(first posted 2/22/2016) Whether or not you see Pontiac’s constant reshuffling of the Bonneville nameplate as either a total commitment to the name or a lack of commit thereof, there’s no disagreement that the name Bonneville appeared on a wide array of very different vehicles in its 50-year history.
After its early appearances as a 1954 Motorama show car and then a 1957 high-performance convertible within the Star Chief line, the Bonneville soon took over as Pontiac’s flagship in 1958, gaining a full portfolio of body styles by 1959. The next two decades saw the Bonneville move through five successive generations, all full-size, rear-wheel drive, and V8-powered, despite greatly varying dimensions. With the exception of the years 1971-1975, when Pontiac offered its range-topping Grand Ville, the Bonneville comfortably sat at the top of Pontiac’s hierarchy from 1958-1981.
By 1980, things started to get weird. Convertible and hardtop bodystyles had been gone for several years, manual transmissions were long gone, and now with a V6 the standard engine, there was no doubt that the Bonneville had evolved significantly from the high-performance, sporty and flashy large car to a far more subdued, softer, and more luxurious full-sizer.
A consequence of a recession and oil crisis, new car sales took a hard blow across the board, with sales of full-size cars suffering the most. Pontiac was hit especially hard, with brand sales going from over 900,000 units in 1979 to under 500,000 in 1981. Faced with an split-identity crisis as a maker of both large, soft, “Brougham-y” cars and sporty, performance and youth-oriented vehicles, a beleaguered Pontiac echoed Chrysler’s move that same year and axed all of its full-size vehicles (Bonneville, Catalina, and Safari), re-branding itself as GM’s “We Build Excitement” division as it called to its performance past.
This left Pontiac’s mid-size A-body as the brand’s largest offering for 1982. Not wanting to totally alienate Brougham-seeking Pontiac buyers, in some further shuffling around, for 1982 Pontiac moved the Bonneville name to the A-body thereby terminating the LeMans (1979 model pictured) name in the process. To make things more confusing, GM also released the new front-wheel drive A-body for 1982, resulting in the rear-wheel drive A-body’s change in name to the G-body. Likely an attempt at quelling some of this confusion, 1982 G-body Bonnevilles added the “Model G” suffix and proudly displayed it on a separate trunk badge. To make matters even more bewildering, Pontiac’s Canadian market Parisienne B-body was never discontinued, and the G-body (neé A-body) continued going by the Grand LeMans name.
Over the 1981 LeMans, the Bonneville Model G’s enhancements helped make it the best-looking of all the A-/G-body four doors produced, in your author’s personal opinion. Clearly a nod towards the Bonneville’s market positioning, the Model G was graced by an elegant new waterfall grille and “upside-down” quad headlights with lower turn signals, replacing the more aggressive vestigial beak front fascia of the LeMans.
With a squared-off “formal” roofline (introduced on the LeMans the previous year), statelier front clip, and plusher interior, the Bonneville Model G aimed at providing most of the same virtues of its B-body predecessor in a trimmer package. What it didn’t provide was non-diesel V8 power (initially), a coupe body style (now sold exclusively as the Grand Prix), and rear windows that actually rolled down.
The last of Pontiac’s own V8 engines were dropped after 1981, as Pontiac redirected its engine focus to the Iron Duke inline-4s. Instead of offering one of Oldsmobile’s gasoline-powered V8s like its Cutlass Supreme and Regal siblings, the 1982 Bonneville only offered a choice of two Buick V6s (3.8L and 4.1L) and a diesel Oldsmobile V8 (5.7L). Regular V8 power was restored for 1983, as the optional 4.1L dropped in favor of a 5.0L Chevrolet V8. The “Model G” suffix also disappeared for 1983.
For its first two years, the G-body Bonneville came in three flavors: base sedan, base wagon, and Brougham sedan. All came equipped rather spartan by today’s standards, with power steering, full coil suspension, front disc/rear drum brakes, velour upholstery, and deluxe wheel covers occupying most of the standard features list.
As with its Grand Prix sibling, the Bonneville featured a distinctive instrument panel design with a superfluity of simulated wood trim and round gauges/vents. The contrasting woodgrain patterns was certainly a bit odd though.
Base models came with a single-piece notchback bench with fold-down center armrest, while Brougham sedans added a 60/40 split bench, in addition to opera lamps, padded steering wheel, and greater acoustical insulation.
Brougham models also added upgraded velour seats with the former B-body Bonneville’s loose pillow design. Naturally, a lengthy list of options were available for extra cost, such as air conditioning, several radio choices, power locks and front windows, power front seat, rear window defroster, and several wheel choices.
Oddly enough, wagon versions did not carry the “Safari” moniker, as their LeMans predecessor did. With the B-body Bonneville/Catalina Safari wagons also absent for the 1982 model year, Pontiac sold no Safari-badged wagons for 1982. In any event, the big B-body Safari wagon did return late into the 1983 model year, following the re-introduction of B-body Pontiac sedans (now using Canada’s “Parisienne” name) to the U.S. market amidst subsiding fuel prices.
Thankfully, Safari name or not, Bonneville Model G wagons were still available with the same yachts deck-like simulated woodgrain pattern Pontiac introduced on its wagons for 1980. Just like the other A/G-body wagons, seating was strictly for six passengers, as no third row was provided.
Taillights were still mounted low in the rear bumper, something common practice in the 1960s, but a somewhat unusual design feature by the early-1980s. Due to their very small size and unadorned simplicity compared to the sedan’s taillights, these taillights tended to look like merely reflectors or rear fog lights, thus giving the trunk an unfinished look.
Wagons comprised of about 20 percent of “Model G” Bonneville sales for 1982 and 1983, with 16,100 and 17,551 finding buyers, respectively. While these figures were only a nod more than half of 1981 LeMans wagon sales, they were also nearly double the combined 1981 sales of Pontiac’s B-body Bonneville and Catalina wagons. Nonetheless, with the return of the big B-body Safari in 1983 and the new front-wheel drive A-body 6000 wagon debuting for 1984, Bonneville wagons were eliminated following 1983.
As for the G-body Bonneville sedan, it stuck around through 1986, upon which it was replaced by the new front-wheel drive H-body Bonneville. Despite a similar footprint, the H-body Bonneville was internally roomier, thus earning it a full-sized designation which the Bonneville was known for. As the de facto replacement for the now permanently discontinued B-body Parisienne, the Bonneville was once again Pontiac’s largest, most prestigious car, ending this somewhat confusing tangent of the nameplate.