Curbside Classic: 1978-81 Pontiac LeMans – Green With Envy

While Pontiac was selling Grand Prix coupes hand over fist in the 1970s, the related LeMans struggled mightily. For the 1978 redesign of the A-Body platform, GM had two challenges for the LeMans: firstly, to successfully downsize it without hampering its sales any further and secondly, to try and return the LeMans to the level of popularity it enjoyed in the late 1960s.

Alas, a return to the 1960s just wasn’t in the cards for the LeMans. The market had changed too much, with the oil crisis in 1974 and another one just around the corner. The late 1960s Tempest/LeMans line had benefited from the halo effect of the GTO, high performance being the fashion of the day. Now, buyers were more concerned with economy and increasingly enthralled by luxury accoutrements.

As “upper” mid-priced brands, Buick and Oldsmobile more easily adapted to this changing climate. But Pontiac still had the hot-selling Grand Prix, so it was time to sprinkle some of that Grand Prix magic on the LeMans.

Perhaps the most apparent Grand Prix influence on the LeMans was in its interior. While the previous generation only used the Grand Prix dashboard layout in the top-spec Grand LeMans, all ’78 LeMans models now had the elegant dash of their personal luxury cousin. Outside, the new LeMans now had a more formal front fascia with an upright, chrome-laden grille and a prominent point to the nose—very Grand Prix.

Gone were the voluptuous curves the old LeMans had worn down its sides, replaced by clean flanks bearing the subtlest of feature lines. The rear deck of the coupe and sedan still sloped downwards but the LeMans’ hindquarters were now more upright and squared off. Despite these stylistic changes, the LeMans looked refreshingly different from the handsome ’78 Malibu it shared its platform with, the Chevy going for more of a crisp, sheer look while the LeMans retained some of its curves. Fortunately for Pontiac, the LeMans line wasn’t cursed with the Aeroback body style of the Buick Century and Oldsmobile Cutlass Salon—the LeMans arrived as a notchback coupe, a notchback sedan, and a wagon.

Like the other downsized A-Bodies, the ’78 LeMans was comprehensively trimmed. Depending on the model, it weighed around 500-900 pounds less than the ’73-77 Colonnade car. Wheelbase was down by just under 4 inches to 108.1. The LeMans was 5 inches narrower at 72.4. Total length was trimmed by approximately 10 inches on all variants.

Despite these cuts across the board, interior packaging was improved. Head room was up by around an inch. Rear leg room was up by an inch in the sedan, two in the coupe. Front leg room was almost identical. The only noticeable decrease in interior space was a reduction in hip room by around 3 inches, due to the new LeMans’ narrower width.

Whether it was to mitigate the impact of this width reduction or for some other reason, the LeMans – even in sedan and wagon form – now had fixed side windows for the rear passengers, although there were swing-out vent windows. Pontiac marketing material touted this as an improvement, saying it allowed them to recess the rear armrests. While air-conditioning was becoming more and more popular, most buyers probably would have traded two inches in width for wind-down rear windows, if they could.

With less bulk to haul around, GM decided the LeMans didn’t need to have such big engines. The Pontiac 400 V8 was gone, while the Chevrolet 350 was available only until 1979 and only in the wagon. That left the carryover Buick 231 – with a standard three-speed, floor-shift manual or optional column-mounted three-speed automatic – and an optional Chevy 305. Less bulk also meant tighter handling, critics praising the LeMans’ driving dynamics.

Prices stayed largely the same as the ’77, except for the base LeMans coupe and sedan whose prices rose by a considerable $400. Atop the base model sat the Grand LeMans sedan, coupe, and Safari wagon; there was also a base LeMans Safari. Grand LeMans models had one of the decade’s subtler applications of the “loose-cushion” look for its velour seating surfaces.

Despite disappointing sales in its first iteration, the Grand Am nameplate returned. Although it once again had a unique front end, the new vertical slat grille wasn’t as daring as the first Grand Am’s prominent nose. And this time, the Grand Am was more closely aligned with the LeMans than before, sharing its engine line-up in its entirety (right down to the base V6) and featuring a standard notchback front bench. You could even get the Grand Am coupe with wire wheels and a vinyl roof.

There were some special features, however. The Rally RTS suspension was standard, including front and rear stabilizer bars. Power steering was also standard, while the Grand Am was the only Pontiac A-Body with an available four-speed manual transmission. This transmission was optional with both the 3.8 V6 and the Pontiac 301.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Grand Am sales were just as slow as before. Pontiac tried to reassert the Grand Am as a performance option for 1980, making power front disc brakes standard again (they had become optional in 1979) and ditching the bench seat, sedan variant, and V6 engine. With so few sales – 1647, almost a tenth of its debut year’s figures – GM saw no point in tooling up a new front end design for 1981 and the Grand Am was axed once again after a short, three-year run.

For the new LeMans’ debut year, sales increased by around 15k units to 95,833. The following year was even better, sales soaring an additional 35k units (or 40k if you include the slow-selling Grand Am). But while this may have seemed promising, Pontiac had done a much better trade earlier—in 1970, for example, they had shifted almost 200k Tempests and LeMans, not including the hot-selling GTO. And that was with the increasingly popular Grand Prix sitting across the showroom.

Unfortunately, Pontiac as a whole was suffering. The Firebird would have its best sales year yet in 1979 but come crashing down immediately thereafter. The full-size Pontiacs were doomed almost from the start, never selling as well as the other GM brands’ largest models. And lest one think the LeMans may have been under siege by the cheaper Nova-based Phoenix, it was selling in pitiful volumes.

The first year of the 1980s was a bad one for the domestic brands and Pontiac was no exception. Pontiac sales were down by a third in the space of just two years, Pontiac falling behind even Buick. LeMans sales were down by more than a third, recording a decline of around 37%.

For 1980, the new standard engine was the Chevy 229 V6, while the Pontiac 265 V8 became an option below the 301. The following year, the 301 was gone and the only V8 option was the rather mediocre 265.

Bigger news for 1981 was a restyled front end, a rather rakish face with a strong familial resemblance to the ’77-78 Firebird and the incoming J2000. Unfortunately, LeMans sedans received a new, more formal roofline that not only clashed with the aggressive new face but also made it look much more like GM’s other sedans.

This new roofline – mercifully spared from the coupe – presaged the LeMans’ new role for 1982. The last oil crisis had convinced GM that further downsizing was necessary and their full-size B-Body was on the chopping block. Pontiac’s B-Body Bonneville and Catalina, having been such disappointing sellers, were axed after 1981.

The LeMans sedan and wagon were given a nip-and-tuck and became the Bonneville Model G, assuming the mantle of Pontiac’s full-size model much as the Chrysler Fifth Avenue had been a repositioned compact/mid-size LeBaron. But strong sales success continued to elude the erstwhile LeMans, leaving Pontiac to reintroduce a B-Body, the Parisienne.

GM was realizing it wasn’t conservative sedans that would keep Pontiac afloat. After falling victim to a huge sales decline at the dawn of the decade, the new general manager, William Hoglund, saw to it that Pontiac once again capitalize on its former, sporty image. In the 1980s, it did so with great success, overtaking Oldsmobile and Buick and firmly ensconcing itself once again as the third best-selling brand in the US. The LeMans’ replacement, the 6000, generally sold better, even hitting a peak of 200k units one year. Perhaps it was the halo effect of the critically acclaimed 6000 STE, or the general success of Pontiac’s consistent and memorable “We Build Excitement” advertising campaign.

Perhaps more than anything else, the LeMans had suffered from Pontiac’s overall brand identity. Smokey and the Bandit was helping to sell Firebirds but much of the rest of the lineup was putting on airs of luxury, something Pontiac just couldn’t sell to shoppers as well as Buick or Oldsmobile could and did.

Luxury worked for Pontiac except when it didn’t as, while the downsized and more formal LeMans sold better than its predecessor, it still couldn’t match the sales tallies of the Tempest and LeMans of the late 1960s. Looking at Buick and Oldsmobile’s success, Pontiac executives must have been as green as this LeMans with envy.

Featured ’79 Grand LeMans coupe photographed in Bushwick, Brooklyn, NY in 2014.

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