Grand Prix was built by General Motors for over 45 years, and during that time was marketed as either a muscle car, a personal luxury car, or a family sedan with a touch of performance.
It’s not that Grand Prix had an identity complex. It was that Grand Prix was such a valuable member of the Pontiac family that the division was able to strategically leverage its style and image to maximize sales. And so Grand Prix was often stretched and molded to accommodate whatever demographic or economic challenge GM and Pontiac were facing.
That was certainly the case for the second generation of Grand Prix, built from 1969 to 1972. The car was introduced in 1962 as a sport/performance model based on the full-size Pontiac. But within a few years the bosses at Pontiac were sensing a shift in attitudes, and the initial format – Grand Prix as a high-performance variant of a full-size family car – wasn’t eliciting the expected sales excitement.
It was John DeLorean, Pontiac’s general manager, who made an executive decision in 1967 to change the Grand Prix image. DeLorean decided that, beginning with the ‘69 model year, Grand Prix would become smaller. It would be based on the midsize platform then shared by Le Mans and the Chevrolet Chevelle.
DeLorean’s decision was unusual, because the late Sixties was an era when cars grew and they most certainly didn’t get smaller. An example was Ford’s popular Mustang, which by 1970 and 1971 was a bigger car than the original 1964 model. Indeed, the trend in Detroit was to enlarge vehicles and stuff them with expensive options. That’s where the profit lay.
And so DeLorean’s edict was startling. In fact, one could surmise that Grand Prix was the first Detroit-based car to be downsized, and almost a full decade before GM embarked upon its historic program to reduce the size of its full size cars for the 1977 model year.
For 1969, the shape of Grand Prix would resemble Cadillac’s Eldorado. There would be a long hood (the longest in Pontiac history), a very wide C-pillar, and a very short deck. Grand Prix would be endowed with the traditional Pontiac chrome nose, but that grille would be tall and narrow. Corner lights protruded from the front fenders, and between those cornering lights and grill were double headlights.
The rear of Grand Prix was almost Eldorado-like. It was very elegant and in no way resembled a muscle car.
In total, the new Grand Prix had a wheelbase three inches shorter than the
1968 model. The car was also lighter, but was fitted with a high-powered engine. Standard was a massive 400-cubic-inch V8. Optional was a 428-cubic-inch V8 or a 455-cubic-inch V8. It was the era of cheap gasoline, and with no emission control equipment, the Grand Prix was built to move.
Some people called Grand Prix an “Eldorado for the masses.”
Two transmissions were available: a three-speed automatic, or four-speed manual.
Inside, Grand Prix was fitted with a wraparound, cockpit-style instrument panel. “Strato” seats were separated by a console that dipped toward the driver. Interiors were luxurious.
There were a few innovations in Grand Prix for 1969. The radio antenna was concealed in the windshield. This became a standard feature on many GM cars by the mid-1970s. Grand Prix also offered optional built-in rear window defoggers, along with side-impact beams in the doors. Both of these features would also become standard fare within a few years.
Perhaps the most unusual feature was the door handles. They featured a grab handle and push button. It wasn’t an innovation that caught on.
Pontiac modelled (or tried to model) its new Grand Prix on the classic Duesenbergs of the 1930s, and even went as far as to borrow some Duesey model names – the J and the SJ. Both models had their own optional trim.
The 1969 Grand Prix was an enormous hit. Over 112,000 units were sold, compared to a paltry 32,000 for the 1968 model year. At the heart of Grand Prix’s success was its bold emulation of Eldorado, which was an expensive car.
Others in Detroit, and particularly within the General Motors executive class, sat up and took notice. In 1970, Chevrolet introduced a luxury variant of its Malibu and called it Monte Carlo. In its early years, Monte Carlo would be known for having a long hood (the longest in Chevrolet history), a wide C-pillar, and a short deck. It would offer a huge engine with plenty of power, and its interior would be lavish when compared to the lowly Chevelle. So popular was Monte Carlo, and Oldsmobile’s comparably-equipped Cutlass Supreme, that Grand Prix sales were bled in 1970 and fell to 65,750.
As previously mentioned, the second generation of Grand Prix continued to 1972. By 1973, GM and the other automakers were compelled to introduce new federally-mandated crash bumpers, along with new emission control systems, and so the 1973 Grand Prix was a much heavier and different-looking car. The 1973 model was actually more successful than the 1969 model, and the styling was quite attractive.
But it was the 1969 Grand Prix that broke the mold and helped establish the brand for the next several decades.