Car of the Week: 1968 Pontiac Grand Prix

If there were ever a fan club formed solely for the 1968 Pontiac Grand Prix, Joe Boccio might have to run for club president. It’s unlikely anybody around is a bigger fan of the big ’68 GP’s than Boccio, a resident of Long Island.
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By Brian Earnest

If there were ever a fan club formed solely for the 1968 Pontiac Grand Prix, Joe Boccio might have to run for club president. It’s unlikely anybody around is a bigger fan of the big ’68 GP’s than Boccio, a resident of Long Island.

Some critics at the time lamented that the late-'60s Grand Prix were simply too big for their own good, and that they had outgrown their “personal luxury car” niche.

Boccio isn’t one of the guys who thinks that. When it comes to his Grand Prixes, bigger is better, both in body size, and engine displacement.

Boccio has two 1968 Grand Prixes these days, and the apple of his eye is his big, bright red 428-cid four-speed that is largely unmolested and very much like the car Boccio owned and fell in love with back when he first got his driver’s license. And when he’s not in the mood to shift, he drives his green ’68 GP with the automatic.

A ride in either car is guaranteed to brighten his day.

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“I can tell you this [red] car will never leave my possession,” he says happily. “And I’ve got two of them, so it’s like eenie-meenie-miney-moe which one to drive. I’ve got both of them, and now I can’t part with either one. But I gotta be honest, that four-speed car is a lot of fun to drive!

“A lot of people who see me driving the four-speed car they’ll tell me I’m out of my mind to drive it, and I tell them absolutely not. They’re no good to me in the garage. When I drive the car, I’m 17 again. Nothing else can make me feel like that. It’s a fantastic feeling driving these cars.”

The red stick-shift Grand Prix has about 55,000 miles on the odometer and you couldn’t blame Boccio if he were a little skittish about driving the car a lot these days. As Grand Prixes go, his ’68 is definitely on the rare side, due to its lengthy list of options, starting with the fact that it’s a 428 car with a four-speed. According to Boccio, it’s one of only 305 cars that were equipped that way. The car also carries the eight-lug wheels, factory hood tach, power windows and door locks, air-conditioning with temperature control, a rear defogger, trunk release and other goodies. “I think the car was probably ordered for the showroom floor. That’s my guess,” Boccio says.

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When Boccio gets wound up talking about his favorite Pontiacs, the conversation starts with his first Grand Prix that he stumbled upon when he was just 16. That car eventually led to two more, and a betting man would probably wager there will be more in Boccio’s future, judging by the enthusiasm he still has for the cars. “Originally back when I was [16] I purchased one these cars. It had a blown tranny and I paid 350 bucks for it, ” he laughs. "I was still in high school and brought it home and took it apart. I really liked it, and it was a four-speed car to boot. At the time I had no idea what I had and we put it back together and I drove it through my high school years and had a lot of fun with it and a lot of memories. Then later I had to get something more economical and I wound up selling the car to a relative and unfortunately never saw the car again …

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“Years and years went by and I always wanted to see if I could find another. I was always searching and 10, 15 more years go by … and I finally find a 400 automatic. I was hesitant, but in the 20 years of me searching for these cars, there were so few that I decided to purchase the automatic. It needed quite a bit of work. The woman who owned it was in her ’80s and she had 74,000 miles on it, with the original engine. The interior was immaculate, but unfortunately she’d drive by sound. When she hit something she’d stop! If you ran your hand across the back bumper, it had a million little dings in it. She must have hit the same pole for years. Her son-in-law had a better offer for it, but he said he would sell it to me because he knew I would never sell it and I’d keep it.”

Boccio was a happy camper in his green ’68 automatic, and he drove it “as-is” — unrestored and a bit tired — for a few years before he finally decided to take the car in for a makeover. “I took it to a guy at a body shop and told him to do it at his leisure. I wasn’t in a hurry,” Boccio recalled.

But the weeks turned into months, and before the restoration project was completed Boccio ran across another Grand Prix — the red four-speed. “Three years had gone by, and my other car was 90 percent done, and I found this one on eBay, and it was THE CAR," he said. "It was the exact car I had when I was a kid, and they are so rare." The car didn’t reach its reserve in the auction and his subsequent call to the owner couldn’t pry the car loose, so Boccio gave up. Two years later, he saw the same car for sale online again, this time in the Philadelphia area. He bid on the car and was the high bidder, but the reserve was again not met and the auction ended.

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“I figured since I was the high bidder and the car wasn’t that far away, I’d go look at it, so I jumped in my truck and went to Philly with $1,000 in my pocket and pictures of my original car. Well, I wound up getting it for my bid price. He said, ‘I really can’t sell the car to anybody else but you.’ We made a deal and shook hands and he delivered it to my house on a flatbed truck three years ago this March.”

That means Boccio has owned three of the 31,711 deluxe Grand Prix hardtops that Pontiac built for the 1968 model year, which was the seventh year for the handsome GP. The GP’s were introduced as sporty, stylish coupes in 1962 and quickly became popular with the buying public. The midsize coupes remained mostly unchanged for the first three years, then switched to the Catalina platform in 1965, when they were redesigned and, though they rode on a one-inch-shorter wheelbase, grew in weight and girth. With the GTO and LeMans in the Pontiac fold, and the Firebird on the way, the Grand Prix saw its niche change from a performance car to more of a two-door luxury machine, and the cars appeared to get huskier and more refined every year, particularly after fender skirts became standard in 1967.

The 1968 model year was the last time the Grand Prixes were based on the B-body, and they were the largest yet. The front end featured a huge pointed nose, new peripheral bumper, hidden head lamps and cross-hatch grille. The big horizontal taillights were integrated into the bumper, there was a more pronounced slope on the rear deck lid and engine displacement call-outs were found on the rocker panel moldings.

The 400-cid/350-hp fur-barrel V-8 with a manual three-speed was the standard power train. If you wanted more horses in your Grand Prix, you could go up the ladder and order the 428 with either 375 or 390 hp. Boccio’s car came with 375-hp version, which was also optional in the Catalina, Executive and Bonneville.

The Grand Prixes were again available only as hardtops and carried a base price of $3,697 while tipping the scales at 4,075 lbs.

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With less than 32,000 units, the 1968s were the poorest-selling Grand Prixes up to that point, and the cars got a dramatic restyling the following year, which helped jack sales up more 300 percent. Having a car with a lot of one-year-only parts hasn’t made things easy for Boccio, who learned years ago to hoard parts for the cars when he came across them. “It’s a one-year body style,” he said. “The bumper is a one-year body part — front and rear. A lot of parts are unavailable because nobody made them aftermarket … I’ve been purchasing parts for these cars for 10 years. Anytime I see something I buy it.”

That strategy helped Boccio put many original and NOS parts on his green automatic car during its restoration, but his prized red car hasn’t needed much. “It was painted once by a previous owner,” he said. “There were three owners prior to me that I know of and one prior to them that I don’t know who they are or where they are… The exhaust has been changed. It’s not a stock exhaust. It's a crossover pipe system and it sounds great. About the only things I’ve done are the grille, bumpers, bezels, taillight lenses and the distributor. I had the carb rebuilt. The guy I bought it from told me the motor was ‘dressed up,’ meaning paint-wise, but he did not say that the motor was ever out of the car and redone … I have been [tempted to rebuild it], but it runs so strong and sounds so great, my philosophy is if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”

Boccio has had plenty of fun already taking the big red car to shows and hobby gatherings in his first three years of ownership, even collecting a “Best of Show” trophy at his first show. Not everybody who passes by the car realizes it's unique, but if they look under the hood and then in the window and make the connection between the 428 and the four-speed shifter, it leaves a few scratching their heads. “Nobody’s ever seen one, ” Boccio laughs. “I’ve been going to car shows and nobody’s ever seen one. There were only 305 of them made like this, and I’ve owned two of them now. It’s a lot fun. I do take a lot of pride in that.”

You get the impression that Boccio would be just as happy with his cars if he they never saw another car show, however. And when he takes them there, getting there and coming home is where the fun is at. “It’s big and it weighs a lot, but it gets out of its own way,” he said. “Absolutely, it will snap your head back. It’s actually scary, a little bit, but it’s fun.

“More than anything else it brings back my childhood. When I get in it, it feels the same and smells the same. It smells just like 1975.”

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