With the ’69 Pontiac Grand Prix, John DeLorean defined personal luxury muscle
On page 205 of Pontiac ad man Jim Wangers’ memoir, Glory Days, there’s a black and white photo of John Z. DeLorean at perhaps the height of his powers. It’s fall 1968, and Pontiac’s general manager is standing between two factory-fresh examples of his latest creation, the 1969 Pontiac Grand Prix.
The caption reads, “The 1969 Grand Prix was truly DeLorean’s car, with a little help from marketing researcher Ben Harrison, who suggested converting the full-size Grand Prix to the smaller A-body sedan chassis. It was an immediate success and became the image leader for all personal luxury coupes. In an era of excess, the 1969 Grand Prix could brag about having the longest hood in the industry.”
Incredibly, Pontiac created the two-door Grand Prix coupe in about 18 months. Harrison made his pitch in spring 1967, and the new Grand Prix, riding on a 118-inch wheelbase and weighing about 800 pounds less than its full-size predecessor, went on sale on September 26, 1968.
Design innovations included concealed wipers, Alfa Romeo–style flush door handles, and a radio antenna embedded in the windshield for a cleaner look. It was an industry first. The interior was luxurious with its bucket seats and featured a radical wrap-around cockpit-style dashboard.
“That was John DeLorean’s concept,” Wangers once told auto writer Joe Oldham. “It was his idea to capture the spirit and essence of the old Duesenbergs of the 1930s. Great cars, very high-performance road machines with all the trappings of the luxury marques of the day, like Cadillac and Packard. He even insisted Pontiac use the old Duesenberg model designations, J and SJ.”
Powering the Grand Prix J was Pontiac’s 350-hp 400-cubic-inch V-8 with 10:1 compression. For the first year only, a 265-hp 400 with 8.6:1 compression and a two- barrel carburetor was also available. The Grand Prix SJ got Pontiac’s 370-hp 428 or the optional 390-hp 428 H.O. Both models were available with a Muncie four-speed or a Turbo 400 automatic. Sales exploded to over 112,000 that first year, but only 676 were ordered with the manual.
In a Motor Trend test, a 350-hp Grand Prix J ran a 15.1-second quarter-mile, easily outpacing a Riviera, a Toronado, and a Thunderbird. SJs, however, were serious luxury muscle cars. Pontiac even offered a hood tach, and Michigan’s Royal Pontiac tweaked a dozen SJs with its Royal Bobcat package for additional power. With the right driver on the right day, they were 13-second cars.
In 1970, Pontiac replaced the SJ’s 428 with its new 455 rated at 370 horsepower. A year later, a facelift brought a reshaped decklid and single headlights. Across the industry, compression ratios dropped, sinking power ratings. The 400 was now rated at 300 horses, and the 455 was down to 325. In 1972, net horsepower ratings further dropped the 400’s output to 255 horsepower and the 455 down to 260. The cars’ appeal never wavered, though, and buyers still took home more than 90,000 of them.
The 1969 Grand Prix turned out to be John DeLorean’s swan song at Pontiac. Soon after its introduction, he became the general manager of Chevrolet, where he wasted little time in creating a Grand Prix rival, the 1970 Monte Carlo. But that’s a story for another day.
1969 Pontiac Grand Prix SJ
Engine 428 cid V-8, 7014 cc, 4-bbl
Power 370 hp @ 4800 rpm
Torque 472 lb-ft @ 3200 rpm
Weight 3900 lb
0–60 mph 6.9 sec
I Own One
I grew up in a Pontiac household and knew I’d eventually have my own vintage Pontiac. My father purchased this 1969 Grand Prix on Craigslist for himself, but I fell in love with it and soon struck a deal with him. The engine is the same 400-cid/350-hp V-8 found in the GTO, and by adding long-branch exhaust manifolds and a 2 ½-inch exhaust, plus reworking the Quadrajet carburetor, I’ve really been able to wake it up. The Grand Prix has the appointments of a personal luxury coupe but the heart of a muscle car. It handles well enough, too, and the standard front disc brakes are much appreciated. The best part of going out for drives is seeing people’s reactions. Most people either have no idea what it is, or they haven’t seen one in a long time, but I love talking to folks about it.—Greg Ingold, Traverse City, MI