Curbside Classic: 1975 Pontiac LeMans Safari Wagon – The First Colonnade Wagon CC

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(first posted 6/23/2013)      I started shooting and writing up CCs almost five years ago, and there are still a number of significant cars and model variations yet to be shot and/or written up. In the meantime, just how many B-Bodies have we had? One of the holdouts has been a GM Colonnade station wagon, and obviously, they’re not exactly easy to come by anymore, especially a gen-u-ine Curbside Classic. But patience has its rewards…a big one in this case.

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The patience in this case was in hoping that I would find it out in the street, as I’ve known about its hiding place in a parking lot for almost two years. But I can’t write a CC without my signature profile shot as the last picture, right? But it hasn’t been easy all this time…

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One time I came by to check on it, I caught it in the act of communion with the owner’s other car. This picture pretty much sums up what happened to the station wagon market.

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That did give me the chance to shoot its engine, which I’m 99% certain is the 400 CID Pontiac V8, rated at 170 (net) hp. That was the standard engine in the 1975 Safari; yup, a “mid-sized” car whose smallest engine had 6.6 liters of displacement. And it still looks lost in there. The next step up was the 455, with 200 hp. And above that were the 501 and 555 inchers (just kidding; about those last two). But 455s were not at all uncommon in Colonnades.Why? This LeMans Safari wagon is listed at 4400 lbs, which means more like 4600-4800 lbs actual road ready and depending on options. Mid-sized; just keep saying that.

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Ironically, the “baby” 350 V8 was standard in 1973 and 1974, but just in time for the first energy crisis, Pontiac upped the ante to 400 inches standard in 1975.  Well, that didn’t last long. For 1976, smaller engines were back on tap. My Standard Encyclopedia doesn’t specify a specific standard engine for the 1976 LeMans Safari, which would suggest that the Chevy 250 six was the one (it definitely was on the sedans and coupes). I rather doubt that the wagon really came with that; more likely the 350. The wretched little Olds 260 V8 was also listed, but it probably had a more flaccid torque curve than the Chevy six.

So did anyone complain or file lawsuits about Pontiac sticking that Olds V8 in these cars, or the Chevy six? This preceded the famous ’77 Chevmobile incident by several years. Well, for that matter, GM had been doing this since at least 1961. Big deal.

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Didn’t Oldsmobile use this same array of flags on some of their Colonnades?

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Undoubtedly. And they were still using the same badge some ten years later. GM must have gotten a special volume deal on them. Did any other divisions use them? And what were they supposed to signify? How GM’s cars were so “international”? Well, if a 4500 lb 6.6 liter station wagon can somehow be consider “international” in terms of what that meant in 1975, someone at GM had a hell of an expansive world view. No; that’s not what I meant at all; make that a very limited world view; kind of like this one, but from Detroit. Wonder if anyone ever made a Detroit version of that poster?

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Well, there was something “international” about the Colonnade wagons: they had a flip-up one-piece rear door. In 1973, that was almost unheard of in the US, except for tiny cars like the Vega and Pinto. But real American wagons had either a fold down tailgate, or some kind of magic three-way affair. But a great big one-piece hatchback? That belonged on Volvo wagons, like the blue one down the street, where the ever-patient Stephanie waits for me to finish shooting another fine old heap.

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As a concession to all those American kids used to riding in the rear-facing third seat with the tailgate window down, GM saw fit to fit a little vent window for their fresh-air needs. How thoughtful.

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The Colonnades weren’t famous for their interior material quality, unless one spent the big bucks for a Grand Am.

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Ooops; the illustrious Gran Am didn’t come in a wagon. Now you’d think for sure someone has transplanted a Grand Am front clip on a LeMans Safari. Not according to God Google. Of course, Grand Am clips aren’t exactly going begging these days either.

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This one is sporting an after-market tach, with a 5000 rpm redline. Good luck trying to get a de-smogged, low-compression, lo-po 400 to turn 5000 rpm. Maybe 4000. If ever a car didn’t need a tach, this is it. But I understand; it’s fun to watch the needle move between 650 and 1800 rpm in typical driving. Or at least be able to tell when the smooth Turbo Hydramatic feels inclined to shift, because otherwise it would be nigh-near imperceptible.

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We need to find something nice to say about this big bruiser, other than it being the first one to present itself to us. The Colonnades were the first larger cars to benefit from GM’s belated awareness that “handling” was actually a quality worth pursuing, on every-day sorts of cars, not just the Corvette, Corvair and Vega. So they applied their considerable engineering prowess to this worthwhile undertaking, and the results, first felt on the ’73 Colonnades, were quite noticeable. When one remembers what loosey-goosey cars GM foisted on the American public for so long, with grossly undersized tires, flaccid steering, feeble drum brakes, and marshmallow suspensions, this was genuine progress, particularly so if the F-41 suspension option (or whatever it was called on all the different GM cars) was on board. Rightly optioned, a Colonnade could be a formidable machine.

What was learned with the Colonnades was passed along and improved upon on the 1977 B-Bodies, which shared more than a few bolts in common with them. The Colonnade frame is very similar in architecture as the B-Body, as is the suspension.

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So it turns out to have been rather convenient for GM to build such large mid-sized cars, as it gave them a substantial head start to downsizing their full-size cars. That’s something Ford couldn’t copy, as their wallowing mush-pot “mid-sized” cars would have made lousy full-sized cars. It helps explain why GM’s down-sized B-Bodies arrived decidedly more “mature” than Ford’s new Panther cars, which got off to a rather feeble start.

I’d like to think I’ll find some more Colonnade wagons, but if not, here’s a full-profile salute to the first and last. And thanks for coming out and showing yourself; it’s been a long wait.

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