LeMans was a cornerstone for Pontiac for 20 years

A beautiful example of the 1972 Luxury LeMans was on display at the Chatham RetroFest car show in 2018. It was owned by Maureen and Robin McKay of Sarnia. Peter Epp photo

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My first new car was a 1979 Pontiac LeMans, a two-door coupe purchased new in August of that year – 40 years ago – for approximately $6,400. The car had a sticker price of $7,100, but was reduced because of the lateness in the model year.

The LeMans was equipped with a V6, was blue in colour, with light blue-coloured carpet and blue cloth seats.

I don’t know what type of V6 my LeMans came with, but there were two on offer in 1979 – a 3.8-litre Chevrolet engine and a 3.8-litre Buick engine. I’m guessing my Pontiac came equipped with the Chevrolet engine, and I’m further guessing it was built in Oshawa, although assembly was also available in Pontiac, Michigan and Baltimore, Maryland.

For 1979, LeMans came as a two-door coupe, a four-door sedan, or a five-door station wagon.

I was enthralled with my Pontiac, as most everyone must be with their first new car.

My LeMans was very standard. Although equipped with handsome trim, hubcaps and whitewall tires, the only power accessories were the brakes and steering. The windows were hand-cranked. There was no air conditioning, and the radio offered AM service only.

For those seeking a level of luxury, a Grand LeMans was available, and it came equipped with all of the bells and whistles that one could expect in a General Motors product 40 years ago.

Engine availability for LeMans in 1979 included a 4.3-litre Pontiac V8, a 4.9-litre Pontiac V8, or the 5.7-litre Chevrolet V8. A three-speed manual transmission was available, but it’s unlikely that too many of these were sold; most buyers opted for the automatic transmission.

My Pontiac was the fifth-generation LeMans, having been introduced on a smaller platform – the A-body – for 1978 as part of General Motors’ massive and historic down-sizing program. It was 600 pounds lighter than its 1977 predecessor and shared mechanics and frame with Chevrolet Malibu, Oldsmobile Cutlass and Buick Century, as well as with Pontiac Grand Am. Also sharing the A-body in 1979 was Pontiac Grand Prix and Chevrolet Monte Carlo.

The fifth generation of LeMans was short-lived, and was built to 1981. The LeMans name was subsequently shelved for a few years before revived in 1988 on a rebadged Daewoo. The Daewoo-built LeMans continued until 1993, after which the LeMans name disappeared. It’s doubtful it will be revived again, as Pontiac Division was closed by GM in 2010.

LeMans’ initial disappearance for the 1982 model year coincided with some upheaval in Pontiac. Sales were not good, and the corporation decided to cancel its full-size Catalina and Bonneville in the United States. The Bonneville name given to the car previously badged as a LeMans. In 1983, the Canadian-based Parisienne name was briefly attached to some Impalas built in Oshawa, and these rebadged Chevrolets with a slightly difference front end and rear end were sold as full-size Pontiacs. That ended in 1987.

The LeMans name originated in 1961 in Pontiac when it was attached to the division’s new compact, Tempest, as a trim upgrade. The LeMans was sportier and more luxurious than Tempest, and offered only as a two-door coupe.

LeMans continued as a trim option for 1962, but was also offered as a convertible.

That status continued for 1963, but the LeMans name was separated from Tempest. But it was available only as a two-door coupe or convertible.

Tempest became an intermediate-sized car for 1964, and the LeMans name was restored as a trim upgrade. That upgrade included carpeted lower door panels, a better-looking steering wheel, courtesy lighting and full wheel covers. For the first time, a two-door hardtop was available. And a new 3.5-litre straight six engine was introduced. Pontiac’s redesigned 5.3-litre (326) V8 was also available.

Several months into the 1964 model year, the LeMans line of Tempest was offered with a performance package that was designated as GTO. GTO options included a 389-cubic-inch V8 from the full-sized Pontiac line. It produced 325 horsepower. Available was Pontiac’s 348 Tri-Power engine. The GTO became a sensation and was the first entry into the so-called Muscle Car era of the Sixties. For 1966, GTO would become a separate Pontiac model.

For 1965, LeMans (still an upgraded Tempest) included a four-door sedan for the first time. But as an intermediate Pontiac, it shared in the glory that the division was earning plenty of cash within the GM family. Pontiac sales were soaring, and were ranked in the top three of all car nameplates in North America (after Chevrolet and Ford). Intermediate-sized Pontiac were integral to that success.

The intermediate-sized Pontiacs were restyled for 1966, with Tempest, LeMans and GTO sharing the same body lines. Base engine for Tempest/LeMans was the 3.8-litre straight six, but the 326-cubic-inch V8 was available.

LeMans arguably came into its own in 1968 when GM’s intermediate cars adopted a new style and design. They were universally available as a two-door coupe, a four-door sedan, a four-door station wagon, a two-door convertible, or a four-door sedan.

Sharing in this intermediate platform were four Chevrolet models (Chevelle, eventually Monte Carlo, Malibu and El Camino), three Pontiacs (Tempest, eventually Grand Prix, and GTO), three Oldsmobiles (Cutlass, Hurst/Olds and 442); and three Buicks (Special, Skylark and GSX).

The intermediates presented a powerhouse of opportunity for GM, as they were sized to appeal to younger buyers, and built to accommodate the booming Muscle Car phenomenon.

The 1968-72 intermediates had a 112-inch wheelbase, and were 207.2 inches in overall length.

They were, in my humble opinion, a handsome group of vehicles.

The Tempest name was retired in 1971 and Pontiac’s intermediate line became known as LeMans. It would hold that status to the end of the Seventies and the early Eighties.

For 1972, the final year for the third-generation of LeMans, the intermediate or mid-sized Pontiac introduced a top-of-the-line model that was known as Luxury LeMans. It was available as a hardtop sedan and coupe, and featured an upgraded interior that featured the best Pontiac options then available.

The 1972 Pontiac Luxury LeMans came equipped with fender skirts as the division worked to bring its intermediate Pontiac up to a new level of luxury. This Luxury LeMans was on display at the RetroFest car show in Chatham in 2018. Peter Epp photo

Incredibly, the Luxury LeMans came with fender skirts, which (in my opinion) only added to the car’s allure. It also came with front window vents, a holdover from an earlier era. Such vents had started to disappear with the 1969 model year in some cars. When Buick introduced its Riviera for 1963, it came without the vents. The 1972 model year would be their last year.

The Luxury LeMans was trimmed out to resemble the Pontiac Grand Ville, then Pontiac’s most expensive full-size car.

Part of the reason for the Luxury LeMans was necessity. Pontiac had no luxury intermediate offering and their sales reflected that lack. For the 1971 model year, for example, Oldsmobile offered its Cutlass as a Supreme model, and sales for the Supreme were over 71,000 units. Desperate to hang on to its sales status as Detroit’s No. 4 nameplate (it has lost its coveted No. 3 position to Plymouth in 1970), Pontiac brass trimmed their LeMans models from 13 to eight for the 1972 model year, but added the Luxury LeMans.

A beautiful example of the Luxury LeMans was on display at the Chatham RetroFest car show in 2018. It was owned by Maureen and Robin McKay of Sarnia.

As handsome as GM intermediate cars were from 1970 to 1972, their sales strength was actually diminished. All of the division saw their sales drop (Chevrolet 26 per cent; Oldsmobile 13 per cent and Buick 15 per cent) but Pontiac’s, at 31 per cent, was substantial.

Even though Pontiac’s intermediate sales dropped by almost one-third between 1970 and 1972, the addition of the Luxury LeMans is thought to have helped somewhat. LeMans sales were bumped by two per cent compared to 1971. In total, Pontiac sold 169,993 intermediate-sized cars for 1972, but its sales position within Detroit dropped to No. 5. Oldsmobile surged to No. 4, mostly on the strength of its hot-selling Cutlass.

The entire GM intermediate line was subjected to a massive redesign for 1973, brought on by several federal mandates that took in body safety and emissions. The cars were larger than their precedessors. For Pontiac, the line-up included the base LeMans, LeMans Sport Coupe, GTO (for 1973 only), Luxury LeMans (which became the Grand LeMans in 1975), and the Grand Am. The fifth generation of LeMans would continue through to 1977.

Integral to the 1973-1977 GM Intermediate cars was the corporation’s “Colonade” design for both sedan and coupes. It included center pillars for improved rollover safety standard, which eliminated the hardtop feature. Yet the cars came with frameless windows, which were similar to a hardtop.

Available engines for LeMans included a 3.8-litre V6, a 4.1-litre straight six, a 5.7-litre V8, 6.6-litre V8, 7.5-litre V8, 4.3-litre V8, 4.9-litre V8 and a 6.6-litre V8.

Transmission choices included a three-speed manual, a three-speed automatic, and a four-speed manual.

GM’s Colonade cars were well-received by the public, but Oldsmobile’s Cutlass shared in most of the glory. By 1977, the Cutlass was the best-selling car in the United States, only the second time for Oldsmobile that one of its nameplates had reached that pinnacle. The first time was at the turn of the century when Oldsmobile, building approximately 4,000 units a year, was the largest mass-produced vehicle in North America.

LeMans sales were not as strong as Pontiac had hoped for or needed, a significant signal that a major upheaval lay ahead in the future.