Curbside Classic – 1963 Pontiac Grand Prix: Another Time, Another Place

There’s something inside me that can’t help but wonder if 1963 was the apogee of American popular culture.  The radio began its short-lived dalliance with bossa nova music, introducing us to Antonio Carlos Jobim and Joao Gilberto.  Books such as The Bell Jar and Cat’s Cradle forced us to think about feminism, mental illness, and the absurdity of, well, ourselves.  Filmmakers brought us such disparate classics as Fellini’s 8 1/2 and James Bond in From Russia with Love.  And of course, General Motors released its holy triumvirate: the Buick Riviera, the Corvette Sting Ray, and this lovely 1963 Grand Prix.

I’m obviously biased by my eternal love for all things 1960s, including the aforementioned bossa nova music.  (For those interested in bossa nova, check out this deep cut from the Kinks.)  Only Pontiac in the 1960s, however, could pull off a minute-long commercial where the ambiance says all that needs to be said: a car, a boat, a girl, a song, a calm evening, and a middle-aged guy who could be you, right?  Right.  Nevertheless, Pontiac was in a position to pull it off due to shrewd marketing and cars that truly looked better than most of their contemporaries.

Take the Grand Prix.  On the surface, there should be nothing special about it; it’s a Catalina shorn of trim.  But Pontiac was the king of the small details along with the big ones.  Grands Prix earned a special roof, special taillights, a special grille, and special badging.  For some reason, this converted your already attractive workaday Catalina into something a rich middle-aged dude with a large boat, a slip at the marina, and a younger girlfriend might actually drive.  It wasn’t all myth, which is perhaps the main reason why Pontiac was so successful in the 1960s.

Pontiac’s stylists had already ensured that everyone would copy their stacked headlights in their next respective styling cycles, and now there was this.  There was no special body like the Riviera’s or special platform like the Thunderbird’s; the Grand Prix could achieve nearly the same results without the expense and trouble.  The Grand Prix truly was a miracle of minimalism.

To ensure that the Grand Prix earned its place at the top of Pontiac’s litany of nameplates, it merited a special interior, including the requisite console, buckets, and floor shift.  The standard engine was even lifted from the big Bonneville to ensure that a Catalina couldn’t keep pace at the stoplight variety of the grand prix.

If you were particularly adventurous, you could order your Grand Prix with Pontiac’s beautiful 8-lug wheel, which was actually a stylized finned brake drum with a wheel attached to the outer perimeter.

The real kicker, however, was the name.  In 1963, only Pontiac (once again) could have gotten away with naming a full-framed, live-axle, V8-powered, flag-waving American car after a Formula 1 race.  Now THAT’s swagger.

The recipe obviously worked.  Only magazines made fun of the name while Pontiac was busy selling 72,959 Grands Prix, which is a greater number than not only the base Catalina hardtop, but also the Grand Prix’s competitors, the Riviera (40,000 sold) and the Thunderbird (63,313 sold).  Obviously, a list price that was a thousand dollars less than the Riviera’s or the Thunderbird’s was a motivating influence, aside from the Grand Prix’s obvious appeal.  But Pontiac could do no wrong in the 1960s, and that magic rubbed off on the Grand Prix.

After all, who wouldn’t picture himself driving through Paris, LeMans, or Nice in a nice, big Grand Prix?