The cars we loved.
The late 70s was something of a golden age for the personal luxury coupe. The Ford Thunderbird, Buick Riviera and Oldsmobile Tornado were attracting buyers who did not want the juvenile charms of the typical muscle car, but were not ready to settle for a sedate family sedan. When Pontiac decided that it needed to do something to resurrect sales of it’s personal luxury coupe the Gran Prix (GP), it turned to John Z DeLorean who was the general manager of Pontiac in the late 60s.
DeLorean’s ideal of moving the GP from a full size chassis to a stretched intermediate one was in keeping with the muscle car theme already well-established with the A-body GTO. For the Grand Prix the stretched platform (now called G-Body) allowed the hood to be extra long, the longest ever of any Pontiac at the time. The regal proportions gave the GP the look of an upscale car without costing anything more in development costs. The GP is today considered one of the first examples of a successful downsizing of an American car, as the practice which became more common in the years following the first gen Grand Prix typically did not produce successful results.
While the Grand Prix’s shape was concurrent with many of GM’s new “Coke body” designs, the GP would get much of its inspiration from classic cars from the past. The long hood, big round headlights divided by a narrow vertical grille invoked the Stutz Bearcat or Dusenbergs of the 1930s . Pontiac even went so as to use Dusenberg model designations for the two trim lines of the Grand Prix; J and SJ.
Offered only as a two door hardtop, the second generation GP would undergo one front and rear redesign in the course of its production. The quad headlamp arrangement gave way to a simplified two light arrangement in 1970. The rear got an equally dramatic makeover with the trunk and bumper mirroring the pointed theme of the hood. Unlike many other personal luxury cars of the day, the Grand Prix was as elegant looking as it was fast and powerful. It became known as the “Eldorado for the masses” due to its deft combination of style and performance for thousands less.
It’s muscle car roots were never far away as the Grand Prix was only available with some form of V8. There were three available over the course of the second generation. The most powerful being a 423-cid V8 with 390 hp in the JS models. Even the standard 400-cid equipped J models with the typical 3 speed Turbo-Hydromatic transmission were capable of sub 8 second 0 to 60 runs. By 1970 a 455-cid V8 replaced the 423. While less powerful, it was the largest engine ever put into a Pontiac (take that Trans-Am!).
The ultimate in Grand Prix performance came from a special edition Hurst tuned car called the Hurst SSJ Grand Prix or simply the “Hurst SSJ”. The SSJ started out as a J model and for less than $1,200, you could have a base Hurst car. It came with a list of appearance items that gave the GP a distinctive two-tone paint scheme (gold/white or black/gold with a very rare green/gold). Some of the options included a phone, TV and digital computer that displayed mileage and distance information. The price could more than double if all the options were selected., The SSJ could be ordered with the largest of all Grand Prix engines, a 455-cid (7.5 liter) V8 with 390 hp when money was not an issue.
The Hurst cars were produced from 1970 to 1972 and remains the rarest and most collectible of all Grand Prix with only 486 built. Oddly enough, Pontiac did little if any promotion, forcing dealers to do their own. The performance billing of the GP meant that there were a higher percentage of them with manual transmissions than most of its competitors. A 3-speed manual was standard in most engines, while the higher powered 428-cid had a 4-speed attached to it. Only 676 428/4-speeds manual combo cars were sold and all of them in 1969. Initial sales were the strongest as each year after 1969 was like a roller coaster. With the new Firebird, Pontiac had two innovative new car designs as the 70s began.
The innovations did not stop with the exterior of the Grand Prix. Inside careful attention was paid to making the Grand Prix luxurious with the feel of a true Grand Tourer. The dash was a wrap around design called “Command Seat”, because it made it easy for the driver to see and access all the controls. A similar design would appear in the Buick Rivera a few years later, but otherwise it was rare for an American car of the 60s.
The Grand Prix had proven itself successful, prompting GM to release platform mates from Chevrolet (Monte Carlo) and Oldsmobile (Cutlas Supreme). Eventually sales would taper off as the lower priced Monte Carlo and Cutlass Supreme would dominate the platform. The G-Body onslaught lead by the Grand Prix had created a new sub niche called intermediate personal luxury that caused the competition to scramble desperately to keep up. Things were going so well for a little while that Pontiac could afford to entertain whimsical ideals for the future, like a steam-powered Grand Prix concept in 1969. Needless to say that was not how Pontiac would tackle the challenges to come with emissions and fuel economy mandates.
By the time the second generation Grand Prix appeared in 1973, it had become heavier and had lost some of its edge, in part to safety and emissions mandates. The crisp formal elegance of the second generation and had given way to the new “Colonnade” styling that was all the rage during the first half of the 1970s. While sales were went on to new heights, despite considerably stiffer competition.