Story and photos by Brian Earnest
Ron Knuteson would never go as far as calling his 1970 Pontiac Grand Prix an ugly duckling. But he’s pretty certain it’s never going to win any beauty contests, or even any “peoples choice” trophies at weekend car shows.
“Nine out of 10 people walk by and don’t even look at it, because it’s not a GTO. If it was a GTO, it would be different,” says the Poynette, Wis., resident. “No, people don’t know about them [and appreciate them], but guys that know about these cars, they really appreciate this car when they see it.”
The pale yellow and green color combination of Knuteson’s 1970 Grand Prix J is probably an acquired taste, too. It might not be for everyone, but it’s part of what makes the car unique. Beyond that, it’s just a darn nice car by almost any measure, and it comes with big does of nostalgia for Knuteson, who has been a Grand Prix fan since he was young.
“The color has grown on me, because it is what it is,” he jokes. “I don’t mind it. When it’s cleaned up, it shines and it looks good.”
Mostly, the car reminds Knuteson of days gone by, when he burned rubber in a 428-powered 1969 Grand Prix SJ. That rocket, the second car he ever owned as a teenager, and he’s been on the Grand Prix bandwagon ever since, even though he didn’t always own one.
“I bought that car from a salesman and it was about five years old, but it had 100,000 miles on it,” he said of his first Grand Prix. “The price was decent at the time and I actually knew an older guy that had a ’70. I rode in that car and he let me drive it, so that’s kind of how I got hooked on that car. He told me, ‘you ought to buy one of these. You like fast cars, and these ride nice.’ So that’s what hooked me.
“I just remember that car when I got it, I was getting crap from people: ‘What’d you do? Is that your mom and dad’s car?’ Then I’d take them for a ride … and that thing was fast. We’d come back and they’d be wiping themselves! Back then you could go down to Sonoco and fill ‘er up with 100 octane and let ‘er fly [laughs].”
Knuteson insists he wasn’t even on the lookout for a car in 2000 when he stumbled upon his current yellow Pontiac. It wasn’t a car he had ever seen before, and he wasn’t shopping for a vehicle, but somehow fate intervened. “The guy who had it was at Jefferson [Wis.] with this car. He had brought it up from Texas. The original owner was in southeast Tennessee and he passed away. His grandson inherited the car and moved to Texas and the car was very neglected, but it was inside the whole time. The guy who sold it to me bought it and brought to Jefferson to sell it, and I happened to be there and we came up with a price and I bought it.
“It was very good. When I restored it and blasted the floorboards and the trunk, we didn’t have to do hardly anything to it. It was just so clean. It had a little rust around the quarter panel and around the back window — you know, moisture stuff — but we repaired all that. It’s been completely gone through. I had all the seats redone. I did a lot of the work myself. I’m not good at paint. A friend of mine painted it, piece by piece. The seats I took out. I rebuilt the tranny and the rear end. I did a lot of the grunt work — blast work and cleaning the putty and stuff up, and cleaning the interior and painting the floor pans.
“It went to Texas and sat, but before that it was cared for — obviously, seeing that the guy ordered the car like this. The colors, there’s no dealer that would put this together!”
The original owner also loaded up the Grand Prix with all kinds of goodies. Aside from a four-speed, it’s got about everything Knuteson said he could hope for. “It’s got a 455 H.O. and in 1970 there was a J and an SJ. The SJ was just an option package, which was the big motor, gauges, air ride and then all the extra side marker lights and interior lights, and the chrome package on the engine. This has every SJ option on it except the air ride. The reason being was insurance back then. That’s all I can come up with. Back then they were hooking you if they could classify it high-performance, and a J was not considered high-performance and the SJ was, because of the big motor, but you could order it with a big motor and it was the same car.
“I added the chrome appearance package, because it didn’t come with it. I added the hood tach and I added the wood steering wheel… Otherwise it’s got all the power options, air conditioning, cruise control, tilt wheel, power trunk release, deluxe interior with cloth inserts. Rally wheels, 12-bolt posi, power disc brakes… You could get leather in ’70, but this one doesn’t have that. It’s very comfortable.”
REBORN IN ’69
The Grand Prix was a staple of the Pontiac lineup following its unveiling for the 1962 model year. In many people’s minds, though, the nameplate climbed to new heights when John DeLorean and the Pontiac brass ordered up a dramatic restyling of the line for the 1969 model year. The full-size Gran Prix had been waning in popularity, but DeLorean envisioned the line becoming a major player in the growing personal luxury car market, battling it out with the likes of the Ford Thunderbird, Mercury Cougar, Dodge XR-7 and the Grand Prix’s GM siblings — the Buick Riviera and Olds Toronado.
The spicier new Grand Prix rode on an exclusive 118-inch platform and featured a V-shaped grille, square headlamp surrounds, an aircraft inspired interior and the longest hood of any production car in history. Standard equipment included dual exhaust, Strato bucket seats, padded integral console with floor shift, hidden radio antenna, carpeted lower door panels, upper level ventilation system and “pulse” type recessed windshield wipers. A 350-hp V-8 was standard. The engine options list also included 265- or 350-hp versions of the 400 V-8, and 370- and 390-hp versions of the 428.
The car proved to be an instant hit, with 112,486 units built for the model year, starting at a base price of $3,866.
Pontiac didn’t mess with a good thing, and the 1970 models were very similar to the ‘69s. Minimal styling changes included taillamp revisions and recessed door handles. Series script replaced chrome slash moldings on the rear roof pillar. Standard equipment included dual exhaust, aircraft inspired interiors, front Strato bucket seats, integral console with floor shift, carpeted lower door panels and trim panels, chrome body decor moldings and special upholstery trims. The “SJ” option was again available at $223–$244 extra and included SJ badges, lamp group, larger tires and the 455-cubic inch V-8.
Both 428s were dropped for 1970 and replaced with the brand new 455. The new four-barrel big-block was rated at 370 hp and produced a hefty 500 lbs-ft. of torque.
Big news for muscle car fans in 1970 was the arrival of the special Hurst SSJ, a tricked-out version of the Grand Prix. Only 272 were built in either black or white. They featured electric sunroofs, gold wheel rims and Hurst shifters.
A GRAND FUTURE
Knuteson says he had to sell his 1965 GTO to make room for ’70 Grand Prix, but he insists he might be able to find room at home for at least one more car. He found a fellow Grand Prix enthusiasts in Canada who might be willing to part with a four-speed car. He’s got another car that Knuteson says he is interested in, too.
“He’s got six Grand Prixs and he wasn’t looking to sell, but he said he’d be willing to sell one to me,” he says. “The ultra-rare one of these to have is the SJ with a four-speed. He’s got one and it’s nice. It would need a little bit of work, but it’s definitely a nice car.”
Either way, Knuteson plans to keep racking up miles on his yellow ’70. It shows up regularly at his favorite car shows and has seen its odometer total grow from 93,000 in 2000 to more than 117,000 and counting.
“I probably put 1,500 miles a year on it, at least,” he says. “I have a ’73 Corvette, too, and I do the same with that car. I drive them all the time.”
Unlike his first Grand Prix, however, Knuteson doesn’t plan to let this one go. It’s too nice, and too fun, to part with. “I’ll have it until I’m not here anymore,” he says.” I’ve got one of my sons that wants this car bad. The other one likes the Corvette. I’ve already told ‘em, ‘You know where they are when I can’t drive ‘em anymore.’”
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