1989 Pontiac Bonneville SSE: If RAD Could Be Measured In Buttons…
“Nobody drives American anymore.” – John Cusack as Martin Blank, Grosse Pointe Blank, 1997
The truth is: I’ve never owned an American car. We had them when I was a teenager, because my Dad’s company car policy included a requirement that the leased vehicle was American. Still, there are actually a lot of American cars that I would love to add to my collection: a ’36 Airflow, ’57 Chevy, ’64 GTO, and the ’69 Charger. Oh yes, and a ’64 Mustang, Hudson Hornet, any number of Corvettes, and, well, you get it. That said, there are a number of more *esoteric* American cars that I could see adding to my fleet, even if just for a little while.
One of the things that I have always admired about UK motoring journalist Martin Buckley – whose work can be found in multiple publications, but probably is probably most prolific in Classic and Sportscar (although I would be remiss not to reference his work as a colleague of mine in Mercedes Enthusiast and Classic Mercedes, lest I incur the wrath of my very *gracious* editors) – is his penchant for everyman’s cars. He frequently writes about poverty-spec European cars, especially British, and his own collection contains some oddities that many enthusiasts would look past in favor of the fast and/or flashy. It’s one of the key tenets of TTS: that we can have fun driving just about anything, and we can get enthused talking about essentially anything with four wheels (sometimes a little more or less) and a motor.
As American cars went, my parents were Pontiac people back to an early ’60s Bonneville that my Dad always like to talk about being famous for the highly publicized “wide track” whereby the wheels were pushed out farther than any other contemporary car to make the Pontiacs handle better than its peers – which apparently worked. A few years later – after I came along – my folks bought a ’69 Pontiac LeMans hardtop coupe with the venerable 350 Chevy small-block V8. After a work stint overseas we returned to the states and ended-up with an ’85 Pontiac 6000 wagon which was unique in that it was the only 6000 wagon of that vintage I have ever seen with a bucket seat/console configuration. We’d have gotten a 6000STE wagon if they’d offered in, but in ’85 you could only get the console on the base car. Pontiac started offering an S/E (sport edition) wagon in 1987 that came with the tuned suspension, console, and higher-output injected 2.8 V6 from the STE, and when the lease on the ’85 came up 4 years later, we ordered an ’89 6000S/E wagon. Had to have a wagon, had to be American, and thought the Taurus/Sable were ugly, so there you had it. I have a LOT of good memories of both of those wagons, but those are stories for a different blog… 😉
Also in 1987, Pontiac released their first foray into the front wheel drive full-size car arena: the new Bonneville. Named for the famous salt flats, Pontiac first used the name on a 1954 show car that bore a remarkable similarity to the new Chevrolet Corvette. The moniker made its production car debut in 1958 and remained in continuous service until 2005 – just a few short years before the Pontiac brand was shuttered permanently.
Going back to the 1980s, the Bonneville name had adorned both the full-size RWD B-body chassis and, subsequently, the mid-sized RWD G-body, both of which were decidedly old tech and representative of just about everything that defined the General’s “malaise” period. With the switch to front-wheel drive and a sidewinder 3.8 liter V6 the previously tubby and homely Bonneville embraced the brand’s efforts to enhance their sporty, European-influenced image through suspension tuning, equipment, and prodigious use of black-out and monochromatic trim. We’d like to applaud the seller of this 1989 Bonneville SSE for singlehandedly keeping the faith alive, as it appears from the photo above that he has at least two of them (the other being slightly newer, as evidenced by the amber rear turn signals). He’s selling this very grey example in Schuylkill Haven, PA for what is probably a reasonable $4,900, given that these cars in clean, running condition are rare as hens’ teeth.
As part of the Euro-ification of the brand, Pontiac designers embraced things like highly-adjustable bucket seats, console shifts, expansive gauge clusters, and fake wood that looks not unlike the Zebrano you’d find in a period Mercedes-Benz. For the top-line SSE they added automatic climate control, an 8-speaker Delco stereo with equalizer, electric adjustments for both front seats, and even self-leveling rear suspension which allowed them to include a trunk-mounted tire inflator as well. Think of it as American with a hint of European flavor. Like a hamburger with gruyere cheese served with pommes frites.
With 166,000 miles on the odometer you’d be forgiven for thinking this car is past its useful life. In truth, there is likely no American town with more than about 1,000 population where there isn’t a resident mechanic that knows this car’s Buick LG3 3800 V6 – and parts are still available in every corner parts shop. Coupled with the condition of this car – where the worst I can point out are the slightly discolored switches and floor mats – it would not be hard to get this one well past the 200K mark. The seller reports that “everything” works and details a good amount of recent service. Heck, a remanufactured engine can be had for less than $1,800. Find that with the Euro brands!
Going back to the equipment, just look at this seat switch. Like a lot of late-80s and 90s GM cars, the adjustment panel is centrally-mounted and switchable between the right and left perches. Assuming each adjustment moves both directions, I count 18 adjustments for the Bonneville’s front seat occupants. Unfortunately these cars came out before seat heaters were a little more mainstream, but since the upholstery is cloth versus leather that’s a little less of an issue. As noted above, the wood is not real, but represents one of the first attempts GM made to emulate “realism” in their faux veneers. There’s even a matching 2-cup holder under the center armrest. But, really, just bask in all the buttons – including the seats, the dash, and even the steering wheel. So many buttons, so many distractions from the road. But it was the 80s, and buttons meant RAD. So there we are.
The LG3 3800cc V6 delivered a moderate 165hp and 210 lb-ft of torque, which in turn propelled the SSE from 0-60mph in a casual 10.2 seconds and could punch up to 1 top speed of 125mph. Competitive in terms of contemporary sedans, but a little lethargic in 2021. Even so, it can more than get out of its own way, and you can bask in the knowledge that it’s a bona-fide modern American classic – a Detroit youngtimer – and your neighbor doesn’t likely have one, although his parents may have.
I think back to Mr. Buckley: if he were American he might just click the “buy” button on a car like this. Hell, he’s car geeky enough he might bring it back to Blighty just to be different! It is ultimately representative of its brand at the time, and could still deliver plenty more miles going forward. Plus it has 80s GM air conditioning which will freeze you out especially if it’s still running R12. Fun winter beater? RADWood contender? Or is it just a decent, inexpensive daily driver with room for 5 for a TTSer who grew up in the 80s, has never owned an American car, and likes buttons as much as sex? Your mileage may vary.
I had 2 of these a gray ’89 and a maroon ’91. I loved those cars!! The buttons on the steering wheel sold me. Both had nearly 200k on them, the first driven to Colorado from ATL and back 6 months later, did pretty welll in the snow.