Curbside Classic: 1976 Pontiac Grand Prix – Grand Size, Medium Prize

(first posted 7/21/2012)     The Grand Prix had two grand moments in its long life. Needless to say, they came more towards the beginning then the end. The Colonnade era, as represented by this particularly fine example, was the transitional period, a time when it started to become just another GM mid-size personal luxury coupe. Having invented that genre did not mean the GP was destined to dominate it; that turned out to be its corporate cousin, the Olds Cutlass Supreme. Nobody would have guessed that in 1969. Or certainly not in 1963. But staying grand is not easy, as the Grand Prix soon found out.

Yes, the 1962 GP was a fine car, but it really was just a re-trimmed Catalina. Certainly desirable, but not yet quite grand.

It was the ’63, with its unique roof line and rear end that really put the GP on the map. It was one of the finest examples of the Mitchell-era “sheer look”, and offered unmatched exclusivity and status for its reasonable price. You want to impress a date in 1963? Talk your dad into buying one.

John DeLorean re-invented the GP for 1969, by using an extended mid-size chassis, and using that extra wheelbase for the longest hood this side of a Mark III. And by doing so, he unleashed the whole overwhelmingly-huge mid-sized personal luxury coupe era, which soon became the best selling format in the country. But the GP didn’t fully cash in on that gold rush.

It was the Olds Cutlass Supreme Coupe that stole the crown. And for those you you who weren’t around, we chronicled the rise (and fall) of the Cutlass in a very thorough fashion here.

The Cutlass’ rise started a couple of years earlier, but the 1973 Colonnade cars really cemented its dominance. The GP actually shed two inches of wheelbase. That, along with the considerable additional girth of the Colonnade cars, made the 1973 (above) and up GP look less unique, and certainly it lost that narrow and long look that was its calling cars during the 1969 – 1972 era. Now it looked like way too much like the rest of its bloated cousins.

Pontiac fiddled around with the GP’s front end during the Colonnade era, but once again, the single round headlight ’73 – 75 face was probably the best. This is the ’77 variation.

The GP tried to hold on to its boat tail, which was a dominant feature of the ’71 – ’72s. But the reality is that except for the the details of the front and rear, the overall look is way to corporate. The roof of these GM cars was essentially identical, as well as their basic proportions. Exclusive? Hardly. The GP would never be able to claim that again. The Medium Prix. And of course, things only got worse. The 1978 version garnered a Deadly Sin. Some of the later ones don’t even deserve the energy to give them anything.

Enough of the negative stuff. This is a grand example of the Colonnade era, and its owner knows it. I caught him at a stop sign and asked if he had a minute for some shots. Which allowed me to get the story of how he came to have it. Perhaps the most common way: inheritance. But that doesn’t explain why it’s in such stellar condition.

His dad bought it for his mom, and she decided it was too big for her! Well, she had a point there. So the GP went into the garage, and stayed there for much of its life.

Some 75,000 miles racked up in 37 years. And it shows. It looks more like 3 years old, if that. John has a gem.

This is an LJ version, which was a new trim package for 1976. Nicer interior trim, mostly. John’s dad like to think it stood for the first initials of his two kids.

The performance-oriented model was still the SJ. A 350 was the base engine for the GP, but this has the 185 hp 400 incher (6.6 L), which was also the standard engine in the SJ. A 200 hp 455 (7.4 L) was optional for all models. As was fuel economy.

John is torn between driving it and not. Currently, it’s his main ride, as his Buick is temporarily incapacitated. But he dreads getting a ding on it, which it’s avoided so far. Can’t blame him: both for driving it and for worrying about it. Life with a vintage car is rarely simple.

Just because we’ve never had the opportunity, here’s the back seat of one. They don’t exactly have a rep for being terribly roomy, but the Colonnades still had the comparable Fords beat in space utilization. Never mind the handling. GM’s homework in that department was paying off.

Even though the Cutlass Supreme took the spotlight, it’s not to imply that the GP of this era was a sales laggard; it sold some 228k in 1976, and even more in 1977, it’s last year before being shrunk. That’s a high water mark for the GP, a reflection of the popularity these big coupes of all sorts enjoyed at the time.  Grand times, if not quite so grand cars. And this example takes the prize.