Joseph Dennis has a knack for capturing wonderful images when he visits his hometown of Flint, Michigan, like this Oldsmobile Delta 88 and this Pontiac Grand Prix LJ. These cars look to have been special ordered and loaded with goodies, likely by GM employees who knew their products well and knew exactly which option boxes to check. It’s no surprise that they are still treasured today, as the right equipment could transform these cars. That is certainly what Car and Driver found back in December 1978, when they tested this fully loaded 1979 Pontiac Grand Prix LJ.
By necessity, downsizing stripped away many of the extravagant styling elements that had made previous Grand Prix one of the darlings of the personal luxury set. However, the optional 2-tone paint, genuine wire wheels, abundant power assists and pillowed velour upholstery worked to reassure buyers that this GP could still stand out from the pack as a Seventies-style showboat.
The real magic of this particular Grand Prix test car was that it featured Pontiac’s Rally Tuned Suspension option, which added a number of upgrades to the suspension, a modified steering ratio and larger tires. The end result was a car that handled quite well (and made you forget the less-than-stellar 301 V8), pleasing Car and Driver’s editors. However, as with most extra-cost handling upgrades, real world buyers were probably less enticed, as non-enthusiasts probably couldn’t understand or enjoy the handling difference versus the stock set-up. Predictably, dealers wouldn’t have been too keen to have units on their lot with a $116 option ($429 adjusted) that few buyers could fully appreciate. But an oh-so-glamorous padded vinyl landau top for about the same money? Easy sale!
In some ways Car and Driver’s test car seemed wildly overpriced, with its $10,408 sticker equating to $38,477 in today’s dollars, making for a pretty pricey Prix. Certainly a more judicious trip down the options list could have avoided a lot of this cost, as could switching to a Grand LeMans coupe instead of the fancier GP. But that would have negated the whole point of this car: the Grand Prix LJ was a cosseting style statement, well-tuned for the vast middle-market car buying mindset of the time.
To me, today’s equivalent would be something like a Ford Edge, which is basically a heavily modified Fusion with the now-enormously-popular SUV attributes. Do most people need an SUV for daily driving when a sedan could serve just as well, if not better? Not at all. But people want the SUV look, and many Ford buyers are happy to pay the ~$6,000 price premium for an Edge as compared to the Fusion. Plus, it is easy to load up an Edge to more than $40,000, so really not that different from where Car and Driver’s Grand Prix test car was priced. The U.S. car market has frequently placed an emphasis on style, and willingly paid more money for an “image” vehicle–personal luxury back then, off road “ability” today–so the more things change, the more they stay the same. The real question is, in 38 years, will we be snapping shots of a loaded Ford Edge Titanium still being driven with pride?