When Mad Men gave the Russians a Pontiac

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Pontiac

In 1987, Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev was appointed Time‘s Man of the Year. The magazine noted that, although his leadership remained rooted in the tenets of communism, his reforms were starting to bring hope for a more open Russian society. More than that, his increasing dialogue with the West meant an easing of cold war tensions. Such work deserved the highest of global praise.

No, not the Nobel Peace Prize: something with wheels.

Gorbachev did eventually get the nod for the Nobel (in 1990), but before that he received the best the West could offer. Straight from the heart of Kansas came a wedge-shaped coupe. It was motivated by a V-6 that was five times as powerful as the engine in a Trabant, it had power front seats and an AM/FM cassette radio, it had a four-speed automatic gearbox and a digital dashboard that could shame the one in any MiG. It was the then-new Pontiac Grand Prix: luxury, power, and decadence.

And yes, this one was red.

gorbachev bush
Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev (center) meets with U.S. President George H.W. Bush in June, 1990. AFP via Getty Images

To Russia, with available undercoating. In retrospect, gifting a front-wheel-drive Pontiac to the leader of a Marxist-Leninist superpower seems a bit of a stretch. (Where’s ol’ Gorby going to get snow tires for it? He’s going to need some snow tires.) But the Grand Prix was not an official gift of detente between two cold-warring superpowers. Instead, it was a clever advertising ploy by David Deutsch Associates, a New York-based firm that would go on to count goliaths like IKEA as clients.

In the 1980s, DDA represented Pontiac dealers on the eastern seaboard. Some bright agency bulb, possibly the hands-on David Deutsch himself, saw an opportunity to capitalize on Time’s announcement. You can imagine the Mad Men-style meeting.

Over the next few weeks, a 30-second spot showing the Pontiac being crated up was broadcast across New York. “In the spirit of international exchange and a demonstration of American know-how, please accept this gift,” read an actor, as Russian subtitles played below. The car’s vanity plate read “GORBY.”

Pontiac

The idea was simple: a Car of the Year for a Man of the Year. Newly introduced, the front-wheel-drive, fifth-generation Grand Prix had just been named 1988’s Motor Trend Car of the Year, joining illustrious predecessors like the Volkswagen GTI and, um, the Renault Alliance.

The fifth-generation Grand Prix was no GTI. But then, it was no wonky Renault-AMC, either. It was relatively quick for the time, with smooth torque; it was comfortable and modern-looking; it was crammed with high-tech options. It was arguably even more luxurious than whatever ZIL limousine ferried high-ranking Politburo members around at the time.

While the crated-up Grand Prix was primarily a stunt—it was photographed at the docks with a Gorbachev lookalike—DDA insisted that the gift was in goodwill. The shipment left America as promised and arrived on the far side of the Iron Curtain, to be delivered to Gorbachev himself. The man never drove it, but scuttlebutt holds that he showed up for the opening of the crate.

Pontiac

After that, the Pontiac was installed in the AZLK Moskvich factory museum, where it sat among a collection of boxy, Soviet-made cars. Even in such homely company, the Grand Prix might not have stood out for the average visitor. By this time, Moskvich was producing the Aleko, a faintly depressing but modern enough family hatchback, something like contemporary French economy cars.

There the Grand Prix sat, through the fall of the Berlin Wall, the unraveling of the U.S.S.R., the end of communism, and the resignation of Gorbachev. It spent 20 years without turning a wheel, an interesting little footnote tucked away in a decaying museum. But then, in 2006, one of Russia’s new class of businessmen purchased the entire museum collection. Mikhail Slipenchuck had served as an officer in the Soviet army when Gorbachev was at the country’s helm, and he later graduated with a doctorate in economics, going on to amass a half-billion-dollar fortune. His purchase of the Moskie collection was an act of charity, however, and the bulk of those cars went to another Moscow museum. The Grand Prix, however, was returned to Gorbachev. He still has it.

This March, Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev celebrated his 91st birthday. His legacy as a political leader continues to be debated, but as a man, he had few vices: He was not a fan of vodka, and he did not smoke. But it’s nice to imagine him having just one birthday indulgence. A good breakfast, perhaps. Telephone calls and cards from friends and world leaders. And then, just before lunch, maybe a quick spin around the block in an old Grand Prix.

Mr. Gorbachev, tear up these streets.

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