Curbside Classics: 1965 Pontiac LeMans

Paul Niedermeyer
by Paul Niedermeyer
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.

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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?

  • Tassos In Japan any car the size of the Camry is very cumbersome and impractical.In the US those who buy the Camry, 99% of them don't give a rat's behind about driving enjoyment, they are not auto enthusiasts. I also recommend TOyotas to such people whenever they ask me, while I would absolutely never even consider one for me (except maybe a Lexus LS 600h when I turn 105 and probably have a chauffeur anyway)I find it an utterly ridiculous waste of billions of good $ to use the "camry" in any kind of racing, esp NASCAR.
  • BetterOne This was an abomination from the beginning. Glad it's finally dead.
  • Verbal Bring back the brick Cherokee.
  • G I predict the Lyric will be unpredented EV success surpassing the likes of @Tesla and @Ford Mustang Mach E.
  • Jcw65695474 The best tire I have owned in all my years of driving comes standard on the Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk, its Firestone destination A/T , I have had 3 New Cherokees 2014, 1017, 2020 I live in NL with lots of snow Neither vehicle ever had a single tire removed, except to rotate faithfully, when they were traded all tires looked brand new, (with 40 + thousand KM )