Curbside Classic: 1972 Pontiac Bonneville – And Who Said The Full-Size Sedan Is Dead?


(first posted 11/9/2015)   It is a true statement to say that full-size sedan sales are slipping, as they have been for some years now. Once about as common in every American driveway as was an ashtray in every living room, this former status symbol fell out of favor in the way of smaller, more efficient and better-handling sedans, and more recently, SUVs, then crossovers. Despite the fact that many full-size sedans currently on the market are more appealing than ever, 2015 sales of these cars are down double-digit percentages even over 2014. The modern full-size sedan may be becoming largely passé, but apparently that hasn’t phased the owner of this remarkably preserved 1972 Pontiac Bonneville.

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The Bonneville nameplate dates back to 1954 and Motorama, where it appeared as a Harley Earl designed, two seat roadster called the Pontiac Bonneville Special. The name Bonneville was used three years later as a limited production high-performance luxury convertible model within the Star Chief lineup. In 1958 (pictured above), the Bonneville became its own model outright, positioned above the Chieftain, Super Chief, and Star Chief as Pontiac’s costliest and most prestigious full-size line of cars. The ensuing years saw the 2-door hardtop and convertible Bonneville lineup grow to include 4-door sedans, hardtops, and wagons, and the Bonneville would continue occupying the spot of Pontiac’s to dog through the model year 1970.


With the 1971 redesign of all Pontiac’s full-sizers, the Bonneville moved down a rung to become Pontiac’s mid-range offering between the base Catalina and the new premier Grand Ville. This move caused Bonneville sales to decrease considerably, as Pontiac’s mid-range full size car (previously the Executive) historically ranked third in sales after the value and then top offering.


Standard power came from a 455 cubic inch (7.5L) V8, formerly the top engine choice for the previous generation Bonneville. In 1972, it made 185 and 250 net horsepower with two-barrel and four-barrel carburetors, respectively. These numbers were down significantly from those advertised 1971, as faced with stricter emissions standards, manufacturers switched from advertising gross horsepower to the SAE net horsepower ratings in 1972. By 1975, the 4-barrel only and now optional 445’s net horsepower would drop to 200 due to tighter emissions controls. Standard power by this point came from a 400 cubic inch (6.6L) V8 rated at 170 horsepower.


Front end styling was heavily tweaked for 1972, with 1971’s “beak” largely done away with in favor of a more conventional power bulge hood and flatter center-only grille. The grille was still a full-height affair, but the bumper now intersected it instead of going below it, minimizing this effect. A new hood, cornering lights, and single-piece dual headlights rounded out the Bonneville’s substantial second-year refresh.


Interiors were largely standard fare for a mid-range large car in 1972, which could best be described as pretty basic by today’s standards. Front seats were a single piece bench covered in a combination of cloth and vinyl (or optional all-vinyl). By the looks of its owner’s homemade booster seat, height was not one of the manual seat adjustments and this car does not feature the available tilt steering wheel. AM, AM/FM, and AM/FM radios with either a stereo cassette (modern tech for 1972!) or eight-track player all were available. This car’s owner has installed a rather clever mount for an aftermarket (and now somewhat antiquated) CD player.


Manual windows, door locks, and seats pretty much completed the list of standard features. According to the brochure, the very artificial looking fake wood trim was simulated to replicate “the look of rare teakwood”. I’m all for interesting color interiors, but this asparagus green doesn’t look particularly appealing. 

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Utilizing the GM B-body, these 1971-1976 Pontiacs were among the largest cars the brand ever produced. Riding on a stretched 126-inch wheelbase shared with the Grand Ville, overall length for 1972 Bonneville came in at 226.2 inches and width at 79.5 inches. Base curb weight for the Bonneville with the 445 V8 rang in at 4,388 pounds. By this generation’s final year, 1976, curb weight had risen to over 4,600 pounds, a result of federally imposed bigger bumpers.


It’s often lamented about how cars have been growing larger in recent years, but even modern full-size American sedans like the Taurus and Impala still come in a few inches narrower and almost 25 inches shorter. Even long-wheelbase versions of the current BMW 7-Series and Mercedes S-Class are still approximately 20 inches shorter and 5 inches narrower. In recent memory, only the 221.4-inch long and 78.5-inch wide Lincoln Town Car L comes close to the 1971-1976 B-bodies in exterior dimensions.


The full-size car market may be shrinking, but seeing cars like this ever-large Bonneville still on the road is a clear sign that there are those who still prefer a big sedan with immense road presence and titanic proportions. To some, bigger will always be better.