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Grand Prix changed the style at Pontiac

October 29, 2006|by MALCOLM GUNN / Wheelbase Communications

Simple, tasteful and elegant are words not normally associated with most cars built by North American automakers in the early 1960s. The revolutionary 1962 Pontiac Grand Prix can rightfully lay claim to those adjectives as it became a benchmark for style and sophistication.

Before its arrival, the personal-luxury category was dominated and even outright owned by the second-generation Ford Thunderbird that was introduced in 1958. That year marked the beginning of the four-seater 'Bird, a larger but eminently more practical version of the two-seat original.

Ford's product research had earlier concluded that Thunderbird sales would significantly increase if more room could be found for more passengers. After all, it was the 1950s, a time of rapid expansion across the land, including an explosion of multi-member families (more children). The larger Thunderbird provided mom and dad with a place to stash the kids, but retained its sporty image by lowering the suspension, keeping the lines relatively chrome-free and stuffing a 300-horsepower V-8 under the hood.

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The result was predictable. Sales of the '58 Thunderbird were nearly double those of the 1957 model, despite a price increase of more than $200 for a hardtop and $500 for the convertible. Over the next two years, the number of units sold would soar even higher.

In the automobile business, one manufacturer's success story is another manufacturer's opportunity.

Over at General Motors, the ever-rising number of Thunderbirds cruising the highways did not go unnoticed, and the race was on to develop a similar vehicle. An all-new design had been created by GM's styling department and was slated to go into production as the premium-priced 1963 Buick Riviera.

In the meantime, Pontiac's engineering department was given the go-ahead to develop a similar, albeit less-expensive alternative, dubbed the Grand Prix.

Their starting point was the existing 120-inch-wheelbase chassis and most of the basic body shell from the popular Catalina hardtop coupe. A special heavy-duty suspension developed for the car slightly reduced ground clearance, but improved handling.

All of the Catalina's side trim was deleted, replaced by a small chrome Grand Prix badge attached to the door and a set of stylish chrome rocker moldings. The front grille and rear panel between the taillights was also unique to the Grand Prix.

A variety of normally extra-cost items were also added to every Grand Prix, including air conditioning, cruise control, vinyl-covered bucket seats, a floor console, tachometer, dual exhausts and power steering, brakes and windows.

As a final touch, the Grand Prix was available with a spectacular looking set of 14-inch Kelsey-Hayes aluminum wheels that were each attached to the hubs using eight lug nuts.

To make the Grand Prix run as fast as it looked, a 303-horsepower 389-cubic-inch OHV V-8 with a four-barrel carburetor was housed between the front fenders. Additional tread-melting torque was available in the form of a 318-horsepower "Tri-power" 389 (triple two-barrel carbs), or a high-performance 389-cube "Trophy V-8" that delivered either 333 or 348 horsepower depending on the carburetor setup.

For a vehicle weighing nearly two tons, the Grand Prix could generate some impressive acceleration numbers with the hottest version sprinting to 60 mph in fewer than 7 seconds.

Three transmission choices would be available to Grand Prix buyers: a base three-speed manual; optional four-speed manual; or a three-speed automatic.

Creating the car from an existing design meant the 1962 Grand Prix was able to beat the Buick Riviera to the sales floor by one year. But the real ace up its sleeve was the attractive price. At an entry point of less than $3,500, the car cost about $700 less than the Thunderbird. Personal luxury with affordability had arrived at Pontiac.

New-car shoppers went wild for the value-laden Grand Prix, snapping up some 30,000 examples in its first year. Suddenly, the Grand Prix became the car to own, or to be seen in.

Encouraged by its initial success, Pontiac's image-shapers planned an even more dramatic car for 1963. A new and exclusive formal roofline with a concave rear window was grafted onto the Catalina's body while what appeared to be fog lights (they were actually signal lamps) gave the car some added Euro flavor.

A 370-horsepower 421-cubic-inch motor also became the top dog in the engine compartment. The result was predictable. Sales of the '63 Grand Prix more than doubled its 1962 counterpart.

In the 40-plus years since first being created, the Grand Prix has become a mainstay of the Pontiac fold, has introduced other breakthrough designs and has stayed true to its sporty looks and solid performance. It no longer uses a big-block V-8 for power (although a 303-horsepower V-8 is offered), but it continues to represent North American style, features and performance at a down-to-earth price.

Malcolm Gunn is Wheelbase Communications' chief road tester and automotive history writer.

Copyright 2006, Wheelbase Communications

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