Curbside Classic: 1989 Pontiac Bonneville LE – The Many Lives Of The ’80s Bonneville

(first posted 3/11/2014)    Some car models have very linear lives. Take the Lincoln Town Car. All throughout its long life, from Continental option package in 1969 through the final Panther models in 2011, it was a full-sized, RWD, V8 luxury car. So, too, the Chevrolet Camaro. It was always a stylish, sporty two-door, available in show horse-six-cylinder or race horse-V8 models. The Pontiac Bonneville is a different story. It started as a limited edition, top of the line, fuel-injected convertible in 1957, followed with specially-trimmed coupe and convertible models (with fuel injection now optional) for ’58. After that, it became the top-shelf big Pontiac, and was consistently offered in coupe, sedan and wagon models for some time–but not permanently.

Between 1959 and 1970, the Bonneville was pretty consistently the most prestigious Pontiac, with a full line of body styles, including hardtop coupes, hardtop sedans and a convertible, in addition to a more-mainstream pillared sedan and station wagon. But all that changed in 1971, when Pontiac decided to chase Buick and Oldsmobile with their “super Bonneville” Grand Ville. Its C-body-derived rooflines and plusher interiors resulted in the Bonneville slipping a rung, to approximately the same spot as the recently-departed Executive–the long-wheelbase Pontiac with a plainer interior.

But the Grand Ville never really took off, and disappeared after 1975. Model year 1976 saw the return of the Bonneville to its rightful place at the top of the range, and there it stayed. The 1977 downsizing made the Bonnie more popular than ever, though still selling at a fraction of the 1977-79 Caprice’s numbers. The 1977-79 Bonneville (CCs on the ’78 sedan here and a ’79 Brougham coupe here) is my favorite B-body, but the 1980 refresh was also very attractive.

Of all the 1980 “aero” B-bodies, my favorite is the 1980-81 Bonneville coupe. These looked more luxurious than the Caprices, but never achieved the sales volume of their corporate sibling.

The 1979 gas crisis shook a lot of folks in Detroit. Everyone was expecting a worst-case scenario of gas prices doubling or tripling overnight. Suddenly, Pontiac execs feared their bread-and-butter big cars would be albatrosses in dealer showrooms, and so a drastic plan was undertaken. The big Pontiacs–Bonneville, Catalina, and Safari wagons–were bumped off for 1982.

It drives me crazy that unlike the Olds and Buick variants, the big Bonnevilles were not around for 1982-85. I feel the Pontiacs were the best looking version–especially the coupes!

Loyal Pontiac buyers were greeted with this in the fall of 1981: A Grand LeMans with a miniaturized Bonneville nose grafted on. All in all, it was not a bad-looking car, but who would have taken it for a genuine Bonneville?

Especially when you could walk out of Horst-Zimmerman Pontiac to Bob Ericksen Chevrolet and pick up a REAL full-size Caprice Classic?

A wagon was also offered, with interiors a cut above the earlier LeMans versions, but it still was not quite a Bonneville, at least in your author’s opinion. Indeed, in the Canadian market, the 1982 Bonneville “Model G” was marketed as the Grand LeMans.

Why? Because those level-headed Canadians decided that eliminating the full-size Pontiac was dumb, dumb, dumb, and thus continued the B-body as the Parisienne for 1982. Yes, it was a quick trim-shuffle on the Caprice, but at least there was still a big Pontiac for folks who wanted one–at least in the home of Elsinore beer.

Now, if the doom-and-gloom scenario had played out, then Pontiac might well have had a great year, as buyers would have shunned the fuel-hungry biggies for something just as plush but more fuel-efficient. But it never happened, and Pontiac was caught with its pants down in 1983 as customers started lining up for full-size sedans again. Oops.

At least Pontiac realized their mistake, and imported the Canadian Parisienne starting in mid-’83. They even added the 1980-81 Bonneville quarters to the 1985-86 models, making for a very attractive car–in fact they and the 1980-81 Bonnevilles are my favorite ’80s Pontiacs. But the Bonneville remained G-based and midsize through 1986, with little to no change from 1982.

Finally, in 1987, the Bonneville’s reputation and size were restored as it joined its former platform-mates, the Delta 88 and LeSabre, on the new-for-1986 full-size FWD H-body. Fully modern and most attractive, the new Bonneville lost all its Brougham accoutrements and went for the smooth and sporty look, particularly in SE guise. Unlike its siblings, the Bonneville was not offered in a coupe model. It would be sedans-only from here on out.

Driver Information Center, seen above the climate controls. So ’80s!

All 1987 Bonnevilles shared the same powertrain: a 3.8L V6 with sequential port fuel injection, 150 horsepower and a four-speed automatic. SE models gained gas-pressurized struts, Goodyear Eagle GT radials, alloy wheels, full instrumentation and the cool Driver Information Center, which showed an overhead illustration of the car and had light-up sections for open door, open trunk and other alerts. I remember a friend of my father’s had a white 6000STE he bought new, and as a six- or seven-year old I was absolutely fascinated with that feature. If you opened a door, the door on the miniature car on the dash opened too! Cool!

While opera lamps, vinyl roofs and tacked-on chrome were no longer on offer (though wire wheel covers were available at least the first couple of model years), in luxuriousness the LE took over where the ’86 Brougham left off. Standard features included power windows, air conditioning and a 45/55 bench seat. These handsome lacy-spoke alloys were available as an option. Also optional on ’87 Bonnevilles was the Delco UT4 AM/FM stereo or Delco/Bose sound system, both of which added radio buttons to the steering wheel–quite possibly their first use in a car.

By 1989, the range had broadened out to three models. The SE and LE were much the same as in 1987, though some new wheel covers and alloys were available. The big news was the ground-effected, bespoilered SSE, which added sportiness to the nth degree when it came to the H-bodies. From the front, our featured Bonneville appears to be a 1990-91, as only the SSE had this grille in 1988 and 1989. 1990-91 SE and LE models got the SSE grille along with new taillights with amber turn signals, new wheel covers and other minor changes.

But as you can see, the front bumper does not have the matching two-tone paint present on the rest of the car, and the taillights are the earlier 1987-89 style, so I believe this is an ’89. I am guessing it was in a fender-bender at some point, and it gained a new grille and front bumper from another car. The front bumper was not quite aligned with the rest of the nose.

And about the SSE. It appeared in 1988, and immediately displaced the SE as the sporty Bonneville. This was really luxurious and sporty for even Pontiac, with ground effects, color-keyed wheels, plush 12-way leather seats, Electronic Ride Control and automatic climate control, among other refinements. The SSE would do 10.7 seconds 0-60, brake from 60-0 in 144.5 feet with its 160-hp, 210 lb-ft 3800 V6, 3.33:1 axle ratio and four-speed automatic. Not amazing in 2014, but pretty good for 1988-89. I would love to find one for CC, but haven’t seen one in years. Maybe some day…

I happened across this red-over-silver example last year, and immediately spotted it for what it was. The H-body Bonnevilles are rare around here these days, though plenty of Delta 88s and LeSabres can be spotted if you know what you are looking for. This LE was very similar to one my brother’s friend’s parents had in the early-to mid-’90s. Theirs was the same color, but was a 1990-91 and had the five-spoke wheel covers instead of the alloys this one sports. I remember riding in that car and thinking it was pretty nice. They eventually traded it in on a loaded 1996 Town & Country.

This car looks like it was cared for for much of its life, as the interior was spotless. LEs came only with the column shifted automatic and divided bench seat with fold-down armrest. While the same was standard on SEs, they could be optioned with buckets and a console. All SSEs came with buckets and console. Starting in 1989, a compact disc player was also optional, along with ABS. And ordering the UT4 Delco stereo added not only the radio buttons on the steering wheel, but also heat and A/C adjustments.

Like all H-bodies, these were very roomy cars, owing to their excellent space utilization. Our featured CC is quite well equipped, with two-tone paint, alloy wheels, the aforementioned UT4 stereo with steering wheel controls, and automatic climate control.

This generation of Bonneville was last available in the 1991 model year, and for 1992 it would get a much swoopier, ’90s-style body. Things like the non-flush push-button door handles and upright styling were losing favor for the aero look, and it was time for the big Pontiac to join the club. Oddly enough, I still see many 1992-99 Bonnevilles on the road, but this generation is nearly gone. Too bad, they were a nice looking car. Although I still hold out hope for finding a 1988-91 SSE for you all someday!