I'm not sure what year it was, but I remember what year we were in it. Most of 1978 and 1979, for me, was spent in the back seat (or the "way-back," facing backward, feet sticking out the roll-down window 'til Dad would roll it up) of a pea-soup green, wood paneled Pontiac Bonneville station wagon. We were moving to Egypt, and my Pop thought the station wagon would make a better car to travel around in, over there and all throughout Europe, than the Pacer (also green -- but a sparkly, racing kelly green.)
As best I can remember, ours looked a lot like this 1969 model lifted off the Internet just now, but this one doesn't have the wood paneling. In fact, in all my years, I've never seen another one quite like the one we had. Looking all over the Internet this morning, I still haven't.
Mostly because of the fire. But more on that, and driving to Egypt in a station wagon, in a minute.
I wax eloquent about the memories of the Pontiac as a bit of a eulogy today. Most papers are running the brand's obit, albeit prematurely because the end isn't coming until the 2010 model (which should be out any day, right?)
GM announced it is pulling the plug on the Pontiac, and as the New York Times reports:
It expects to go forward with four brands — Chevrolet, Cadillac, GMC and Buick. Some analysts think all G.M. needs is two — Chevrolet and Cadillac — since Japanese companies, like Toyota, Honda, and Nissan — primarily have two brands in the U.S. But to put this in perspective, G.M. will now have fewer brands than it did when it started in 1908.
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Yup, 1908. Pontiac goes way back, but I think we remember the 60's and 70's as the good 'ol days.
Check out this 1966 GTO commercial. Rowwrrr!
So back to our station wagon. Horrified that we would be driving across Europe in it, my sister and I were only comforted by the fact that it was better than the Pacer. I remember Dad draining the gas tank and getting ready to put the car on a ship in the Port of Oakland a month before we left, arranging for us to pick it up in Rotterdam.
Rough seas delayed our Pontiac for five days, and after a couple days in London we got to have a little holiday in Amsterdam as well, which was very nice. When we finally picked our station wagon up, filling it up with liters of petrol rather than gallons of gas, the luggage, my sister and I piled into the back seat (my two eldest siblings had lucked out and were already off to college) and we headed South.
Here's just one visual for you, to summarize our trip through Europe. A wood paneled station wagon, with California license plates, on the Autobahn.
We ferried it across the Mediterranean from Greece and there we were, four steel-belted radials rolling along the streets of Cairo. We got lost in the desert in that car ("short cut" to the sand dunes on that dirt road we saw a truck come out of put us in a military encampment) and smuggled duty-free Snickers bars and flats of Pepsi from the Port cities in the compartment under the seats. Mom and Dad let my sister and me ride on the roof-rack one time while we were in the desert, to do a little sunbathing (it was the 70's, after all, and there wasn't anywhere else we could expose our arms and legs in Egypt.) We drove to downtown Cairo to see President Jimmy Carter's motorcade as he met with Egypt's President Sadat on an historic peace mission. My sister, at 15, took an unauthorized jaunt on the sand around the pyramids in it. And finally, we parted with it (no tears shed by my sister and me) when we came home to the US in 1979. My Dad sold it to some guy in Kuwait who thought it was the coolest thing he'd ever seen. After all, the majority of cars on the roads in the Middle east those days were Mercedes, BMW and Fiats. And it's not like they were having a gas shortage, like we were in the States.
That car already had been through a lot. I remember my mom was supposed to pick me up from school one day and when she didn't come, I started walking. On my way, I saw a giant column of black smoke and fire engines in the distance. I thought maybe my mom was stuck behind a traffic jam because of a fire. As I got closer, I saw my mom hanging on to a tree, looking pale, watching our Pontiac burn down. That car's engine compartment was fully engulfed in flames, but somehow, my dad put that thing back together again. The green paint was bubbled and roasted black in some spots, but the wood paneling was replaced and it still ran "like new."
I don't remember how Mom and I got home that day, but I bet we walked.
How about the Firebird? The Trans Am with that bird on the hood? I went on one of my first dates in one of those cars, it had sheepskin seat covers.
And if you look at these commercials, you really get a sense of how different a time it was. The muscle car era meant commercials that went into detail about the car's mechanical specs like you'd never see today.
And everyone who had one of these cars had to take it apart and put it all back together (with one or two modifications) at least once. My friend Phil had a red Firebird that he'd put some jacked up transmission in that had an actual foot (well, not an ACTUAL foot, but a metal foot-shaped pedal) that you would step on to shift gears.
This last commercial here made me laugh out loud as this fancy guy standing by a bunch of yachts says, "if you think bowling is the great American sport for 1968, try this" and he holds up some keys.
They then launch into this song about how "wide tracking" is the next big thing ... whatever that means. But the people in the commercial doing it sure look happy.
There was a lot of talk in recent days about how Pontiacs are getting better. But if you're like me, you have to reach way back in your memory for the last Pontiac that made any impression on you at all. I know I've driven a Pontiac in the last ten years. I'm sure I have. It was probably a rental car.
Well, the memories ... of the ones we remember anyway ... are pretty great.
Editor's Favorite Pontiac Memory: Fieros -- the GT version had the "authority of a fuel-injected V6." You had to have Stamos hair and a black leather jacket to match the car's swagger, especially when it became airborne on a seemingly flat country road.