1957-1987 Pontiac Bonneville

The price of the 1968 Bonneville convertible rose to $3,800. See more classic car pictures.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Celebrating 30 years of production Pontiacs named for the place that put speed on the map, here is the story of the 1957-1987 Pontiac Bonneville, from a flashy 1950s flyer to the latest in 1980s excitement.

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In northeastern Utah, just east of Wendover, lies a 100-square-mile stretch of barren flatland, part of the Great Salt Lake Desert. It's called Bonneville. And ever since Sir Malcolm Campbell's "Bluebird" land speed record car hotfooted across it to crack the 300-mile-an-hour barrier, that name has been synonymous with speed.

Pretty good name for an automobile, especially if you're an automaker striving to establish a performance image. That was exactly the problem facing Pontiac in 1954, when it first latched onto the Bonneville tag. And if its claim was somewhat dubious, at least Eddie Miller had driven a Pontiac-powered lakester there back in 1950.

Pontiac was sixth in industry sales at the time, far behind sister General Motors divisions Buick and Oldsmobile as well as the "low-price three." Though solid value for the money, the cars with the Indian head mascot had fallen behind the times.

For example, Pontiac was still saddled with a side-valve straight eight in 1954, a dubious honor shared only with Packard that year. Worse, the make had become associated with the Social Security set at a time when younger buyers -- the GIs of World War II -- were starting to be a major market influence.

Semon Emil "Bunkie" Knudsen, who became Pontiac's general manager on July 1,1956, accurately summed up the situation with a pithy, now-famous observation: "You can sell an old man a young man's car, but you can never sell a young man an old man's car."

Downsizing the Pontiac helped boost sales of the 1977 Bonneville coupe.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

That realization had evidently dawned on division management even before Knudsen arrived, because a series of youthful Motorama specials appeared under the Pontiac banner beginning in 1953. First came the Parisienne, a cut-down 1953 Chieftain Catalina hardtop with landau-style half-roof and fashionable wrapped windshield.

The following year brought the jet-like Strato-Streak, a pillarless hardtop sedan with center-opening doors in the image of certain Lancia models. It also had swiveling front seats, a gimmick Chrysler picked up for some of its 1959 production cars.

Pontiac's 1955 showmobile was the glassy Strato-Star, a two-door with ultra-thin pillars, huge scalloped front fender openings, and little "flippers" cut into the roof to ease entry/exit. Wildest of all was the 1956 Club de Mer, an ultra-low two-seater with a "double-bubble" windshield that made it look like it had been built for the Indy 500.

See the next page to read about the first Bonneville, a 1954 Pontiac show car.

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1954 Bonneville Special

Pontiac's most significant 1950s show car was the 1954 Bonneville Special, the first Pontiac to honor the famed salt flats. General Motors was turning out two-seat design studies like crazy, and one of them, the Corvette roadster, even made it to the showrooms as a limited-production image leader for Chevrolet. Apparently conceived as a follow-up, the Bonneville Special also carried fiberglass bodywork but had a fixed canopy of clear Plexiglas, with "gullwing" sections to supplement the two conventional front-hinged doors.

Wheelbase was 100 inches, about the same as Corvette's and two feet shorter than that of Pontiac's new top-line Star Chief. Overall length was 158.3 inches, height just 48.5 inches. Twin hood air scoops took care of ventilation, while the bucket-seat cockpit featured a black-lighted dash with tachometer, fuel pressure, and oil temperature gauges in addition to the usual instruments.

Wheels wore brushed-aluminum discs, with chrome knock-off hubs and little fins echoing turbine impeller blades. Appearance was marked by a blunt front with a low-set rectangular air intake, Corvette-like nerf bumpers, and bulged fender tops that created a "dumbbell" lower-body profile. Exterior finish was red metallic, complemented by red leather upholstery inside.

Under the hood of this head-turner was an anachronism: Pontiac's familiar flathead straight eight. Jazzed up, with four carburetors and other assorted performance modifications, it was the same basic engine that had been powering Pontiacs for the past 21 years. In such a futuristic machine, it was decidedly out of place.

The Bonneville Special was seen at all major auto shows. Said then-division chief Robert M. Critchfield: "We are proud to present this special car not as an example of what the public might expect to see in our dealer's showrooms next year, but as an example of advanced thinking by Pontiac's designers and engineers." High-sounding words, but the division would need more than a flashy one-off to transform its stodgy image.

From its beginnings in 1926, Pontiac had been positioned an easy step above Chevrolet. In the General Motors scheme of things, you "graduated" from Chevrolet to Pontiac as your fortunes improved. Then, if fate was kind, you continued on up to Oldsmobile, Buick, and ultimately Cadillac. This "ladder" concept, the brainchild of General Motors' renowned former chairman Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., worked very well for a number of years.

But as Chevrolet grew in size, power, and prestige value, Pontiac's alleged advantage began to diminish. By 1953 its cheapest four-door, the six-cylinder Chieftain Special, cost $141 more than Chevrolet's top-line Bel Air equivalent, a big difference. True, the Pontiac outweighed its cousin by a hundred pounds, rode a seven-inch longer wheelbase, and had seven more horsepower, but it was comparatively spartan and thus seemed more like a step down than a step up.

Buick was prospering mightily in those days, Oldsmobile was coming up fast, and Mercury was gaining sales too. Given the rough-and-tumble competition in the low-price field, it was only logical that Pontiac would introduce a larger, more expensive series to capture a share of the rapidly expanding medium-price market.

Thus was born the 1954 Star Chief . Two inches longer in wheelbase than the Chieftains -- 124 versus 122 -- it was 11 inches longer overall and around $250 costlier than the Buick Special. Beautifully finished, the new premium line accounted for 40 percent of division sales in its inaugural season. But those came mainly from Pontiac loyalists, not "conquest" customers. And while Buick and Oldsmobile scored substantial gains that year (the latter 36 percent), Pontiac was off by more than 43,000 cars.

To follow the Pontiac story into 1955 and 1956, continue to the next page.

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1955 and 1956 Pontiac

This 1964 Bonneville-based show convertible was dubbed Club de Mer, recalling the 1956 Pontiac two-seat experimental.
This 1964 Bonneville-based show convertible was dubbed Club de Mer, recalling the 1956 Pontiac two-seat experimental.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Despite fresh styling and an excellent new V-8 for record-setting 1955 and 1956 Pontiac, the make couldn't budge from number six, though 1958 sales increased significantly to narrow the gap with Oldsmobile somewhat. The story was much the same for 1956, but volume was much lower in that year's industry-wide retreat, even though Pontiac boasted a bigger and brawnier V-8, four-door hardtops and more flash.

Then Bunkie Knudsen took charge. "We had to get rid of that 'Indian concept,'" he recalled in 1978. "No reflection on the American Indian, but old Chief Pontiac had been associated in the public mind with a prosaic family toting sedan from the time Pontiacs were first built ... I couldn't do much about 1957 styling. That had long since been locked up. [But] I did manage to get rid of those Silver Streaks on the hood. They looked like a pair of suspenders!"

Which, of course, tended to reinforce the very image he wanted to change. The irony was -- as every car buff must know by now -- that said trim was first applied by his father, the legendary William S. "Big Bill" Knudsen, back in 1935. (Though the rumor that Bunkie personally unbolted the streaks from the production prototype is untrue, his order did require a last-minute tooling change.)

But Bunkie wanted something more. A high-performance convertible with smart styling touches and some special feature to establish Pontiac as an engineering leader would help shake off the "Grandma" aura. The result was the first production Bonneville.

And limited production it was. Part of the game plan was to build only 630 examples, less than a fifth of one percent of the division's total output for the 1957 model year. This, then, was a car to be coveted. In fact, the Bonneville was supposedly intended for dealer use only, though it isn't difficult to imagine how long that notion lasted.

Not that it mattered much. At $5,782, the plushest, most powerful Pontiac in history was one expensive automobile. And though that figure is mere chicken feed now, consider that, for the same money, you could have had a Pontiac Chieftain hardtop coupe and a Buick Special convertible -- with $266 to spare!

For more on the 1957 Pontiac Bonneville, continue to the next page.

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1957 Pontiac Bonneville

The first production Bonneville bowed in early 1957 as this Star Chief-based convertible, the most sporting Pontiac in history.
The first production Bonneville bowed in early 1957 as this Star Chief-based convertible, the most sporting Pontiac in history.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

With such minuscule production, the 1957 Pontiac Bonneville could never make money. But it was never intended to. This was an image-builder. In Pontiac: The Postwar Years, authors Jim Dunne and Jan Norbye accurately describe it as "Pontiac's first attempt [at] a car for a small but glamorous market segment, a direct competitor for the letter-series Chrysler 300 and DeSoto Golden Adventurer."

It certainly looked the part. Built on the Star Chief's 124-inch wheelbase and offered only as a ragtop, the 1957 Bonneville wore whitewall tires with triple-spoke "spinner" wheel covers, plus anodized-aluminum gravel guards along the lower rear fenders and a big chrome bullet within the rocket-shaped bodyside molding that came with this year's restyle of the 1955-1956 bodyshell.

Standard equipment was impressive: "Strato-Flight" Hydra-Matic transmission, power steering and brakes, heater/defroster, light package, "Wonderbar" signal-seeking radio with electric antenna, plus eight-way power seat, power windows, power top, and other amenities. Trim, of course, was Pontiac's best, including leather upholstery and deluxe carpeting.

But what really set the Bonneville apart was a larger V-8 with Rochester fuel injection, a pet project of new division chief engineer Elliot M. "Pete" Estes. ("Fuel injection" was written in large chrome letters on the deck and front fenders, underlining the importance attached to this feature; oddly though, the Bonneville bore no Pontiac nameplate!)

Having progressed through 316.6 cubic inches for 1956, the Pontiac V-8 was stroked to 347 cubic inches (bore and stroke: 3.94 × 3.25 inches) for all models except the new hot one, which got a bore job (to 4.06 inches) for 370 cubic inches.

The 1957 Bonneville's fuel injection was a mechanical, continuous-flow type conceived by General Motors Engineering and engineered for production by Harry Barr and Corvette wizard Zora Arkus-Duntov. It was similar to that year's "Ramjet" system introduced at Chevrolet, with fuel and air meters on a special manifold instead of the normal carburetor and intake manifold.

Both squirted precise amounts of fuel directly into each port, but the Pontiac system was tidier, with a cast manifold header, combined (instead of separate) manifold heater and pipes, and a lower-mount fuel meter.

See the next page for more features of the 1957 Pontiac Bonneville.

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Features of the 1957 Pontiac Bonneville

A new, top of the line 1957 Bonneville cost a hefty $5,782.
A new, top of the line 1957 Bonneville cost a hefty $5,782.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

One of the main features of the 1957 Pontiac Bonneville was its power. Pontiac's air pipes were longer (close to 12 inches), ostensibly for better "ram effect" at high rpm. Division press blurbs stated that the fuelie gave "maximum economy and performance in the normal driving range." In other words, it was designed more for maximum low- and mid-range torque than top-end power.

Pontiac was initially quite coy on the subject, implying, as Dunne and Norbye quote, "that there is so much power it really cannot be talked about openly." But eventually the division got down to cases, stating output as 310 horsepower gross at 4,800 rpm and 400 pounds-feet torque at 3,400.

Still, one of the light 1957 Chieftains with Pontiac's triple-two-barrel "Tri-Power" carburetion could beat the fuelie by more than a second in the quarter-mile, though the Bonneville's status as the heaviest model in the line -- a substantial 4,285 pounds at the curb -- had something to do with that.

Curiously, the injected car was allegedly thriftier than any carbureted Pontiac but, at 1957 gas prices, you'd need at least a lifetime to recoup the fuelie's extra cost. Magazine types averaged 17-18 miles per gallon, way under the 20.4 mpg achieved by Pontiac's "official" entry in the Mobil Economy Run, but not bad all things considered.

And so was the performance, even if it was inferior to the Tri-Power Chieftain's. Motor Trend magazine observed that "the Bonneville needed a consistent 18 seconds" in the quarter-mile, then reluctantly concluded that "so far, the present production of FI does not substantiate implications that bolt-on fuel injection alone is responsible for substantially improved acceleration."

Pontiac likely didn't care. Knudsen said the Bonneville was "the car I was counting on to bring the new message to the public. And it did. I remember sitting in the grandstand at Daytona with my wife, watching it at its first race. Somebody in the stands shouted, 'Look what's happened to Grandma!'"

That was in February 1957, when the Bonneville hit the showrooms. Two months later, the Automobile Manufacturers Association issued its famous "ban" on factory-sponsored racing and performance promotion. Pontiac went underground, along with its sister General Motors divisions, while Ford and Chrysler temporarily withdrew. But it didn't matter. The first production Bonneville had done its job.

To follow the story with the 1958 Pontiac Bonneville, continue to the next page.

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1958 Pontiac Bonneville

A hardtop joined the Bonneville convertible for 1958, and shared a one-year-only design with other Pontiacs.
A hardtop joined the Bonneville convertible for 1958, and shared a one-year-only design with other Pontiacs.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Hopes were high for the 1958 Pontiac Bonneville, and Motor Life predicted that “Pontiac [will have] the necessary appeal to win back some of the sales [it] lost last year.” The changes were indeed major. No longer billed as limited-production, the Bonneville convertible gained a hardtop Sport Coupe running mate to become a separate, top-line series. Moreover, all 1958 Pontiacs were new from the ground up, with completely restyled bodyshells on a Cadillac-inspired cruciform (X-member) frame.

Greater rigidity was claimed for the new backbone, which Pontiac would retain through 1960, and it facilitated the use of coils instead of semi-elliptic leaf springs at the rear for a better ride. (It also afforded precious little protection in a side impact.)

Wheelbases and the twin-A-arm/coil-spring front suspension stayed the same, but Bonneville was put on the shorter Chieftain platform in the interest of better handling. Though trim remained top grade, most of the 1957 Bonneville’s lavish equipment now appeared on the option sheet, cutting 1958 base price by some $2,300.

The year’s most fascinating new feature was optional “Ever-Level” air suspension, modeled after Cadillac’s system on the 1957 Eldorado Brougham and offered across the board at $175. However, orders were few at that price, and the setup proved so troublesome that Pontiac gave up on it after only a year, about as quickly as other makes gave up on their equally problem-plagued systems.

With performance a major thrust, all 1958 Pontiacs got the 370 V-8, now called “Tempest” and offered in six different versions. Most Bonnevilles packed the single-four-barrel unit, with 10:1 compression and 285 horsepower with Hydra-Matic.

Fuel injection was still available -- and still troublesome -- and a formidable $500 asking price discouraged all but 400 buyers before the system was canned during the year. So the 300-horsepower Tri-Power engine remained the darling of the leadfoot crowd -- and a performance bargain at just $93.50.

Styling of the 1958 Bonneville was more like that of lesser Pontiacs and not bad for the day, but not up to its 'New Direction' label.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Motor Trend timed one at a creditable 8.2 seconds in the 0-60 mph sprint and 18.8 seconds at 88 mph in the standing quarter-mile. Mechanix lllustrated’s Tom McCahill hit 125 mph with a 285-horsepower car, moving him to exclaim: “The 1958 Pontiacs are hotter than a blowtorch.”

They should have been slower: four inches longer, two inches wider, and some 100-200 pounds heavier than the 1957s. This was dictated in part by the “New Direction” styling, which still wasn’t the best -- though it could have been much worse. Yet even the Bonneville, the most sparkling of the line, doesn’t look too bad now next to some other 1958s, notably Buick, Oldsmobile, and Mercury.

Being more readily available, the 1958 Bonneville sold much better than the 1957, with 9,144 hardtops and 3,096 convertibles. But it was scant consolation in a year when most everybody except AMC’s Rambler was down -- way down. While Chevrolet sales were off by 17.5 percent and Oldsmobile’s by 20 percent, Pontiac dropped more than a third.

Yet the Bonneville proved Knudsen knew what he was doing. “There was no point competing against Chevrolet,” he said later. “They had their market sewn up tight. But setting out after Buick and Oldsmobile was possible.”

Like other General Motors divisions that year, the 1958 Pontiac was a one-year-only design, because the company had decided to share bodies more closely from 1959 on. But in line with his plan of moving Pontiac upmarket, Knudsen managed to exchange Chevrolet’s forthcoming A-body for the larger, equally new Buick/Oldsmobile B-body.

“Up until then,” he observed, “Pontiac had used the Chevrolet body, maybe with an extended rear deck. There was no point in that, and I think the results bear out our decision.”

For more on the 1959 Pontiac Bonneville, continue to the next page.

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1959 Pontiac Bonneville

Huge backlight and compound-curve windshield marked the 1959 Bonneville Sport Coupe.
Huge backlight and compound-curve windshield marked the 1959 Bonneville Sport Coupe.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

The 1959 Pontiac Bonneville brought the first of the "Wide-Track" cars and a big change in division fortunes. Not coincidentally, these were also the first Pontiacs to fully reflect the Knudsen/Estes influence.

That "Wide-Track" moniker was no mere Madison Avenue hype. Tread swelled by nearly five inches in front and more than 4.5 inches in back. Greater cornering stability and a smoother ride were among the results -- along with vigorous complaints from owners who found the 1959s too wide for an automated car wash. But there was pleasure in doing that job yourself, because the new bodies looked sensational.

Though the same two wheelbase lengths were retained, the 1959s were predictably longer, lower, and wider, but also more sculptured and much cleaner. Acres of glass, thin-pillar rooflines, an expansive hood and rear deck, and the first of Pontiac's distinctive split grilles contributed to a styling package uncommonly tasteful for its time.

For all this goodness, Bonneville would never be the same again. Like Chevrolet with the Impala and Plymouth with the Fury, Pontiac turned its limited edition into a full-fledged series for 1959, thereby rendering it far less distinctive. From here on, the Bonneville would change in lock-step with the division's other standard-size cars.

Thus, a "Vista-roof" hardtop sedan joined the convertible and hardtop coupe, all on the Star Chief's 124-inch wheelbase, and there was even a six-passenger Bonneville Safari wagon on the 122-inch platform of this year's new low-end Catalina series (replacing Chieftain).

A stroke increase (to 3.70 inches) took V-8 displacement from 370 to that soon-to-be-famous 389 figure, and standard Bonneville horsepower rose to 300. (Sticklers for detail will note that actual measurements were 369.4 and 388.9 cubic inches respectively.) Leg, hip, and shoulder room were also up -- which was only right, as the 1959 Bonneville was nine inches longer and over three inches wider than the 1958.

The 1959 Pontiacs met with overwhelming public acceptance. Car Life picked the Bonneville as the best buy in its price range, and Motor Trend named the entire line its "Car of the Year." Production soared by 77 percent as Pontiac overtook both Buick and Oldsmobile to become General Motors' second most popular make.

More importantly, the division at long last advanced in the sales race, rising from sixth to fifth. Though the price-leading Catalina quickly established itself as Pontiac's best-seller, Bonneville actually outsold the mid-range Star Chief. Bunkie had been vindicated.

See the next page to follow the Bonneville story into the early 1960s.

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1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964 Pontiac Bonneville

This 1961 Bonneville convertible had much to brag about: Tri-Power 389, four-speed, and aluminum wheels.
This 1961 Bonneville convertible had much to brag about: Tri-Power 389, four-speed, and aluminum wheels.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

The 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, and 1964 Pontiac Bonneville evolved rapidly. There weren't a lot of changes for 1960, nor were they needed, at least for sales. But 1961 brought a major redesign, as General Motors shrunk all its standards a bit and reverted to perimeter-type frames. Pontiac was arguably the best-looking of the bunch, with the split grille returning after a one-year absence to grace crisply tailored new bodies.

Wheelbase contracted to 119 inches for Catalina and its new upmarket Ventura derivative, while Bonneville and Star Chief rode a 123-inch span. The now-famous "Wide Track" was still 1.5 inches broader than Buick's or Oldsmobile's tread but a little narrower than before, so the 1961 Pontiacs looked a tad taller than the 1960s even though overall height was actually an inch less.

Standard horsepower for the Hydra-Matic-equipped Bonneville was 303, same as the previous year, but weight was down by 155 pounds and overall length was cut from 220.7 to 210 inches, resulting in a faster, more nimble luxury Pontiac. There were 389s available with up to 348 horsepower for the performance-minded, while comfort was enhanced by the simple expedient of raising seat cushion height from 9.8 to 12 inches.

In all, 1961 was a great year for Pontiac. Helped by its new Tempest compact, the division moved up to fourth in industry sales behind Chevrolet, Ford, and Rambler, and now led Buick by a country mile. Bonneville was more popular than ever, outselling Star Chief by better than two to one.

Pontiac's big-car news for 1962 was the Grand Prix, a posh, buckets-and-console version of the Catalina two-door hardtop. The newcomer's convertible-look roofline was shared by all of General Motors' full-size hardtop coupes that year, while Bonneville shared in a substantial big-Pontiac face-lift -- and helped lift the division to third place in industry sales.

Another corporate-wide redesign for 1963 brought handsome new big-Pontiac styling from the pen of Jack Humbert. Sharply sculpted sheetmetal gave way to soft, flowing contours, while headlamps were vertically stacked.

Bonneville was now being upstaged by the Grand Prix to some degree but, paced by the Vista hardtop sedan, it nevertheless managed 110,000 units. An optional new 421 V-8 was the main attraction for the mostly carryover 1964s, delivering 320, 350, or 370 horsepower depending on tune.

Continue to the next page to follow the Bonneville story through the late 1960s.

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1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970 Pontiac Bonneville

The Pontiac Bonneville bulked up in size but not weight for 1965, and the Sport Coupe became a semi-fastback.
The Pontiac Bonneville bulked up in size but not weight for 1965, and the Sport Coupe became a semi-fastback.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

The 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969, and 1970 Pontiac Bonneville underwent several changes, including a redesign and yearly face-lifts.

The full-size Pontiacs were brand-new again for 1965, looking longer -- which they were -- and heavier -- which they weren't. Wheelbases were up to 121 inches on Catalina and 124 on Star Chief and Bonneville.

A fancy Brougham trim package arrived as a new extra for the Bonneville Vista, priced at $161.40 and pushing Pontiac further into territory that was once Buick's alone. Included were Ponchartrain cloth upholstery with Morrokide accents, and a Cordova-grain vinyl roof covering with "Brougham by Fisher" nameplates.

Bonneville two-doors could still be had with bucket seats (a $116.21 extra), and the Sport Coupe gained the same racy, semi-fastback roofline as its divisional counterparts. The 389 V-8 remained Bonneville's standard motive force, with horsepower standing at 325.

Motor Trend clocked a 1965 with two aboard at 9.1 seconds for the 0-60 mph trip, not bad for a car weighing close to 4,350 pounds. Bob McVey, indulging in a little hyperbole perhaps, wrote of its "screaming, smoking, wheel-spinning acceleration." Meanwhile, Pontiac had a quiet lock on third place, a good 30 percent ahead of either Buick or Oldsmobile.

More available horsepower -- up to 376 -- was ordained for the little changed 1966s, after which General Motors again restyled its full-size fleet. At Pontiac that meant wedge-shape front fender tips and a low, heavy-looking bumper/ grille, neither of which helped appearance, plus bobbed tails and a return to creased lower flanks.

Bonneville's standard engine was now a bored-out (4.12-inch) 400-cubic-inch extension of the 389, though horsepower remained 325. Lengthening stroke (to 4.00 inches) yielded a new 428-cubic-inch option and 360/376 horsepower.

Buick traded places with Oldsmobile for number five, but Pontiac's hold on third was still solid. More coordinated big-car styling arrived for 1968, along with the Bonneville's first-ever four-door sedan and an increase in standard power to 340 horsepower.

For 1969, Pontiac Bonneville graduated to the 360-horsepower 428 -- and 390 horsepower was newly available, the most ever offered in a stock Bonneville. Wheelbase also set a record, expanding by one inch to 125.

Sales of the 1970 Pontiac Bonneville, including the hardtop sedan, continued their downward trend.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

By now, "Bonneville" was no longer synonymous with speed, at least not at Pontiac, where the performance mantle had passed to the midsize GTO in 1964. Trouble was, the division's luxury leader was slipping, sales falling short of 100,000 for the first time since 1961. Worse, Pontiac's margin over fourth-place Buick had grown perilously thin.

But the troubles were only beginning. Bonneville sales slid a little more in 1970, and Pontiac tumbled all the way back to sixth. Clumsier styling was at least partly to blame, while an enormous new 455-cubic-inch V-8 -- yet another enlargement of the seemingly limitless 1955 block, with 360 standard horsepower for Pontiac Bonneville -- was out of step with rising fuel and insurance costs.

By now, of course, Pontiac Bonneville had long since ceased to be unique or even mildly interesting. It was simply another big car -- a good one to be sure, but no more than that.

To see how the Pontiac Bonneville fared in the 1970s, continue to the next page.

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Pontiac Bonneville in the 1970s

Bonneville returned to the top of the Pontiac line for 1976.
Bonneville returned to the top of the Pontiac line for 1976.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Pontiac Bonneville in the 1970s wasn't even Pontiac's best. For 1971 it was eclipsed by a fancier offshoot series called Grand Ville, also offering two- and four-door hardtops and snatching the Bonneville's convertible style.

Wheelbase on both lines measured 126 inches (127 for wagons), just an inch under the Buick Electra's, as big as a Pontiac would ever get. Appearance was clean but sadly forgettable. Two-barrel carburetion and lower, 8.2:1 compression gave Pontiac Bonneville just 280 standard horsepower and somewhat milder performance, the four-barrel 455 being reserved for Grand Ville.

After a stand-pat 1972, Pontiac Bonneville returned to its old 124-inch wheelbase for 1973. Model offerings were down to three: four-door sedan and hardtop coupe and sedan. The 400, in two-barrel form, was again standard issue, but with a mere 180 horsepower in newly mandated SAE net measure on 8.0:1 compression.

However, the four-barrel 455 with 215 horsepower net was optionally available (and still base power in Grand Ville). With wagons bumped up to Grand Ville status and increased emphasis on the mid-size Grand Prix and LeMans, series output came to fewer than 47,000 units for the model year.

There were few changes for the 1979 Pontiac
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Volume dropped to 20,560 for the little-changed 1974s, which took on 5-mph rear bumpers to match the previous year's required front ones. The sedan was lost but wagons regained the following year, when prices were bumped $500, in part because of the government's newly mandated catalytic converter.

Thanks to the model shuffling and an upswing in big-car demand following the 1973-1974 oil embargo, Pontiac Bonneville's 1975 volume improved to near 28,000 units. But Pontiac as a whole was foundering, with a confusing array of models, indifferent workmanship, and an image blurred by too much sharing among General Motors' five makes.

The division's only real winners by now were the personal-luxury Grand Prix and the Firebird Trans Am, the latter not even that strongly associated with Pontiac in the public mind. Grand Ville, which perhaps understandably had never really caught on, was retired at year's end, thus returning Bonneville to the top of a little-changed big-Pontiac line for 1976.

The first wave of General Motors' historic downsizing program brought a trimmer and far more successful Pontiac Bonneville. Measuring 115.9 inches between wheel centers, the all-new 1977 was a tad shorter and a few pounds lighter than the mid-size LeMans, and more than a foot shorter overall than its immediate predecessor.

Yet like its divisional B- and C-body stablemates, space utilization was so effective that hip and shoulder room suffered but fractionally, and head, leg, and trunk room were actually improved. Weight was also down -- by a significant 740 pounds.

The 1980 Pontiac Bonneville Brougham sedan continued the downward trend of the make.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

This in turn allowed use of a smaller V-8 with little sacrifice in performance. Sized at 301 cubic inches, it produced 135 horsepower net with two-barrel carb and 8.2:1 compression. The only power option initially offered was Oldsmobile's four-barrel 403 with 185 net horsepower.

But history has a way of repeating itself in the car business, and the 1977 Bonneville proves it. Like the 1954 Chieftain Special, Pontiac's smaller big cars were overshadowed by Chevrolet cousins on one side, the B-body Caprice/Impala, and an Oldsmobile on the other, the equally popular Delta 88. Sales were thus disappointing (but changes few) through 1980.

Continue to the next page to follow the Pontiac Bonneville story into the 1980s.

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Pontiac Bonneville in the 1980s

©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Pontiac Bonneville in the 1980s brought slicked-down outer sheetmetal for improved aerodynamics, Buick's 231-cubic-inch V-6 as standard Bonneville power (except in California, where Oldsmobile's 350 V-8 was employed), and Pontiac's first-ever diesel, the ill-starred Oldsmobile 350 V-8. (We offer no comment on the last except to note that according to the Spring 1986 N.A.D.A. Used Car Price Guide, you can deduct 40 percent from the value of a 1980 Pontiac if it's diesel-powered.)

Then, a miscalculation. For 1982, Pontiac dropped the B-body from its U.S. line and applied the Bonneville tag to a slightly restyled version of the 108.1-inch-wheelbase A/G-body platform previously sold as the LeMans. Unfortunately, the move coincided with an upsurge in big-car demand, thanks to the start of a general economic recovery from the severe recession triggered by "Energy Crisis II" in late 1979.

But there was a way out. Pontiac had never stopped building the B-body in Canada, where it was sold as the Parisienne, so it was rushed south of the border in late 1983 to answer dealer demands for the return of a full-size model.

This 1985 Pontiac
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Then came a vastly different Pontiac Bonneville, though the all-new 1987 was as much a "corporate car" as any of its predecessors. Based on General Motors' H-body platform introduced with the 1986 Buick LeSabre and Oldsmobile Delta 88, the 1987 was the smallest and lightest Bonneville to its time, and the first with front-wheel drive.

Wheelbase was a sensible 110.8 inches, and power came from a 231-cubic-inch Buick V-6 with fuel injection (electronic, not mechanical, but some things never change). At the time, an American performance car was either a traditional hot rod like the Trans Am, or a trendy European-style "sports sedan" like Pontiac's suave 6000STE. The 1987 Pontiac Bonneville bore definite signs of STE influence -- particularly its appearance.

The sleek 1987 Pontiac
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

In fact, the 1987 shaped up as the most balanced Pontiac Bonneville to date. It was definitely in tune with the times, even if that meant being far less fiery than its 1950s forebears.

Carrying a name with a long and checkered history, the 1987 Pontiac Bonneville continued the Pontiac tradition of offering comfortable, stylish transportation with more than adequate performance for a few dollars more than lesser makes.

Thank goodness we still have those fuelie 1957s, the flashy 1958s, and the early Wide-Track Bonnevilles to contemplate and covet. If nothing else, they serve to remind us how much cars have changed in the past decades, even when names don't.

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