One of those young people was Milt Gordon of West Bloomfield, Michigan. He was nineteen when he fell hard for his father's brand-new, white '59 convertible. "It used to take me a whole day to wash it," Gordon recalls. His nights were spent cruising in the grand Detroit tradition, drag-racing up and down Woodward Avenue with stops along the way to pick up food and girls.
In 1988, Gordon - today an orthodontist nearing retirement - sought to revisit those years and found a white Bonneville convertible of his own. He enjoyed driving it so much that he couldn't resist snapping up the slightly nicer, more original red car that we sampled. The red Bonneville has the optional Tri-Power and bucket seats versus the white car's single four-barrel and front bench.
Although its three two-barrel carburetors were in need of adjustment, the 389-cubic-inch V-8 had no trouble hustling the two-ton sled from a stop, and the four-speed Super Hydra-Matic provided silky-smooth shifts, even with 119,864 miles on the odometer. The car's stance is quite broad even by modern standards, but the eight-inch-wide bias-ply tires hardly take advantage of it, which means that the convertible requires constant corrections from the large-diameter, thin-rimmed steering wheel just to maintain a steady course. (Gordon put radials on the more-often-driven white car, which he says makes a major improvement.) The Pontiac also doesn't appreciate being asked to stop on short notice. And yet, when Gordon takes a turn behind the wheel, he's able to tame the big Bonne' with practiced ease, cruising along at 30 mph with his left arm propped comfortably on the A-pillar as the wind blows through our hair. More than fifty years on, the Bonneville still captures the feeling of carefree youth, although Gordon jokingly laments that he now sees only "old farts" driving them.
The '59 Bonneville's formula was simple - stunning style plus ample V-8 power and clever marketing equals sales and street cred. Pontiac would follow this simple method with wild success throughout the '60s and '70s before GM's finance- and sales-oriented brand managers - Wangers calls them "little boys in men's suits" - interfered and slowly but surely steered the brand to its death. The Bonneville nameplate itself departed five years ago, ending one of the longest uninterrupted runs in history. For Gordon and many others, that's no matter. "I still think the '59 Bonneville is the prettiest car ever made," he says.
ENGINE: 6.4L V-8, 260/300/315/330/345 hp
TRANSMISSIONs: 3-speed manual 4-speed automatic
SUSPENSION, FRONT: Control arms, coil springs
SUSPENSION, REAR: Live axle, coil springs
WEIGHT: 4070 lb
Year produced: 1959
Number produced: 82,564 (including 11,426 convertibles)
Original price: 3478 (convertible)
Value today: $30,000-$85,000
(For convertibles; other body styles are generally worth less than half the value of droptops.)
Less common and better looking than contemporary Chevrolets, the '59 Bonneville remains plentiful enough so as to be reasonably cheap and easy to maintain. (1960 Bonnevilles were mechanically identical and sold better but aren't as pretty due to their awkward "coffin nose.") And although it's relatively tame compared with Pontiac's later muscle cars, the classy Bonneville still exudes the swagger that made the brand such a trendsetter in the decade to come. Put the top down and let the pushrod V-8's burble take you back in time.