A (power) ballad to Pontiac.
We are young, heartache to heartache we stand…
Idly perusing a non-car related website recently, the Pat Benatar tune in question popped into my head and refused to leave. The song was inspiration enough to look back at a time when power dressing, Miami Vice, blocky computer graphics along with a host of mediocre cars from the largest producers were prevalent. So dig out that shell suit and pop MTV on at full volume; today we peer into the Pontiac 6000.
The 1980s were not considered by many to be one of General Motors creative highs. After all, dishing up the same sauce with barely a badge flavoured difference was hardly a recipe to salivate over. The GM A-Body played servitude to the Chevrolet Celebrity, Buick Century, the delightfully sounding Oldsmobile Cutless Ciera along with the 1982 originally Canadian-made Pontiac. Production after 1988 however, headed south east to Oklahoma.
1982 was also the year Fame premiered on TV, Rod Stewart had his 911 nicked at gunpoint (who ‘ya gonna call…), along with Chris Evert Lloyd claiming her sixth US Open title. A-Body cars were seen as the General’s staple; decently equipped, spacious, not as bad to drive as expected but also rather bland in character. Pontiac’s version however showed enough potential for Motor Trend to pitch the 6000 against its brethren with a Firebird and Camaro along for the ride. Famously ‘powered’ by the Iron Duke engine, the 6000 took silver to the victorious Z28. Possibly assisting toward the second podium place being the Y99 option, dealt with shortly.
No promises, no demands…
Returning to basics, the 6000 sat on a wheelbase 2,664 mm long with a 1,732 mm width. The car rose to a height of 1,393 mm with overall length at 4,794 mm. The trunk measured 456 litres whereas the tank held 59 litres or 15.5 (US) gallons of gas. 6000s arrived from Canada with the standard 2.5 litre (151 cubic inches) four pot for a wholly unimpressive 90bhp. Optional mills were the equally dismal output from the at least impressive sounding 4.3litre (263 cu in.) diesel from Oldsmobile – just 85bhp. Luckily the V6 mustered 2.8litres (173 cu in.) capacity with dual carburettor for 112bhp. Gearboxes were but one; a three speed automatic. Suspension was struts up front with trailing arm and beam rearward.
There were two body styles; a four door sedan with six light DLO and a two door coupé. This model’s front side window was elegantly tapered with its off-square rear cousin combining for a pleasingly compelling stance. Later in’84 an estate version known as the Station Wagon 6000 Safari arrived, and while nothing extraordinary, allowed those shifting more goods and chattels a handsome enough alternative.
Trim levels cleaved to the ‘well equipped’ sobriquet. With four, rectangular headlamps, the outer driving lamps lent the car a more adventurous look. Vinyl covered the seats. Stepping up to LE offered cloth as an option. Standard tyres all round 185/80 R13 fibreglass belted black walls. Cost options included 14” wheels with steel belted tyres along with white walls on Goodyear Eagles. Customers could also opt for halogen lamps, 80’s trend gadget-laden stereos, reclining seats, air conditioning, ‘Soft Ray’ glass along with external bodywork accented stripes.
Pontiac named the Y99 option Rally Suspension consisting of a larger front sway bar, firmer springs and higher pressured power steering. Brochure stats insisting the fitment of 14” steel belted wheels, no less.
Am I the best thing you’ve had?
The 1983 brochure alluded to the 6000 being “an elegant rebuttal to those who think driver’s sedans are the private domain of the European.” Pontiac were keen to emphasise the standard trim levels but the LE “stresses the business of driving without ignoring the importance of comfort.” The 6000, be that with advertising or customer nous became Pontiac’s best seller in 1984 with 112,000 units. Production numbers therein dwindled rapidly, the coupé dropped entirely by ’88.
However, the most lauded 6000 version, then as now was the 1983 STE, Special Touring Edition. Power derived form the same 2.8litre engine that with tuning now ramped out 130bhp. The 60° angle between the cylinder banks “maintained smooth power delivery.” This car’s only cost options being paint colour, leather upholstery and a sunroof.
Inside the dashboard now featured a blocky graphic Driver Information Centre, keeping an electronic eye on the Idiot Lights, oil changes along with service intervals and warnings to rotate one’s tyres onto different axles. The plush looking interior sported a rear seat armrest. LEDs were used in the HVAC system. Outside saw blacked out tail lamps, a powered antenna along with steel exhaust trumpets that wouldn’t suit Herb Alpert. The STE had a Monroney of $13,572 – some five thousand over a standard model.
No one can tell us we’re wrong…
Motor Trend launched the STE into a global competition held on American soil, taking on Toyota’s Cressida with the German’s fielding the Bavarian 528e along with Ingolstadt’s 5000. Whilst not winning, the Ottawa Chief “held its own and stands head and shoulders above every Detroit sedan, including its fellow A-Bodied siblings”, according to David E. Davies, founder of Automobile. When editor of Car & Driver, Davies placed the STE on his top ten list for 1983, 84 and 85.
1984 saw investment into a more detailed digitised dash along with disc brakes with ABS. 1985 engines saw multi-port fuel injection. The three speed gearbox finally faded away in ‘87, replaced by a four speed auto with overdrive or a no-cost option Getrag five speed stick shifter.
If we get much closer I could lose control…
Motortrend rustled up another global dust up against another 528 along with nascent Japanese upstart Acura’s Legend and the same Audi. The STE blew the 5000 into the weeds but overall placed third, the Japanese taking second to the BMW’s “near perfect driving dynamics.” Summed up as owning dated ergonomics and too much steering assistance, MT believed the STE was still the automotive bargain “for the conscientious user wanting some European taste but can’t afford one built across the Big Pond.”
1989 saw an extensive upgrade, that of All Wheel Drive. Under the hood lay a 3.1litre (191 cu in.) V6 producing 140bhp. Oddly, the three speed auto retuned. The dashboard housed the switch to operate the electro-mechanical centre differential, that part donated from a GM400 pick-up. Rear suspension being bespoke independent along with a transverse single leaf spring derived from the new for ‘88 Pontiac Grand Prix. That particular car garnering Motor Trend’s CotY gong in the same year Reagan and Gorbachev cosied up.
Both of us knowing…
The 6000’s hold was now fast loosening. Capped at just 1,300 AWD units for ‘89, the STE moniker decamped to the Grand Prix for 1990. The eighties wedge game was over by July 1991 but the STE still managed to impress the magazines, the car seen as a shining light throughout what was known as The Malaise Era. When placed aside Pontiac’s own Fiero and Trans Am, the 6000 was nothing but a dated box. Now rarely seen in the States, those that have remained useable have cornered quite the following.
Data Sources: moneyinc.com, Motortrend.com, xr793.com
A ten minute dealership training video
 The real name for the sticker price label, from Almer Stilwell ‘Mike’ Monroney, senator for Oklahoma.
42 thoughts on “Love Is A Battlefield”
Morning Andrew, great article thank you!
How could such large capacity engines be so weak in output? That’s baffling to me.
JCC: It’s worth recalling that during the 1970s and into the ’80s, US emission and corporate fuel economy mandates were particularly onerous, with huge impacts on power outputs and driveability. It took a long time for domestic carmakers to develop the technology to mitigate these issues – to say nothing of those exporting to America. The development of solid state metering and control systems most likely were pivotal in solving the problems. I’m probably over-simplifying here and our US commenters can probably lend more insight.
Emmissions would sap power. Did they try to reduce fuel consumption by simply not putting as much fuel through the engines (rather than reducing the swept volumes)?
It looks like it’s a complicated issue, but a mixture of pushrod engines, lower rev limits and compression ratios, and cylinder design all contribute.
Making engines that are less efficient is a choice – it doesn’t imply that the engineers don’t know what they’re doing. Other factors such as reliability and longevity and other market expectations will contribute.
Here’s a two-part explanation. It relates to V8 engines, but a lot of what is said is more widely applicable.
The detail of the front lamps shows an aesthetic matched for quality by General Electric´s white goods division: tiny radii, odd junctions of parts and the brittle little bits of chromed plastic that are correctly scaled for a toaster or a dishwasher. The dashbroad profile attempts to be simple but is instead simplistic. My goodness. There were really bad times at GM art & colour, weren´t they?
Good morning Richard. There really is a disconnect between the complexity of the car’s design in that area and the lack of effort GM made to execute it properly. The grille in particular looks to be poundshop-quality, with the bottom corner not flush to the keading edge of the wing and and a shut-line between the bonnet and grille that gets dramatically wider as it moves away from the outer corner. Had the tolerances been much tighter, and the plastic parts moulded to a much higher quality, it could instead have been rather pleasing.
Looking again at the front lamp: right under the flimsy little chrome-effect frame there is a small radius. This is then forced to become a large radius on the transition from the metal of the wing to the plastic of the bumper. Nasty. I wonder why the clay modeller was ignored as this person might have been very aware of the difficulty of modelling a small radius going around a corner into a big radius.
Imagine that once the model’s been signed off, one production team does the wing, one team does the bumper, one team does the headlamp surround, one team does the grille. Maybe they communicate, but each has to find the most cost-effective way of making their bit. So radii change, angles change and nothing really matches. 98.3% of owners don’t care, but of course we do. For me the aesthetic mistakes are bad, but the tactile ones are even worse. The lower outer corner of the headlamp surround just shouts “I’m sharp!”
Very bad times indeed, Richard. They put me in mind of a block of cheese on wheels, all flat panels and sharp corners. I think they overreacted against all the wasteful contouring of their early seventies designs, and tried to reduce down to the purest form – and went too far.
Either that or someone in art and colour looked at a Volvo 240 and went “Hold my beer….” 🙂
Yes, these cars were utterly mediocre, at best. But hey, they came with things like pre-recorded Type IV (metal position), Dolby C-encoded audio cassettes that touted the merits of the factory-installed audio systems.
The press said that these Pontiacs were Detroit´s most similar thing to an European “sports” saloon. Of course those were the days of BMW “eta” low compression engines and the like.
But… But… Nicely recorded Type IV cassettes with Dolby C!
Brochures even zoom in onto misaligned parts – did no-one notice or care? Richard’s connection with cheap white goods is correct but then, as was commented a few days ago, for many US customers vehicles were just another necessary domestic appliance. US cars always offered a lot of metal or plastic for the money, whereas in Europe we shutline fetishists were expected to pay the premium for neatness (in some cases). Even taking into account the demise of those huge SAE figures from the 60s, power outputs seem pretty weedy. But it’s maybe good that performance wasn’t that furious, since the dashboard of a fully specced 6000 is an ergonomic minefield.
Here’s another publicity shot for the 6000:
Note how poorly aligned the rear light cluster is to the rear wing. Note also the distortion evident in the corner of the rear bumper moulding. They really didn’t give a stuff about attention to detail, did they?
The third volume seems too big for the rest of the car, or are only the huge tailights?
Never mind, that couple seems delighted with his new car, and not buying one of those hideous “imports”.
It puts me in mind of my first close-up experience of a Japanese car, when a friend’s brother bought a Toyota Corona in 1974. I was amazed at how every piece of trim, every badge even, had a gasket between it and the bodywork. None of this “screw it on and call it good” like the Fords and Morrises I was used to.
And I gather American cars’ assembly quality in this period was just as bad or worse, judging from publicity photos like this.
Hi Peter. I well remember noticing exactly the same thing when Toyota and Datsun first appeared on the Irish market in the mid 1970s. The meticulous attention to detail you describe was a world removed from the norm on European cars. On the latter, the poorly fitting bright trim often damaged the paintwork beneath, leading to premature corrosion.
Such cars are the reason for the success of the Toyota Camry and the Honda Accord in the States.
More frugal, more refined, more reliable, more love to details, more of everything for the same price.
Detroit was never able to find an answer to those japanese products.
And this even looks a bit like an ur-Camry sedan, just with a longer nose. Trust Toyota to latch onto a promising idea and refine , refine, refine. And make it look better into the bargain.
Sure they were. For a time. The Ford Taurus outsold the Accord and Camry in the early ’90s for a couple of years. My brother here in Canada moved from an Audi 200 turbo to a Taurus estate, and found it more than acceptable to tote around his two new young family additions, for quite a few years, as in 12. Of course, in 1996, Ford threw away all the decent aspects of the original Taurus, and turned out a cost-reduced rental car version for everyone instead. It went downhill even further from there on until by 2005, it was literally rental car fodder available only with an asthmatic pushrod 3 litre V6. Just dreadful. My Impreza was a more refined car.
This featured Pontiac 6000 was the GM A body, new for ’82. The Pontiac didn’t sell half so well as its sisters the Chevrolet Celebrity and the Olds Cutlass Ciera plus the rarer similar piece of junk Buick Century. Same car, different sheet metal here and there, the GM badge-engineering usual.
I must say, that despite the quoted lacklustre output, the 2.8l and 3.1 litre V6s had a decent turn of speed, whether they were in these A bodies or the J cars and subsequent Corsica/Beretta offshoots. They also had a nasty braying exhaust note. But this A-body was lightly-built at well under 1400 kilos. The replacement Chevy Lumina and its ilk, brought out to finally compete with the Taurus, were much heavier and slower with the same engines. And no better made.
This sad sack of a 1982 A-body car soldiered on through the ’96 model year as an Oldsmobile Cutlass something or other with flags of many countries on a panel, a boot ski-rack and gen-you-ine wire wheel hubcaps. We rented one for a 2000 mile trip that year, as it was very cheap to do so. It seemed like a collection of loose rattly parts moving along in the same general direction. And the braying V6 got on your nerves in stop-and-go town traffic. An over-eager throttle tip in did not help, the front dampers were non-existent, but the steering was acceptable.
Must say it’s a bit of a hoot to read a British take on an ’80s GM A-body from someone who’s likely never even seen one, let alone driven an example, and apparently not realizing it was but one of four almost identical cars from GM. The Taurus made mincemeat of it as a car, but loyalty to be either a GM or Ford “fan” meant millions of A bodies were made and sold. Once the V6 Camry became available in the early ’90s, and with real interior quality built-in until the refresh of ’97, America didn’t ever produce a new semi-decent popular price “sedan”again, but went on a truck and SUV binge instead, and GM flew downhill with a following wind to bankruptcy, along with Mercedes-owned and operated Chrysler run by German dingbats. It’s also worth remembering that until the Japanese “discovered” galvanized sheet metal for the ’96 models, Japanese cars were total rustbuckets, much more so than the native North American vehicles. That was their Achilles heel. I personally wouldn’t touch a Honda or a Toyota before them.
General Motors of that era was very much led by the cost accountants, not the stylists or the engineers. When the inevitable conflict arose among them, the bean counters won. Andrew documents several instances of parts reuse within the article. It would not surprise me at all that some of the odd junctions were caused by the use of slightly modified parts from the bins that supplied the rest of the General’s offerings. As for the quality of shutlines, I’m sure the response from the manufacturing guys was “It shuts. It stays shut. Whaddaya want?”
My personal opinion is that Pontiac suffered for its own art. From the mid-to-late 70s on to the very end, the Pontiac mantra seemed to be “if some is good, more is better, and too much is enough.” That explains the digital dashboard, the excessive brightwork, the six headlamps,, features like the exhaust tips, etc.
It wasn’t enough that a Pontiac had styled (steel) wheels; if it was a Pontiac the individual spokes had to have “speed lines” machined into them. Just excess. It helped justify the price: “Lookit all this extra stuff that came on the car!” and did differentiate Pontiac somewhat from Buick and Oldsmobile. But it also made Pontiac a bit of a caricature of itself.
A car I would not have expected to see here on DTW. My Paternal Grandmother bought one of the first, a top end (no STE yet), high option ‘82 LE Coupe just before Christmas 1981. Carbureted 2.8 V6, full power, cruise control, air, handling package… Probably every option besides the top end stereo. The color was Light Rosewood metallic, a shade of coppery peach, with the same reddish brown interior color as the photo for the ‘83 STE above.
It was an alright car. You have to keep perspective in check with these. In 1988, these were woefully behind the times, but the first couple years they were not. What else in the “family-size” segment existed circa 1982? Chrysler’s wheezy K-cars and Ford’s chintzy Fairmont. Toyota still sold Coronas. The Honda Accord was the star, but was a vastly smaller car than a 6000, and in a completely different realm of desirability when saddled with Honda’s 3-speed automatic. The 6000 was very spacious, held up reasonably well, wasn’t wanting for power, and was on par for economy to the slant six Valiant Scamp it replaced. I have memories of the ridiculously plush velour, throaty growl, big trunk, and horrid strip speedometer. 7.9/10; better than average comfort and performance with no overtly glaring deficiencies in any area relative to the others in class ‘82.
You are right, everything has to be compared with was available back then. The 6000 was probably the most appealing to drive A-body GM, and 112 bhp V6 wasn´t bad when Audi´s 5000 “European sports saloon” was making 100 bhp. Domestic competition from Ford or Chrysler seemed stuck in the ´70s (until the Taurus appeared).
It was just that it was competitive for a couple of years and then Japanese rivals overtook it and disappeared into the horizon.
Good afternoon Andrew and thank you for another interesting article. I note the previous comments about the lack of power form the various engines on offer but how about the size of the wheels? 14″ seems minuscule compared to those put on saloon cars these days.
There was a lot of parts sharing, to the point that Fortune magazine’s August 1983 front cover showed a line of A-Platform cars of different badges, criticising the fact that they all looked the same. It’s worth reading the comments below the short Curbside Classic article, below, as it seems that although the cars looked the same, parts such as door skins were different between brands.
I understand that GM thought that the Japanese made much more on each car that they sold, so there was a big drive to cut costs (usual GM story).
The Ford Taurus did rather steal the show when it came along.
The door skins were shared between Chevy/Pontiac and Buick/Oldsmobile, which is how it also was for the B/C bodies, and RWD A (renamed G) platform.
But in 1983 most of the Ford/Mercury and Chrysler/Dodge/Plymouth lines shared _all_ their visible metal and glass. The Fortune cover photo was unfair (should have featured the Cavalier and Cimarron).
Thanks Andrew, I don’t know that much about American cars from this era, so this is a bit of exoticism. I’ll even forgive lodging Pat Benatar in my mind… right up there with “Sweet Caroline” because of yesterday’s elections in The Netherlands.
For reference: I think these are the cars that Motor Trend pitted against the 6000.
Detailing aside, I think the Pontiac looks more modern than the 5 series, but not the Audi, although it looks a bit more rakish to me. Although I always wonder about how conscious people are about badge engineering: does a Chevrolet Celebrity (which actually sounds like it belongs in Chevy’s European era covered here a few days back: Epica, Celebrity) really look of “feel” like a different car than the Pontiac to most people?
Good question; exactly what was the difference between the Chevy, Pontiac, Olds, Buick and Caddy’s of this era? Trim level? Hubcaps? It feels like they have 5 brands doing the work of 3.
@Eóin Oh yes, I’d completely forgotten about all the power sapping equipment American cars of the time were carrying. I should have remembered this, because it helped to undo BL’s efforts in the market over there.
JCC >> It feels like they have 5 brands doing the work of 3.
They did, and that’s why two of those brands no longer exist. In fact, if it were not for Buick’s outsized popularity in China, GM might have done away with it, too. There’s nothing wrong with having many horses in the stable as long as people can tell them apart — which was GM’s problem.
Chevrolet has long been the mass-market everyday vehicle. Cadillac occupied the other end of the market (well, at least at GM; internationally Cadillac’s reputation was another story). Buick served as the step up from Chevrolet though that mission frequently got confused with Oldsmobile. Pontiac, for many years, billed themselves as “We Build Excitement.” In the days of the GTO and 455-cubic-inch Firebird Trans Ams, that held some truth. By the time the 6000 showed up, though, “excitement” was generally reduced to trim packages and it became increasingly more difficult to determine each brand’s mission at GM.
That’s a problem quite a few conglomerates have (just ask BL, VW, Stellantis), especially when one of the non-Pontiac brands decides to bring a little excitment of their own:
Good morning all. A lovely musical cue to wake up to, thank you Andrew! I hadn’t heard that song for ages, now I can’t get it out of my head.
GM’s American alphabet cars always seemed a curiosity -X, A, J…. Take the same mechanicals, put them in the same body, add different grille, taillight, and upholstery styles and suddenly one is worth more than another? Why? Which style variant do you like best? Which dealer gives the better service? Production economics (no bad thing in itself) was given too much consideration and killed the brand equity that had been so carefully built up over decades. Would eighties American society have supported that degree of brand stratification anyway?
GM provides a chilling lesson as to why you don’t want pure finance guys in total control. You have to make a competitive product people will want to buy, not just wave the divisional flag and hope people will come and buy.
I believe that it was in the early 70s that John Delorean observed that GM was so big that the company could be managed terribly and it would be ten years before anyone really noticed. I think he was about right.
Ah, the 6000. It’s been ages since I last saw one. It’s not a great car, but strangely enough I don’t hate it. I wonder why the Oldsmobile was called Cutless Ciera instead of Cutlass Ciera. Was it because they were cutting less corners with that one? Sorry couldn’t resist 😉
We couldn´t end a 6000 STE article without a reference to Robocop´s “6000 SUX”.
I suppose that Ford provided all those Taurus used as police cars…
the 6000 badge alone is worthy of ridicule. I mean, did Pontiac (or any GM brand for that matter) have a history of using numeric model designations? No.
But Audi, being the European newcomer to watch, came along with the well rounded, not (yet) as expensive as Mercedes or BMW and thus quite successful 4000 and 5000 … and bam! „we have 6000! Hah! More is better, y‘all!“
Is 6000 the biggest number ever applied to a car? No, it´s 9000 for Saab, now I come to think of it. “6000” came out of the blue, didn´t it? There´s no rationale for it.
There was precedence before the 6000 with the numerical naming structure with the T1000 (first) and J2000 (second) at the very bottom of the Pontiac food chain in late 1980/early 1981 respectively, so there is that. The “A” Suffix was abandoned for the 6000 prior to launch and both the 2000 lost the J, 1000 it’s T for ‘83, so it seems an idea that proved foolish rather early on. The “2000’s” naming scheme was particularly convoluted, changing each year 1982-1985 until it landed on and remained just “Sunbird”.
true, Richard. But there was a logic for Saab using 9000 and none for Pontiac. It reeks of silly, insecure one-upmanship.
Think I read somewhere Saab weren’t particularly happy with the big number, btw.
Yes, it gives you the impression of “monkey see, monkey do”.
According to the New York Times, Pontiac’s sales peaked in which year?
The answer is (surprise!):
So their marketing, including the naming scheme was probably spot-on.
But what kind of a silly name is “Chevrolet Celebrity Eurosport”?!
Biggest number on a car