Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest Pontiac of them all? Pontiac’s golden decade, starting in 1963, has plenty of contenders. The ’63 full-size Pontiacs, headed up by the mile-stone Grand Prix shocked and revolutionized the whole industry. Some love the swashbuckling and hippy ’65 GP, or the even the more voluptuous ’67. The midsized Le Mans and GTO has its fans, as does the ’71 Firebird . But the ’69 Grand Prix may well be the one, for sheer dramatic effect, proportions, and its more restrained size. Well, even if you don’t think the ’69 is the one (and I may be in your camp), I’m going to blow my horn and say that this photo is pretty fair. Does it remind you of something you’ve seen before? “It” was in the back of my mind when I was shooting this GP, but I was pleasantly surprised at how well I had remembered “it” when I got back home:
Like (almost) all of my CC, this was not a staged shot in any way. I was driving out West 11th, taking my daughter to Target in the late afternoon, when I saw the GP. I was pretty anxious about how low the sun was already, because I’ve had trouble with that before, especially with dark cars. But as I stood facing that six-foot long hood, and saw how the low light and shadows were playing in its folds, I suddenly saw a ’69 GP ad in my mind’s eve, the one you’re looking at here. It’s been forty one years since I saw it in Time or Life, but Pontiac’s ads rendered by the team of Art Fitzpatrick (the cars) and Van Kaufman (backgrounds) were the equivalent of Van Gogh or Vargas in my youth.
They perfectly capture the magical essence of Detroit’s golden years, and despite their corniness and slightly psychedelic quality (or because of it), they are my favorite and most deeply impressed-in-my-mind ads of that time. I’m going to do a separate post on their Pontiac work to follow this CC.
The ’69 GP was a major departure for Pontiac, since it had always been the standard bearer of the full-size line. This car sits on an extended 118′ wheelbase version of GM’s mid-size four-doors, which had an extra four inches over the coupes beginning with 1968. Pontiac’s decision to move the GP onto this platform was both brilliant and yet somehow disappointing.
Brilliant in that it anticipated the demise of the full size car, or at least their leading role as trend-setters and glamor-mobiles. Increasingly, full size cars became more sedan-focused, as the big coupes became irrelevant. Which makes sense, given how huge they were becoming, especially after 1971. Pontiac saw this in advance, and their move with the GP signaled a coming corporate-wide shift to “mid-sized” coupes as the standard-bearers and as the big sellers.
The disappointment with this move is easily explained: just look at the interior of this GP. It’s virtually indistinguishable from a pedestrian Le Mans coupe of the same vintage. The big, old GPs came with buckets, console and those magnificent chrome-plated altars of a dash. Well, those were all being sacrificed on the altar of bean-counting anyway, as our recent ’68 Buick Riviera CC showed all too clearly. The sixties marked a big shift by GM and the rest of the US industry in de-contenting luxury cars to keep their cost down and dramatically boost volume. In the process, they lost their exclusivity, and opened the doors for the imports. Buckets and console, along with pretty much all the other goodies, were on the long option list. The 428 HO would be a good one to check off.
The ’69 GP’s price and sales stats tells this tale: its starting price, $3,866 ($22,460, adjusted) is lower than the the inflation adjusted price of its full-size predecessor, but not by nearly as much as it was cheaper to build. Let’s not forget that this is a Le Mans coupe with rhinoplasty and a new C pillar. Sales exploded, to over 112k, four times its bloated ’67 predecessor. Profit margins undoubtedly increased by at least that amount too.
The ’69 GP’s use of the 116″ mid-size platform did come with a price: it had to share the body shell with Chevrolet, for their new Monte Carlo. Pontiac did get the first year for itself, as a reward for its efforts. But sales dipped in 1970 and for the rest of this body style through 1972, probably because of the MC.
Speaking of 1971, there are some who probably like the refreshed face of the ‘71 – ’72 GP even more than the original. With its single headlights and more “classic” grille, it unfortunately became the prototype for all those garish seventies “Super Fly” customs and pimp-mobiles, like the Bugazzi. That’s where this handsome coupe starts lose it for me; it and the Lincoln Mark III shared the same proportions and details that were too obvious retro with their exaggerated long hoods, classic grilles, vinyl tops, and other affectations. The 1963 Grand Prix was still a trail-blazer; the ’69 a follower stylistically, and a trend-setter for a garish decades of coupes to come.
This GP also makes an interesting contrast to the XJ-C coupe we did earlier this week. They both came out about the same time (the Jag’s sedan donor, that is), and are clearly contenders for the all-time coupe beauty sweepstakes. Me? I’ll take the Jag with the Grand Prix’ engine and electrical system. And a nice ’63 GP to keep it company. How about you?