1986-1991 Pontiac Grand Am SE
It may sound odd today, in a world in which the Pontiac Grand Am is considered dull rental-car fodder, but there was a time in the mid-1980s when the Grand Am was a stylish, desirable car--even, in fact, a semi-credible American response to European sports sedans like the BMW 3-series and Mercedes-Benz 190E. I'll pause for a moment to allow the cognitive dissonance to clear. Still with me? Good.
When the Grand Am debuted in 1985, its clean good looks, rorty V-6, and sprightly personality overshadowed both its Grand Am ancestor (an incredibly ungainly clone of the lovely 1973 Oldsmobile Cutlass) and its Buick Somerset and Oldsmobile Calais stablemates. The motoring press sat up and took notice; the attention turned to outright praise when the sporty SE trim arrived in 1986, followed by a turbo in 1987 and the 16-valve Quad 4 engine in 1989.
The Grand Am may not look like much today, but in the mid-1980s, it was sensation. Most American automakers had begun to downsize their cars by 1985, but compared to the sleek, smooth, and aerodynamic Europeans, many American cars of the time were bulky, over-styled, uninspired, square-edged dinosaurs. Many had proportions and baroque styling right out of the 1970s and were slathered with intricate filigree and acres of chrome, imitation wood, and vinyl. With the exception of the Ford Taurus and Thunderbird, contemporary domestic cars just didn't capture the purpose or purity of line of the European cars.
Within this context, the 1986 Grand Am SE, especially, was a knockout. Like a BMW 3-series, the Grand Am had a trim, purposeful, shape, and small overhangs. The SE package added composite headlamps, a front air dam, aerodynamic skirts, and, of course, a monochromatic color scheme evocative of the legendary AMG Hammer. The Grand Am's monochromatic duds were as stylish in the mid-1980s (and as laughably gauche today) as Sonny Crockett's white jacket, pastel T-shirt, linen slacks, and loafers worn without socks. The look was very fashion-forward, very European and very now.
The look was the highlight, but the rest of the package matched up better with the contemporary BMW 3-series and Mercedes 190E than one might expect. The Grand Am SE's sport suspension provided good grip on smooth roads, though not a lot of sophistication on rough surfaces. The 3-liter V-6 was fairly willing and sounded good, but the Grand Am really found its legs with the introduction of the Quad 4 engine. The Quad 4, GM's most sophisticated engine since the ill-fated Cosworth Vega, boasted 16 valves and dual overhead cams, features that had previously only been available in European and Japanese high-performance engines. The Quad 4 was frequently criticized for being loud and thrashy, but it revved like a race car and cranked out 180 horsepower in high-output form. That was serious power for the time; more, for example, than the much-praised Honda VTEC engine that powered my 1994 Acura Integra GS-R.
Unsurprisingly, Grand Ams armed with the HO Quad 4 were very quick, with low 7-second runs from 0-60--in line with such sporting hardware as the later Subaru SVX, the 1985 Nissan 300ZX Turbo, or even its big brother, the Pontiac Trans Am. More to the point, the HO Grand Ams were as quick as the late-1980s BMW 325i and even the special hot-rodded Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.3-16. The Grand Am didn't just look like it belonged with the expensive German compacts; it ran with them too.
Of course, the whole success story eventually fell apart. The Grand Am's durability and build quality too often ruined a positive initial impression; and while BMW transformed the 3-series from performance laggard to performance legend, the Grand Am twisted in the wind. GM was enamored with the positive response to the Grand Am's styling but ultimately learned the wrong lesson. Rather than keeping the Grand Am European and contemporary, GM kept rehashing the same body-kit look well past the point at which it became tacky. In fact, we can probably blame the mystifying preponderance of plastic Pontiac body cladding over the past two decades on the Grand Am's initial success. It's as if Don Johnson was still wearing pastel T-shirts and Ray-bans in 1996.
I have always been fond of Grand Ams. A young, hip co-worker of my father's drove a Grand Am SE back in the 1980s, he kind of had the Sonny Crockett thing going on at the time and helped drive home to me what a stylish, in car it was. My aunt and uncle still have an early 1990s Grand Am that they bought new; I sorta-kinda learned how to drive a manual transmission in that car. When traveling a few years ago, I used to request Grand Ams as my rental cars. Sure, their body kits and faux-jet-fighter interiors were cheesy, but something about them just felt more aggressive, more together, more right than the other GM small cars.
The first commercial below shows off the 1980s Grand Am's unique monochromatic look, as well as one of the most annoying pitchmen in commercial history. It took me roughly 1.62 seconds of the commercial to begin hating him. What's with the slow, over-casual tire kick at 0:13? Frankly, I don't want to be associated with any car this guy likes.
The second commercial is actually for the next generation of Grand Am, which I didn't really discuss here in any detail; but I include it because I love what the guy does at the 0:27 mark. His wife(?) asks him, "We like the Grand Am better anyway, right?" and he gives what can only be described as a half-hearted sigh of grudging assent. Unfortunately for Pontiac, that's probably how most people felt about the car.
Most recent pictures of 1980s Grand Ams show the cars as dilapidated beaters, so I'm using original advertisements to accompany this post instead. They, at least, show the Grand Am in its original glory.