Curbside Classic: 1971 Pontiac Ventura II Sprint- GM’s Deadly Sin #3 – Badge Engineering Begins In Earnest

(first posted 6/27/2011)   Bernie Madoff’s first bogus trade. Richard Nixon’s first fib. Charlie Parker’s first hit of heroin. What do they have in common with this perfectly harmless-looking Pontiac Ventura II? That first little giving in to temptation has a nasty way of turning into a big deadly habit, like GM’s badge engineering. All bad habits have a beginning, but the evidence typically is lost in the haze of history. Not GM’s. Before you sits the proof; the badge-engineering progenitor; the automotive equivalent of finding Humphrey Bogart’s first Lucky Strike butt laying at the curb.

I can’t tell you exactly the behind-the-scenes machinations that led to giving Pontiac a “grille engineered” version of Chevy’s popular Nova in the spring of 1971. But it cracked open a door that was eventually ripped off its hinges in the following years. Every GM division then rushed through it and jumped into that bottomless cesspool without a second thought. Desperate for smaller cars, Oldsmobile, Buick and even Cadillac soon joined in with Pontiac. The attack of the Chevrolet body snatchers was on.

Presumably, Pontiac had misgivings at how large its Tempest and LeMans had grown from their 1961 compact origins. And by 1970, the continued growth in the small car sector was undeniable. Chevy was getting ready to launch its sub-compact Vega. Pontiac felt left out, and wanted back in. And they had a solution in hand and ready to roll, north of the border: the Acadian.

GM long had a pattern of doing things a little differently in Canada, especially with Pontiac. Canadian Ponchos were hybrids, of a different type. They used Chevrolet chassis, engines and transmission, but Pontiac exteriors. And bore different names too, like Laurentian and Parisienne. GM Canada was the prelude to the badge-engineering main act to come.

At the beginning of the sixties, Pontiac of Canada expected to either get the new 1961 Tempest or a version of the new Corvair as its compact. Instead, it got a grille-engineered version of the 1962 Chevy II, called Acadian (above). Strictly speaking, it wasn’t a Pontiac, but a separate low-end brand for Canadian Pontiac-Buick dealers to sell.

I remember well first stumbling across one as a kid in Iowa. I had earned an honorary degree in Autology by dint of my car-spotting abilities. But this one threw me; a mildly customized Chevy II? I eventually figured out the limitations of my US-centric viewpoint, and that Canadians must know what they were doing when it came to Chevy IIs and healthcare.

The Acadian was still going in 1971, so all Pontiac had to do was divert a stream of them southwards – or at least a few truckloads of grilles. I don’t know where the Ventura II was actually assembled. But it was all Chevy, all the time, right down to the engines. Which marks this as the beginning of another bad habit: the first GM (NA) car with all of its engines from another division: Chevy’s 250 six and 307/350 V8s were on offer in the abbreviated first year. By 1972, the Pontiac 350 V8 was also in the mix. And a couple of years later, the vaunted letters GTO were gracing this Nova clone.

I can’t but wonder if Pontiac was wishing it still had its OHC six to drop into this Ventura, especially with that Sprint package. With a four speed stick in the lighter Nova X-Body, the 230 hp Sprint six would finally have found the home it never quite had. It was killed off just two years earlier.

Enough of what might have been. But I’m not going talk about this Noventura per se, because I have several genuine Novas in the can for future Curbside Classics. It’s not like there’s any real difference. But I am going to save some equal time for the other Nova-based clones: Apollo, Omega, Phoenix and Skylark; the whole family of dirty little habits.