My Curbside Classic: H Is For Heavy Breathing

Laurence Jones made a pretty good case for the 1st gen FWD H-body cars in his CC. His points about their advantages over the B-body (a far more popularly worshiped deity on this site) are all valid but fail to sway me, a man who generally likes his sedans V8 powered and RWD. The 1st generation cars look far too much like their A-body kin and are far too dimensionally similar to move me to desire. As the proud teenage owner of a 1982 Chevy Celebrity, when I was given the keys to a 1990 Buick LeSabre (in 1996 while my car was in for service) the only reason I could discern for choosing an H over an A in those days was to get that smooth torque-y 3800 V6. If I could have purchased an A with a 3800 then IMHO there would have been no reason to pay more for a small (on the outside) H. A manufacturer’s “large car” should have more PRESENCE. I agreed with the famous Lincoln commercial that showcased a confused valet: (Video here)

But the real reason I hated the H-body Delta 88, Buick LeSabre, and Pontiac Bonneville was they killed my favorite B-bodies (Delta 88, Buick LeSabre, and Pontiac Parisienne). The Caprice was left alone to defend the crown, and as Laurence mentioned in his write up, GM divisions were suddenly faced with “midsize” cars across the showroom from these cars that were more “prestigious” looking. Paul has talked about how he “lost the faith” in GM during his growth from childhood into adulthood, this was MY “losing the faith” moment. I still loved the last remaining B but I found my eye wandering to the boxy Panthers, I stopped dreaming of “making it” by owning a shiny new ’88 or a ’98 I started to check out the measurements of Mercury Grand Marquis and Lincoln Town Cars. At age 8 (1985 – the birth of the FWD H) the General started to lose my interest.

Then one fine day in 1992 I saw her, the new Pontiac Bonneville. I was in a mall in Lima, OH for one of those dealers’ shows where the local car dealers fill the halls of the mall with new cars hoping to find prospects. My father and I always went to these things because it was a way to get to see the new cars, touch them, feel them, and sit in them. At the end of a corridor on a small stage there she was, glittering under the light… a new Pontiac Bonneville. Smooth curvaceous flanks, rounded front, that rump – with or without the “exposed thong” like spoiler.

There I was at age 15 on the edge of manhood and my receiving my driver’s license and I was face to grille with a sexy American sedan. With that body and trunk I didn’t care which wheels were driven, an open airy cockpit, optional wheels that were 2in larger in diameter than the 1987 Oldsmobile Cutlass Dad had at home and a full 3 in bigger than the 13in rims on the Celebrity that I was learning to drive. A 3.8 ltr (roughly 231 cubic inches for my non metric heart) put out 170hp (30 more than the 307 Olds + Quadrajet combo in the Cutlass) through a 4T60-E. My heart pounded my pulse raced but my father, whose goal it was to see EVERYTHING at the show that day, said we had to move on.

I thought we would never be reunited, oh sure I saw her (and her sisters) on the road but never came in close contact again until a fateful day in 1996. It was summer and I had been mowing the lawn (my parents massive 3 acres, one 46in swath of John Deere riding mower at a time). There was talk of a new car for my parents in the air but my father being a dyed in the wool usedcar buyer meant that his searches usually took months so I wasn’t expecting to see anything soon.

I finished, parked the mower and was walking toward the house. It was after 6 and time for my father to be home. The shed was a good acre from the house and as I drew nearer home I could see a white car parked in front of the garage. My first thought was that the Oldsmobile had been backed out of the garage for some reason but then the form started to take shape. Could it be? I wiped the sweat from my eyes, but it was still there. A Bonneville? How could it be? None of our relatives owned one. I got up to the car, it was a white SE model, appearance package turbine style aluminum wheels and spoiler but with front bench seat and column shift. I resisted the temptation to climb behind the wheel into the unlocked car but went inside for dinner and a shower. My father was talkative at dinner; he had received a call from his best friend Don, who worked on the used car lot at the local Chevy, Pontiac, and Oldsmobile dealer. Don knew my Dad was in the market and had called him up regarding a clean new Bonneville that had been taken in trade and an extended test drive was quickly arranged. My father raved about the interior room (more than the Cutlass Supreme), superior fuel economy, solid acceleration, and well tuned suspension. He had formed this opinion only driving it 10 miles home from the dealer.

To my delight my father proposed that he and I go for a test drive and that I be permitted to drive. I sat down in the driver seat, lowered the center arm rest, and found myself in a much more comfortably snug situation than the flat bottomed buckets of my Celebrity or the cushy pillow tops of the Brougham epoch Oldsmobile that my father currently held the title to. The interior was a light shade of grey and covered in that wonderfully grip-y corduroy style fabric that GM used by the truckload at one point in its history. I adjusted the mirrors beginning with the rear view and catching a glimpse of that tail in the reflection, and I reflectively smiled. I adjusted the side mirrors and my mind wandered to how the flanks curved like the hips of a woman. I backed down the wide driveway, turned the car around, and headed out onto the road. I piloted the car down our little country road a few hundred feet and onto Ohio State Hwy 613, a nice stretch that alternates between straight and curvy from Miller City to Leipsic, OH. I felt in command and control, this would be no one handed “ship’s captain” affair as was typical of being handed the keys to the Cutlass.

My father was in the passenger seat playing with the secondary controls and even popping the owner’s manual cassette tape into the tape deck. (An owner’s manual on cassette, what will they think of next?) I brought the car up to my then customary 5 over the legal limit and set the cruise, my eyes moving constantly back and forth between the road and the dashboard. Tachometer, the first I had ever seen that was part of the factory layout. Large easy to use HVAC controls, a speedometer that went past 85mph, a good factory stereo, and all these things were revelations to me living a sheltered American car only life in the Midwest.

My Dad and I were quickly approaching a pair of banked turns that had little yellow advisement signs that said “35 mph”. The car felt so rock sold, so stable, had absorbed the frost heaves and imperfections of the highway so well (better than my Chevy and Dad’s Olds anyway) that I made the decision NOT to hit the brakes; I was going to take it at speed! This sort of maneuver would have caused the Celebrity to under-steer like the nose heavy pig it was when handing was involved, the Oldsmobile would have tried to swap the front end for the rear. The Bonne sailed through, a little body lean, but nothing dramatic.

My father was struck silent and quickly the next curve came, a curve to the right as opposed to the left as the first had been. My father’s silence made me nervous so I kicked off the cruise with a tap of the brake and allowed the car to slow a bit as the curve came. I was right at 45mph as I guided the car through the bank of the curve and suddenly feeling cocky, I applied steady pressure to the go pedal and powered out of the curve. Fat Michelin tires stayed glued to the asphalt with nary a whimper of protest. I could hear the grin in my Dad’s voice as he said: “Don’t tell your mom we did that.” My brain was suddenly willing to accept the premise of a FWD performance car and that “performance” car meant something more than muscle car. The bolder new body had allowed me to see the H’s potential. A few days later my father made a deal on the car that was acceptable to him.

The car stayed in the family for a little over 10 years, the last three or so with my Sister who had finally given up on her Oldsmobile Achieva. My parents generously donated the Pontiac to her to make sure their grandchildren had something reliable to be ferried around in.

I soldiered on with the Celebrity, then the Cutlass, but I could never get the Bonneville out of my mind. I flirted briefly with purchasing one when my Cutlass was stolen in November 2000 but my budget steered me toward a gently used 1997 Ford Escort Wagon. The 1992-1999 Bonnevilles are getting old now and I had sort of given up on acquiring one. I moved from the classroom to a Central Office position in August 2010 I was aware of the old Bonneville with battered paint and slowly peeling door guard moldings but I was not aware of the district’s processes for disposing of vehicles they no longer needed. I knew someone was driving it a few times a month but I never saw the car leave, I would just notice that it was gone, and then a few days later that it was parked in a different spot.

My awareness and participation in the Public Surplus Vehicle auction is well documented and now I play a waiting game. The winning bidder has 10 days (from 10/03/11) to pay for his items, if he does not choose the Bonne then she is mine. Will her title belong to me or has she teased me again to ultimately give her heart to another?

To me the 1992-1999 Bonneville represented GM really “trying” again to get it right. Yes it was still badge engineering with the Buick LeSabre, Oldsmobile 88, and Pontiac Bonneville being triplets under the skin but interior and exterior styling was still different enough to matter. Each division was still given enough autonomy to make the car their own.