Cruising contentedly in a ’63 Bonneville convertible
It was all about presence and curb appeal, finding a car that exuded coolness and power whether moving or parked. Mike Descul, a graphic designer from Northvale, N.J., found all of that in a white 1963 Pontiac Bonneville convertible.
The Bonneville caught his eye one night 17 years ago at an old-car cruise night in Lyndhurst, N.J. The convertible had received an exterior restoration in the late 1980s. Its interior, with the rarely ordered leather upholstery option, was—and remains—original, except for replacement carpeting. The original 389-cid V-8 engine with four-barrel carburetor still rumbles beneath the long hood. Its gaskets have been replaced, and the Hydra-Matic S transmission rebuilt.
Descul said he had always admired Pontiac for the individualistic stance it cultivated from the late 1950s through the ‘60s. Even with that admiration, he still looked at a couple of 1960s Ford Thunderbirds before deciding he wanted a Pontiac. A 1969 Firebird vied for his attention, but he said he preferred a larger, full-frame car.
Pontiac introduced the Bonneville as a special top-of-line model series in 1957, featuring, for that year only, one of the U.S. car industry’s first applications of mechanical fuel injection, plus an interior packed with luxury amenities. That first Bonneville was Pontiac’s bid to shake off the brand’s reputation as a builder of “grandpa” cars. It succeeded. Involvement in NASCAR and drag racing furthered the brand’s mission to attract younger buyers, and the pinnacle of that strategy, the introduction of the GTO for 1964, helped launch the muscle car trend.
The performance-focused strategy helped boost Pontiac to third place in sales for 1963. By then, the Bonnie had moved down a peg in the brand’s hierarchy to make room for a new top-line model, the Grand Prix, introduced the year before. Typical of Detroit practice of the day, the two models were essentially different trim levels on the same body and chassis, the Grand Prix with a sporty bucket seat interior and some exterior differences. The Catalina and Star Chief were two more trim lines below the Bonneville. Pontiac made 110,000 Bonnevilles for 1963, the convertible accounting for about 23,500.
Also typical for the era, even “upscale” full-size cars like the Bonneville made power steering, power brakes, and automatic transmission optional, a ploy that allowed a carmaker to advertise a low price and then charge extra for the features most buyers ordered anyway. For example, according to “The Standard Catalog of American Cars,” 99.4 percent of 1963 Bonnevilles had the extra-cost automatic transmission.
Descul’s car has the automatic and all power options, including a power top. His car also has the eight-lug wheels, a Pontiac innovation that combined a steel rim with an aluminum center section that doubled as the brake drum. The setup boasted better braking performance than the cast-iron drums used on most American cars at the time. Pontiac enthusiasts have long prized the wheels for their unique styling, as well.
Driving his Bonneville often, including to many of the area’s cruise nights, Descul has also entered it in the prestigious Greenwich Concours d’ Elegance. Occasional long trips to Pontiac gatherings, such as 500 miles to the Pontiac Oakland Club International (POCI) meet in West Virginia in 2002, have been nearly trouble-free. The power top servo failed on that trip, but he was able to manually raise the top. He said that parts availability for his 54-year-old Pontiac is good, with Ames Performance Engineering being a prime source.
Descul said he never second-guessed his decision to buy the Bonneville instead of the Firebird, and he’s never been tempted to sell. His friends tell him, “That car is so you.” He agrees.