Given the number of times I have referenced the 1979 Bonneville sedan my dad had when I was about three years old, it probably won’t come as a surprise that I am a big fan of the full-size 1977-79 Pontiacs. While they were not nearly as popular as their Caprice, Delta 88 and LeSabre brethren, when fitted with Brougham trim and ordered with an indulgent eye on the option list, these cars could do almost everything a Coupe de Ville or Sedan de Ville could, save snob appeal.
Pontiac’s full-size cars sort of floundered during the ’70s. They were perfectly serviceable as daily drivers, but had lost the ’60s style, flash and appeal for which they’d been renowned. Exactly what was a big Pontiac supposed to be now? A cut-rate Electra 225? A slightly more deluxe Caprice? A plus-sized Grand Prix? Even Pontiac didn’t seem sure, and suffered for it. But things started to pick up with the downsized full-size ’77 cars.
I think we all know that the 1977 General Motors B-bodies were introduced at the perfect time. Their clean, uncluttered “sheer” styling, efficient packaging and unexpected room made for a lineup of fine family cars. Although the Chevrolets promptly blew the other divisions’ Bs out of the water, the platform’s inherent goodness helped increase the sales of all the GM full-sizers, including Pontiac’s.
By this time, the midsize segment dominated by the Cutlass Supreme claimed the vast majority of coupe sales; although GM still offered full-size coupes, they were seen far less frequently than their sedan counterparts. The Bonneville (and its Canadian-kin Parisienne, seen above) was quite handsome indeed–perhaps so much so that by the late ’70s, the Catalina was no longer the largest-selling full-size Pontiac. Buyers desiring a big Pontiac opted for the flossier Bonneville and Bonneville Brougham models, leaving the LeMans to other shoppers who simply wanted a plain sedan.
That was probably just fine with Pontiac, which certainly made more profit on a Bonneville. It was easy to distinguish a Bonneville from a Catalina, since the Bonnies had a more “important”-looking grille, wider taillights, fender skirts, a gold sunburst hood ornament, and sunburst side badging on sedan C-pillars and non-Landau-roofed coupe B-pillars.
Frankly, the Catalina (and its Canadian Laurentian counterpart) was starting to look a whole lot like a fleet special that was more (recently departed) Bel Air than Impala–and even less like Catalinas of just a few years earlier. The Bonnevilles simply did “Brougham” so much better, in your author’s opinion.
Between 1977 and 1979, Bonnevilles stayed pretty much the same, save the expected grille and taillight updates. The ’79s also lost the chrome wind-split between the rectangular headlights, which were moved closer together, and the cool snowflake alloy wheels had been moved to the option list.
The 1977-1979 model lineup stayed the same, starting with the entry-level Catalina and moving up through the Bonneville and Bonneville Brougham coupes and sedans. One model that did not return for ’79 was the Di-Noc-clad Grand Safari, which was now dubbed the Bonneville Safari. Sadly, the wagon didn’t offer the Brougham’s loose-pillow velour seating.
That ultra-cosseting, floating-pillow velour split-bench seating is the very reason why you’d choose the Brougham. What’s more, this was when interiors came in real colors like red, green, blue, tan, black and white, and not just sepia tones. Properly equipped, these cars could be just about as luxurious as any Cadillac.
Load up your Brougham: Add the snowflake alloys, whitewalls, Astroroof and power everything, and you had an awfully nice car–all for thousands less than a Coupe or Sedan de Ville. About the only thing you couldn’t get on the Pontiac was a leather interior.
But many folks passed up the Bonnie in favor of the Caprice Classic, which offered essentially the same car (and luxury options) for less money.
Actually, the Pontiac occupied a sort of anti-sweet spot: It not only had a higher sticker price than the Caprice, but for just a few more dollars Bonnie shoppers could buy a more prestigious Delta 88 Royale or LeSabre Custom. Even in the late 1970s, each GM brand had a distinct identity that reflected one’s station in life, and buyers knew it.
While a Bonneville Brougham cost less than a Delta 88, it was ever so much more prestigious to tell everyone at work that you got a new Oldsmobile as opposed to a new Pontiac: “A Pontiac, huh? So then it’s basically a Caprice…right, Bob?”
Hey, under the skin all the B-bodies were all pretty similar. But for whatever reason, Pontiac’s versions consistently owned the bottom of the B-body sales charts.
image: PontiacChief’s photostream at flickr.com
Dad’s Bonneville was the very first car I can remember, and also the first car I remember riding in as a toddler. It was almost the same as the car in the above picture, but add a beige vinyl roof. That car really made an impression on me. Why else would I have such a serious jones for them 35-odd years later?
As expected, the Bonneville Brougham was the swankiest full-size Pontiac. Peppered with extra features inside and out, the biggest difference from the basic Bonneville was inside. There was loose-cushion velour seating with a 60/40 divided front seat, a fold-down center armrest, deep-pile carpeting, electric clock, custom chrome-trimmed pedals and a ‘luxury’ cushioned steering wheel.
Yes, the Brougham was quite the cushy, well-equipped car, with poofy seats, extra sound insulation and a bright red arrowhead adorning its chromed nose, but it just didn’t sell like the Caprice. However, the 1977-79 Catalinas and Bonnevilles did sell significantly better than their 1976 predecessors.
Pontiac was quick to point that out in the 1978 sales brochure: “We called them ‘the right cars, at the right time.’ And we were right. Because America’s drivers purchased over 40% more 1977 full-size Pontiacs than they purchased 1976 full-size Pontiacs.”
And the numbers only got better. In 1977, 114,880 Bonnevilles were sold; 125,297 moved in 1978; and 1979 sales totaled 162,491. Not bad, but still a blip on the radar compared with Caprice sales of 284,813, 263,909 and 261,470 for ’77, ’78 and ’79, respectively. While that isn’t good news for folks seeking an affordable collectible, perhaps it still will work in the Bonneville’s favor as time goes by. The relative scarcity may one day enhance both its value and survival rate.
Yes, these cars are my favorites, but sadly are quite rare here in the Midwest. But by dumb chance and Lady Luck, I quite happily found this silver ’79 Brougham coupe several years back. On the other hand, I’ve seen probably two or three dozen ’77-’79 Caprices over the last 5-7 years.
For some reason, while on my way to 16th St. in Moline I took a side street I rarely used. When I glanced to my right at an intersection, I spotted this Bonneville. Holy crap! It was even a ’79, like Dad’s.
There was a fresh-vegetable stand across the alley, so I parked and walked over to see if one of the customers there was the owner. Dan, the owner, turned out to be a very nice guy who was flattered that I was interested in his old car. I told him my Dad had owned one, and I asked if I could take some pictures. Dan said no problem.
Dan is the one-and-only owner of this Brougham, which he purchased brand-new at Horst-Zimmerman Pontiac-Cadillac in downtown Rock Island, IL, trading in a ’73 LeMans. He’d also looked at Bonnevilles at Perry Snower Pontiac-Buick, in Moline, but since they wouldn’t deal the silver coupe in Rock Island became his. What I find interesting is that Horst-Zimmerman was right across the street from Illinois Casualty, where my dad worked as an investigator. I find it fascinating that at the same time Dan was doing the deal on his silver Bonneville coupe, Dad was most likely about 50 feet away, sitting at his desk while his brown Bonneville sedan sat in the parking lot. Small world!
Dan’s Bonneville is equipped with many options, including power windows and door locks, a gauge package, Landau roof, sport mirrors and Rally wheels. He said the car cost about $10,000 in 1979 and that they’ve been through a lot together since then. Dan related an amusing story of a hit-and-run in which the driver of an early ’80s Town Car took off after hitting him. Fortunately for Dan, the “master criminal” behind the wheel left his license plate behind for Dan to take to the local constabulary! Aren’t stupid criminals amusing?
At the time, Dan’s Bonneville has just shy of 90,000 miles on the odometer. It’s not a show car, but still pretty decent for a late ’70s Detroit cruiser in the Midwest. Dan still has the fender skirts, too. As you can see, the interior is really nice–and, I’m sure, still very comfortable.
After taking way too many photos than I needed to (I TOLD you I liked these cars!) Dan and I parted ways. It was great to get to check out his car up close, and chat with him about it. Over the past seven years or so, I still spot it occasionally in traffic, so it, and Dan, are still ticking along nicely.
Big, top of the line American cars do so well as a retiree’s splurge car. Think of how much nicer this must have seemed when compared to the older Lemans yet still in the family. Tom has done a great job showing off all the little extras you got at the top of the line. Stuff perhaps only you notice, but notice everytime during a long ownership. These cars really were a victory lap for a life well lived.
Compare it to the Bronco and Sprinter van we have seen put forth here lately as fodder for todays retirees. Trucks to slink away from society and the role of head of family. Maybe it is just that the current retirees didn’t do as much building up their country or consistently providing for their families that there is no victory lap to take. Just a vehicle to slink off in an nurse their hurt feelings alone. Sad..
A friend of mine died two and a half years ago. She was ninety-three and always had money. She had fond memories from the Depression and Prohibition because her family had the resources to shrug them off. I never met her husband, but he was a developer who built the condo complex I lived in for about five years in Pacific Beach. I’m thinking he was a good provider too. Her last car was a lightly used Kia subcompact, it being easier for her to park in her smallish garage at her age. It replaced a 36,000 mile Buick that cost thousands of dollars every time it needed to be CARB smog-inspected and stranded her so many times that AAA cut her loose. The heater core blew while I was driving it to the dealer to drop it off as a trade in and pick up my car that I’d taken her car-shopping in. Fortunately the car’s elderly owner wasn’t with me, but my then-girlfriend and I drove down the I5 freeway to National City Casey Jones-style, with our heads stuck out of the windows to escape the steam rolling from the dash vents. American cars are great though, and everyone who stops buying them is a potential mostly peaceful protester.
One reason Detroit cars don’t resonate all over the country is because of the geography. You can’t make great cars living on a flat grid. If your cars are going to appeal to people who drive on winding mountain roads, they need to be designed by people who are thinking about winding mountain roads. If your cars are going to be space-efficient, they can’t be built by people who live where real estate is worthless. It is a horrible shame that the US auto industry was based in Detroit. Maybe a few generations from now there will be another civilization in North America and they won’t let such an important industry be held hostage by a bunch of navel-gazers.
Yes I get it, American cars suck. it is so much better for a woman that is too lazy to care to buy a Kia.
I know you hyper bought in to that Wall Street mantra, but do you really belief that.
Lazy? She was about eighty-seven years old when she bought her Kia, and she lived in a condo that occupied the second and third floors of a walk-up building. She lived there until she passed away too, climbing stairs to get from her bedroom to her kitchen, and her kitchen to the garage that held her reliable car. She actually didn’t really like the Kia, which was partially my fault for believing the press saying that Hyundai and Kia had advanced past their years of making cars as badly as Detroit. Unlike her Buick it didn’t strand her and it didn’t need to have the door panels removed every time the ladies from her bridge club rolled down the windows, but she missed the features that always broke on the Buick.
Her good friend who was also born in the 1920s had a loaded Corolla and a house on a cliff over the Pacific that must have sold for eight figures when her kids inherited it. I don’t think my friend wanted to copy her peer by buying the same thing, but it was definitely an inspiration for the cars we looked at. Unfortunately, it was at a time when gas was painfully expensive in California and four cylinder Japanese cars were selling for well over MSRP. Civics had seats that were too low for an elderly person to hop in and out of, and Nissans were French cars in the wrong uniforms. Two friends I’d helped buy Mazdas had already been burned, so a Korean car seemed like a decent choice. She never liked hers, but it was actually less of a POS than one bought by another friend who had previously had cars including a ’69 Skylark, a ’54 Chevy, a ’72 Electra 225, a Cavalier wagon, a ’64 Fury, a pre-Mazda Escort, a Ford Ranger, and a 1986 BMW 325e. The Kia’s wheel bearing issues and Kia’s response were enough to get him to buy a CR-V, which he still loves eight or nine years later.
What did I buy into from Wall Street? I enjoy driving, so I buy cars that please me. I don’t buy cars to put money into Democrat politicians’ pockets, and I don’t buy cars to subsidize rot. You lash out at your superiors shamelessly, but you send your own car buying dollars to China. I think Jack is wrong about you when he says that your tunnel vision has driven you to make inferences that are beneath you. You’re a scorpion riding across a river on the back of a frog.
I figured you talked her into it. No doubt her old Buick, in it’s second decade?, was too much trouble for the old lady to handle. Then you saddle her with a used Korea car that because it was used, lacked it’s only redeeming feature, the long warranty. Now you think, maybe if I found her a Corolla. Nowhere does it occur to you that in your time frame there was still a new smaller Buick that offered a longer warranty and if mine was any exemplar would have given her no trouble. After all, a current Buick would have not felt like a downgrade and reinforced the idea that her countries’ best days are behind in the same way it was for her.
The Kia and yes the CRV are part of the Wall Street hollowing out that you very much participated in. I am sure you have seen where the director who calls himself Oliver Stone recasts Ivan Boesky into suavish actor who calls himself Michael Douglas to give the greed is good speech. How many times did every industrial firm’s American leaders have to hear in real life a variant of that speech. Don’t worry folks, when we are done with the blood sucking you will still have your choice of used Kias. How exciting.
Please explain how owning a Kia or a CRV is supporting the Wall Street hollowing out of the country but a Chinese Volvo is not.
If anything, Detroit Three executives are the poster children for destructive, quarterly earnings-driven thinking. Asian manufacturers’ investments in America have done far more to create jobs that support the Main Street economy than anything the domestics have in the last 40 years. Japan built plants in parts of the country that needed jobs; GM got a racist black Detroit mayor to bulldoze a white working class neighborhood to build Eldorados no one wanted with hilariously expensive, malfunctioning robots.
It’s too bad your cognitive dissonance isn’t physically painful.
I would have bought that 36,000 mile Buick….was it a Park Avenue?
It’s not normally my policy to directly disagree with or criticize readers, but: Sam’s father was a commercial jet pilot, successful club racer, and respected mechanic who steered two children to success in their careers before burning his life to the ground to ensure just a little bit more quality time on earth with his wife, who was being dismantled from inside by brain cancer. Having suffered with her in ways that you and I can not even begin to fathom, he now wants to drive an RV between his children and grandchildren. Implying that this is somehow morally inferior to piloting a Ninety-Eight Regency around a Del Webb development is, I think, beneath you and everyone else who reads this site.
He was also a man that in in his senior years decided directly to live as a hobo with a credit card.
This is a man in trouble begging for someone, preferably clergy, to help. In every previous generation, everyone would agree. Instead we have a sad old man living in his own adult child’s driveway. As if the junior Mr. Smith does not have enough stressors. I know this is all too common, but if you just pretend it is healthy how can it be fixed?
You have no right to be judge and jury of another man’s choices.
Don’t worry, my star chamber proceedings are on hold due to the lockdown. Strangely, the cheerleader camp seems as crowded as ever. Who knew voluntarily not having a pot to piss in was such an attractive option?
For some, it’s the only option. For others, they may do as they please.
I think the full-size Pontiac suffered in the 1970s relative to its full-size GM competitors because it lost its performance halo it has in the late 1950s into the 60s. The original Bonneville came with fuel injection, and lightweight (aluminum bumper and sheetmetal) Pontiacs were the hot ticket at drag strips while Super Duty Wide-Track Ponchos were NASCAR winners in the early 60s. The arrival of the GTO and GP took some the prestige from the big Bonneville, but probably enhanced the performance image – along with the great dashboards sporting better instrumentation (including hood mounted tach), and 8 lug alloy wheels to give a performance edge versus full-size Olds and Buicks. If Pontiac has made Super-Duty or T/A versions of their 455 and 400 motors available in the Bonneville and done more to sport up the dashboard during the 1970s they might have kept their performance credibility intact, but they decided to go brougham and lost their differentiation from Olds and Buick and the ever more luxified Caprice.
They were still the only GM division that at least gave you the option of full gauges, no tach but at least temp, oil and amps, with a vacuum gauge too.
DeLorean had pitched the idea of making a smaller sportier full size Pontiac off the intermediate too, like the G body Grand Prix after the downsized GP really took off in 1969 but he was moved to Chevrolet and the idea went nowhere.