1964 Pontiac Grand Prix

Pontiac ruled. And this 1964 Grand Prix is one of the best-looking and most impressive Pontiacs ever. Yes, it's a big boat. Front and rear overhangs are excessive, and the wheels are tucked a bit too far into the body, but it is an absolutely magnificent expression of American car design back when design teams - under Bill Mitchell in this case - created beauty, not space efficiency or ergonomics, and engineers dealt mainly with power and torque, not fuel economy or pollution. In many senses we are well rid of such excess, but in absolute terms the loss of such cars, and the loss of Pontiac itself, is a national tragedy.

I have never had much use for big cars, but I understand that most Americans want them - and always have. When the Detroit industry began downsizing its passenger cars in the 1970s, there was a massive shift to trucks and SUVs, partly because their engines ran unfettered but mainly, I think, because they were big. If Detroit wouldn't sell someone a big car, that person chose a big truck that acted something like a car. This Grand Prix is not particularly space-efficient, but it is strikingly beautiful in an atypical (for General Motors) restrained manner, much like the handsome, Pininfarina-designed Fiat 130 coupe. But this Pontiac came five years earlier. The 1963 and 1965 Grand Prix models both had visors over the stacked headlamps, but the '64 has elegantly "frenched" lamps without excrescent, drag-producing elements.

After a long period of building cars with tortured solutions, GM reverted to simple, straightforward, linear A-pillars in the 1960s. On this Grand Prix, the whole upper structure is pure, both classical and elegant. The reverse curve at the leading and trailing edges of the rear pillars and the concave backlight refer to British knife-edge designs, much loved by Bill Mitchell, but the overall look is insistently American. Lower body forms are linear, with just the slightest hint of a rising hip line over the rear wheel, a hint later exaggerated on the 1965 model, to its detriment. Chrome lips around the wheel openings, the front one bigger than the rear but of the same rectangular character, punctuate the side profile, as does the chrome sill trim. Mitchell made a lot of use of "windsplits," which he likened to creases in a well-pressed suit. There is one down the middle of the hood, one on each front fender, and a swelling version on the side of the rear fender, enlivening the simple side panels.

Whether the engines were 6.4- or 6.9-liter V-8s, there was plenty of power to make this "personal" car - a cut above any Chevrolet - a lively performer, and its ten-foot wheelbase assured a smooth ride. There ought to be a proper descendant of this car on the market today, but there is not and now never will be.

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