Vintage Review & Commentary: 1972 Pontiac Luxury LeMans – Motown’s Mid-Size Rebel Gets Broughamed

(first posted 1/10/2017)   Pontiac enjoyed tremendous success in the 1960s by delivering dramatic styling, strong performance and a youthful attitude.  The mid-size Tempest/LeMans series, with the halo GTO coupes and convertibles, spearheaded this “rebellious” approach and helped Pontiac repeatedly achieve a strong 3rd place finish in the U.S. sales race.  By the early 1970s, however, the market changed dramatically and Pontiac began to falter.  The division started scrambling for a fix, resulting in cars like this 1972 Luxury LeMans, which Road Test Magazine reviewed in June 1972.  What did they make of Pontiac’s change in direction?

The mid-size sales decline was a big issue for Pontiac to fix, since the mid-size series had been a core part of the brand’s successful positioning.  Starting with the arrival of GM’s A-bodies for 1964, the Pontiac Division had really hit its mid-size stride.  While Chevrolet, Oldsmobile and Buick each offered the A-body, the Tempest/LeMans/GTO arguably got the most attention and was the second best seller behind the Chevelle.  In fact, from 1964 through 1969, Pontiac sold 1,836,597 mid-size cars, trailing only Chevrolet’s 2,326,394 sales, but well ahead of both Buick Special/Skylark (1,126,425) and Oldsmobile F-85/Cutlass (1,176,295).

By the mid- to late-1960s, Pontiac’s strong mid size output accounted for about 1/3 or more of total divisional sales, going as high as 43% for 1966.  These were not base cars either: most years saw the pricier LeMans and GTO models take the lion’s share of sales (~60% annually).

Even the tamest Tempest served-up seductive Coke-bottle body side curves and aggressive split grilles. An unusual (for America) OHC I6 was offered as the base and “1st step” performance engine, giving a bit of international “flavor” to the Tempest/LeMans line.  The Pontiac brand came to define the successful mid-1960s “rebel” attitude and made other mid-sized offerings look pretty tepid in comparison.

At a time when a performance attitude drove success for mid sized offerings from Detroit, Pontiac was the undisputed image leader.  While Chevrolet’s Chevelle was the sales leader for GM intermediates, Pontiac’s Tempest/LeMans/GTO was a close second, running a mere 20,774 cars behind the bow-tie division’s mid-sized offering for 1966.  Plus, Pontiac intermediates garnered higher average selling prices than Chevrolet, ringing the cash registers for The General and ensuring the promotion of Pontiac’s leadership team within GM.

But all good things must come to an end, and Pontiac’s mid-sized success was no different.  For the first time since the Tempest was introduced as a compact in 1961, the series saw a sales decline for 1969, dropping 17% (to a still healthy 287,915 cars).  Some of this loss might well have been due to the all new Grand Prix, which was now based on a lengthened version of the mid-sized A-body and achieved a remarkable 255% increase over 1968, rising to 112,486 sales.  But ominously, all GTO and LeMans series were down, and only one Pontiac A-body model saw an increase: sales of the value-oriented Tempest Custom S 2-door hardtop rose 16%.  Also, while these more overtly luxurious and/or value priced offerings were shifting shoppers within Pontiac showrooms, competitors were hungrily eying Pontiac’s mid-size market position and deploying their own entrants to entice buyers.

Most notably, Oldsmobile aggressively sought a bigger piece of the mid-size pie, and the Rocket Division struck gold by adding a new formal roofline to the luxury-oriented Cutlass Supreme coupe for 1970.  Combining the luxury of a larger car with handsome intermediate styling, the Cutlass Supreme was a huge hit, especially the new “formal roof” coupe body style.  Since the Supreme models shared the same basic front and rear styling as the “regular” Cutlass models, the image halo extended to the less expensive Olds mid-sizers as well.

Of course, Pontiac had the high-style Grand Prix personal luxury coupe to compete with the Cutlass Supreme coupe.  But, the GP was its own premium series, with seemingly little in common with the more workaday mid-size Ponchos.  Plus, Grand Prix sales were under pressure for 1970 (dropping 42% to 65,750 units), likely due to the revamped Cutlass Supreme coupe plus the stylish and more affordable Chevrolet Monte Carlo personal luxury coupe from Chevrolet.

Sure, there was still the aggressive GTO with its unique Endura body-colored front bumper and sporty positioning, but the “Goat” was seen as a muscle car, and that breed was rapidly falling out of fashion as the market shifted away from larger high-performance cars.  In fact, GTO sales for 1970 plunged 47% versus 1969, even though the car offered new styling and more high-powered engine choices than ever.

The standard Tempest/LeMans, by contrast, no longer seemed so exciting.  The unique but seldom ordered OHC I6 was dropped, while more high performance engine choices were offered, just as the market shifted away from “go fast at all costs.”  The refreshed mid-sized styling for 1970 ushered in a rather unfortunate face, with a chrome bumper/grille treatment that looked like an overgrown version of the nose sported by the 1969 Firebird. The body side sculpting, rear bumper and tail lights (which looked similar to the tail treatment found on the not-very-successful 1968 Grand Prix) were also new, but somehow Pontiac’s stylists were less successful with their A-Body updates than the rival revamps served up by Chevrolet, Oldsmobile and Buick intermediate lines.

Mid-size Pontiac sales dropped 17% for 1970, while Chevrolet Chevelle dipped only slightly (-3%) and both Buick Skylark and Olds F-85/Cutlass surged (+35% and +22% respectively).  Pontiac was no longer running a close second to Chevrolet Chevelle in sales, and also fell behind GM sister-division Oldsmobile for the first time in output of intermediate-sized cars.

Pontiac’s mid-size position went from bad to worse for 1971, with sales dropping another 31%, steeper than the declines suffered by the intermediate lines at GM sister divisions (Olds: -13%, Buick: -15%, Chevrolet: -26%).  Some of this drop was undoubtedly due to the UAW strike that hit GM hard in late 1970 (impacting production of model year 1971 cars), but clearly Pontiac was suffering disproportionately.  Worse still, Pontiac’s mid-sized model mix was shifting away from the higher priced offerings—now 69% of all intermediates sold were in the base T-37 and cheaper LeMans lines (which had supplanted the Tempest as the lower cost mainstays).  The high performance GTO series plunged 78% to just 10,582 units while the premium LeMans Sport line dropped 30% to 40,941 cars.

Something needed to be done at Pontiac to recapture sales and stop the market share bleeding.  Pontiac’s successful 1960s positioning as Motown’s “rebel” brand, brimming with performance and attitude, was in need of a refresh by the early 1970s.  A new direction was required, but what would it be?

One way to rekindle the magic would have been to offer a snazzy, well-priced smaller car that was a cut above competitors (a redux of the original Tempest/LeMans strategy). Nimble, more economical cars were clearly the rage in the early 1970s, and Pontiac could have served-up a nicely upscale, sporty compact offering to capture buyers—especially younger customers and people considering imports.  Check out this car from GM’s Holden subsidiary in Australia: the early 1970s Monaro GTS looked an awful lot like a Pontiac, from the body side sculpting down to the Rally II wheels, and shared key dimensions and some chassis components with GM’s compact X-Body and F-Body cars.  Imagine this car, built in America, with Pontiac’s trademark split grille and OHC I6, and you could have had a fantastic sport/luxury compact car with youthful flair—a perfect Pontiac positioned within a growing segment.

But sadly, Pontiac took the cheap and easy way out with the Deadly Sin Ventura II introduced in mid-1971, which was nothing more than a Chevy Nova with a nose job.  Buyers saw the Ventura II for what it was: a cynically conceived price leader to attract showroom traffic.  “Pure Pontiac” it decidedly was not!

Another marketing approach gaining traction in the early 1970s was “Broughamfication”—whereby manufacturers slathered a veneer of “luxury” onto ordinary bigger cars, bringing customers upmarket with minimal additional corporate outlay.   Some brands, like Oldsmobile, Mercury and even Ford, were very adept at executing this strategy.  For GM’s “rebel” division, however, the transition was awkward at best.  Nonetheless, formerly sporty Pontiac plowed ahead down the “Grand Luxury Brougham” path, and the result were cars like the 1972 Luxury LeMans.

Nothing screams “prestige” like rear-fender skirts, added chrome trim, “monogramed” logos, more sound insulation and ample simulated “Ceylonese Teakwood” on the instrument panel.  So, with these “enhancements,” the former top-of-the-intermediate-line LeMans Sport was converted into the new top-dog Luxury LeMans, at least for the 2- and 4-door hardtops—Pontiac’s A-body convertible retained its LeMans Sport looks and nomenclature for 1972.

The next question to ask was whether or not the added “luxury” accoutrements made for an improved mid-sized Pontiac.  Since the Luxury LeMans series was considered “new” for 1972, Road Test Magazine elected to conduct a drive report, and the 4-door hardtop version was the model tested.  This model now represented the only mid-sized 4-door hardtop available from Pontiac, as the previously available hardtop sedan for the basic LeMans was dropped.

It’s easy to take perverse pleasure in finding the mistakes that riddled Road Test Magazine in the 1970s.  Whether the issues were minor typos or major errors in specs or product details, RT could be counted on to deliver some doozies.  For the Luxury LeMans article, one error that I noted while researching this post was regarding the industry sales rankings, where RT listed Pontiac in 3rd place in industry sales (which had been true for almost all of the 1960s).  But Plymouth had passed Pontiac in 1970 to gain the 3rd best selling position behind Chevrolet and Ford, and that situation continued in 1971.  There’s no doubt Oldsmobile was gunning for a strong performance, and they did want to pass Pontiac—read on to see if the Luxury LeMans saved the day, or if Olds achieved their goal for 1972.

Unlike most magazine test cars that were sourced from the manufacturers’ Public Relations fleets, this particular Luxury LeMans 4-door hardtop was an engineering test unit.  Road Test speculated a brutal demise for this car in a crash test—I wonder if that fate did befall the car, or if it was just run hard and torn apart for component part evaluations.

Though the Luxury LeMans tested did feature one of the optionally available gauge packages with readouts for oil, temperature and alternator (maybe the engineers had demanded this feature for their evaluations), the car was otherwise equipped purely for comfort and benign performance.  Though sporting the upgraded 400 2V V8, there was nothing sporty about this Luxury LeMans, with the standard, rather squishy base suspension.

Look at that bare metal trunk and exposed spare, just like you would find in the cheapest LeMans.  So much for “luxury” with your luggage.  As per typical Detroit practice at the time, most niceties (and even necessities like power disc brakes) were all à la carte options.

The Luxury LeMans represented one of the last hardtop body styles available with vent windows.  Most 2-door hardtops had lost the vents in the late 1960s, and by the 1973 model year, they were gone completely at GM.

In summary, Road Test found the “new” Luxury LeMans pleasant enough, though there wasn’t anything particularly “Pontiac” about it–the car came across as did most GM A-bodies–nice, competent cruisers.  This featured Luxury LeMans carried an as-tested price of $4,442.60 ($25,652 adjusted), so the car was positioned in the heart of the medium-priced market for 1972.  Buyers could decide if they wanted a more fully-equipped mid-sized Luxury LeMans or a larger but more spartan Catalina for the same money.

Did the budding Broughamance pay off for Pontiac?  Well yes and no.  The new luxury models did provide an uptick in sales for the mid-sized Pontiacs.  Compared to the former top-of-the-line LeMans Sport, the new Luxury LeMans 2-door hardtop saw a sales increase of 8% to 37,615 while the 4-door hardtop saw a sales increase of 45% to 8,641 compared to the combined LeMans and LeMans Sport 4-door hardtop totals for 1971.  The lone remaining LeMans Sport convertible body style saw sales dip 11% to 3,438.

The reasonably good reception of the Luxury LeMans helped boost overall LeMans sales 2% compared to 1971, with a total of 169,993 Pontiac intermediates hitting the streets for 1972.  But…  Results were far better at Pontiac’s sister divisions within GM.  Buick Skylark sales increased 16% to 225,346, Chevrolet Chevelle climbed 17% to 393,695, while the Cutlass Supreme magic rocketed Oldsmobile’s mid-sizers up 29% to 302,669.  Pontiac, the former superstar of snazzy intermediates, now found its mid-sized offerings in last place at GM.  The Pontiac division also tumbled in the overall industry sales rankings for 1972, dropping behind Plymouth and Oldsmobile to land in 5th place.

Nor would Pontiac’s mid-sized “Broughamifaction” plan pay off for the rest of the 1970s.  While Oldsmobile intermediates reached record highs, Pontiac’s LeMans series, whether base, Luxury, Grand or Sport, continued to flounder relative to the other GM mid-sized lines.  Pontiac could not out-brougham Oldsmobile or Buick, nor was the Pontiac brand especially sporty or aggressive any longer (Grand Am and Firebird excepted).  Being lost in the middle was not a great strategy, and Pontiac would stumble along until the mid-1980s when the division ditched Broughams for good, rediscovered its latent “performance” imagery and enjoyed a turn around, at least for a little while…  Gussying up the LeMans with “Luxury” for 1972 ultimately proved to be a slippery slope for Pontiac, though covered with the finest Morrokide money could buy.