The 1973 Pontiac Grand Am started out in the development stages as a GTO. But the muscle era was drawing to a close and, very much aware of that, Pontiac decided to change the car's character. Instead of continuing to make the GTO a stoplight drag star, the next iteration was to be more European -- more along the lines of a luxury sport sedan. With that in mind, Pontiac designers and engineers examined Mercedes, BMW, Audi, and Volvo as likely targets.
To backtrack a little, the Grand Am concept originated in the Pontiac styling studio. At that time, all Pontiacs were designed in one studio under the direction of William L. (Bill) Porter. Working with him were his assistant, Wayne Vieira, plus senior designers Ted Schroeder, Charley Gatewood, and Geza Loczi. Dennis Barnes was a young modeler in the studio.
The 1973 Pontiac Grand Am's head-turning grille was just one feature
of its distinctive soft front end. See more pictures of Pontiacs.
Porter, who retired as chief designer for the Buick LeSabre, Park Avenue, and Riviera, recalls that the notion for the 1973 Grand Am's soft front end evolved from the GTO's "Endura" bumper/grille, GM's revolutionary body-color nose, which Pontiac introduced for 1968. Wanting to take that idea one step further, Porter and his staff did some collective brainstorming, while still thinking in terms of the next GTO. As a result of that session, Porter and Gatewood got together to sketch what ended up being the Grand Am front end, with its peaked prow flanked by "catwalk" grilles, plus quad headlights, an integrated bumper, and sharp fender end caps.
One of the givens in the then-GTO program -- which subsequently spilled over into the Grand Am -- was that the car had to be based on GM's new 1973 A-body, i.e., Pontiac's LeMans. Among other things, the GTO/Grand Am would have to use the new LeMans hood, which was already locked up. Because this had a raised center section, the Grand Am prow-nose seemed a natural.
Gatewood worked out the rest of the graphics and, being a superb artist, made a full-size rendering of the front end. Porter hung it on the wall opposite the studio entrance. The idea was to impress GM design vice president William L. (Bill) Mitchell when he next walked in. After all, Mitchell would be instrumental in selling the design and the soft-nose concept to Pontiac management.
Wayne Vieira, who would become chief designer for GM's Saturn small-car subsidiary, confirms that "Charley Gatewood was the designer who came up with the original front-end sketch. Charley's a very modest person, and he would tend to say something like, 'Oh, actually . . . I remembered an old sketch that Ted Schroeder did years ago. All I did was to do Ted's sketch over again.' But it was Charley who sold the idea."
Vieira continues, "And to help sell the design to Bill Mitchell, Charley did this full-size air-brush rendering . . . a white rendering with black grille slots. It really stood out from across the room. In fact, when Bill Mitchell walked in, all he said was, 'Jeeeeeeezus Christ!' And we were off and running. He brought people in to see it, and it was really quite exciting. The graphics on the front were so strong and unique compared to what was on the road at the time," Vieira recalls. "In fact, we all felt that when the car came out for 1973, it had by far the best front end of anything in the industry."
The technology needed to engineer the Grand Am's soft front end wasn't fully developed when the initial soft-nose designs were proposed. But a 174-day strike during 1972 gave GM extra time to make the soft front end feasible. "This was one of our first attempts to do a full plastic front," Vieira told us. "The technology hadn't yet caught up, and the car would have been very complicated and expensive to build [with the technology at the concept's beginning]. The division at first felt that they wouldn't have a competitive, quality car for the price. But now that we had more time to work on it -- due to the strike -- they told us to take another crack at it, and this started the process of a new design."
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1973 Pontiac Grand Am Chassis
The 1973 Pontiac Grand Am began as a GTO, was called Europa for a short period, and finally ended up with the name Grand Am. "[Product planner] Bill Collins had a thing about the word Grand," explains Vieira. "Everything [we had then] was Grand: Grand Ville, Grand Prix, Grand LeMans, Grand Am."
The soft fascia wasn't easy to model, but Pontiac design studio chief Bill Porter declares that Dennis Barnes did a marvelous job. "The Grand Am's front-end forms coming out and intersecting are quite complicated," Porter points out, "particularly the filets in the catwalk and how they intersect the nose form. Some of the surfaces had to be twisted and rotated to make the filets catch the light just right. It was quite a tricky modeling job."
The coupe and sedan were the only two
body styles produced for the 1973 Pontiac Grand Am.
The studio staff was still working on spec, because GM materials people weren't yet familiar with all the techniques of mass producing pliable urethane, forming it, and, especially, coloring it to match the hues, fade resistance, and texture of paint. Designers called polyurethane "Polly Softstuff," but also "Baby Doll." Just before the 1973 tooling decisions had to be made, materials engineers did manage to work out the cost, color, and formability details of the soft fascia. Only then did it become producible -- a last-minute rescue.
Pontiac's product planners, under assistant chief engineer William T. (Bill) Collins, got behind the '73 Grand Am because they knew something different was needed to replace the GTO. By 1973, the GTO was breathing its last breath; dying by cubic inches, it had been done in by low compression and GM's need to meet fuel and smog mandates. Any politically correct car could no longer run around delivering eight miles per gallon between stoplights. And yet Pontiac had no intention of giving up its "excitement" image.
So the Grand Am offered a new opportunity. This was a car that Pontiac saw as the division's entree into the European sport-luxury-sedan field. Pontiac chassis engineers, under John Seaton, would de-emphasize straight-line performance in favor of crisp handling and overall responsiveness. Seaton based the Grand Am's readability on the division's trade-marked Radial Tuned Suspension, which in turn was based on new GM-spec steel-belted radial tires. Ten-inch front disc brakes gave the car wonderful stopability, and Saginaw Division set up the power steering with a quicker ratio and plenty of positive feedback.
"It was really the radial tires that gave us a clue that we could actually do something like that," says Tom Goad, an engineer and Pontiac product planner at the time. "They rode so much better, and yet we could have the handling with the bigger stabilizer bars and control the vehicle's motion with softer springs and good shocks. This became our Radial Tuned Suspension that we began promoting across all our car lines. It was standard on the Grand Am."
Inside, the Grand Am driver and the front passenger settled into supportive bucket seats equipped with recliners and lumbar adjustments. All doors had pull straps, not molded-in plastic grab handles, while the fully instrumented gauge panel and console presented touches of real African crossfire mahogany laminated onto a plastic substrate.
Yet the Grand Am couldn't be too European. It still had to be as American as any Pontiac. And indeed, it used not only the LeMans hood but the all same inner sheetmetal and most outer panels, as well as the two- and four-door "Colonnade" rooflines of the new corporate A-body. The big visual differences lay in Charley Gatewood's soft front end, the taillamps, standard pinstriping, and, for the coupe, distinctive louvers over the fixed rear-quarter windows.
According to Porter, that sail-panel treatment took some doing to make it practical. His staff tried all sorts of different configurations so the louvers wouldn't block the driver's over-the-shoulder view. "I remember there was quite a bit of fiddling around with those louvers to angle them so you could see out from the driver's side," Porter recalls. "Otherwise the sail would have been huge and very blind."
Initially, the Grand Am program called for not two but three body styles: coupe, sedan, and wagon. GM's Framingham, Massachusetts, assembly plant, which built Pontiac's A-body wagons, didn't want the hassle of yet another model variation, so the Grand Am wagon never made production. One engineering prototype did get built, however, and Tom Goad still owns it today. Like all of GM's "Colonnade" intermediates, the production coupe rode a 112-inch wheelbase, the sedan a 116-inch wheelbase. Both models were billed as "hardtops" despite having fixed B-pillars.
Goad mentions that when he went from Chevrolet to Pontiac in the mid-1960s, he was shocked by how primitive Pontiac's suspension systems were. "I couldn't believe it," he says. "Pontiac's systems were archaic compared to what we'd been doing at Chevrolet, with roll-couple distribution and tire sizes and all. Pontiac could make cars go in a straight line but not around corners." He notes that it wasn't until 1970 that the GTO got a rear stabilizer bar.
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1973 Pontiac Grand Am Engineering
For the new 1973 Pontiac Grand Am, chassis engineers upped the suspension bushings from 60- to 90-durometer rubber and installed heavier grommets for the 1.12-inch front stabilizer. To counteract any tendency to oversteer, engineer Tom Seaton added a 0.94-inch rear antiroll bar. He also specified nonaerating Pliacell shock absorbers, with plastic inner bags that kept the air separate from the hydraulic fluid. This gave consistent damping even when hot, unlike conventional shocks, which, under severe conditions, tend to become mushy with aeration and heat.
Seaton then added 0.3 inches to the Grand Am's ride height for more suspension travel. And in the tire department he specified GR70-15 steel-belted radials on optional 15x7 Polycast honeycomb wheels.
Among the 1973 Pontiac Grand Am engine options
were an L75 and a pair of 400 V-8s.
Entrusted with engine duties was Herb Adams' Special Projects group. Engineer and race driver Adams did his darnedest to match Pontiac's big-block V-8s to the Grand Am mission. Initially, he wanted to drop the Super Duty 455 into this car, and one Grand Am prototype did get built with it, but only that one, because GM decided not to use the 310-horse stormer in anything except the '73 Trans Am and Formula Firebirds.
The SD-455 was a good idea, though, one that would have effectively passed the performance torch from GTO to Grand Am. This engine added a mere $521 to the price of a '73 Trans Am and probably wouldn't have cost any more as a Grand Am option. Its initial 1973 horsepower and torque ratings were 310 and 390, but Pontiac rerated the engine at midyear to 290 and 395.
This was essentially a race-ready V-8 in street form: four-bolt mains, reinforced bulkheads, more meat around cam bearings and lifters, forged and lightened rods and pistons, nitrided cast crank, 80-psi oil pump, baffled pan, and built-in provisions for dry-sump lubrication. Heads were patterned after Pontiac's 1969 Ram Air IV engine, as were the cam and rockers. In all, only 1195 Super Duty 455s were ever sold, and more parts were stolen out of the plant than made it into production.
But while the SD-455 didn't show up in the Grand Am, some very good Pontiac V-8s did, starting with the L75, a "regular" four-barrel, dual-exhaust 455 rated at 250 bhp and 370 lb-ft of torque. Then came a pair of 400 V-8s, one with four-barrel carburetor, the other with two-barrel, respectively rated at 200 and 170 horses. (Optional dual exhausts boosted engine output.) Buyers could order either self-shift Turbo Hydra-Matic or Muncie M21 four-speed manual with floor shift, the latter teaming with a 3.23:1 rear axle.
Soon after the Grand Am's introduction, Herb Adams & Team Associates put together what Motor Trend described as "the most beautiful Pontiac stock car ever built." Team Associates was a wild group of Pontiac engineers who liked to go racing. GM had officially disavowed track competition nine years earlier, so Adams & Team Associates built and ran a Grand Am racer out of their own pockets. They had campaigned a GTO and a Firebird in the SCCA Trans-Am series and had done moderately well.
Now, with the Grand Am, they had their sights on the big time, notably NASCAR. They qualified and ran at Riverside in January 1973, starting and finishing 14th with no brakes at the end of that race. They then tried Daytona after jumping through an inordinate number of NASCAR inspection and qualification hoops, only to have their car blow a head gasket after qualifying at 169 mph; its 366-cid V-8 had too much compression. With that, and no major sponsors in sight, the team retired its gloss-black Grand Am #69.
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1974, 1975 Pontiac Grand Am
GM design vice president William L. (Bill) Mitchell had a few Grand Am specials up his sleeve. He built for himself an all-white 1974 Pontiac Grand Am variant with red-and-blue striping, which he called the "All-American." A similar treatment appeared on the Can Am, which Pontiac announced at mid-model year 1977 after some likely inspiration from Mitchell's car. Some 1100 were built on LeMans coupe basics, and one became the pace car for the namesake SCCA race series. Bill Collins and designer John Schinella Collins lobbied to have the Can Am put into limited production after surveying dealers.
The 1974 Pontiac Grand Am "All-American" was
white with patriotic red and blue pinstripes.
Before this, though, division design operations had split in two. The resulting Pontiac One studio remained under William L. (Bill) Porter, while Pontiac Two was put under Schinella, with responsibility for A-cars (LeMans/Grand Am) and F-car (Fire-bird). For 1974, Schinella's group undertook a Grand Am facelift, raising and squaring up the decklid to give more trunk space, adding more harmonious vertical taillights, and revising the soft front to open up the catwalk slots. Pontiac ad writers labeled the result "A case of unmistakable identity."
The 1973-75 Grand Am was, without a doubt, one of the most focused and well-executed cars Pontiac ever brought to market. It did precisely what its designers intended: provided handling, comfort, and performance in keeping with anything Europe could offer -- and at a fraction of the cost. Indeed, the Grand Am was a lot more capable than Mercedes or BMW liked to admit.
Disappointing sales for the 1975 Pontiac Grand Am
led Pontiac to discontinue the model.
Unfortunately, Pontiac launched the Grand Am at exactly the wrong time. The first energy crisis shook the world in October 1973, and Americans bailed out of large Detroit cars into smaller imports, especially Japanese models. Even intermediates like GM's A-cars languished on dealer lots. By 1975, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, a Grand Am with the 400 V-8 could return only 11 mpg in the city and 18 mpg on the highway. (The 455 was the same.) Prices went the other way, thanks to a new round of inflation, and at just a smidge under $5000 to start, the '75 Grand Am was not exactly cheap.
So while Pontiac did well to move 43,136 Grand Ams for 1973, sales slipped to 17,083 for '74, then to a disappointing 10,679 for '75. With that, the Grand Am became expendable and would not be continued. Another reason was that rectangular headlights were coming in, which would have meant retooling the model's unique hood and front fascia. With sales low and not likely to recover, Pontiac felt it wasn't worth the expense.
As we know, however, the Grand Am would return, first in the downsized A-body LeMans line of 1978. Though this coupe and sedan had some unique touches, they were more trim variations than distinct models in the spirit of the original. Come 1985, Pontiac revived the name again for a front-wheel-drive compact based on GM's new N-body design, which is alive and quite well today.
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1973-1975 Pontiac Grand Am Prices and Production
The days when tire-melting, straight-line muscle measured a car's performance were fading fast in the early Seventies. Pontiac, which had prospered with cars of that ilk, had to move just as quickly to protect its image. The new direction it chose led not from Detroit, but from Europe. Find prices and production for the 1973-1975 Pontiac Grand Am in the following chart.
1973-1975 Pontiac Grand Am Prices and Production:
|1973 Grand Am (wb 112; 4d 116)||Weight||Price||Production|
|Total 1973 Grand Am||43,136|
|1974 Grand Am|
(wb 112; 4d 116)
|Total 1974 Grand Am||17,083|
|1975 Grand Am (wb 112; 4d 116)||Weight||Price||Production|
|Total 1975 Grand Am||10,679|
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