Note: Today’s post is by a friend of mine, Mike Massey. As a fellow member of The American Brougham Society on Facebook, he shares my love of full-sized, woodgrained station wagons, and owns a Roadmaster Estate Wagon, among other vintage GM rolling stock, today. I’ve always loved the 1977-79 B-body Pontiacs since my dad had a brown 1979 Bonneville sedan. That car was the subject of my first-ever car memory. Anyway, here’s the story of Mike’s dad’s special-ordered ’78 Grand Safari! -TK
OK I get lots of questions on comments about this car, so HERE is the long “novel” of our ’78 Pontiac Grand Safari, which we owned from 1978-1986, and how we came about owning it.
Dad really hated selling their pretty chocolate-brown ’72 Cutlass Supreme 2-door coupe, but my younger brother was on the way at the time, and we had just moved from Amarillo Texas to Tulsa Oklahoma (Dad with a Southwestern Bell promotion), and Dad had inherited his Father’s 73 Cheyenne Super pickup for himself, so it was new car time for my Mom.
Dad always liked Oldsmobiles, but hated the woodgrain design on those new 77-78 B-body Custom Cruisers, where the wood was only on the lower body, except where wood ran up and over the wheel openings. Dad thought that was just plain ugly. He considered a Buick, but, I think, that was still an “older-person’s” car to him then. He also badly wanted a ski boat, and in reading that ’78 was going to be the last year of the Pontiac 400 engine wagon option, and that it was the most powerful motor offered in these wagons, that made him look toward buying a Safari. Dad went and looked at the Pontiacs (I always tagged along on our many Sunday-afternoon “car-lotting” trips, which continued all through my youth and beyond), and I remember Dad’s only real complaint with the Pontiacs was that they didn’t have the chrome/stainless lower-body trim on the lower body rockers, lower doors, and lower quarter panels like the Buick and Oldsmobiles had.
Dad finally went to Ernie Miller Pontiac there in Tulsa on Memorial Drive, and ordered a Grand Safari exactly how he wanted it, with as much power and luxury and as many options as he could check off the order form. He ordered that big Pontiac 400, the towing package with every heavy-duty option, a Delco cassette stereo (no 8-track for us, Dad was already addicted to recording American Top 40 every weekend on our living room stereo, and wanted to listen to his Casey Kasem and mix-tapes in his new car!). He chose the full dashboard gauge package (with the central electric clock and not the fuel economy gauge), power EVERYTHING, that wacky 70’s striped interior trim, basically he checked off every box. The car ended up costing well over $10,000, more than most Corvettes that year. It was a really LOADED car.
The colors are what really stood out, and were also a problem from the start. Dad wanted the extra-cost ($380) Valencia interior from the Bonneville Brougham, but he wanted a SILVER car, and the dealer said they could not order a silver car with tan Valencia interior, it would not look right. They wanted him to order the red Valencia interior, which was an “approved” color for a silver car. It’s not clear if it was Mom who didn’t like the red, or Dad wanting a lighter color for the hot Tulsa summers, or just that Dad liked the tan, but he insisted on that tan interior, saying with the exterior woodgrain trim, it would look just fine.
The dealer put the order in, and Pontiac built the car, and to the dealer’s surprise it LOOKED FANTASTIC when it came in. The silver paint had a lot of metallic in it, and sparkled, and the dark wood with lighter tan outline trim contrasted wonderfully with that wild striped interior. They even put it on the showroom floor when it arrived. Dad said in the months soon after taking delivery, there were other silver-over-tan Safari’s on the lot there at Ernie Miller. He started a fad I guess!
As mentioned, it was special ordered with the last of the real Pontiac 400 engines, and with the towing package for the lower rear gearing (remember the boat..that Dad never got?). It would really scoot for a 70’s car. It was also geared so low that when we came down the mountains in Colorado (we moved there in 1984) that if Dad took his foot off the gas, it would actually slow down even on the steep mountain grades!
There were however some “issues” when the car finally came in. Dad had ordered the Pontiac “Snowflake” aluminum wheels, but when it came in, it had wire-wheel hubcaps. Pontiac dropped the snowflake option from the wagons, saying the mags could not support the load the wagons might carry, so they were only offered on the sedans. I’ve also been told all towing-package Safari wagons got the steel wheels with hubcaps…but don’t know if that’s really the case or not. Dad refused delivery until the dealer swapped on the Rally II wheels you see in pictures (but there is ONE pic of Dad pre-delivery with the hubcaps here!). The Rallys were not what he really wanted (Dad was just 31 when he bought this car remember…no wire hubcaps for him!), but it looked sportier at least with the Rally IIs.
Other mistakes on Pontiac’s part that did not get corrected were that he ordered it with a tilt steering column and cruise control, and the pretty wood-trimmed Bonny Brougham steering wheel. For whatever reason, it showed up with a fixed non-tilt steering column and base-level Bonny steering wheel with a single silver strip ending in a Pontiac arrowhead emblem (in hindsight, the base-level wheel was better than the wood-trimmed, as every wood wheel I’ve since seen has the wood rubbed off the outer wheel spokes from handling). The car DID have the cruise control however, thankfully. The dealer would not put in a tilt column, but agreed to swap the Rally II wheels on. The other issue is he (as noted checking all the boxes) had ordered the “light package” with cornering lights on the front fenders and the chrome-trimmed red and white door panel lights…and the car arrived without that package too. Dad lived with it, but never gave Ernie Miller any more of his business.
As seen in one pic here as well, my Dad’s really good friend bought a brown ’78 Grand Safari for his family, and the wagons can be seen nose-to-nose in our Tulsa back yard, with proud owners posing.
We did have a bit of a nightmare trip when that Safari was basically brand-new. My Grandparents had just moved from Poplar Bluff Missouri to a big house in Waco Texas at this time, and invited us down to Thanksgiving (about 350 miles away…6hrs for normal folks, 8hrs for my family with 10+ bathroom stops). We set off for Waco in the freshly-washed and gleaming Safari, with a big white Sears X-Cargo carrier strapped on the roof rack. Dad had cut foam to the exact size of the cargo area and with blankets had made a pallet bed back there for napping or playing (seatbelts were still for looks until the early 80s). We’d headed south with a Joe Walsh cassette in the stereo and good sunny fall weather. ANYWAY we got about two hours south of Tulsa and the Safari began hitching and bucking and backing off. Finally it stalled and Dad coasted to the side of the road. Dad was upset and boggled…this was a brand-new car. A trucker stopped, and they looked the car over. Turns out, on the early B-body wagons, there was a mesh screen on the exhaust tip…I have no idea why GM did that, but that screen was totally blocked inside with what my Dad guessed was burnt pieces of the catalytic converter. The car could not “breathe”. The trucker got a tire iron and proceeded to BASH that screen out of the exhaust tip, then had Dad start the car and rev the motor, and black chunks of screen and converter flew out…and then the car ran perfectly the rest of the trip. Ha!
But the FUN was not over. On getting to Waco that evening, my Dad parked the Safari nose-in to a big basketball goal in my Grandparent’s driveway. The goal was made up of two large white wooden posts with various cross-braces, and the goal itself was made of thick plywood (I’ve posed a pic of the day we arrived in Waco, with the doors open on the wagon and me climbing on my Grandad’s trail bike, and that basketball goal can be seen over the roof of the wagon in that pic..just hours before IT happened). That night the weather changed and there were high winds and an ice storm. During the night, that basketball goal fell….right onto our new wagon. We woke to find the world covered in ice, with that basketball goal laying on the dented hood and roof of the wagon, the windshield shattered. Dad was just ill, my Grandfather was mortified, and we all tried to make the best of that Thanksgiving after they pulled the goal off the car…. We ended up driving all the way back to Tulsa later that weekend looking through a shattered windshield. Dad had the car repaired at the dealer soon after, but the paint on the hood and front of the roof faded a few years later, while the rest of the factory paint never did fade at all…
One other shorter story, when the car was just a few years old we were on a trip and I was in the middle-row, passenger side, and I noticed the plasti-chrome tape on the door panel next to me that outlined the wood trim was coming loose. I picked at it, and then proceeded to pull if off the panel in thing, long strips, leaving the bare grey plastic trim. I then proceeded to throw the chrome tape at my kid-brother next to me, at which point my Dad was getting mad, and then some tape floated up front, and into my Dad, who grabbed it, looked at it, looked back at me, squinted his eyes, and then opened them wide when he realized what the chrome fluttering around the interior was, followed by jamming on the brakes and pulling over, after which I was hauled out of the car and spanked on the side of the road…in full view of passing cars… I did learn not to pick at the plasti-chrome trim from that experience…
When the phone company split up in 1984-85, Dad found out he was moving to AT&T and we were being transferred. Dad sold that Safari to a teenager down the street from us there in Denver, and we were moving to New Jersey. The Safari was still in nice shape, had about 90K miles on it then. The woodgrain under the door handles was starting to peel and the hood and front roof paint was fading, and Dad said the rear differential had started growling a bit, but other than that, it was still in fine shape (minus some chrome trim on one door panel…). I was 11 at the time, and when the kid pulled out of our driveway in the Safari…I cried, no joke!
Right when we arrived in New Jersey, Dad bought Mom the silver ’86 Buick Electra Estate Wagon I’ve also posted about. It was a pretty car, with fancy pillowed grey cloth inside, lots of wood inside and out, but it was flat gutless with the Olds 307, was never as special as that Safari was, and gave us a lot of trouble mechanically and cosmetically, where the Safari had been such a wonderful and reliable car in comparison.
If any wagon nuts in Colorado every come across a silver over tan ’78 Safari with wild-looking interior trim, please drop me a line. I hope that car is still alive somewhere!