The 1993 Bonneville SSE was an advanced sedan in its day. (Colleen Reilly)
Monday was a sad day for Pontiac lovers. For the critics who have already stormed other articles and blogs regarding the brand's watered-down persona - platform sharing with Chevrolet, the Australian GTO, body cladding, the Aztek, among others - consider what Pontiac used to stand for: performance and high value.
As the former driver of a 1993 Bonneville SSE that pushed 230,000 miles, I can attest to Pontiac's mission statement, even though that car was also based on the Oldsmobile Eighty Eight and the Buick LeSabre. Yet while the chassis, front-quarter window glass, and the woefully inefficient 3.8 liter V-6 (only making 170 horsepower) tied the car to the GM family, the Bonneville was a true corporate outsider. Nearly a decade before the high-priced European cars offered such useful features as heads-up displays, power seat bolsters, radio controls on the steering wheel, an auto-dimming rearview mirror - and the early form of in-car navigation, the electronic compass - the Bonneville SSE had all of that.Dual air bags, anti-lock brakes, and traction control were all included before many mainstream cars offered them. Everything you could touch was power-operated, the seats moved about two-dozen ways, climate control was automatic, there were air vents for the back seat (with adjustable louvers for the floor and face), and the stereo's subwoofer was the only sound more satisfying than the low, throaty growl from the dual exhaust pipes.
My father bought it in 1996 with 47,000 miles for $15,500 - a good price for a well-kept, top-end model that commanded around $27,000 three years earlier. The car's only pitfall as he drove it off the lot was the gagging stench of cigarettes, which took several weeks worth of Glade fresheners to clear. The only options it didn't have was the supercharged engine (a boost to 225 horsepower), a CD player, and electronically adjustable dampers. All of this with tank-like construction, firmly weighted steering, and a dashboard devoid of hard plastics and the flat, senior-citizen style design that had dominated all other large GM cars for eons.
The green Bonnie was the first car I learned to drive. It was the car that started my newspaper career as a college intern, when as it aged and the air conditioning failed, I hustled it in the summer heat around Meriden, Conn., writing stories for the daily Record-Journal. It's odd to describe love between a human being and a slab of metal, but mine was plain to see. The Bonneville was always there for me, and it's fair that I wouldn't be writing on Boston.com and working for The Boston Globe had it not shuttled me to nearly 40 assignments over two summers.
At 200,000 miles, the Bonneville was creeping into old age. The ride turned into an inflatable children's funhouse on the highway. A mysterious fuel line problem made the car stall around turns and hills when the tank was a quarter-full (and boy, was it fun to muscle the Bonneville around a highway exit ramp with no engine or power assists). The cabin had become a cloth tent as the roof liner began to peel, some of the radio buttons quit their jobs, the security chip on the key sometimes locked the ignition, and a failing alternator stranded my family in a snowstorm. Or am I thinking of the fuel problem during another summer?
The Bonneville, however, was easy to forgive. The car's vitals - engine, transmission, steering, brakes - worked without flaw. I wasn't old enough to drive the car during its prime, but its back seat was the only place where I could catch sleep on long road trips. Its nameplate stretched back to 1957, an intangible alternate universe to most 20-year-olds. But I knew then, when the Bonneville went to the junkyard in 2006, that it was a legacy few other cars in the world could claim.
It could be argued that the Firebird - another legacy dating to 1967 - was the start of Pontiac's sad end when it was discontinued after 2002. But the loss of the Bonneville after the 2005 model year was the loudest death knell. When a brand's flagship goes under, what else is really left? Could Mercedes still be Mercedes without the S-Class, a long-timer that introduced much of the company's technology, including the industry's first iteration of stability control? Or Porsche without the 911, Chevrolet without the Corvette? Granted, these are cars in stratospheric price points next to a Bonneville, but the idea is the same.
There are big books that have been and will continue to be written on GM's failure to invest in Pontiac, the reliance on SUVs, the idea of sticking different badges on the exact same car and assuming buyers wouldn't notice. The list goes on. But perhaps the biggest reason is a lack of pride. A disinterest in identity and history, a nonchalant business stance at Pontiac that was more concerned with selling to rental fleets than dedicated customers.
Pontiac had a world-class car in the 1990s. The engineers, marketers, and product developers should be infuriated at what became of it.
"My Bonnie lies over the ocean
My Bonnie lies over the sea
My Bonnie lies over the ocean
Oh bring back my Bonnie to me"
- An old Scottish song
All photos by Colleen Reilly.
There was a slim amount of body cladding on the 1993 Bonneville, and unlike later Pontiacs, it didn't detract from the other metalwork.
Normally, decklid spoilers are tacky, but the SSE's was tasteful and made standard Bonnevilles look odd without one.
The author's father, seen in 2006 with the 1997 BMW Z3 he bought during his Bonneville's final years.
The author is solely responsible for the content.