Pontiac Grand Prix: excess all areas

| 7 May 2024
Classic & Sports Car – Pontiac Grand Prix: excess all areas

The market for the ‘personal luxury coupe’ was one of the few commercial bright spots in the beleaguered world of the 1970s North American automobile.

The concept of an obese and wastefully packaged two-door vehicle, festooned with labour-saving features and detail styling gimmicks, was a fundamentally American piece of business: a product that could be built for the same price as a family sedan, but retailed for a much larger number merely on the basis of perceived exclusivity.

Classic & Sports Car – Pontiac Grand Prix: excess all areas

The extravagant Pontiac Grand Prix, with its quad rectangular headlamps and opera windows, certainly stands out

The Lincoln Continental and Cadillac Eldorado dominated the upper strata of the ‘PLC’ sector, but it didn’t take the marketing folk long to realise that there was an appetite for the same sort of car in a cheaper package.

They were right: at the height of its popularity, the personal luxury coupe market accounted for 10% of all North American new-car sales.

These were vehicles designed to summon the imagery of carriage-trade elegance, and the growing fashion for them, with their faux Landau tops and opera windows, usefully deflected buyers’ attention from the sad tolls that power-sapping anti-pollution and pedestrian-friendly safety regulations were taking on the once mighty American automobile’s performance and styling.

Classic & Sports Car – Pontiac Grand Prix: excess all areas

This Pontiac Grand Prix sports a beige corduroy interior

Up until 1971, formidable acceleration had been a routine expectation for buyers of this lavish breed – it was simply a question of ticking the right box in terms of the number of cubic inches and carburettor chokes – but by 1973 the Federally mandated air-pollution regulations (first passed by Congress in 1970 as the Clean Air Act) were really beginning to bite in the form of exhaust-gas recirculation valves, lower compression ratios and all manner of smog pumps, spark delay and distributor modulators that could wipe 50bhp or more from an engine’s nominal output at the deft stroke of a politician’s pen.

The fact that the American auto makers were now being obliged to quote net rather than boastful SAE/gross outputs to a certain extent fudged this issue, but, even so, 135bhp from a 5-litre V8, or 180bhp from the big-block 6.5-litre option, cannot really be construed as anything other than regressive.

Classic & Sports Car – Pontiac Grand Prix: excess all areas

‘Personal luxury’ cars were hamstrung by onerous legislation, so US car makers piled on the style to compensate

With unleaded fuel, catalytic converters and corporate average fuel economy regulations just around the corner, life was only going to get even harder for Detroit, whose cars were not merely much slower than they had been, but also suffering from drivability problems associated with the anti-smog equipment that often meant they were thirstier overall.

Rules legislating for crash resistance were, at the same time, making the traditional Detroit barge heavier – and uglier – than ever.

Downsizing was seen as inevitable, and by the end of the 1970s most of the major manufacturers had begun the process of building smaller, lighter vehicles.

Classic & Sports Car – Pontiac Grand Prix: excess all areas

The Pontiac’s well-resolved styling blends a taut, chunky elegance with some cheesy appeal

Yet for all their shortcomings, mid-sized personal luxury coupes remained stubbornly popular with customers.

In fact, Pontiac did among its best-ever business with its third generation of the Grand Prix, selling 288,000 copies in the final year of this full-size variant that had first been seen in 1973.

Through to 1977, more than 850,000 of them were built.

The original 1962-’69 Grand Prix had been as much a muscle car as a personal luxury coupe.

Classic & Sports Car – Pontiac Grand Prix: excess all areas

The Pontiac Grand Prix’s 5.8-litre V8 manages just 160bhp, but the torque is effortless

On a new 118in wheelbase, the second-generation variants had, under the guidance of division boss John De Lorean, gone down the sports/luxury route while borrowing ‘J’ and ‘SJ’ nomenclature from Duesenberg.

A bit cheeky that, but, with a 14 secs quarter-mile time, the early ’70s Grand Prix was at least quick.

Constructed on the ‘A Special’ GM platform, the 1973 Grand Prix swapped pillarless styling for opera windows, but the doors were still long, with frameless glass.

The 5mph impact bumpers were well integrated into the styling, which had touches of Bill Mitchell’s favourite boat-tail theme in the vee of the rear window.

Classic & Sports Car – Pontiac Grand Prix: excess all areas

Out-glamming the Bentleys in front of the building that first housed the showroom of Pontiac importer Lendrum & Hartman

Annual updates would focus on the grille texture and the headlights, which changed from twin circular to quad rectangular in 1976.

Pontiac had long espoused the merits of its wide-track suspension, and the Grand Prix, with full coil springing, variable-rate power-assisted steering and front disc brakes, showed that GM engineering was taking notice of European trends.

If the cars were no longer fast, at least there was a drive to make them handle and stop better than before.

The ‘radial tuned’ front suspension was borrowed from the Firebird, but radials weren’t standard until ’74.

Classic & Sports Car – Pontiac Grand Prix: excess all areas

The Pontiac Grand Prix’s vast front bench seats three with ease

As the flagship Pontiac offering, the longer, heavier 1973 Grand Prix came with 6.6- or 7.5-litre V8s, the latter good for 250bhp in the first year but a mere 200bhp in ’76, by which time a 5.8-litre V8 had become the base engine, supplemented in ’77 by a new 135bhp 4.9-litre that struggled to shift the Grand Prix’s bulk.

This 1976 Grand Prix is one of a handful sold new by Lendrum & Hartman, for years the West London-based importer of American-built GM cars for the UK.

In those days it was doing decent business with Cadillac Sevilles, Pontiac Firebirds, Chevrolet Blazers and Corvettes.

Classic & Sports Car – Pontiac Grand Prix: excess all areas
Classic & Sports Car – Pontiac Grand Prix: excess all areas

The Pontiac Grand Prix has a column gearshifter with indicators in the speedo (left); this high-spec model includes air-con

Duke of London’s Merlin McCormack bought the Grand Prix from its first owner at the end of 2023, showing just 37,000 miles.

“He’d got it brand-new as a young man and kept it ever since,” says Merlin.

“My interest was piqued when he said he was only selling because he was moving and losing the garage he purpose-built for it 30-odd years ago, with central heating, a fitted dehumidifier, tyre savers, a hard-wired trickle-charger, the lot.

“He had been a technician at Mercedes Temple Fortune his whole life and maintained this car to the highest standards.”

Classic & Sports Car – Pontiac Grand Prix: excess all areas

The Pontiac Grand Prix fails magnificently to blend in to London’s West End

Although not perfect, the dark green paint is original and the beige corduroy interior, complete with its swoopy wraparound dashboard and Rally gauges, is beautifully preserved.

The front seat is a split bench with chunk cushioning, and the deep-pile carpet crawls partway up the door panels.

They are part of the Grand Prix’s cheesy appeal, but the Landau roof, opera windows and fussy front-end detailing don’t add a huge amount to a basically well-balanced shape.

Classic & Sports Car – Pontiac Grand Prix: excess all areas

The Pontiac’s impact bumpers blend in well

Some cars had an angled, Firebird-style centre change, but this one is standard column-shift.

Like most UK-bound Yanks, this Grand Prix is well optioned with climate control and aero mirrors, but I might have passed on the bolt-on chrome wires.

There’s a grabhandle on the passenger side and a badge on the fake-wood dash that says ‘Radial Tuned Suspension’.

The rear cabin is adult-sized, if not over-generous; about a third of the boot is taken up by the spare wheel, but there’s enough room for that corpse you’re off to bury in the desert.

Classic & Sports Car – Pontiac Grand Prix: excess all areas

The Pontiac Grand Prix’s low-speed manners are impeccable

The designers would not have had to work very hard to make the 1978 Grand Prix roomier inside, despite it being 15in shorter.

Exterior details include hidden wipers and a fuel cap lurking behind the numberplate.

Under the giant, rear-hinged bonnet, the 350cu in two-barrel V8 is a viper’s nest of anti-smog and air-con tubing.

Silky, silent and with a nearly imperceptible gearchange, the big Grand Prix swishes imperiously through London traffic.

Classic & Sports Car – Pontiac Grand Prix: excess all areas

Post-1976 Pontiac Grand Prix models got square lights

Merlin – much taken with the car – flatters it, perhaps, by claiming that it “drives like a ’90s Rolls”.

But it holds its own in the urban milieu with no signs of temperament, and makes up in torque what it lacks in outright power: you wonder how many 1970s Americans really noticed – or cared – how flabby and slow their family former rocketships had suddenly become.

There is a shabby, brittle glamour about this car that makes you think in terms of the sort of amoral miscreants and hoodlums that populate the films of Tarantino and Scorsese.

Classic & Sports Car – Pontiac Grand Prix: excess all areas

The neat opera window gives the Pontiac Grand Prix an air of elegance

It wants to drive you to the golf course, but its natural home is the ghetto, a fantasy car for anyone who ever donned a large leather hat in anger.

Perhaps Merlin has a new career lined up.

“I’m now stuck with the age-old quandary of what to do,” he admits.

“Criminally, even in such good nick, the Pontiac is probably worth late teens. I am falling for it, and hard.”

Images: Max Edleston

Thanks to: Duke of London

1970s personal luxury coupes

Classic & Sports Car – Pontiac Grand Prix: excess all areas

The Chevrolet Monte Carlo has the same underpinnings as the Pontiac Grand Prix

Chevrolet Monte Carlo (1973-’77)

Sharing its platform with the Grand Prix, the Buick Century Regal Coupe and fourth-generation Oldsmobile Cutlass, this second incarnation of the Monte Carlo set new records for Chevrolet, with 250,000 cars sold in the first year alone.

It featured body-on-frame construction, a double-skinned ‘colonnade’ roof, full coil-sprung suspension and V8 engines from 145bhp to 235bhp, almost always with Turbo-Hydramatic transmission.

Yearly styling changes made it progressively slower and uglier; the downsized 1978 Monte Carlo was 15in shorter and 800lb lighter.

Classic & Sports Car – Pontiac Grand Prix: excess all areas

The AMC Matador was available in plenty of flavours

AMC Matador (1974-’76)

Dick Teague’s bug-eyed Matador was restyled for 1974 and continued the trend for ‘designer series’ versions: for $299 you could have an Oleg Cassini Matador with orange carpets and black velour trim, while choosing between a selection of anaemic straight-sixes, 304 and 306cu in V8s, and a big-block 401 good for 235bhp, 12 secs to 60mph and 11mpg.

Classic & Sports Car – Pontiac Grand Prix: excess all areas

The Chrysler Cordoba gave its maker a lifeline in the 1970s

Chrysler Cordoba (1975-’79)

Chrysler Corp had vowed never to build a junior edition of its senior brand, but relented with the mid-sized Cordoba, which was originally meant to be launched as a Dodge.

Famously advertised by Mexican film star Ricardo Montalbán, its ‘rich Corinthian leather’ was about as real as his hair.

The Cordoba was powered by 5.9- and 6.6-litre V8s, and pretty much kept Chrysler alive in the late ’70s, selling 150,000 examples in 1975 alone.

Classic & Sports Car – Pontiac Grand Prix: excess all areas

The Ford Elite was available with a 7.5-litre V8 engine

Ford Elite (1974-’76)

The Elite was built to tackle the wildly successful Monte Carlo, and marketed as a ‘Thunderbird-inspired’ mid-sized luxury coupe.

It was based on the Mercury XR7, with the usual Landau roof and opera window features.

All V8s, from 5.7 to 7.5 litres – the latter seemingly just a way of burning fuel more quickly rather than gaining performance.

Gruesome to look at and little better to drive: even a fresh-faced Tom Selleck’s ads could persuade ‘only’ 366,000 people to buy an Elite before it fell victim to downsizing across Ford’s range.

Classic & Sports Car – Pontiac Grand Prix: excess all areas

The Mercury Monarch Ghia Coupe had Ford Mustang underpinnings

Mercury Monarch Ghia Coupe (1975-’80)

A posh version of Ford’s ’75 Granada, the Mercury Monarch was an early downsizing effort to convince buyers that they could have a Euro-look ‘precision’ luxury car for a US-style price, complete with ‘exquisitely proportioned’ styling that featured a Mercedes-like ‘fine grille’.

Beyond the burled walnut appliqué and fake leather, the underpinnings were first-generation Mustang/Falcon, with 302 or 361cu in V8s, or a pair of dire ‘sixes’.


Classic & Sports Car – Pontiac Grand Prix: excess all areas

Pontiac Grand Prix

  • Sold/number built 1973-’77/856,818
  • Construction steel body, steel frame
  • Engine all-iron, ohv 5798cc V8, two-barrel Rochester carburettor
  • Max power 160bhp @ 4000rpm
  • Max torque 280lb ft @ 2000rpm
  • Transmission three-speed automatic, RWD
  • Suspension: front independent, by double wishbones rear live axle, four links; telescopic dampers, coil springs, anti-roll bar f/r
  • Steering worm and nut
  • Brakes discs front, drums rear
  • Length 18ft 12in (5486mm)
  • Width 6ft 4in (1829mm)
  • Height 4ft 3in (1295mm)
  • Wheelbase 9ft 6in (2896mm)
  • Weight 4045lb (1835kg)
  • 0-60mph 12.8 secs
  • Top speed 113mph
  • Mpg 13
  • Price new $5000
  • Price now £15-20,000*

*Prices correct at date of original publication

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