Vintage R&T Review: 1969 Pontiac Grand Prix – The American Espada

color photos by PN


Having finished reading the Lamborghini Espada review in the July 1969 Road & Track, I flipped back to the other review, of a 1969 Pontiac Grand Prix. At first, I made no obvious connection between the two. But then it hit me: they both had 390 hp, did the 1/4 mile in 15.0 seconds, had almost identical 0-60 times, got 11 mpg, handled quite well, and offered reasonably comfortable accommodations for four adults. They both had the boldest and best styling in their respective continents. They were both gran turisimos, in the true sense of the word.

So why didn’t Road & Track see the obvious similarities? Too put off by the fact that the GP cost one quarter of what the Espada cost? And even though it acquitted itself quite superbly, the best they can come up with in the title is “Even Henry Manney’s wife says it isn’t bad at all” (“who likes Italian machinery”)?

The GP’s pointy schnoz did not go over well with Manney (and the R&T staff). “Does it really need to look like a modernized Gregoire?” Really? A Gregoire? And how many readers know what he’s talking about? Typical car snob.

But then if you’ve been reading CC, you’d know what he was referring to.

I have to assume it has to the 1955 Gregoire Sport Cabriolet, which we covered here. It does have a mighty long front overhang like the GP, but I don’t exactly see the resemblance otherwise. Oh well…don’t second guess Henry Manney.

Manney wasn’t too wild about the interior “as the driver sits down in a sort of black morocco foxhole peering out through a slit at a log long hood with a ridge in the middle. The instruments peek out in the middle between the two bucket seats in a rather alarming manner, confidently showing the 140 mph speedo and the 8000 rpm tachometer to the driver alone…”

Well, yes, it’s true that the hood on these was absurdly long. It was a point of pride at the time, the first of its kind. Meaning a GM A-Body with a substantially lengthened front end; DeLorean had the 112″ wb Tempest/LeMans coupe stretched all the way to 118 inches, and lengthened the nose even further. It was the first A-Special coupe, and it would soon spawn a host of imitations, starting with the Monte Carlo in 1970.

Ford and Iacocca get a lot of credit for the Mustang, which spawned the pony cars. But Lee never saw the ’69 GP coming, and it turned into a monster category for almost two decades that completely dwarfed the Mustang and pony cars. Ford was caught sleeping for a change. The ’69 GP was the pioneer of the single biggest new class of American cars (affordable PLC) until the rise of the SUV and pickup truck. And it was DeLorean’s doing.

Here’s a line you don’t hear too often about American cars of the time: “The whole car exuded an air of solidity and quality—rather surprising coming from GM which pioneered the Stovebolt—and it seemed if someone had really taken care of assembly…”  How does “Stovebolt” figure into this? The original 1929-1936 Chevy six was called that because of some slotted head cylinder bolts that looked similar to ones commonly used on stoves. And it was a perfectly fine engine in its time, the first six in the low price category. More snobbishness. Is that what made Manney’s reputation?

The GP’s elegant door handles got the love that they deserved, and even were referred to as “Italian recessed type”.

Even more elegant than the ones on the Espada?

The GP’s bucket seats also came in for high praise: “They were good and hard—the only wear for long trips—and fit my ancient back almost as well as more expensive European ones”.

R&T’s Model J (not the SJ) GP had the optional 390 (gross) hp 428 engine, teamed up with the THM automatic and a 3.55;1 rear axle as well as an optional handling package. The result: “…the longer we drove it the better we liked it—unlike most road test offerings—and even my hypercritical wife (who likes Italian machinery) declared it wasn’t bad at all”. High praise indeed.

“The reassuring manner of the torquey V8, the accurate steering, the gobs of power away from the lights, and the comparatively firm ride made her realize how far the American passenger car has come (in admittedly a few examples) in just a few years.”

This is really the essence of the review, and a key take-away: it was very true that certain American cars had finally achieved a level of all-round balance, of performance, ride, handling, steering and braking that had simply not existed ever before. And the GP was one of the first, and as good as it got at the time. And again, that has to be chalked up largely to John DeLorean, who started down this road some years earlier with the GTO, which really was a pioneer, if not yet all the way there.

Of course it wasn’t just DeLorean and Pontiac; GM decided that building better all-round cars was going to be essential, for several reasons, including handling safety in difficult situations, which had been an issue with their cars earlier in the decade, with tine tires and feeble drum brakes and floppy handling. The American car had finally grown up, thanks to the competition from Europe as well as social and political pressure.

Manney took the GP up to past 110 mph, and noted that “directional stability was excellent and produced no white knuckles”. Top speed was calculated at 129 mph, but not observed.

Admittedly, braking was not stellar, in terms of some instability during panic stops from 80, but fade was minimal, and actual braking power substantially exceeded that of the four-wheel disc braked Espada, with a .81 G force in the stop from 80 compared to .75 for the Espada. The GP got a “good” rating for control, while the Espada only rated a “fair”.

Manney took the GP out on the road course, and “enjoyed myself tremendously…there is no bobbing, weaving, axle hop, sideways judder, or any other monkey business; you can forget the steering wheel to a great degree and push the machine in and out with great gobs of smooth power. Quel thrill.”

The summation: “…it is a very competent GT car for five people with only considerable weight and a few touches like tires standing between it and really high rank…It is a helluva better GT car than some celebrated ones I have driven.” (the Espada?)

So there it is; America’s true GT car. In celebrated company indeed.