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Less Is More: The Pontiac Grand Prix and the Politics of Downsizing

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Less Is More: The Pontiac Grand Prix and the Politics of Downsizing

Thirty years ago, the watchword of the auto industry was downsizing. Driven by high oil prices and ever-increasing emission standards, American automakers were forced to dramatically reduce the size and weight of their cars. Today, with spiraling oil prices and concerns about global warming, a new wave of downsizing can't be far off.

Downsizing can be risky. Customers have been indoctrinated for decades in the idea that bigger is better, and you have to be careful that smaller size isn't perceived as poorer value. Do it wrong, and you can end up with a sales disaster that could put you out of business.

Let's look at an early example of downsizing that succeeded: Pontiac's sporty 1969 Grand Prix.


Why do cars get bigger? Since the 1920s, most automakers have been committed to frequent redesigns of their wares -- at some points, every year -- in order to encourage buyers to trade up. With these frequent changeovers comes a challenge: how to justify the superiority of the new model, year after year. Genuine technological innovation is expensive, and while stylists can always make something look different, different isn't automatically better. Size, however, is something that even the least-erudite buyer can see -- and show off to envious neighbors. Adding a few inches here and there is relatively cheap, especially if the extra length is tacked on to the nose or tail, where it doesn't affect interior volume or packaging. Of course, the extra bulk adds weight, which does nothing good for performance or fuel economy, but bigness its own reward, or so the salesmen will tell you.

By the late 1950s, American cars had reached such extremes of size and overwrought decoration that customers began to rebel. Spurred on by a recession that began in late 1957, buyers turned to smaller, more economical alternatives like the AMC Rambler line or imported compacts like the Volkswagen Beetle. Sales of most big cars took a significant hit. Detroit hastily responded with an array of domestic compacts like the Ford Falcon and Plymouth Valiant, many of which proved quite successful.

Introducing new products was one thing, but what to do about the existing ones? General Motors, under the auspices of new styling VP Bill Mitchell, did discretely trim a few inches from many of its 1961 models, whose styling was also far more restrained than before. Nevertheless, even the "low-priced three" (Chevrolet, Ford, and Plymouth) were still decidedly zaftig. Reducing them back to their 1957 dimensions would have made rational sense, but selling that change to a public that had been hammered for years with the bigger=better equation was another matter.

Chrysler found this out the hard way in 1962. Back in 1960, then-president Bill Newberg had come to the erroneous conclusion that Chevrolet was going to shrink its big cars for 1962. Fearing that Chrysler would be left behind, Newberg ordered a crash program to downsize the 1962 Dodge and Plymouth lines, accomplished by having them share a stretched and widened version of the compact Valiant's body shell. From a practical standpoint, the idea had its virtues -- the '62 Dodge and Plymouth were nearly as roomy as before and significantly lighter, benefiting acceleration and fuel economy -- but it was a stylistic disaster. Worse, Chrysler made no effort to publicize the benefits of the downsized models, which left dealers in the difficult position of selling cars that were smaller, uglier, and no less expensive than their principal rivals. Sales were so dire that midway through the model year, Chrysler had to contrive a bigger model for beleaguered Dodge dealers.

Needless to say, Chrysler hastily retreated from the downsizing concept, although Dodge and Plymouth did find the silver lining, transforming the Valiant-based '62s into a new line of midsize cars. Chrysler's harsh lesson was not lost on the rest of Detroit, where the size and weight of nearly every model resumed their steady climb for the rest of the decade.


William L. Mitchell replaced Harley Earl as head of GM styling in the fall of 1958. While Earl's tastes had run to lavishly chromed cars that looked as big as they were, the designs produced during the early years of Bill Mitchell's tenure tended to lean, confident shapes with a comparative minimum of ornamentation.

There was perhaps no clearer example of Mitchell's aesthetic than the early Pontiac Grand Prix, a personal luxury coupe aimed in the general direction of Ford's popular Thunderbird. Although introduced in 1962, the Grand Prix reached its styling apogee in 1963, when it was restyled under the auspices of Jack Humbert, who became head of the Pontiac design studio shortly after Bill Mitchell's tenure began. The '63 Grand Prix was a two-door hardtop coupe, sharing its body and much of its sheet metal with Pontiac's low-end Catalina, adding a concave rear window shared with the contemporary Oldsmobile Starfire. In sharp contrast to the usual American custom of the time, the Grand Prix had less brightwork than lesser Pontiac models; other than the grille, bumpers, and the ribbing over the taillights, it was largely free of chrome. Stripped of unnecessary embellishments, its crisp basic shape, with sharp lines and a subtle Coke-bottle flare to its fenders, did all the talking. It was a masterpiece of restraint by American standards, both sporty and tasteful.



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