Curbside Classics: 1965 Pontiac LeMans

Paul Niedermeyer
by Paul Niedermeyer
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curbside classics 1965 pontiac lemans

Take a good long look at this handsome car. This beauty was one of the best in that beautiful decade of the sixties. Are you seeing its magnetic attraction yet? Well, this rough survivor might need a little help; try squinting a bit. I sure saw it when I was seventeen; I simply couldn’t keep my eyes off a black coupe exactly like this. And as a consequence, I learned a painful and lasting lesson. OK, you’d better stop looking and keep reading.

For 1965, the mid-sized LeMans was bequeathed the distinctive stacked headlights that were such a hit with the full-sized wide-tracks. The 1963 Grand Prix was one of Bill Mitchell’s masterpieces, and this LeMans is a virtual knock-off. No other GM division could equal Pontiac’s success in transferring their halo car’s styling across its whole line. Even the cheapest Tempest looked good; they all shared the clean lines and unadorned flanks of the GP. And there’s more than a touch of Riviera here too. The LeMans was truly the favored child in the GM mid-size gene pool.

And its parents were not disappointed. The 1965 LeMans handily outsold its corporate mid-size siblings. And that’s where the competition mostly ended. Does anyone even remember the forgettable 1965 Fairlane coupe? GM utterly dominated the mid-sized sector, which helped propel GM to a 50+% market share and its largest profit to date, a handy $1.7 billion ($11.5 billion adjusted). Yes, the mid-sixties were GM’s final golden years. Market share and profits would never again be replicated. And its cars would never again look so good, like this LeMans, glowing with self-confidence and understated elegance.

Like most non-GTO LeMans, this one sports the ubiquitous 326 cubic inch V8. A small-bore version of the Goat’s 389, either 250 or 285 horsepower were on tap, depending on whether a two-barrel or four-barrel carb was on (non-super) duty. Despite its two-speed Powerglide, the un-GTO was reasonably brisk. The LeMans was the perfect date car and a great Saturday night cruiser, as long as you resisted stoplight drags. That’s what the real GTO was for.

Pontiac moved almost 200,000 LeMans/GTOs in 1965. The following years saw even bigger numbers, but by 1970, the party was over. Just like the excitement decade of the sixties flamed out, so did Pontiac’s glorious ten-year run in the number three spot. Why? John Z. DeLorean, Pontiac’s dynamic General Manager during the sixties moved on to Chevrolet, and . . . cocaine. Pontiac styling became fat and blobby, as did the cars themselves. Performance had defined Pontiac in the sixties but that orgy crashed. By the early seventies, Americans were looking either for the (faux) trappings of luxury, or heading down that other cultural divide of imports, especially those from Japan and Germany.

Those that stayed true to GM mid-size coupes found their landau-roofed object of desire in the Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme Brougham Coupe. The baton was handed off, and the over-named Olds ran right to the very top of the sales charts, for a number of years, too. Oldsmobile became the new Pontiac (at least in sales).

In image, BMW became the new Pontiac. It’s not a coincidence that just as Pontiac was diving into the horrors of its mid-seventies dark night of the bloated (Grand Am) soul, the new BMW 320i became the . . . LeMans. Handsome, cleanly styled, fun(ner) to drive, and, once again, the perfect date car. And just like the LeMans, the 98 hp 320i wasn’t really fast. But it was the thing to be seen in as the 3-Series still is today.

In high school, I had a weekend job at a small corner gas station. A kid my age who knew the owner dropped by regularly at the end of the day, sometimes to help out, but mostly to minister to his shiny black ’65 LeMans coupe. He’d change the oil and primp his beloved ride. And he always gave me a ride home or we’d go cruising. All the while, my jealous eyes were magnetically glued to the Pontiac.

In between my endless covetous leers, I vaguely noticed that he always wore a jacket, even in Baltimore’s sweltering summer heat. One day I suddenly realized he was working with one hand in his jacket pocket. With the thoughtlessness that seventeen-year olds are notorious for, I loudly berated him for his laziness in using only one hand. He gave me a hurt-puppy look but said nothing.

Later, the owner told me that the kid had blown his hand off playing with fireworks. I felt like a total idiot. After all these months I hadn’t even noticed. Yet I was intimate with every detail, nook and cranny of his beautiful LeMans. It was a painful lesson I had to relive every Saturday after work as I trudged home—the rides had ended.

Paul Niedermeyer
Paul Niedermeyer

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  • Ponchoman49 Ponchoman49 on Apr 06, 2009

    The good 'ol days. cars had real style back then and were a piece of cake to work on and tweak. You could actually tell them apart too. I remember as a kid being able to tell most every make model and year apart, even at night. Today thats nearly impossible. There are only 3 cars made now that even stir my soul the way these old 60's and early 70's machines did: the Mustang, Camaro and Challenger. With a few notable exceptions, most everything else is a forgettable appliance to get from point A to point B.

  • Reo Durant Reo Durant on Apr 13, 2010

    A well rounded and diverse manufacturing base is critical to America and its ability to defend itself. The giant Trojan horse (it is golden and beautiful) is at the gate, perhaps in our midst already! Do we bow down and worship at the alter of greed? My fellow countrymen we can, we must, and we will build the better mousetrap! Henry Ford warmed our hearts and homes with the common mans V8 in 1932. Studebaker was ahead of its time with the bullet nose (Tucker saw it and stole it)post WW2. Cadillacs looked like they could fly in 1959. Fords, Dodges and Pontiacs COULD fly in 1969. Then somehow we lost our way. Is it the kef? Is our faith no more? I propose to you my fellow Americans, a million mile platform, or how about a lithium ion hybrid that "plugs into" and lights the home?. Something must be done, can we agree upon this one small thing?

  • Carsofchaos The bike lanes aren't even close to carrying "more than the car lanes replaced". You clearly don't drive in Midtown Manhattan on a daily like I do.
  • Carsofchaos The problem with congestion, dear friends, is not the cars per se. I drive into the city daily and the problem is this:Your average street in the area used to be 4 lanes. Now it is a bus lane, a bike lane (now you're down to two lanes), then you have delivery trucks double parking, along with the Uber and Lyft drivers also double parking. So your 4 lane avenue is now a 1.5 lane avenue. Do you now see the problem? Congestion pricing will fix none of these things....what it WILL do is fund persion plans.
  • FreedMike Many F150s I encounter are autonomously driven...and by that I mean they're driving themselves because the dips**ts at the wheel are paying attention to everything else but the road.
  • Tassos A "small car", TIM????????????This is the GLE. Have you even ever SEEN the huge thing at a dealer's??? NOT even the GLC,and Merc has TWO classes even SMALLER than the C (The A and the B, you guessed it? You must be a GENIUS!).THe E is a "MIDSIZED" crossover, NOT A SMALL ONE BY ANY STRETCH OF THE IMAGINATION, oh CLUELESS one.I AM SICK AND TIRED OF THE NONSENSE you post here every god damned day.And I BET you will never even CORRECT your NONSENSE, much less APOLOGIZE for your cluelessness and unprofessionalism.
  • Stuki Moi "How do you take a small crossover and make it better?Slap the AMG badge on it and give it the AMG treatment."No, you don't.In fact, that is specifically what you do NOT do.Huge, frail wheels, and postage stamp sidewalls, do nothing but make overly tall cuvs tramline and judder. And render them even less useful across the few surfaces where they could conceivably have an advantage over more properly dimensioned cars. And: Small cuvs have pitiful enough fuel range as it is, even with more sensible engines.Instead, to make a small CUV better, you 1)make it a lower slung wagon. And only then give it the AMG treatment. AMG'ing, makes sense for the E class. And these days with larger cars, even the C class. For the S class, it never made sense, aside from the sheer aural visceralness of the last NA V8. The E-class is the center of AMG. Even the C-class, rarely touches the M3.Or 2) You give it the Raptor/Baja treatment. Massive, hypersophisticated suspension travel allowing landing meaningful jumps. As well as driving up and down wide enough stairs if desired. That's a kind of driving for which a taller stance, and IFS/IRS, makes sense.Attempting to turn a CUV into some sort of a laptime wonder, makes about as much sense as putting an America's Cup rig atop a ten deck cruiseship.