"Occasionally," boasted the 1969 Pontiac sales brochure, "an automobile comes along that takes all the high-flown adjectives some people bandy about and turns them into drivel. You're looking at one." And the car in question backed it up, surpassing the standard set by the 1962-1968 Grand Prix.
The 1969 Grand Prix, seen in its clay model origins,
would be styled completely different than the 1968.
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By and large, even the automotive press agreed with Pontiac's assessment of the 1969 model. Motor Trend called the all-new Grand Prix a "new breed of luxury supercar." Henry N. Manney, writing in Road & Track, observed that "The longer we drove it, the better we liked it." Tom McCahill, dean of American automotive writers, called it "the glamour barge of the season," and few would argue the point. Car Life named it "the best-engineered 1969 American car," in part, perhaps, because a long list of options enabled it to be very nearly "all things to all people."
Pontiac authority Tom Bonsall said it was "more than highly successful, it was influential." Which it surely was! And Pontiac itself was soon bragging that "automotive critics hailed our luxury/sport as the new classic car." The sales charts, however, spoke loudest of all, showing a 255 percent production increase over its 1968 counterpart.
As a matter of fact, the Grand Prix had carried an aura of glamour from its very beginning in 1962. Here's the story. The phenomenal success of the first four-passenger Thunderbird, back in 1958, had forced GM design staff stylists to hustle. They did, the result being the stunning new "personal-luxury" coupe that eventually became the 1963 Buick Riviera. Only it wasn't a Buick at first -- it was a corporate product, or at least a corporate concept. The design was up for grabs, and the Buick, Olds, and Pontiac divisions all competed for it.
Semon S. "Bunkie" Knudsen, Pontiac's general manager since 1956, was astute enough to realize that Pontiac's chances of winning this contest lay somewhere between slim and none, and for two reasons. First: Of the three marques, Buick's sales had plummeted 67 percent over the previous three years, so the Flint division desperately needed help. Second: GM president Harlow H. "Red" Curtice, though on the verge of retirement by 1958, still wielded a major voice in corporate affairs. And Curtice, who had been president of Buick Division for 15 years before moving up the corporate ladder, had never bothered to disguise the preferential treatment he accorded to his old division.
So Knudsen, who very much wanted a high-styled model for Pontiac, came up with an alternative strategy. Two of them, in fact. His first idea was to develop a parallel program at his Pontiac Division, but corporate brass shot that one down. Predictable perhaps, but nobody could protest Knudsen's next proposal, which was simply to glamorize one of the standard production Pontiac hardtops.
Another clay model shows the 1969 Grand Prix in profile.
Focusing on the Catalina Sport Coupe, without changing any sheetmetal, Pontiac staff fitted that first Grand Prix with a unique grille and taillights, downplayed the exterior brightwork, trimmed the interior to top-of-the-line Bonneville standards, and added bucket seats and a console. Nor was performance neglected, for the 1962 Grand Prix was powered by a 303-horsepower 389 V-8, with options running as high as a 348-horsepower Tri-Power (triplecarb) 389. Dual exhausts and full instrumentation, including tach, were standard.
Pontiac aficionados may recall that it was 1962 when, for the first time, Pontiac ranked as the industry's Number Three nameplate. Grand Prix sales reached 30,195 units, nearly six percent of the division's total that season -- not bad, for a car that cost 22 percent more than the Catalina on which it was based.
But that was only the beginning, because an even more glamorous and unique version was offered the next year. As Bonsall has commented: "If the 1962 Grand Prix had been good looking, the 1963 edition was an absolute knockout. ... In fact, the 1963 was so memorable that many believe it was the first Grand Prix." Featuring stacked quad headlamps, it also sported a concave rear window, exterior sheetmetal almost completely devoid of chrome trim, taillamps hidden behind miniature grids, and a new grille that emphasized "negative space." Predictably, sales showed a big increase, 142 percent, to 72,959 units.
Fresh but less distinctive styling marked the 1965-1966 Grand Prix, and for 1967 the line was broadened to include -- for this one year only -- a convertible. A wasp-waisted profile highlighted all full-sized Pontiacs that season, and on the Grand Prix headlamps were hidden behind doors in the grille. A small increase in the bore raised the engine's displacement from 389 to 400 cubic inches and standard horsepower to 350, from 325 / 333 in 1966. Pontiac sales dipped slightly that year, after five straight years of gains, but the Grand Prix's share of the division's output rose from 4.4 to 5.3 percent.
The 1968 Grand Prix is perhaps best forgotten. Even Bill Collins, assistant chief engineer in charge of the body engineering group, said that "Our '68 Grand Prix was a disaster. Nobody bought it. It looked like a big fat turkey. ..." That comment explained why sales declined to 31,711 units -- just 3.5 percent of Pontiac's total, an all-time low.
This might well have sunk the Grand Prix, had it not been for John Z. DeLorean, Pontiac's general manager since 1965. Picking up on an idea that had first been floated in 1967 by Ben Harrison, then in charge of the engineering department's special projects, DeLorean proposed a completely different Grand Prix, based on the A-bodied Le Mans coupe.
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