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As Pontiac lovers lament, an Ode to My Bonnie

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh  April 28, 2009 02:47 PM

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bonneville-front.jpgThe 1993 Bonneville SSE was an advanced sedan in its day. (Colleen Reilly)

Monday was a sad day for Pontiac lovers. For the critics who have already stormed other articles and blogs regarding the brand's watered-down persona - platform sharing with Chevrolet, the Australian GTO, body cladding, the Aztek, among others - consider what Pontiac used to stand for: performance and high value.

As the former driver of a 1993 Bonneville SSE that pushed 230,000 miles, I can attest to Pontiac's mission statement, even though that car was also based on the Oldsmobile Eighty Eight and the Buick LeSabre. Yet while the chassis, front-quarter window glass, and the woefully inefficient 3.8 liter V-6 (only making 170 horsepower) tied the car to the GM family, the Bonneville was a true corporate outsider. Nearly a decade before the high-priced European cars offered such useful features as heads-up displays, power seat bolsters, radio controls on the steering wheel, an auto-dimming rearview mirror - and the early form of in-car navigation, the electronic compass - the Bonneville SSE had all of that.

Dual air bags, anti-lock brakes, and traction control were all included before many mainstream cars offered them. Everything you could touch was power-operated, the seats moved about two-dozen ways, climate control was automatic, there were air vents for the back seat (with adjustable louvers for the floor and face), and the stereo's subwoofer was the only sound more satisfying than the low, throaty growl from the dual exhaust pipes.

My father bought it in 1996 with 47,000 miles for $15,500 - a good price for a well-kept, top-end model that commanded around $27,000 three years earlier. The car's only pitfall as he drove it off the lot was the gagging stench of cigarettes, which took several weeks worth of Glade fresheners to clear. The only options it didn't have was the supercharged engine (a boost to 225 horsepower), a CD player, and electronically adjustable dampers. All of this with tank-like construction, firmly weighted steering, and a dashboard devoid of hard plastics and the flat, senior-citizen style design that had dominated all other large GM cars for eons.

The green Bonnie was the first car I learned to drive. It was the car that started my newspaper career as a college intern, when as it aged and the air conditioning failed, I hustled it in the summer heat around Meriden, Conn., writing stories for the daily Record-Journal. It's odd to describe love between a human being and a slab of metal, but mine was plain to see. The Bonneville was always there for me, and it's fair that I wouldn't be writing on Boston.com and working for The Boston Globe had it not shuttled me to nearly 40 assignments over two summers.

At 200,000 miles, the Bonneville was creeping into old age. The ride turned into an inflatable children's funhouse on the highway. A mysterious fuel line problem made the car stall around turns and hills when the tank was a quarter-full (and boy, was it fun to muscle the Bonneville around a highway exit ramp with no engine or power assists). The cabin had become a cloth tent as the roof liner began to peel, some of the radio buttons quit their jobs, the security chip on the key sometimes locked the ignition, and a failing alternator stranded my family in a snowstorm. Or am I thinking of the fuel problem during another summer?

The Bonneville, however, was easy to forgive. The car's vitals - engine, transmission, steering, brakes - worked without flaw. I wasn't old enough to drive the car during its prime, but its back seat was the only place where I could catch sleep on long road trips. Its nameplate stretched back to 1957, an intangible alternate universe to most 20-year-olds. But I knew then, when the Bonneville went to the junkyard in 2006, that it was a legacy few other cars in the world could claim.

It could be argued that the Firebird - another legacy dating to 1967 - was the start of Pontiac's sad end when it was discontinued after 2002. But the loss of the Bonneville after the 2005 model year was the loudest death knell. When a brand's flagship goes under, what else is really left? Could Mercedes still be Mercedes without the S-Class, a long-timer that introduced much of the company's technology, including the industry's first iteration of stability control? Or Porsche without the 911, Chevrolet without the Corvette? Granted, these are cars in stratospheric price points next to a Bonneville, but the idea is the same.

There are big books that have been and will continue to be written on GM's failure to invest in Pontiac, the reliance on SUVs, the idea of sticking different badges on the exact same car and assuming buyers wouldn't notice. The list goes on. But perhaps the biggest reason is a lack of pride. A disinterest in identity and history, a nonchalant business stance at Pontiac that was more concerned with selling to rental fleets than dedicated customers.

Pontiac had a world-class car in the 1990s. The engineers, marketers, and product developers should be infuriated at what became of it.

"My Bonnie lies over the ocean
My Bonnie lies over the sea
My Bonnie lies over the ocean
Oh bring back my Bonnie to me"

- An old Scottish song

All photos by Colleen Reilly.

bonneville-front-34.jpgThere was a slim amount of body cladding on the 1993 Bonneville, and unlike later Pontiacs, it didn't detract from the other metalwork.


bonneville-rear.jpgNormally, decklid spoilers are tacky, but the SSE's was tasteful and made standard Bonnevilles look odd without one.


bonneville-and-z3.jpgThe author's father, seen in 2006 with the 1997 BMW Z3 he bought during his Bonneville's final years.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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27 comments so far...
  1. Now, what is that 1997 TRANS AM in my garage worth? I love the car, it has an emotional hold on me. Now, I don't think I could part with it.

    Posted by Bonnie April 28, 09 06:50 PM
  1. OK, I couldn't resist - that's my car Clifford is describing. It was the best damn car I ever owned. There's was nothing better on long trips - and there were plenty in the Bonneville as it just made the drive a joy. The dashboard lit up like a fighter jet - everything in a soft muted red - Pontiac style. No one ever seemed to mind sitting in the back as the seats were just about as comfy as the fronts. Reading lamps, soft, wide arm rests - damn that was one nice car. 10 years for $15.5K - that's a lot of style and comfort for well under $2K per year - including maintenance! That was one nice car. Oh, sorry, already said that.

    Posted by Z3 April 28, 09 10:47 PM
  1. Wow. Great article. Well said. Nice to hear a younger voice speak for pontiac. Too many of the articles have been written by older people giving the impression Pontiac has been dead for a long time, but no more than the other domestics. Lets face it, none of the cars in the 90's or 80's were as great as the mucle car era, but yet everyone makes it seem like only Pontiac lost it's way. All the divisions of the big 3 did. That's why their all in trouble. My father who's first car was a 59 Bonneville and his current car is an 05 Bonneville can relate. Such a shame the way GM has been run in the ground by these inept executives. Change is inevitable, but that makes it no less painful. All things must come to an end.

    Posted by Brook Ballweg April 29, 09 01:17 AM
  1. Sorry Bonnie.....

    A 1997, even with the V8, is a pretty generic late-era GM car. It's devoid of any of the styling that made the first and second generation cars so iconic...

    Posted by Anonymous April 29, 09 08:08 AM
  1. For those of you who lived or visited the Cotuit in the late 70's and early 80's, Hack Daniels of Hack's Bar at the old Cotuit Inn had a black 67 Bonnie convertible. It wasn't in very good shape, but she was a real beaut. Finally blew up in the small parking lot one year and that was the end.

    Posted by kittons April 29, 09 11:36 AM
  1. I can attest to the sentiment the author shares with his Bonnie. My first (and still only) car that I've had for near six years now is a 1990 Bonneville. Some of my favorite things about the car it seems Mr. Atiyeh shares too: the red lit gauges, easy on the eyes at night time; the wicked smooth ride of the car, puts everyone to sleep whenever I'm the driver for a road trip; and the power everything, even in my 1990.

    The best part is, I only paid $1500 for it and have put about 40,000 miles on it since I've been driving. What else could a kid ask for in his first car? I've likewise become attached to it, such that it was not fun to hear the ceasing of production of Bonnies in 2005, and worse so, Pontiac just the other day. I'm going to buy a 70s Trans Am someday if I save up enough for one.

    Posted by Dave April 29, 09 05:48 PM
  1. As a 25+ year employee of PONTIAC MOTOR DIVISION in the Boston Zone I will shed many tears over the demise of PONTIAC. The death knell started when NAO (North American Origanization)) was formed in 98. I had hopes it would survive with the SOLLACE, but it didn't. Every thing is down-sized. I could go on for ever.

    Posted by Robert Cantoreggi (BC) April 29, 09 06:16 PM
  1. GM was a proud, strong company when it was run by car guys and gals. Then the Harvard business school brats took over. They banished the Rocket 88, they killed the Chevy SS, they turned Pontiac into a no-identity corporate ghost. They actively destroyed Saturn after first giving it a strong intro by once again putting the car people in charge. The '96 Saturn was one of the best cars ever made. Todays? Re-badged Opels. Very sad. The U.S is the richest country on earth with the strongest love of cars anywhere, and these clowns have managed to turn GM into a money loser. So much for Harvard business school.

    Posted by lou manfredo April 29, 09 06:42 PM
  1. Good article - reminds me of my 1992 Bonneville that went 225+K miles and 15 years before I gave it up. These cars were so good and reliable that they regularly went 200+K miles and 10+ years without major mechanical problem.

    And therein lies a big part of the GM problem.

    With cars running so long, people buy fewer cars. Before the Bonneville, I never had a car that went over 110K miles - and some went only half that. My Bonneville lived the life of 2 earlier generation cars - so GM sold 1 car instead of 2 or 3.

    Their products were so good that they effectively put themselves out of business.

    Posted by Former Bonneville owner April 29, 09 08:53 PM
  1. I bought a 1987 Bonneville when they came out with that new body style. Traded it in for a 1990 SSE. It was black and loaded and the BEST car I have ever owned. I drove that car over 175,000 miles and then bought a 1997. They were the leaders in luxury 4 door sport sedans which were perfect for the young salesman that I was.I probably still be driving one if they made them the way they used to.

    Posted by Glenn April 29, 09 10:22 PM
  1. I was 17 back in 1987 when I inherited a 1975 Pontiac Bonneville . It was powder blue with a black vinyl top. It only had 45K miles, but back then that would be like 350k miles on a toyota today. Yup , it was a real bleepbox but it looked good. It was a 2 dr and came with the fancy wheel skirts. Any way the thing was basically a hotel on wheels that had many a workouts at Rexhame beach that summer. Best nights of my life.

    Posted by jay April 29, 09 11:16 PM
  1. I currently own a 1999 Pontiac Grand Am SE with close to 127,000 miles on it, ordering it from my dealer on my 40th birthday in July of 1998. It is my third Grand Am; my first was a 1988 SE that I purchased brand new and drove until 1997, when it started developing problems. I guess you could say that after 9 years and about 130,000 miles of highway commuter driving I had pretty much driven it into the ground, so therefore the problems.

    In 1997 I traded it in for a used 1995 SE Grand Am coupe with the intention of driving it as my "bridge" car until I could order my "mid-life crisis" Grand Am on my 40th birthday, which was my longterm plan. I wanted to purchase the last model year in the 1990's. The day I took delivery of my arctic-white 1999 Grand Am was one of the best in recent memory. (By the way, I ordered my 1999 Grand Am without even taking a test drive, I trusted the Pontiac brand and the Grand Am model that much.)

    Ten years and many, many miles later I am still driving and loving my Grand Am, and other than normal maintenance, it has not given me any troubles whatsoever. (Here in Indiana only one license plate is required, so I proudly display my allegiance to the Boston Red Sox with my "Red Sox" plate on the front!) I plan to continue to take very good care of it so I can hopefully get at least another five years out of it, if not ten. With the pending demise of the Pontiac brand, I know that when the time comes in hopefully the much-distant future to replace my beloved Grand Am I will never find another car or brand that has the comparative top quality and steadfastness as my Pontiac Grand Am.

    Posted by Christine Perrin, Leo, Indiana (formerly of Hampstead, NH) April 30, 09 11:02 AM
  1. how about that Aztek? i hear it's going to be a collector's item. ;)

    the Grand Prix in the late 90's was decent, more of a "driving excitement" by far than the big, bloated Bonneville.

    cars like the G8 are classic cases of "a little too little, a little too late." sure will be a sad departure.

    Posted by DL April 30, 09 11:25 AM
  1. I was worked for an advertising agency several years back and Ponitac/GMC were my clients. I reacall two conversations with GM brand people that helps to illustrate where they are today.

    1) We did some research that indicated that the Grand Am has a lot of entry level buyers. so we wanted to create some first time buyers communications. The brand people said "Sunfire is the entry-level Ponitac" and refused to act on what the data said was true.

    2) Some later research identified a correlation between GMC Jimmy (now Acadia) owners and playing golf. The Brand people came back and stated "sorry, Buick owns golf" The next level down was (I think) outdoors activity (Chevy owns that said the brand people). As a result we wound up with the 4th most common attribute - Home improvement.

    The net is that there were too many brands competing for the same customers. If you ask me all GM needs is Cadillac, Chevy, and maybe GMC


    Posted by jon April 30, 09 12:48 PM
  1. I was 19 years old, in the Air Force and stationed at Offutt AFB, Nebraska. It was 1964. No, I didn't get one of the first GTO's. Not on my monthly pay check. Only the officers, usually the 2nd Lt's got the GTO's. I bought a used but not abused 1957 Pontiac Chieftain, 2 door hardtop that was turquoise with a white top. It had a 347 cu inch V8 engine with auto transmission and it would fly. I had a temporary transfer of duty (TDY) to Davis-Monthan AFB, AZ. I drove the Pontiac from Omaha to Tucson and drove a stretch of old RT 66 through such places as Truth or Consequences, NM... I wish I still had the car. I bought it for $300. and sold it for $300.

    Posted by batman77 April 30, 09 01:48 PM
  1. What a pack of revisionist history lies, Pontiac has built trash from day one. That fact that an idiot would cherish his 75 Grand Prix is a joke, it's trash.

    This paper has been full of crapola takes on GM products, just like the LA Times and NYT. Having lived through the eras in question as car buff believe me I know Pontiacs, and they are junk for fools. The engineering is ridiculous; truck rear suspensions, air pumps, lousy fit and finish. They'd build some fast-in-a-straight-line car like a GTO and it would fall apart in five years. Firebirds! What joke. Wow the gaping chasm between the truth on these fraud vehicles & what you read here is where all these cars should be tossed.

    Stop the lies, you make idiots out of yourselves.

    Posted by CK April 30, 09 06:26 PM
  1. Re: Comment #16.

    "This blogger might want to review your comment before posting it."

    I wish the blogger had. While everyone is entitled to their opinion, CK appears to be outvoted 16-to-1. It's too bad CK may have had a bad experience with the Pontiac brand.

    Posted by I Love my Grand Am, nonetheless! April 30, 09 09:56 PM
  1. My '91 Pontiac Bonneville was fantastic, nothing will ever compare. A safe, dependable and great car. It helped me move MANY times across my college campus as well as home. I thought I didn't want to drive it because it was a boat, but I quickly regretted ever saying that. RIP ... Pontiac.... you will be missed. I am so appreciative to my father for passing along his Pontiac Bonneville to me for my first car. My family has had many Pontiac's and we are sad to say good bye. One last thing, there will never be another back seat like the Bonnie, I have to second the many people who have commented on that!!

    Posted by Jenn A May 1, 09 12:29 AM
  1. CK - Have a cup of coffee and chill out. When someone says their car went over 200 or 300 thousand miles, I'd say that's truth. And more to the point, that '93 SSE had technology for $27K that the rest of the world picked up almost a decase later - and it cost less - that's called value - and that ain't no lie.

    Posted by Z3 May 1, 09 07:50 AM
  1. CK, how's that english language working out for you? Go spit your venom elsewhere.

    Posted by boss8120 May 1, 09 04:01 PM
  1. OMG, I just cannot believe GM did this. ANYONE and I mean ANYONE that had the
    opportunity - make that the privilege - to drive this car in it's glory days would not even sit in 90% of the cars out there today. The original article could not have been more spot on. It may be just Pontiac "going under" to some - but - to many people - it's alot more.

    Posted by mac May 2, 09 01:15 PM
  1. Re commenter #8.

    "The '96 Saturn was one of the best cars ever made. Todays? Re-badged Opels. Very sad."

    Those 'Re-badged Opels" marked a major improvement over the mediocre crap that came out between about 2000-2005. Have you ever sat in a Saturn Ion or the 1st gen Vue? Nuf said.. The current Astra (an Opel imported from Europe) is a really nice car that won car of the year in the EU when it came out and hasn't been advertised by GM/Saturn at all. Same for the Aura, another nice car that no one knows about.

    30 years of incredibly myopic GM 'management' is the predominate reason that they're in such a big hole today..

    Re commenter #16. Sounds like an incredibly angry, sore-loser type who found a place to grind his proverbial ax.. Boo-hoo...

    Posted by Andrew May 2, 09 01:44 PM
  1. One of my best teachers (hope your doing well Mr Sheldon, where ever you are)
    drove a late 60's GTO convert. My self I never owned a Pontiac, but had an Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser. It was a great car. I have to agree with another poster, in regards to Harvard B school grads. They have a talent for running companies into the ground. The trouble with GM was their business plan was shove more "luxury" SUVs and pray that gas prices stay south of 2 bucks a gallon. Guess it did not pay off, eh.


    Posted by Genumikeg99 May 3, 09 08:51 AM
  1. I love my 1996 Pontiac Bonneville, so much so that I talk to the old girl and tell her how much I love her and to keep up the good work. I still feel that luxurious feeling I got when I first bought her. She's at 80,000 miles now and never has had any major problems. To say we have got our money's worth is an understatement. I honk when I see another great Bonneville on the road, and the driver in turn honks back - we both know a wonderful secret - our Bonneville's are cherished and the best thing on the road.

    Posted by Barbara Celata May 3, 09 09:20 AM
  1. I can lament as well. Bought a "91" Bonneville in 1996 with 10,900 miles on it . It NEVER let me sit, always started on demand, had power to spare (that good ole V6 3.8 liter), and didn't rust away. Recently, the Check engine light would not go away! The mechanic told me it would cost $1100 to repair the timing gears,chain,and cam sensor. So, since the car really wasn't worth that in the Kelley world, I traded my Bonnie away, getting $985, for a very clean, unripped ,solid tank of a car with 178,000 on it. Probably has that much left on it!!!
    And I feel unfaithful!

    Posted by karen fellenbaum May 4, 09 04:44 PM
  1. I got to drive my dad's new 1963 Bonneville when I first got my driver's license, and I have been in love with Pontiacs ever since. Now I have a 2007 Vibe, and I love it. I love the gas mileage, the accessories on it, and the size. It is small, but my husband and son, who are tall, can ride in it comfortably. Besides all that, it is just plain fun to drive. I am sad that this brand is going away.

    Posted by Sharon Skinner May 20, 09 01:39 PM
  1. I had a string of cars that constantly blew up on me for several years. In desperation, while my current car at the time was indicating it was about to explode as well, I shelled out 595 dollars for an 88 bonneville. No liner left on the hood inside, stereo had been taken out, trunk would not open (looked as if someone had hammered the lock with a crow bar) burnt a bit of oil. I had the car for 3 years and never had to do anything but change the oil. About two years into it someone busted out the rear quarter window and smashed the steering column and stole it. Recovered it a few weeks later from a high school parking lot. Had to start it with a screwdriver after that. Still drove fine though, but replacing the steering column and window and the various damage to the actual car the thief did (though he apparently was intending to drive it around for a while as he left the stereo i had put in it there) was too much, and I got a 99 bonneville. I have had no problems at all with it., other than someone keying it. As long as there is a bonneville in good shape to be had, I will continue to drive them.

    Posted by Clint H. June 4, 09 07:18 PM
 

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Clifford Atiyeh is an automotive writer and car enthusiast . He has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own.
In the garage: 1995 21-speed Iron Horse, 2002 Jeep Wrangler X (by association)
Bill Griffith is a veteran Boston Globe reporter, having reviewed cars for more than 10 years and serving as assistant sports editor for 25 years. He was also the paper's sports media columnist.
In the garage: 2006 Subaru Baja
AAA's Car Doctor, John Paul John Paul is public affairs manager for AAA Southern New England, a certified mechanic, and a Globe columnist. He hosts a weekly radio show on WROL.
In the garage: Hyundai Sante Fe, Chrysler PT Cruiser convertible
Craig Fitzgerald has been writing about cars, motorcycles, and the automotive industry since 1999. He is the former editor of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car.
In the garage: 1968 Buick Riviera, 1996 Buick Roadmaster, 1974 Honda CB450
Keith Griffin is president of the New England Motor Press Association and edits the used car section on About.com. He also writes for the Hartford Business Journal and various weekly newspapers in Connecticut.
In the garage: Mazda 5, Dodge Neon
George Kennedy is a senior writer for WheelsTV in Acton, which produces video reviews for Yahoo, MSN, and other auto websites.
In the garage: Lifted 1999 Jeep Cherokee
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