Curbside Classic: 1972 Pontiac Luxury LeMans – Racing Stripes And A Vinyl Roof

At first glance, this particular car may not seem to be of much interest to folks attracted to unusual cars.  After all, it looks like the type of vehicle that often appears at car shows or cruise nights – a LeMans with a custom paint job and racing stripes.  But one little word on the front fender indicates it’s something more uncommon.  That word is “Luxury,” and this is no ordinary LeMans.

Interesting things happen when worlds collide, such as with Pontiac’s 1972 Luxury LeMans.  The 3rd generation LeMans was a delicately balanced combination of muscle car and generic intermediate car, but then for 1972 a third element came swooping in: Luxury.  This red example – a car created as a luxury-oriented intermediate, but with racing stripes and other enhancements added later – shows all three of these elements on one vehicle.  It’s almost a condensed version of the early 1970s car market in general, and is one of the few cars that can look good with both a racing stripe and a vinyl roof.

When the LeMans name first adorned a Pontiac in 1962, it was on an upscale/sport-oriented version of the intermediate-size Tempest.  The LeMans package quickly became a hot item… after a little help on how to Anglicize its name.  Nearly 40% of 1962 Tempests wound up carrying a LeMans badge.

The new name earned its keep, and for the Tempest’s 1964-67 2nd generation, LeMans continued as an upscale variant.  Pontiac’s intermediate line presented an intriguing split personality during this era; the Tempest Standard, Deluxe and Custom models chased the value-oriented intermediate market, but just as many cars were performance-oriented LeMans and GTOs.

Yes, the GTO.  Accounting for less than a quarter of Tempest/LeMans sales, but about three-quarters of attention, the GTO elevated Pontiac’s performance credentials provided the division with one of the most desirable mid-size cars among the Big Three.  Tempest, LeMans and GTO somehow managed to exist in a stable equilibrium through most of the late 1960s.

For 1968, GM’s A-body intermediate entered its third generation, with contemporary, coke-bottle styling and a prominent nose that split the car’s grille.  The design marked a cautious departure from the simple splendor of GM’s 1960s styling, but still made for a clean and visually interesting car.  Tough times, though, lurked ahead.  While the 1968 A-body Pontiac sold 346,000 units, that number fell by a third within two years, which was when the distress really set in – distress that eventually begat the Luxury LeMans.

From a modern perspective, people often associate 1968-72 A-body Pontiacs with GTOs, but most examples were equipped rather boringly.  The base Tempest could easily get lost in the sea of similarly-equipped value-oriented GM products.

For 1970, the Tempest name was dropped altogether, and LeMans inherited the fleet-counter specials.  At the same time, even for performance-oriented versions, fun was quickly being sapped out of the engines and the muscle car era quickly faded away.  Seeing itself losing market share in the important intermediate sector, GM hoped to furnish an A-body replacement for 1972.  Those plans, though, were thwarted.

An extended strike hit GM in the fall of 1970, and the disruption sent ripples through the whole company.  Among other things, the eagerly awaited A-body replacement had to be delayed.

For Pontiac, this delay meant that a car with rapidly plunging sales would have to be strung along for another year.  Needing to conjure up some enthusiasm for what was likely an unwanted model by that point, Pontiac faced a quandary: What to do?  Something minor was the obvious answer, since it was pointless to invest significant money on a car that would be replaced a year later.  The solution would become a common resolution to the Big Three’s troubles throughout the 1970s – add some superficial ornamentation and call it luxury.

Not just “luxury,” but “Luxury.”  To ensure consumers understood this strategy, Pontiac christened their new concept the Luxury LeMans.  Available as a 2-door or 4-door (and technically a separate model from the standard LeMans), the Luxury LeMans came with what Pontiac described as extra “niceties:” fender skirts, upgraded wheel covers, extra brightwork, and a fancier interior.

Source of production figures: Standard Catalog of GTO, 1961-2004

These were the all minor changes, but Pontiac hoped they would stir enough interest to keep 1972 from being even more dismal than 1971.  The move worked – as well as anything could have.  Luxury models accounted for over a quarter of total LeMans sales, and total ’72 sales increased marginally over the previous year.  While still a far cry from the LeMans glory days of 1965-69, the Luxury LeMans helped Pontiac avert a completely embarrassing showing in 1972.

Our featured car is something of a rarity, as only 8,641 of the roughly 46,000 1972 Luxury LeMans sales were 2-doors.  This car has also been modified somewhat from its stock appearance.  The candy apple red color, racing stripes and hood tachometer are undoubtedly recent additions, and the fender skirts are missing.  But otherwise, this car appears relatively intact.  If nothing else, the recent modifications serve to magnify the Luxury LeMans’s split personality.

The 3rd generation Pontiac A-body had a distinctive styling persona, with or without the luxury accouterments.  Bulging fenders, a wide and sleek appearance, and a long hood / short deck presence made this a memorable design, particularly given its plentiful sales figures.

Befitting its genesis as a last-resort creation for a long-in-the-tooth model, the Luxury’s exterior embellishments were rather modest (aside from the fender skirts, which are missing on this car).  For example, while standard LeMans models featured a split grille with mostly dark nasal cavities, Luxury models gained a brighter egg crate design with two horizontal bars.

Pontiac adorned its luxury intermediate with “liberal (but not heavy-handed) bright metal trim.”  That refers to the grille and a full-length bodyside molding.  Overall, this was a rather restrained luxury package.

Unique wheel cover designs came standard as well, though our featured car rides on Pontiac Rally II wheels.  These were optional on the Luxury LeMans, however it’s likely that these wheels may have been added to this car more recently.

Finally, there was a scripted monogram roundel on each C-pillar… so just a handful of items to check off on the Official Luxury LeMans Spotters Guide.  The limited scope of these design additions show that Pontiac did not jump head-first into the Brougham Pool with this car.

Interior enhancements were similarly discreet.  Pontiac’s brochure highlighted “an instrument panel with the look of rare Ceylonese teak,” as if it were an improvement over the standard LeMans, whose fake wood was simply described as “teak.”  Maybe the plain faux teak was patterned after the more common Burmese variety?  Regardless, they look awfully similar.  More discernibly, Luxury LeMans buyers were treated to upgraded carpet, better sound insulation, and (for coupes) standard bucket seats.

Luxury LeMans also came standard with Morrokide upholstery (available on other LeMans models as well).  Morrokide was Pontiac’s term for vinyl – it was basically Naugahyde – and the excellent condition of our featured car’s seats comes as no coincidence.

Naugahyde (named after Naugatuck, Connecticut where it was first made) lived up to its promise of being indestructible.  If diner booths can last decades with Naugahyde surfaces, then car seats upholstered in this vinyl are almost overengineered.  Of course, hot days aren’t much fun, but after a few decades, an owner will come to appreciate the durability.

Even aside from the upholstery, this car appears in very good shape.  Small details like the colored armrests have been changed, but then again, this car appears to be driven regularly, so such modifications are not unexpected.

Reflecting an era when 2-door cars commonly transported multiple passengers, the rear of GM’s intermediates were comfortable and roomy, and rear seat passengers had their own ashtrays.

Some Luxury LeMans features were optional on other LeMans models – most notably the engine.  While a 6-cylinder engine came standard on the base LeMans, only V-8s were offered for the Luxury version.  Most examples left the factory with the 350 cid 2-bbl. V-8, though either a 400 cid V-8 (in either 2-bbl. or 4-bbl. form) or a 455 were available.

If you’ve read these paragraphs and come away feeling the Luxury LeMans was a barely modified version of the original – you’re right.  Customers got a standard V-8, some extra amenities, and that nifty monogram, all for a base price of $3,196 – a $345 premium over its non-Luxury equivalent.  Barely modified, yes, but ultimately adding these trifles onto a car about to be put out to pasture wasn’t a bad idea for Pontiac… at least in the short term.

The Luxury LeMans’s mission was to generate some renewed interest in Pontiac’s 1972 intermediate line, and in that regard it succeeded.  Little things mean a lot, and to many consumers, those little things added up to more than the sum of their parts.

Having captured 27% of 1972’s total LeMans sales, the Luxury LeMans earned a spot in the refreshed 1973 lineup as well.  Perhaps this is where the concept started to turn a bit sour, for instead of being a temporary fix, the Luxury package seems to have become habit-forming for Pontiac.

Using the same formula as the ’72 model, this Luxury LeMans achieved a similar degree of success as its predecessor.  Around one-quarter of both 1973 and ’74 total LeMans sales were Luxury variants.  Oddly enough, body style popularity for these years inverted from 1972: Whereas the vast majority of ’72 Luxury LeMans were 4-doors, for the following two years, a similar majority were 2-doors.

1974 however marked the end of the Luxury LeMans nomenclature.  Pontiac renamed the upscale LeMans model Grand LeMans for 1975, a designation it kept until the entire LeMans nameplate was dropped after 1981.  But the Luxury LeMans concept outlived its name: The 1970s marked a period when Pontiac searched about for a genuine identity, and for better or worse, the offering of faux luxury throughout its product line became one of the brand’s defining characteristics.

The Luxury LeMans was a bit player in the 1970s automotive marketplace.  Neither an industry-wide trendsetter nor an icon, the 1972 Luxury LeMans concept was simply an expedient way for Pontiac to generate interest in a faltering model.  In some ways, its story begins and ends there.  Alternatively, one could view this car as a gateway drug for GM’s full Brougham addiction.  After all, it provided instant and inexpensive relief to a painful sales problem, but relying too heavily on such a strategy could easily become self-destructive, as Pontiac and other GM divisions eventually discovered.  Nonetheless, few other cars demonstrate the ease with which relatively simple luxury additions could improve a tired car model’s sales figures.  And few other cars can wear both racing stripes and a vinyl roof so proudly.


Photographed in July 2017 in Burke, Virginia.


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