Pontiac’s Grand experiment
Had sales of the GTO and other muscle cars not fallen into a death spiral after 1970, Pontiac might have recast The Great One as a more upscale GT type of car for 1973. Instead, the GTO stuck around as a slow-selling option package on the LeMans, and the car it could have become arrived with a new name.
“It was going to be the GTO, but in midstream, Pontiac changed course and made it the Grand Am,” says Ron Berglund, Western Regional Director for the Pontiac Oakland Club International. Berglund, who restored a 1973 Grand Am in the 1980s, says he confirmed that bit of history with Jim Wangers, the marketing and product planning executive famous for helping steer Pontiac’s performance image through the 1960s.
At first glance, the idea seemed to make sense. Pontiac’s 1969 Grand Prix had ushered in a new segment of personal luxury coupes, which were taking off as muscle cars were dying. Pontiac, ever the bold experimenter, got an idea about combining the two; “Grand Am” suggested a blend of Grand Prix luxury and Trans Am-inspired performance. The fusion seemed to work at first: Pontiac built 43,136 Grand Ams, including 8691 sedans, while the GTO sold just 4806. But that would be the new model’s peak.
General Motors’ A-body intermediates were redesigned for 1973, with new “Colonnade” body styles replacing the previous hardtops and featuring frameless door glass and non-opening rear quarter windows. Pontiac’s version mixed a squared-up front with a sleek, rounded rear section and prominent fender sculpting.
A body-color front bumper, a feature offered on the GTO since 1968 but discontinued on the ’73, was now the face of the Grand Am. The softer, injection-molded urethane fascia, still called Endura, put a clever disguise on the federally mandated 5-mph bumper and predicted a design trend on the horizon. The “beak” protruded far more than the grille divider on the LeMans front end, however, and the plastic nose would later become a sore point for repair and restoration. A distinctive tri-color stripe swept rearward from the nose, rode along the doors, and then curved up the b-pillar.
Quarter-window louvers were another Grand Am signature cue, but also standard on the LeMans Sport coupe, which was the most popular base for the GTO option. The Grand Am’s limited use of exterior chrome presaged another future trend.
With optional Rally II or honeycomb wheels, chrome tailpipes, and an optional dual-scoop hood, the Grand Am looked the part of a muscle car. The NACA-type scoops were non-functional; a planned Ram Air option was cancelled for not meeting drive-by noise standards. Berglund, who has diagrams of the system, says a few cars were built with it.
A twist of Euro
Muscle car styling aside, Pontiac intended the Grand Am as a premium coupe in the mold of European models from BMW, Jaguar, and Mercedes. The Grand Prix contributed interior luxury, including the rich-looking dashboard with full gauges and genuine Crossfire Mahogany wood trim. (The 1974 and 1975 changed to faux wood.) If you got the optional tachometer, the clock went in the console.
Ideas adopted from European cars included reclining front seats with adjustable lumbar support for the driver, a steering-column stalk high-beam switch, and an inside trunk release. The Grand Am’s wood-trimmed console with floor shifter looked as rich as anything in the import luxury realm.
“All the goodies were in the Grand Am,” Berglund says. “It even has a different horn, a higher note, like a European car.”
Trans Am influence
The Grand Am’s connection to the Trans Am was something of a stretch, having more to do with Pontiac’s suspension-tuning prowess than acceleration performance. The A-body chassis was stiffer than its predecessor’s, a boon to handling and ride quality. One of the few 1973 GM cars to get standard radial tires, the Grand Am made the most of the new GR70-15 rubber’s handling capability. Standard Radial Tuned Suspension included 1.12-inch front and 0.94-inch rear anti-sway bars and Pliacell shock absorbers. Variable ratio power steering and power brakes (with front discs) were also standard.
Grand Am came standard with a 170-horsepower 400-cubic-inch V-8 with two-barrel carburetor. Dual exhausts bumped that to 185 hp, and the available four-barrel versions offered 200 and 230 hp with single or dual exhausts, respectively. Berglund’s car has the Grand Am’s top option for 1973, the 250-hp four-barrel 455, denoted by “7.4 Litre” badges (even though it was more accurately a 7.5). An automatic transmission was standard across the board, but a four-speed stick was available with a 400 four-barrel for a $46 credit. Few ordered it.
The legendary 310-horse SD 455 engine was planned as an option for the Grand Am and GTO but remained exclusive to the Trans Am. A Grand Am in Pontiac’s official promotional photos, painted Desert Sand, showed SD-455 callouts on the front fenders and inspired Berglund to repaint his car from white to that color and add the SD-455 callouts, just for fun.
Even with low compression and exhaust gas recirculation dulling responses, the 455 was still a powerhouse in the two-ton Grand Am. Pontiac tried cheating regulations with a trick EGR valve that shut off after a certain period, but the EPA caught on and demanded a full-time system, which Berglund’s late-build car has.
For 1974, Pontiac revised the Grand Am’s grille to six slots per side from three, raised the trunk profile a bit, and pushed the taillights to the sides. But the Grand Am’s day was done. Sales slipped to just over 17,000 in ’74 and fell below 11,000 for ’75. It did not return for ’76. Some accounts have blamed the car’s demise on the 1973 oil embargo, rising gas prices, and recession, but Pontiac’s own model strategy might have been the real culprit. The 1975 Grand Am started at $4887 (about $23,213 today). The equally fuel-thirsty but more prestigious Grand Prix was barely $400 more, and nearly 87,000 were sold that year.
A rarity today
Berglund’s car was originally delivered to Enns Pontiac in Reedley, California, with a full load of options, including the 455, air conditioning, AM-FM / 8-Track stereo, cruise control, power locks, and tilt wheel. It would have been about $6000 new. Though an older restoration, it could serve as a good reference for other Grand Am owners, but there just aren’t that many.
“It seems like whenever I go to a Pontiac show, I’ve got the only Grand Am,” Berglund says. “They’re just not around. People are not restoring them.”
A poor seller when new, the Grand Am simply became another used and then cast-off car. Berglund, however, suggests that the problematic Endura fascia might have been an obstacle to preserving the cars.
“They all rotted away, especially in the heat,” he says. “You’ll never find an NOS Endura nose for a Grand Am.”
Berglund bought a fiberglass reproduction of the multi-piece front end about 20 years ago, and the San Jose-based manufacturer, Motorealm, today still offers the parts in the 1973 and 1974–75 styles, along with wheel well moldings for that period’s A-body Pontiacs.
“You’d never know it was a reproduction by looking at it,” Berglund says, adding that the rear window louvers are also hard to find.
His car still has its original Morrokide (vinyl) upholstery, although he replaced the car’s cracked dash with one from a 1973 Grand Prix, which was identical.
Pontiac attempted a Grand Am revival with the downsized 1978 A-body, but that proved to be an even bigger three-year dud. The nameplate, conceived in the early ’70s for an upscale, internationally-flavored luxury model, ironically found success on a mainstream front-drive compact built from 1985–2005.