(first posted 1/21/2015) As someone with a vast knowledge, love, and passion for cars, it pains me to say that I haven’t had a chance to drive the sheer number of cars, especially “classic” cars, that many of you have had. Driving a classic car is an opportunity which I’m rarely presented with, so needless to say it was an invigorating experience when I was able to get behind the wheel of this 1985 Pontiac Grand Prix.
Near where I live is a small mom-and-pop mechanic shop and used car lot that I frequently pass on my runs. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to run and check out their cars by for quite a while now due to a severely pulled hamstring, but on a day out this past summer, this pale green Pontiac caught my eye.
In its forty-six-year history, the Pontiac Grand Prix displayed a number of distinctive looks. The original Pontiac Grand Prix debuted in 1962 as a slightly sportier, more personal version of the full-size Catalina coupe. A Grand Prix convertible was added for 1967, but subsequently dropped the following year.
This car was replaced by a new Grand Prix in 1969. With a totally unique body, the second generation GP exuded all the requisite styling features of the burgeoning personal luxury coupe. Long hood? Check! Formal roof line? Check! Vinyl roof? Check! Although the interior was “cockpit style”, with its Strato-bucket seats and all instrument panels angled towards the driver, a bench seat was a no-cost option.
This uniquely bodied Grand Prix was succeeded by the overly familiar-looking, overwrought, and overweight “Colonnade” Grand Prix of 1973. Things weren’t all bad however, as steel-belted radials and upgraded suspension improved handling. Genuine African Crossfire Mahogany also graced the interior of earlier models. These were also among the best-selling Grand Prix models ever.
The energy crises of the 1970s and resulting government regulations dictated smaller and more fuel efficient cars, and that’s exactly what the 1978 Grand Prix was. The ’78 Grand Prix’s styling was decidedly more slab-sided and blockier than its Colonnade predecessor, although its sheet metal had a few more curves than some of its corporate cousins.
Once again, the Grand Prix was available only as a two-door coupe – related sedan models flew the LeMans, Bonneville, and Grand Am flags. The Grand Prix still sold well, although that fact is often overshadowed by this generation Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, which was among one of the best-selling American cars of all time.
Despite universal downsizing and the growing influx of less ostentatious European and Japanese imports, personal luxury coupes were still a popular body style in the early- to mid-Eighties. It’s no coincidence that the most popular Grand Prix were very Broughamified, with vinyl roof, pillowed bench seats, and wire wheel discs.
The G-body Grand Prix’s siblings, particularly the Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, are still kicking around if you look hard enough, but Pontiac Grand Prix from this era are far more elusive. When I first saw this one, I had to return that very day, over fears that it might be gone soon.
I had no intention of getting behind the wheel, but stopping by to take some pictures led to a pleasant conversation with the Jeff, the shop owner, and the vehicle’s most recent owner, a buddy of his who was helping him unload a Mustang off a flatbed.
The current owner, whose name I did not get, was more than happy to talk about the car. According to him, he is the second owner, and the 55,000-mile car had spent most of its life in New Hampshire. For the majority of the last few years, he said it was stored inside a trailer. In a more interesting tidbit, he said that the car had recently been used as a period background car in the upcoming Johnny Depp film, Black Mass, about notorious Boston mob boss James “Whitey” Bulger.
As we were talking, a rather enchanting blonde woman came out of the shop and in an exotic foreign accent, introduced herself as the sales manager. Obviously assuming I had serious interest in buying the car, and not just doing field research for a Curbside Classic article, she asked me if I wanted to take the GP for a test drive, which I willingly accepted.
Sliding into the cloth bench seat and firing up this 29-year-old, rear-wheel drive American coupe was a surreal experience. In my comparatively short driving career, I have rarely had the chance to drive anything older than a 2000 model. The even shorter list of cars I’ve driven that are older than I am (I was born in 1993) have been either Toyotas or Volvos. Needless to say, this Pontiac Grand Prix was a bit different.
I couldn’t get the seat to slide forward any more to better accommodate my 5’7″ height, so the pedals were a bit of a reach. It was also a 90-degree August afternoon, and this car was not equipped with air conditioning. None of this mattered though. It was an invigorating experience and I truly felt alive.
We pulled out of the parking lot and I pressed my foot down on the large gas pedal, sending a pleasant sputter out of the exhausts. I actually forgot to ask which engine was under the hood, but given the car’s lack of options, I’m positive it was the standard 2-barrel, 3.8-liter V6. I was basically flooring it going 40 mph, but once again, I didn’t care.
A couple of miles up the road, I pulled into a Dunkin’ Donuts parking lot to turn around and head back. Despite having power steering, it still required more effort than the power-assisted units in today’s cars. Navigating the Grand Prix was also more difficult due to its long hood and considerable overhang, which I am not used to.
As I alluded to earlier, this particular Grand Prix is a rather sparsely equipped base model. Its original frugal owner passed on popular options like power windows, air conditioning, split bench seats, cruise control, and cassette player. A rear window defroster for those frigid New England winters was the only option I could detect.
Pulling back into the lot, I made sure to make it clear that I had no intention of buying the car. We all talked for a few more minutes as I took some more pictures, and was on my way. Jeff politely told me to stop by anytime I saw a car on his lot that interested me to photograph for Curbside Classic.
The Grand Prix was gone within a few weeks, so I’m assuming it sold. It wouldn’t have been the type of car I’d have bought, even if I did have the money, but I’m grateful I had the chance to drive it. It was an experience I shall never forget.