COLUMNS: 1964 Pontiac Grand Prix

August 11, 2009
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0909 03 Z+1964 Pontiac Grand Prix+front Three Quarters View
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.
0909 02 Z+1964 Pontiac Grand Prix+front Passenger Interior
0909 01 Z+1964 Pontiac Grand Prix+rear Exterior Details
1. Ineffective, badly placed, and only on one side. Mirrors are better now.
2. This inverse curve gives the Grand Prix roofline its character and status.
3. The concave backlight is enormous and gives a feeling of lightness to the upper structure.
4. Body-color taillight frames are elegantly simple.
5. Lamps are hidden in the transverse cove panel.
6. Thin strips of chrome add visual width to the "wide track" body.
7. Fake knockoff hubcaps were unfortunate . . .
0909 03 Z+1964 Pontiac Grand Prix+front Exterior Details
8. . . . but the optional eight-bolt wheels were magnificent and unique to Pontiac.
9. The lateral windsplit derives from a surface break starting just behind the headlamp rims.
10. This "hip" rise is extremely subtle, but it's much better than a pure linear solution.
11. Elegantly slim A-pillar is good for visibility and style. Just don't roll the car.
12. Restrained chrome around wheel openings, slightly bolder sill trim, and massive bumpers combine to give an unmistakably American look to the ensemble.
13. Thin whitewall tires looked good and were enormous fun to draw.
14. Bill Mitchell's windsplits are everywhere on this car. Also note the integrated dart emblem.
15. Visorless lamps are nicely restrained compared with those of previous and succeeding model years.
16. Mitchell had a penchant for trinkets, as witness the chrome crosses over the parking lights.
0909 02 Z+1964 Pontiac Grand Prix+interior Details
17. Thin steering-wheel rims were a GM conceit but weren't terribly practical or comfortable.
18. Full-width theme of panel repeats effect of rear cove.
19. Cranks for vent and side windows. Remember those?
20. Gauges, gauges everywhere, yet not a thing to read...

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