Curbside Classic: 1986 Pontiac Parisienne – A Long Way From The Champs-Élysées

(first posted 9/25/2017)     When I was an eight year old kid and during my professor father’s year-long sabbatical from the university, our family took a trip overseas.  Our ultimate destination was a nine-month stay in Dad’s native Liberia, but on the way to and from western Africa, we visited five cities in Europe, including Paris – which was our very first stop.  Upon our arrival to and subsequent departure from Charles De Gaulle Airport, one of my first, distinct memories was of all five of us piling into a ’70s-era Peugeot 504 taxi after the driver (the sixth person in that car) loaded our luggage into the trunk.  Our destination was a place whose name my older brother translated to us as the “King Hotel” (which might actually have been something like the “Hôtel Du Roi”).

My face was soon flush with what felt like a million pin-pricks of embarrassment as my mother (a Midwestern farmer’s daughter of German and Irish descent, who looks a little like Petula Clark) proceeded to ask the driver, “You take American dolla?” in a most inauthentic-sounding, American Ebonics accent that I had never heard come out of her mouth before that day.  I thought to myself, Who is this woman, and why is she speaking English that way to a Frenchman who might have had issues understanding her even in her normal dialect?  At that moment, my mom’s voice sounded, to me, about as French as… a Pontiac Parisienne from the mid-1980s.

An original souvenir from my visit to the Eiffel Tower in 1983.

I’m sure Mom didn’t mean any disrespect – not to Blacks, not to the French… not to anyone.  This was just one of those profoundly weird moments that could have happened only in a multi-cultural family like mine.  Maybe Mom’s thought process was that by speaking in an accent (any accent), her English might have been more understandable to our poor taxi driver who surely must have been confused.  I’ve asked Mom about it, and she still laughs and claims she “doesn’t remember” why she spoke that way to our white, French taxi driver.  Oh, well… this happened over thirty years ago, and I guess we’ll never know.

All of us usually speak in a manner consistent with our environments of both past and present.  What I think of as mere traces of my old, Flint accent (think: a little “country”, a little urban, vowels through the nose, and with a slightly slower cadence) often come roaring back with full force after an extended weekend back in Michigan.  It’s involuntary.  It just sort of happens, and I’m glad it does.

This final-year Parisienne, sourced from Canada, “spoke” Le Français with a decidedly North American accent.  The Parisienne was introduced to the U.S. market for 1983 after Pontiac’s previous miscalculation that full-sized cars were finished due to tightening fuel economy standards and higher gas prices than people were used to.  Try as I did, I was never able to shake the impression that the smaller, ’82 Bonneville “Model G” that was supposed to supplant the B-Body in Pontiac’s lineup was just a slightly restyled and repackaged LeMans.  As reasonably handsome as the Model G was for an early-’80s midsizer, I preferred the sportier looks of the earlier, A-Body LeMans on which the G was based.

The first Parisienne that I can remember seeing on the street confused me for many reasons.  While I could clearly recognize it as a B-Body, it looked more like a Poncho-fied Chevy Impala… which it basically was.  The chopped tail and flat, blocky taillamps of the 1983 and ’84 Parisienne looked downmarket from those of the last, full-sized Bonneville that had bowed out after ’81.  It seemed more than a little “Pontiac-lite”.

And then there was the name.  How do you pronounce that?  I wonder how many times I had asked my parents and older brother how to correctly pronounce “Parisienne” before it finally stuck.  I’m all about making mnemonic devices to remember things, but I honestly can’t think of how I would have tried to remember the correct pronunciation of this model name outside of just practicing it.  I event-ZHU-ually nailed it.

I feel the mild restyle for ’85 improved things considerably, with a return to more of a luxurious ’81 Bonneville look, with its wide, wraparound taillamps and slightly rounded rear, even if it did keep its Caprice face.  My piano teacher of seven years and her husband had one of these for a while, and to this day, seeing one reminds me of Mrs. Susana Patek (a lovely woman), and of being held hostage by my parents in my living room after school during the week to practice my scales.  There were times when I hadn’t practiced as many hours as I was supposed to before my weekly lesson and I knew it would show.

As I would walk up the driveway of the Pateks’ condo not far from the GM Truck & Bus factory in Flint on Van Slyke Road, I would wish I could just duck into the back seat of their Parisienne and crawl into a ball on that soft, burgundy, pillow-tufted seating and just wait it out until the time for my lesson had passed.  Needless to say, I eventually (and thankfully) made friends with self-discipline, and I had the mastery of the first and second movements of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” to claim as my crowning achievement before turning my attention and focus to other interests.

Looking again at these photos, it made me wonder about the year, make and model of the final, American production car to feature separate fender skirts.  I’m not talking about the look of, say, a 1991 Buick Roadmaster, the rear wheel openings of which suggest this look, but rather what we see in these pictures, where they could be removed (i.e. for repair or replacement) if the owner chose to do so.

Regardless, I think this Parisienne is a fine example of the type of mainstream, mid-priced, American, full-sized, V8-powered, RWD sedan that sat in many garages and driveways in the Midwest.  It may be about as French as Kraft salad dressing, but did it really, ever need a dose of Gallic authenticity to be worthy of its model name?  With sales of the sedan versions of the ’86 Parisienne being 70% over those of the G-Body Bonneville (70,600 units vs. 40,900), that question becomes largely irrelevant.  I’m glad this Parisienne “speaks” with its own accent instead of trying to sound like something it isn’t now and certainly wasn’t then.  C’est si bon.

Rogers Park, Chicago, Illinois.
Sunday, September 10, 2017.

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