By on April 13, 2012

Here’s a Junkyard Find that really takes me back. My dad bought a Bonneville new in 1979, and it seemed like a very nice car when I was 13 years old. A few years later, I borrowed the Bonneville to take my date to the high-school prom (in spite of this being the early 1980s, I did not wear a robin’s-egg-blue tuxedo, though now I wish I had), and I felt classier than Frank Sinatra in a brand-new ’61 Imperial. A few years after that, I was given the now-quite-worn-out Bonneville to make the drive between the San Francisco Bay Area and my new home in Southern California… and it crapped out every 100 yards while trying to climb the Grapevine. So, mixed feelings when I saw this very similar ’81 Bonneville Brougham in a Denver self-service yard.
I’m not sure what luxury touches the Brougham option package got Bonneville buyers in 1981. Maybe just the Brougham emblems.
Perhaps the diamond-tucked velour upholstery was a Brougham-only option for ’81. Make sure your prom date doesn’t ralph up her Boone’s Farm on these impossible-to-clean seats!
I recall the Bonneville being a very smooth-riding, comfortable car. Quite underpowered with its 301-cubic-inch V8, and the electrical stuff started failing right away, but pretty decent by the low standards of the Middle Malaise Era.

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50 Comments on “Junkyard Find: 1981 Pontiac Bonneville Brougham...”


  • avatar
    fintail jim

    My father also purchased a new Bonneville Brougham (1978 model)which I also borrowed for nice dates. I graduated from high school in 1979. The 8 year old El Camino I was driving at the time just didn’t impress my young lady friends even here in Texas.

    The one difference between the ’79 you remember and Dad’s ’78 was his had the 400 cubic inch Pontiac engine with a 4 barrel carburetor. I cannot remember what the horsepower and torque ratings were. I know the Trans Am with the same engine but different heads was rated at something above 200 hp. Anyway, the Bonneville was no drag racer (it had a 2.41 rear end) but it would chirp the tires when going into second gear if you really got on it (and I did at every opportunity.

    Like the car your family had though, it was a wonderful Interstate cruiser. You could bury the needle on the 85mph speedometer and work a decent crossword puzzle before it moved off the peg. As I remember the car was thoroughly reliable too. Then again, Dad is a maintenance fanatic and seems to have a sixth sense about replacing or repairing things before the break.

  • avatar
    ponchoman49

    These were nice cars considering the time era they came from. I owned a similar 1981 blue sedan complete with fender skirts, small Pontiac supplied 4.3 liter 265 V8 with 2 BBL carb, base trim level split front seat, power everything, factory guages and clock, rally wheels and working A/C. I bought it from the original owner who was a pasteur from our local church and he took very good care of the car. It had no less than 135k miles with the original engine and he just had the Metric 200 transmission refreshed thankfully. The engine ran as smooth as glass, everything worked perfectly and the car glided down the road like a Cadillac. But it was as slow as death and couldn’t climb a hill more than 20 MPH! Thankfully my tech savvy uncle who used to own a service shop years prior came to my nieve 20 y/o lack of car knowledge rescue and adjusted the base timing which somehow was retarded by 5 degrees and also informed me that the cat converter was partially plugged. He knew all this simply by the sound of the car with the engine revving at 2k RPM’s. With these two problems fixed the little 4.3 liter engine came alive and was easily able to now keep up with traffic and climb a hill but was still hardly a ball of fire. I drove this car until it reached 200K and that damned motor just wouldn’t quit, alway started right up even in sub zero temps and got about 24 MPG on long highway trips.
    The engine in this junkyeard find is of course the Olds 307 4BBL which was teamed with the then new 200R-4 transmission. The Brougham trim level got the fancier pillow topped button encrusted seats, more sound deadener, more interior lighting, chime tones and thicker carpeting.

    • 0 avatar
      fintail jim

      So, ponchoman49, with a tag like that are you a Pontiac fan? There were at least 6 Pontiacs in my family from 1957 until 1989. The last Pontiac bought was my first new car a 1980 FWD Phoenix. Mine was more reliable and sturdy than most but I did trade it when it was only 5 years old with 75,000 miles for an Isuzu pickup.

      The car’s biggest problem was the CV joint boots giving out which resulted in the joint itself failing on two occasions. Also the metallic silver paint gave it up after only about 3 years and the plastic parts of the Carmine red interior turned it about 6 differnt shades about the same time. If I had a garage to keep the car in those two problems probably wouldn’t have been.

  • avatar
    VanillaDude

    Although the Carter Administration was coming to an end, the Malaise Era dragged onward into 1981. GM was enjoying a level of prosperity and popularity never seen since. (Perhaps being popular during the Malaise years is one of the reasons folk today who remember those times, often don’t like GM?)

    This wasn’t one of those reasons, however. By this year, GM had figured out how to enhance their seasoned body on framers, circa 1977 full sized cars. These were dull solid cars that only needed bordello interiors and jazzy paint themes to bring home the bacon. These were seats that were so deeply tufted and soft, you momentarily relived your time comfortably attached to your mother’s uterus. Remember, though, that this was GM – so, the committee that designed the seats, forgot to coordinate with the committee that designed the IP – so, if you got the wrong combo, you ended up with a steering wheel you couldn’t sit in front of, unless you tilted left, like Walter Mondale.

    Auto interiors still reflected the swag lifestyle of the Disco Era. Padded vinyl roofs, opera lights and hood ornaments were expected options. Pontiac, however, was to be the “sporty” GM division, right? So, what we see here is one of the top line cars that did not carry these options, popular on other 1981 GM full sizers. Yuppies were still yet to be, so the stylings of this age and within this class of vehicle, still reflected the desires of folks born before 1940.

    The market was hurting. The Industrial Age went into a full seizure myocardial infarction, and then a slow death spiral. The Pope was assassinated, but miraculously returned to life so he could take down the Kremlin. The President was assassinated, but miraculously returned to life so that he too, could take down the Kremlin. And sadly, GM launched the X Cars, which took them down like the Soviet Union, only a tad slower. John Paul and Reagan got their revenge by 1992, for the Chevy Citation, it took until 2009, (even as an assassin, the Citation sucked).

    For GM and the Soviets, 1981 was the beginning of the end. For Pontiac, anticipating some kind of Market shift – dropped this full sizer the following year, to lead towards that Malaise Era Dawn promised by the soon-to-be Ex-Presidente Carter, that is, dull small front wheel drive cars and gas prices of $4 a gallon – that is, if gas could be found in 1982. Washington, once again, ensured that by establishing the Department of Energy, that any Federal Energy policy was based on fear and loathing, not the actual science found in geology. Reagan was laughed at when he suggested lower pump prices. Oddly, these environmentalists and other assorted doomsayers are making these same claims today like Millerites predicting the Rapture in 1840, uh, 1841, they meant, 1843 – no, really, the end is coming – soon…

    The end only came for Bobby Sands in 1981 though, and instead of being shot by someone with connections to the KGB, he decided to stop eating. Hmmm, if the Soviets could have only convinced the Pope and Reagan to stop eating, then perhaps they could have lasted longer. The Soviet Rapture could have been delayed until, maybe 2001.

    If GM could have been convinced to not create X-Cars, then they could have prevented US auto buyers to do a Bobby Sands on them.

    By 1982, Pontiac realized they made a terrible Market mistake by listening to the doomsayers predicting the end of big cars. So, instead of this glorious bastard of a fine automobile, Pontiac hurriedly shipped in Canadian Caprices which up there, were called Parisiennes. The Bonneville ended up on a nasty front driver, where it languished for a decade or more while the model that it once was, was enthroned upon a car named to impress Quebec.

    This was a good car and it should have been continued right up until folks stopped buying it.

    • 0 avatar
      friedclams

      I, for one, love these wacky mashups of world and automotive history.

      I wouldn’t blame Carter for misleading GM into downsizing their cars to FWD platforms, though, as you imply. He cannot be blamed for a) GM’s inability to respond to market conditions in an agile manner, and b) GM’s inept execution of said downsizing.

      My parents had a ’79 Lesabre which I absolutely loved.

      • 0 avatar
        VanillaDude

        I certainly don’t blame Carter either. He was an excellent politician who recognized the blowback of high gas prices and a growing sense among the “educated” that we would soon run out of gas within the next decade. Being the “youth brand”, Pontiac shifted with this change and killed off their full sizer for no other reasons, than to focus on being the sporty small car division of GM. Carter is not to blame. While he served up the fine Malaise whine through his pouty trout lips and droopy attitude, Pontiac didn’t need to buy into it.

        But I kind of remember. Millions believed that Carter was right. I did too at that time. Geez, were we wrong, but then, I got my news through the mainstream channels like everyone else and this was the lies they were telling us. I just believed them.

      • 0 avatar

        Yeah but there was a lot of pressure to tighten CAFE standards in those days, and the price of gasoline didn’t really begin to fall until the downsized ’85-’86 GM FWDs were cast in stone.

        And until the repeal of the FCC Fairness Doctrine in 1986, the “mainstream channels” to which your refer were the only ones available to most Americans.

    • 0 avatar
      Detroit-X

      Nice. Vanilla Dude can certainly write a good story.

    • 0 avatar
      tonyola

      The 1983 Parisienne was actually based on the Impala, not Caprice. You can tell by the small, rectangular taillights as opposed to the big triple squares on the Caprice. The Impala remained in production in Canada after it was dropped in the US. For 1985, the Parisienne was given the rear fenders and taillights of the 1981 Bonneville.

      As for the FWD Bonnevilles, they were better cars than you might think, especially in the second and third generations. While GM quality was the usual 1980s-1990s crapshoot, the H-body Bonneville SSE and SSEi were quite roadable and also quite quick when equipped with a supercharged 3800. Sure, styling went overboard with too much gingerbread, but the last Bonnevilles were greatly cleaned up and were also available with a 275-hp V8.

    • 0 avatar
      dastanley

      So VanillaDude, when are you going to start writing your own articles and editorials for TTAC? You’re entertaining. You and Jack Baruth make TTAC interesting.

    • 0 avatar
      ajla

      I shouldn’t bother but…

      “The Bonneville ended up on a nasty front driver, where it languished for a decade or more while the model that it once was…”

      You are notably and COMPLETLEY wrong. The early H-body Bonneville is a fine vehicle. Other than towing and being a size queen, what does the Parisienne have over the FWD car? The one year it was offered with the decent Olds 307?

      I suppose you can make the argument that the Bonneville name should have stuck to a B-body and the FWD car should have been called Catalina, but the FWD H-body deserved to exist.

      You also skipped over the Quebec-built and RWD Bonneville G, that lasted from 1982-1986, which came between the B-body and H-body Bonnevilles.

      • 0 avatar
        VanillaDude

        The 1982-1986 Bonneville was a nasty front driver. It was a sales failure for Pontiac. They dumped this vehicle as their top line model for it. Within a year they had to fix their mistake. Their actions tell us more than their advertising.

      • 0 avatar
        ajla

        “The 1982-1986 Bonneville was a nasty front driver.”

        The ’77-’81 Bonneville was a RWD sedan, coupe, and wagon based off GM’s B-body platform. It is a good car.

        The ’82-’86 Bonneville was a smaller but still RWD sedan and wagon based off of GM’s G-body platform. It is generally not remembered fondly, but I have no personal experience with that generation.

        The ’87-’91 Bonneville was a FWD sedan based on the H-body platform. It is a good car.

      • 0 avatar
        tonyola

        Right. The 1982 Bonneville (officially called Bonneville G) was simply the previous year’s LeMans given a big-Pontiac-like front and rear facelift. The 1981 LeMans coupe wasn’t even carried over for 1982 – Pontiac felt the G-body Grand Prix had that adequately covered.

        I agree that the 1987-1991 FWD H-body Bonneville was a good car when properly optioned. It got even better in later generations.

      • 0 avatar
        chicagoland

        Vanailla, you don’t “know everything” as you assume. THere was NO FWD Bonneville for 1982-86!

    • 0 avatar
      gottacook

      Just to clear up what VD wrote: “…the Malaise Era dragged onward into 1981. [...] By this year, GM had figured out how to enhance their seasoned body on framers, circa 1977 full sized cars…” But the refreshed 1977-79 cars were the 1980-81 cars (in the case of the Bonneville, which became a redressed LeMans for ’82); the other GM marques kept their 1980-model-year refreshes through the 1980s (eventually including the Parisienne). That is to say, the refreshed cars were on sale in fall 1979.

    • 0 avatar
      tonycd

      Sorry to be so tragically unhip (although I wasn’t the first one to drag politics into this thread), but…

      Carter WAS right.

      He saw that America was surrendering its independence on the altar of Big Oil and proposed a huge national initiative — far more sweeping than putting us all in boring cars — to promote alternative energy with the goal of weaning us off foreign oil.

      That inititative being less profitable for the oil companies, it died the moment Reagan replaced Carter in office. The subsequent quarter-century was marked by ever-increasing dependence on said Middle Eastern potentates instead, climaxed after 2001 by our being sucked into suicidal Middle Eastern tribal feuds and two wars that eventually helped plunge us into an economic depression that started in 2008 and continues to this day.

      Had you noticed?

      • 0 avatar
        VanillaDude

        …to promote alternative energy with the goal of weaning us off foreign oil…

        He failed.

        George Donner had a goal of getting his family and friends to California. Too bad he failed as a leader, believed misinformation, refused to take good advice, and everyone who followed him ended up eating one another. Other than that, he had a good goal.

        Carter taught me that a president can’t be just “nice”. A president has to be good. There is only one job and you get one shot for a four year term. If is their job to do to a good job. Carter was one of those few presidents that should have been honest enough with us to have stepped down when it became so obvious he couldn’t do the job. He was nice, but he wasn’t good.

    • 0 avatar
      nickoo

      GM continued with the “let’s slightly misalign seat, wheel, and pedals” themed cars well into the early 90s. Probably the most annoying thing about driving a gm car back then.

  • avatar
    Roberto Esponja

    To the right of it, isn’t that a 1969 Chevrolet Biscayne/Bel Air/Impala of some sort?

    • 0 avatar
      MRF 95 T-Bird

      It sure is. Judging from the chrome moulding and window frame chrome it has to be either an Impala or Bel Air. My next door neighbor growing up had a blue 69 Impala sedan like this one. 307 V8 a/c etc. A fine family ride that they passed down to the kids when they moved up the GM market a few notches and bought a 75 Delta 88 4dr.

  • avatar
    Detroit-X

    Those puffy seats saved lives, decreasing the impact force as people pinballed around the interior during accidents.

  • avatar
    GS650G

    We build excitement….. Pontiac.
    Except when they didn’t. Pontiac was supposed to be a sporty division of GM, this badge engineered POS marks a true low point for them.

    • 0 avatar
      Detroit-X

      Yeah, or not. It certainly was entertaining to those of us who knew better. Or not.

    • 0 avatar
      YellowDuck

      Ha! I rmember a Pontiac print ad for an early 90s (?) Grand Am. “Pontiac, where performance is something that is built in, not painted on.” Problem being, the car in the picture with its goofy little wing, faux ground effects and sad little motor was a textbook example of the latter….

      • 0 avatar
        golden2husky

        Worse still was the ads in the early 80′s where Pontiac peddled “More Ponitac excitement to the Gallon” with a big MPG in the center of the ad with these words around it. Nadir, indeed.

    • 0 avatar
      Roberto Esponja

      To be fair, that slogan began to be used after this car was built, sometime in the mid 1980′s.

  • avatar
    red stick

    My father bought a 1978 Bonneville new with the 301 V8. I learned to drive in that car, and later used it for prom duty. It was a great highway car, but what I remember most three decades later is the leisurely acceleration–when passing you’d floor it while still directly behind the car in front, and by the time you pulled out to pass two to three seconds later the engine room actually began to respond to the call for more power. The 301 later threw a rod, and my father moved on to a series of Buicks.

    • 0 avatar
      dastanley

      My uncle had a 79 Bonneville with the same 301. In 1981, my cousin and I were out hooning on some back roads in Maryland. With that weak ass engine we couldn’t even break traction on a freakin gravel lot!

  • avatar
    redliner

    From someone who wasn’t even alive while this car was in production….

    What the heck is a “Radial Tuned Suspension”?

    • 0 avatar
      dastanley

      It was still possible to buy bias ply tires then, so that was a holdover from when radial tires were still somewhat of a novelty. Apparently the suspension was “tuned” to work optimally with radials.

  • avatar
    SteveMar

    I almost bought a ’79 coupe version of this car last year with the goal of restoring it. If it could have fit in my garage, I would have done it. It had the 301 V8 and, while having some surface rust that could easily be handled, was otherwise rock solid after 32+ years. Except for some dicey brakes, it rode and handled great. I forget the solidity of these cars.

    There have been many odes to the B-body cars on TTAC and other pages. They were some of GM’s best efforts at a time when resources were pretty scarce. There are still lots of Caprices on the road and a few Delta 88s and LeSabres. The Bonnevilles seem to be fading away, probably because of GM’s decision to stop production of the B-body version in 1982.

  • avatar
    olddavid

    Why the fu#* does politics always get introduced in an enthusiast site? Remnants of RF?

    • 0 avatar

      Politics has everything to do with the Detroit downsizing of the ’70′s and ’80′s.

      At the end of the Carter years, domestic energy policy – driven by a windfall profits tax on oil companies – kept prices artificially high, driving the demand for smaller, more fuel-efficient cars. Until the 1973 energy crisis, Detroit – and especially GM – was all about bigger and bigger vehicles. That energy crisis and the first environmental movement helped drive the first downsizing of vehicles in the late 70′s. It also drove emissions and gas mileage standards that defined the character of that generation of vehicles.

      It will be interesting, as cars once again become bloated, to see where the industry will head next. Where do safety standards and fuel economy/emissions standards clash? Is the V8 engine history?
      Have cars become so safe…that they’re not, because of the false sense of security into which the driver can be lured?

      Politics have been injected into the automotive world for 50 years or more in the US…longer in Europe and elsewhere.

      Bought a used car lately at an outrageous price? Cash for Clunkers and a terrible economy.

      Want the 556-HP Chevy Lumina (G8 size) they’ve sold in Saudi Arabia?
      Tighter CAFE standards pretty much ensure that won’t happen.

      Want a Volt or a Leaf? Tax credits make it more affordable.

      Although TTAC is not to be a political site…to deny the effect politics have had on the industry past and present. I guarantee you, then-GM Design head Bill Mitchell did not wake up one morning in 1974 and decide all by himself…”gee, our cars are too big, we need to make the next generation smaller”. It was anticipation of public demand – based on basically a doomsday scenario wrought by domestic policy and global events – that brought about that conclusion.

      I lived thru it.

      Finally, let us all remember one of the most beloved makes – Volkswagen – began as a German government program.

      • 0 avatar
        tonyola

        “Until the 1973 energy crisis, Detroit – and especially GM – was all about bigger and bigger vehicles.”

        GM’s downsizing plan for the big cars (Project 77) actually began in 1972 – well before Fuel Crisis I. GM realized that their 1971 big cars had reached their practical size limits – much larger and they would be too big for garages and parking spaces. GM also understood that all the upcoming legislation would add weight and cut power in their cars, so they decided to downsize to compensate. It would have been extremely difficult even for GM to design, engineer and productionize a completely new high-volume lineup in 2 1/2 years (end of 1973 to August 1976, when the ’77s were first being produced).

    • 0 avatar
      Geekcarlover

      I admit the political sniping can be a bit over the top here, cars and politics are closely linked here in America. (I am assuming you’re an American.)
      Go look at your car. Count up the number of parts/systems that are there or made the way they are because an engineer thought it would work best. Then count the number that are made to comply with a bureaucrat’s idea of “best”. If your car was built after the Johnson administration, that 2nd number is likely much higher.

      • 0 avatar
        golden2husky

        Or, look at how many are made the way they are because some tight-a$$ed beancounter decided that they needed more short term profit for themselves instead of designing and building a better part. There is no doubt that regulation drives much about a car’s construction and the early days most certainly did result in some driveability issues. But as time went on those regulations led to fuel injection, better brakes, real attention to safety, etc. left to the “market” we would likely still have carbs on American cars.

        Budda-Boom: CAFE does not preclude that high horsepower car at all. We do in fact have them. Look at the new Camaro, the CTS-V just to name a few. Does it mean that the vast majority of the fleet can’t weight 5000 pounds and return 12 MPG? Yes it does and I am grateful for that.

  • avatar
    peteo

    I owned a maroon 1978 Pontiac Bonneville from new. The only reason I bought it was because my 1977 Ford Thunderbird with only 1500 miles,started on fire while I was waiting in the drive thru line at a fast food joint.What a disaster. The Bonneville was a great car for interstate cruising. The 1981 Bonneville you feature looked familiar enough to bring back the memories of impossible to clean brothel red velor interior that felt a foot thick, to a padded for who knows what reason vinyl roof. After about 6 years and 100,000 miles, I sold it to an employee for 2200.00.After about 2 more years of seeing it come to work at my business,the turbo hydramatic 3 speed became a 2 speed and awhile later I never saw it again. Anyway it did what it was supposed to for many years while the passengers rode in complete comfort.

  • avatar
    Geekcarlover

    Someone has to point it out…
    Remember that clock above the steering column. It will be on the test later.

    • 0 avatar
      tonyola

      You could order a tach to take the place of the clock. Not only that, you could get full instruments (temp, volt, oil pressure) to replace the warning lights to the right.

      • 0 avatar
        fintail jim

        My father’s ’78 Bonneville Brougham had full instrumentation including a vacuum guage directly over the steering column. The digital clock (drum type not LED) was in the center of the dash.

        Pity for those who had the 301 V8. Like I wrote earlier, the 400 with the TH400 transmission had plenty of torque. It was probably the quickest GM B body of that year (never did get a chance to match it against a 403 Olds V8 which I believe may have been in some Delta 88s and LeSabres).

        My good friend in high school bought a ’79 Firebird with the 301 and automatic. It was a dog compared to my sisters ’78 Le Mans with a Chevy 305 (and that was no ball of fire itself). This friend’s dad also had a ’78 Bonneville Brougham (Pontiacs were popular in our neighborhood). My father’s was a white sedan with no vinyl top and the boredllo red interior (his was a custom order, by the way) and the neighbors was a black coupe with gold velour interior and a half vinyl roof. It also had the 400 cu. in. V8.

  • avatar

    Ooof. Those hubcaps…I remember from my tire-monkey days, once you pried them loose they had lots of little sharp edges to filet your fingers.

    Lacerations filled with road grime and brake dust. Greeeaaat.

  • avatar
    GoesLikeStink

    I think my family only bought trucks from GM. A 38 that I flew out of into an intersection on the way to kindergarten in 1970. No seatbelts and faulty door latches. (mom made him sell it shortly after. Then He got a 72 C10 350 3 on the floor with Granny gear and no power steering. I spent most of my childhood in the back of that truck. And later learned to drive in it. But as far as cars go were were (and I still am) Mopar people.

    As I typed this I remembered the 1 year old Vega dad got at the wrecker $700 and build it from parts there. Mom hated that car too.

    I recently had a 92 Bonneville $800 and it never gave me any grief for 2 years but was sooooooo boring that when the waterpump went I junked it.

  • avatar
    chicagoland

    This Bonneville shows that BOP were overlapping each other.

    Also, can’t blame Carter for all fuel efficiency laws. Nixon ordered the 55 mph speed limit, and Ford pushed CAFE.

  • avatar
    bill mcgee

    The old man purchased a Bonneville sedan when it bacame a downsized mid-size I believe in 1982 .He didn’t like it for some reason – might have been the v-6 which ran poorly and idled roughly . It was the first Bonneville he bought since a 1960 Bonnevile Safari but it no longer was any kind of luxury car as it had been then .When the Parisienne – believe that was just the same car as the previous full size Bonneville but built in Canada- came out he promptly traded the smaller Bonneville for one of those .

  • avatar
    angelo

    So you are aware, the engine in the Bonneville pictured is a Oldsmobile Diesel 350. The Pontiac 301 has a distinct profile, very similar to the bigger Pontiac V8′s, they share the same timing covers, valve covers, etc… The oil filling tube sticking high into the air is a dead give away you’re looking at an Oldsmobile engine.

    That Oldsmobile diesel V8 has it’s own sad story.


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