th, in the late afternoon, when I saw the GP. I was pretty anxious about how low the sun was already, because I’ve had trouble with that before, especially with dark cars. But as I stood facing that six-foot long hood, and saw how the low light and shadows were playing in its folds, suddenly a dreamy ’69 GP print ad appeared in my mind’s eye, the one you’re looking at here. It had been forty one years since I saw it in Time or Life, but Pontiac’s ads rendered by the team of Art Fitzpatrick (the cars) and Van Kaufman (backgrounds) tend to leave an indelible impression. I moved around until my mental picture corresponded what I saw in my camera, and hoped they were close.

The ’69 GP was a major departure for Pontiac, since it had always been the standard bearer of the full-size line. But the big GM B-Body’s ever-bulging hips and interminable overhangs took their biggest toll on the GP. The Mustang had redefined the sporty coupe on a drastically smaller scale, and mega-sized sporty-personal luxury coupes just weren’t cutting it anymore.

But rather than toss all that grand name equity overboard, a whole new approach was taken, and one with a decidedly Mustangian flavor. Take the bread and butter intermediate coupe body, but hang the longest hood this side of a Duesenberg on its front. Well, that was obviously in someone’s mind, given that the GP now sported the Model J and SJ monikers. What had worked so well in transforming the Falcon into the Mustang would be taken up a notch. And perhaps for the first time in a decade, GM actually created a new niche in the market, by using Ford’s playbook.

Brilliant, in defining the very shape and concept that would take the whole market by storm: the mid-sized and affordable personal luxury coupe. The Olds Cutlass soon latched onto it and rode it to the very top for what seemed like forever. The GP also anticipated the demise of the full size car, or at least their leading role as trend-setters and glamor-mobiles. Increasingly, full size cars became more sedan-focused, as the big coupes became irrelevant. Which makes sense, given how huge they were becoming, especially after 1971. Pontiac saw this in advance, and their move with the GP signaled a coming corporate-wide shift to “mid-sized” coupes as the standard-bearers and as the big sellers.

There’s always a price to pay, and in this case it was the interior. It’s virtually indistinguishable from a pedestrian Le Mans coupe of the same vintage. The big, old GPs came with buckets, console and those magnificent chrome-plated altars of a dash. Well, those were all being sacrificed on the altar of bean-counting anyway. The high quality interiors with the buckets and console had once been such an integral part of what defined a GP.

The sixties marked a big shift by GM and the rest of the US industry in de-contenting luxury cars to keep their cost down and dramatically boost volume (and profits). In the process, they lost their exclusivity, and opened the doors for the imports. Buckets and console, along with pretty much all the other goodies, were on the long option list. The 428 HO would be a good one to check off.

The ’69 GP’s price and sales stats tells this tale: its starting price, $3,866 ($22,460, adjusted) was lower than the inflation adjusted price of its full-size predecessor, but not by nearly as much as it was cheaper to build. Let’s not forget that this is a Le Mans coupe with rhinoplasty and a new C pillar. Sales exploded, to over 112k, four times its bloated ’67 predecessor. Profit margins undoubtedly increased by at least  that amount too.

The ’69 GP’s use of the 118″ mid-size platform did come with a price: it had to share the body shell with Chevrolet, for their new Monte Carlo. Pontiac did get the first year for itself, as a reward for its efforts. But sales dipped in 1970 and for the rest of this body style through 1972, probably because of the MC, and competition from the growing field.

Speaking of 1971, there are some who probably like the refreshed face of the ‘71 – ’72 GP even more than the original. With its single headlights and more “classic” grille, it unfortunately became the prototype for all those garish seventies “Super Fly” customs and pimp-mobiles, like the Bugazzi. That’s where this handsome coupe starts lose it for me; it and the Lincoln Mark III shared the same proportions and details that were too obvious retro with their exaggerated long hoods, classic grilles, vinyl tops, and other affectations. The 1963 Grand Prix was a true a trail-blazer; and the ’69 rightfully a pioneer of the new market niche, and a trend-setter for a garish decade (or two) of coupes to come.