1965 Pontiac Bonneville 421
The epitome of the style that ruled the 1960s
by John F. Katz
y 1965, "wide-track" was more than a dimension at Pontiac. It was a state of mind, a shorthand summary for the carefully crafted image of style and performance that had brought Pontiac back from the brink.
Just nine years earlier, in July 1956, Semon E. "Bunkie" Knudsen had taken over a division that was sixth in the industry and sinking fast. Knudsen, then 43, astutely decided to re-target Pontiac toward younger car buyers. He quickly recruited Pete Estes, 40, as chief engineer, John Z. DeLorean, 31, as head of Advanced Engineering, and Jack Humbert, 34, as styling chief. Sales bottomed out at a frighteningly low 229,831 in 1958—less than 5 percent of the market. But the radically restyled 1959 models, with their extra-wide 64-inch tread, grabbed 382,137 sales for 6.3 percent of all new cars. By 1961, Pontiac had inched past Rambler to the No. 3 sales position, behind Chevrolet and Ford.
That same year, Pontiac began planning a new full-size lineup for 1965. Complicating the task was a new edict from GM management, demanding that all divisions share suspension, steering, brakes and climate control. Remarkably, Pontiac managed to keep its winning personality intact. The engineers even finagled a 64-inch span between the new Pontiac's rear wheels, which were still the widest in the industry, if only by an inch.
Power for these full-size models ranged from a 256-horsepower, 389-cid V8 with a two-barrel carb, up to a pair of three-deuce 421s packing 356 and 376 horsepower, respectively.
Pontiac's full-size lineup started with the basic Catalina (which outsold even Chevy's Biscayne in 1964) on a wheelbase of 121 inches. Variations on the Catalina theme included the luxuriously appointed Ventura, and the muscular 2+2, with a four-barrel 421 and heavy-duty everything. Buyers looking for a smoother ride could choose the Star Chief, an upgraded four-door with its rear axle pushed back three inches, for a wheelbase of 124 inches.
The Grand Prix, Pontiac's flagship luxury coupe, shared the Catalina's 121-inch chassis, but it could be instantly recognized by its more formal roofline and concave backlight. A unique grille, taillights, and interior trim set the Grand Prix apart.
Then there was the Bonneville, the plushest of all Pontiacs, riding the Star Chief's stretched wheelbase, but offering a full range of body styles. Bonnevilles boasted their own taillight treatment, plus skirted fenders and a broad, stainless-steel rocker molding that visually lowered and slimmed the body. Although the Grand Prix, with a base price of $3,426, cost $138 more, the longer, cleaner, semi-fastback Bonnie was arguably better-looking.
"The Bonneville is big," noted Car Life, in August 1965, "reasonably powerful [with a 325-hp 389], quite luxurious in spaciousness, appointment, and finish, good on the road, and smooth and quiet around town." And even though other GM cars shared many of the same mechanical components, "few seem to get the combination of road stability, handling ease and passenger comfort that's found in the current Pontiac."
All the new big cars from GM featured cross-flow radiators for a lower profile, and curved side glass. Still, Humbert managed to give the Pontiacs a look that set them apart. Motor Trend raved about the 1965 Pontiacs' "undulating flanks, crisp edges, sporty accents, and tightly tailored hardware."
Designer Dave Holls ran the Buick studio then, but he still looks back with admiration on the 1965 Pontiacs—especially the Bonneville. "All the GM full-sized cars that year were just sensational," he remembers, explaining how the bodies pinched at the waist and kicked up in the rear quarters for a three-dimensional Coke-bottle form. "And the Bonneville epitomized that. The coupe version was a very flowing design. It looked best with the skirted rear fenders."
Karl Fisher's Bonneville is an AACA Preservation Award winner. Fisher has indulged in a single deviation from stock specification: a 2+2-style pinstripe along the upper body.
A friend of Karl Fisher bought our featured Bonneville new in 1965. Fisher went along to the dealership and helped his friend pick out all the good stuff: the 356-hp Tri-Power 421 with Turbo-Hydramatic, power steering, power brakes, cast aluminum wheels and brake drums, tinted glass. That brought the bottom line to $4,476, including destination charge. Fisher knew his buddy never kept a car for more than two years, and by 1967—just as he planned—it was Karl who was driving the Bonneville. He used the car for daily transportation until 1979, when he began to restore it.
The front bench seat is soft and laid-back; the dash frames big, legible gauges in real wood paneling. The 421 speaks with a rich, basso rumble, its exhaust comfortably muffled but still assertively loud. Every slight movement of your throttle foot plays a different, delicious, hot rod sound effect. The speedometer reaches 50 mph about as fast as you can think about it, then 70. Mash the gas pedal to the floor to open all six barrels, and it feels as if some supernatural force has picked you up and hurled you toward the horizon.
Despite its taut ride, the Bonneville still rolls hard in turns, and it's easy to creep up on the cornering limit of its bias-ply tires. The steering is responsive, but utterly numb. The brakes are touchy, though not hard to get used to.
Pontiac's market penetration peaked at nearly 10 percent in 1967—then dropped off sharply, along with the demand for performance cars in general. By 1969, Knudsen, Estes and DeLorean had all been promoted out of the division, and Pontiac—the car that had owned the 1960s—slipped back into fourth place behind Plymouth.
|AUTOWEEK SEPTEMBER 2, 1996