"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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1969 Pontiac Grand Prix SJ
Some sources have credited stylists Jack Humbert and Irvin Rybicki with the design of the 1969 Pontiac Grand Prix, but renderings clearly show that it was actually the work of young Wayne Vieira, who went on to lead GM's Saturn studio -- an observation verified by Vieira himself. A clay model was rushed to completion in two weeks, an effort that evidently involved the entire Pontiac design staff. Approval followed immediately, and Pontiac General Manager John Z. DeLorean ordered the car into production for 1969.
The 1969 Pontiac Grand Prix SJ was the higher-level
model, with 370 horsepower and other upgrades.
The new "downsized" Grand Prix was an exceptionally clever piece of work. From the cowl back it was essentially an A-bodied Le Mans hardtop. But ahead of the cowl, the wheelbase was stretched a full half-foot, giving the car, as Pontiac's sales brochure boasted, "the longest hood in the industry."
Thus was created the GM G-body, and the result was sheer elegance. As writers Jan Norbye and Jim Dunne observed, "Here, Pontiac got something unique at last -- a personal/specialty car at a budget price. The other divisions were caught off guard. There was nothing like it on the market." Pontiac called it "a contemporary 'original.' "
Pontiac's Tempest/Le Mans intermediates rode, in those days, on two wheelbases: 116 inches for the sedans and station wagons, 112 for the two-door models. But in order to make possible that long, elegant hood, the Grand Prix chassis was expanded to 118 inches, a dimension not shared that year by any other Pontiac, nor by any other General Motors car, for that matter.
The Grand Prix's long hood is clearly a main element
of the Wayne Vieira sketches of the car.
It's not difficult to imagine that the long hood -- which, in Pontiac authority Tom Bonsall's colorful phrase, "seemed to stretch from the cowl on into next Wednesday" -- must have been inspired by the great Classic Duesenbergs of the Thirties. That, of course, was exactly as Pontiac intended. And that's not all. Just as the Duesenbergs had been designated Series "J" and "SJ," so it would be with the Grand Prix. But there was a difference, for in the Duesenberg's case the letter "S" stood for Supercharger, a piece of equipment foreign to Pontiac until 1992.
In the case of the Grand Prix, SJ stood for an option package, rather than a distinct series. Priced at $315.96, it consisted of a 370-horsepower, 428-cubic-inch engine (in lieu of the 350-horsepower, 400-cubic-inch mill used in the J); automatic level control, activated by a two-stage vacuum-actuated compressor; power front disc brakes; high-performance suspension; performance rear axle; plus special gauges and tires, chromed valve covers, and an SJ badge located on the lower front fender on each side.
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1969 Pontiac Grand Prix
Standard equipment for the 1969 Pontiac Grand Prix included an aircraft-style cockpit with Strato-bucket seats covered in "fully expanded Morrokide" vinyl or a combination of fabric and Morrokide. Leather upholstery was optional, while a bench seat with center armrest was a no-cost option.
The 1969 Pontiac Grand Prix saw a huge jump
in sales thanks to its redesign.
The tall, padded console, complete with floor shift, prompted automotive journalist Tom McCahill to observe that "the driver can feel secure in his own little compartment and he can still shake hands with his girl friend though very little else." Lower door and rear quarter trim panels wore carpeting, and upper-level ventilation was supplied due to the absence of traditional vent wings.
"Up front," said Pontiac, "you're faced by a cockpit-style instrument panel that almost lays every gauge, control and switch in your lap." Its three-sided layout wrapped around the driver, with the center section filled by three pods: gauges on the left, speedometer in the center, clock or tachometer on the right (a hood-mounted tach was also available). Carpathian burled-elm vinyl inlay highlighted the dash.
"Pulse"-action, dual-speed windshield wipers with concealed blades were touted as an industry first. Another first was a hidden radio antenna, consisting of two wires, about twice the thickness of a human hair, molded into the windshield glass. An appealing gimmick, it proved to be a mixed blessing in the real world because it provided only fair-to-middling reception.
An excellent anti-theft feature, new to Pontiac but offered by Ford clear back in the Thirties, was the coincidental steering and ignition lock. A heavy-duty, three-speed manual transmission also came standard, but of the 112,486 GPs produced for 1969, only 338 got one. Likewise, just 676 GPs rolled off the line with the $185 close- or wide-ratio four-speed stick. Instead, 99 percent of Grand Prix buyers chose the three-speed Turbo Hydra-Matic, a $227 option.
Other Grand Prix extras included power steering ($116), air-conditioning ($421), leather upholstery ($199), Cordova vinyl top ($142), Rally II styled wheels ($84), and an electric rear window defroster ($47). A "space-saver" spare tire was a no-cost option. So was a two-barrel 400 V-8 with 8.6:1 compression, 265 horsepower, and 397 pound-feet of torque. Running through a 2.93:1 rear axle, it was the only Grand Prix engine that tolerated regular gas.
Motorists in a big-time hurry could order a 390-horse version of the 428-cubic-inch V-8 with a high-output cam, special exhaust manifolds, plus a low-restriction chromed air cleaner and chromed rocker covers and oil filler cap. Grand Prix V-8s came with standard dual exhausts, except curiously the 370-horsepower 428, for which they were "recommended."
The interior of the Grand Prix, shown here in an SJ,
was designed to wrap around the driver.
Not unexpectedly, the SJ was the performance champion of the Grand Prix line. With 370 horses, it claimed ten more than the Buick Riviera, in a car that was 480 pounds lighter. McCahill, putting a GP through its paces for Mechanix Illustrated, zipped through the 0-60 run in 8.1 seconds, and noted that the car "runs out of top speed just before it reaches 130." Road & Track, whose SJ test car had the 390-horsepower mill, rocketed to 60 mph in 6.5 seconds, and blitzed the standing quarter-mile in 15 seconds flat at 97 mph. All of this suggests that the Grand Prix was significantly faster than the Buick Riviera, especially with respect to acceleration.
Nor was handling neglected. Road & Track's Henry Manney called it "a helluva lot better GT car than some celebrated ones I have driven, just between you and me and the camshaft." Bill Sanders, writing in Motor Trend, was more explicit: "It's not a sports car, so don't expect it to handle like one. With that long hood sticking out there you feel like the last man on a hook-and-ladder fire truck, so forget about drifting through the corners. Anyway, it wasn't built for that. But the GP will surprise the hell out of you when it comes to handling." Even the brakes were superior, stopping the car from 60 mph in just 158 feet, seven feet shorter than the Riviera.
During the 1968 model run, sales of the Riviera had held a 55 percent lead over the Grand Prix, but in a dramatic reversal, the 1969 GP forged ahead to outsell the mildly facelifted Riv by better than two-to-one. Small wonder, for the handsome new Grand Prix cost several hundred dollars less than either the Riviera or Thunderbird. Furthermore, it was a unique product.
Priced at $3,866 in base form, $710 more than the Le Mans hardtop, the new Grand Prix was evidently a highly profitable proposition for Pontiac. But it was the only really bright spot on Pontiac's horizon that season, as model-year production slumped 4.4 percent. Meanwhile, Buick managed a 2.1 percent increase, and Oldsmobile soared 12.9 percent above its 1968 figure.
Still, Pontiac hung on to the third place standing that it had enjoyed since 1962, and by a 150,000-unit margin, but the tide was turning. Over the next three years, Pontiac would drop to fifth place in model-year output, displaced first by Plymouth, and then Oldsmobile; soon Buick would be nipping at its heels.
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1970, 1971 Pontiac Grand Prix
The 1970 and 1971 Pontiac Grand Prix carried on even after the man who kept the line alive moved on. In February 1969, Pontiac General Manager John DeLorean went to Chevrolet, to be succeeded at Pontiac by F. James McDonald. DeLorean and his two immediate predecessors, Bunkie Knudsen and Pete Estes, were strongly engineering-oriented, but their manufacturing skills weren't all that great.
Vertical grille bars were among very few cosmetic
changes on the 1970 Pontiac Grand Prix.
To correct that deficiency, DeLorean had brought McDonald in from Hydra-Matic, appointing him works manager -- which was fine, as long as he remained in that role. McDonald's strength had to do with controlling costs; a "product man" he was not. And at that point a product man, as Pontiac authority Tom Bonsall has pointed out, was "almost certainly what Pontiac needed most."
Inevitably, the Grand Prix's new-found success for the 1969 model year spawned imitators. Chief among these was the Chevrolet Monte Carlo, introduced on September 18, 1969, as a 1970 model. Built on the 116-inch wheelbase of GM's intermediate sedans, the Monte Carlo didn't have quite the elegantly long hood of the Grand Prix (though it was hardly short), nor did it have the Pontiac's aggressive, pointed nose. For that matter, its 250-horsepower, 350-cubic-inch V-8 was no match for the GP's 400-cubic-inch V-8. But the Monte Carlo was, nevertheless, an extremely attractive automobile, and its base price undercut the Grand Prix by $862 (21.6 percent).
There can be no doubt that the Monte Carlo cut deeply into the Grand Prix's market, for while Chevrolet produced 145,975 Monte Carlos for 1970, Grand Prix output plummeted 41.5 percent, to 65,750 (171 of them with three-speed manual, 329 with four-speed). The Riviera slipped, too, but by only 29.4 percent; Ford T-Bird sales held steady. Clearly, the upstart Monte Carlo was causing some pain at Pontiac.
Visually, there wasn't a lot of change in the 1970 Grand Prix, although sharp eyes noted vertical grille bars, revised tail-lights, flush door handles, and script Grand Prix lettering on the C-pillars (replacing block lettering on the front fenders). For cars with the $223-$244 SJ package, Pontiac's new 455-cubic-inch V-8 became standard issue. Horsepower remained at 370, the same as 1969's 428 engine, but torque jumped from 472 to 500 pound-feet.
The 1971 Grand Prix got a facelift and was
slightly longer than the previous model.
The Grand Prix was reskinned for 1971. Its vertical-bar grille -- likened by some to that of the Duesenberg, although others find the comparison farfetched -- was less pointed than before, and the upper part of the bumper ran across the grille. Dual headlights gave way to seven-inch single lamps, mounted, as before, in square housings. Up back, a modified boattail-style rear deck was adopted, a Duesenberg roadster touch. The leather interior option, never very popular, disappeared, replaced by "a new grained vinyl you almost expect to squeal, it looks so much like pigskin."
Overall length grew by about 2 1/2 inches. Engineering improvements included variable-ratio power steering, standard power front disc brakes (previously optional on the J), and 400 and 455 V-8s featuring a new evaporative emissions system. Their compression ratios were lowered from 10.25:1 to 8.2:1 to run on regular or low-lead gas, causing their horsepower ratings to fall to 300 and 325, respectively.
Grand Prix sales fell, too, to 58,325 units, a loss of about 11 percent. Perhaps the men of Pontiac could take some comfort from the fact that sales of the Monte Carlo dropped, on a percentage basis, more than twice as much.
Commencing in March 1971, Turbo Hydra-Matic was made standard equipment, after only 58 GPs had been equipped with a three-speed stick, and another 58 with the four-speed. The Grand Prix's price, which had already been hiked $329 at the start of the model year, was refigured accordingly, bringing the tab for the base car to $4,557.
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1972 Pontiac Grand Prix
The 1972 Pontiac Grand Prix was the last of its
breed, even though sales were strong.
An example is the the limited-production Hurst SSJ Grand Prix of the 1970-1971 model years. To acquire one, the buyer went to a Pontiac dealer and ordered a regular Model J coupe in either Cameo White or Starlight Black with a black, ivory, or sandalwood interior, along with the desired type of seating and choice of engine.
There were, in addition, several mandatory options, such as body-color sport mirrors, G78x14 whitewall tires, and Rally II wheels, although the last could be passed over in favor of Hurst gold-honeycomb wheels or American Racing wheels. Pontiac's optional handling package and mini spare tire were recommended.
Once ordered, Pontiac built the car and had it drop-shipped to Hurst Performance, in Southfield, Michigan. There, for an extra $1,147, the Grand Prix received Hurst's distinctive Firefrost Gold paint on the hood, roof, rear deck, and on the Rally II wheels. Pinstriping, done by hand, separated the Hurst gold from the factory paint. The rearmost part of the roof and the sail panels, meanwhile, were treated to a landau-style vinyl top, in white, Antique White, or Midnight Black.
Topping this was an electrically operated steel sunroof. Hurst offered further options: a Hurst shifter for bench-seat cars with automatic, an SSJ Hurst digital computer. Roll Control, and even a $2,100 mobile telephone.
Unfortunately, once Hurst had finished the SSJ, the buyer had to either pick the car up in Michigan or arrange for final delivery himself, an expensive proposition. This no doubt hurt sales, which were extremely modest in any case. Hurst Performance has stated that 200 copies were produced in both 1970 and 1971. In researching their book, "The Hurst Heritage," Robert C. Lichty and Terry V. Boyce contacted Dick Chrysler "at the parent company," who said that 272 SSJs were completed in 1970, plus 157 in 1971.
But for 1972, Hurst didn't even "acknowledge" any SSJ models, though Lichty and Boyce quoted a then-current Hurst employee as recalling that about 60 1972 SSJs were in fact built. It has also been claimed by former employees that some SSJs were painted in colors other than the approved white or black, such as dark green and maroon.
The Hurst SSJ Grand Prix was decked out
in Firefrost Gold.
We should note at this point that Pontiac, in common with almost the entire industry, had traditionally advertised "gross" horsepower ratings. That is, output was measured with the engine stripped of all accessories. The figures weren't realistic, but they gave salesmen something to brag about. Spurred on by the feds, this practice ceased effective with the 1972 model year, when more realistic "net" horsepower figures were adopted industry-wide. Thus, the Grand Prix's advertised figures dropped to 250 for the 400-cubic-inch engine, 300 for the 455. (One has to suspect that even these figures were subject to exaggeration!)
Largely because of a 59-day strike by the UAW late in 1970 and the need to meet tougher federal safety and emissions mandates for 1973, the all-new GM intermediates planned for 1972 were delayed a year. For that reason, changes to the carryover 1972 Grand Prix were modest. Pontiac proclaimed that the new cross-hatch grille "recalls the Golden Age of Automobiles," a continuation of the already-established Classic theme. High-intensity headlamps, a maintenance-free battery, and transistorized ignition were now supplied as standard equipment, while the base price was actually lowered slightly, from $4,557 to $4,472.
Inside, the instrument panel "looks like it was taken from a light plane," proclaimed Pontiac. Continuing with its wrap-around-the-driver theme, the instrument cluster was highlighted this year with "the look of rare Ceylonese teak." The bucket seats and "notch-back" front seat were available in "a vertically ribbed cord trimmed in vinyl so leather-like it smacks of saddle soap. Or the new perforated vinyl ... so you'll sit cooler in the summer, warmer in the winter."
Sales rebounded to 91,961 units for 1972, nearly three times the figure for Buick's Riviera. Clearly, John DeLorean's and Ben Harrison's mid-size "personal car" concept had proven to be a bonanza for Pontiac.
Still, the world marches on. Certainly the automobile industry didn't -- and couldn't afford to -- stand still. The fully restyled Grand Prix would finally arrive for 1973. Some of us might believe that it wasn't as good-looking as the 1969-1972 series, but the sales charts don't confirm that judgment. In fact, 1973 Grand Prix model-year production surged to 153,899 units, easily topping the previous record set in 1969.
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1969-1972 Pontiac Grand Prix Models, Prices, and Production
The 1969-1972 series of the Pontiac Grand Prix defined the model as a desirable car. It wasn't so much the power, or the performance, or the styling, of the Grand Prix as it was the overall package that made the car popular. Find the 1969-1972 Pontiac Grand Prix weight, prices, and production in the following chart.
The standard V-8 in the 1969 Pontiac Grand Prix
was 400 cubic inches and had 350 horsepower.
1969-1972 Pontiac Grand Prix: Models, Prices, and Production
|Model||Weight (lbs.)||Price ||Production |
|1969 hardtop coupe||3,715||$3,866||112,486 |
|1970 hardtop coupe||3,784||3,985 ||65,750 |
|1971 hardtop coupe ||3,863 ||4,557 ||58,325 |
|1972 hardtop coupe ||3,898 ||4,472 ||91,961 |
|Grand Prix Total||328,522|
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