Story and photos by Brian Earnest
Jeff Duranso knew she was the car of his dreams from the first moments he laid eyes on her. The “pin-up” girl he had to have was a curvy, glamorous, snow-white 1973 Pontiac Grand Am. She was sweet and sophisticated, and if she could talk, she would certainly have had an accent from some wonderful, exotic European land.
“I was 10 years old, all the kids in the neighborhood were all car-crazy and everybody had a brand,” recalls Duranso, a resident of Wausau, Wis. “I liked everything. One day I was paging through a magazine in 1972 and I see a full-page spread with the ‘70 Trans Am and the ‘67 Firebird and this ’73 Grand Am. And I stared at that ad for hours. I was just mesmerized by this car. Then my dad took me to a new car showing in 1973 at a Pontiac dealer in town and I walked into the showroom and there is a white ’73 Gran Am sitting on the show room floor: White with the red and blue stripes and a red interior. I found my brand! I was just mesmerized. After that I watched for Grand Ams. I saw them all over the place and by the time I got to the point where I was ready to drive in the early ‘80s, that’s what I wanted.”
By the time Duranso could afford one, however, the pickings were slim. Early 1970s cars generally had short life spans in northern climates, and there weren’t many early-‘70s A-body GM cars capable of surviving a decade’s worth of northern Wisconsin winters.
“They were all gone already... They were all junk, all deteriorating," Duranso lamented. "The issue with the nose cone deteriorating. That put them all in the junkyard. There were literally none to be found. When they were 8, 10 years old they were already gone. There were 40,000 of those cars built. They weren’t real rare. They sold pretty well, but nobody kept them."
“So I put it out of my mind. There were lots of other car,s and I still occasionally looked for one, but the last 25 years I’d been looking for one and I was very particular. I wanted a white one with a red interior and no vinyl top so I could have a stripe that went over the top… I got close and found a lot of Colonnade ‘cousins.’ There was a ‘73 GTO with a four-speed in it and 30,000 miles and I bought that. I bought a couple Can Ams. I owned a bunch of cars, but never found a Grand Am. They were all gone.”
Duranso never got discouraged, however. He figured if he kept looking and didn’t give up his luck would change eventually, and he finally got the break he was hoping for in 2015. “I found a car in Illinois that was just what I wanted — a white car, red interior, no vinyl top — and it was a California car; a rust-free car that was very usable. So I bought it. I probably paid too much for it, but it was what I wanted. I had waited long enough. I had passed on a couple of other cars that weren’t the color I wanted, and the prices just kept going up and I thought, ‘If I don’t’ buy one now, I’m going to lose this opportunity again. It’s going to keep getting to be more money.”
In addition to having just the right color scheme and options, the car Duranso found had a few key things going for it: it was void of rust and didn’t need restoring, and a previous owner had already taken car of the early ‘70s Gran Ams’ fatal flaw — the flexible Endura nose. “This car was bought new in California. It was painted one time in the early '80s It was parked in 1984 with just over 100,000 miles on it by somebody who liked it and wanted to keep it, but decided to wait until the nose cones became available and they could find parts,” Duranso said. “Well, the nose cones never were available. There were never any parts available for them until about 10 years ago when a Pontiac enthusiast had the nose commissioned in fiberglass and he started selling fiberglass replacement noses ... which this car has on it and pretty much every early first-generation Grand Am needs. They all need a replacement nose. Once you could buy the parts, the cars started coming out of the woodwork and there were a few of them laying around.
“The guy that I bought the car from in Illinois had bought it out in California and he put the nose on it and the mechanicals on it. He was also a Grand Am enthusiast but he had several other cars and he was done playing with this one.”
A Rare ‘70s Star
There were plenty of memorable cars built in the United States in the 1970s — many of them memorable for all the wrong reasons — but the list of cars that were truly cool and unique is pretty short. After 1972, the list becomes particularly short … “Bandit” Trans Ams, C3 Corvettes … the Chevy Monte Carlo maybe. It certainly wouldn’t be a stretch to call the 1973-75 Grand Am one of the hottest machines of its time, and probably one of the most overlooked.
The Grand Am was certainly of the most distinctive cars offered in the sales sweepstakes of the '70s and had an international flavor. It also had a cool name that suggested the car was a combination of the big Grand Prix and the swift, sporty Trans Am. And in a lot of ways that’s what it was. The Grand Am was certainly big – crushing the scales at a portly two tons. It had fancy Euro styling that still somehow looked like a Pontiac, V-8 power and a macho personality that all made the car a grand package.
The Grand Ams would share the new A-body platform with a bunch of other GM offerings, including the Chevelle and Olds Cutlass. All had similar long hood-short tail bodies, but the prominent prow, unique segmented “catwalk” grille, louvered B pillars and special pinstriping set the Grand Ams apart from their GM siblings.
Standard equipment included a sloping three-piece nose section of body color injection-molded urethane plastic; twin sloping vertical-slot triple quadrant grilles; bucket seats with adjustable lumbar support; 14-inch custom cushion steering wheel; African crossfire mahogany dash trim; 10-inch diameter power front disc brakes; variable-ratio power steering; heavy-duty suspension; steel-belted wide-base G70-15 radial tires on 15 x 7-inch wheels; Pliacell shock absorbers; thick front and rear stabilizer bars; specific trim stripes; and special nameplates.
The base 400-cid V-8 churned out 170 hp and wouldn’t win any drag races, but it sounded the part and certainly wasn’t underpowered out on the open road. A four-barrel version of the 400 could bump the ponies up to 230, and a 455 with dual exhausts was also available and could stretch the output to 250 hp. Magazine testers at the time found a 455-equipped Grand Am could travel from 0-to-60 mph in 7.9 seconds and make it down the drag strip in 15.7 seconds.
A decent options list meant you could really load a Grand Am up with stuff like a power sunroof, vinyl top, tape deck, power windows and seats, and Rally wheels. Those who remember the first-gen Grand Ams probably only recall them as racy two-door coupes, but they were actually available as four-door hardtops as well. Only 8,691 of the four-door versions were built for the debut 1973 model year, while 34,445 coupes rolled off GM assembly lines. The coupes carried a base price of $4,264 — about 90 bucks less than the four-door. A car loaded with add-ons could balloon in price up to $6,000.
Inside the Grand Ams were bucket seats, sport-style steering wheel and a concave dash with lots of woodgraining and a full complement of gauges. Gas mileage was pretty terrible — Duranso says he gets about 11 mpg — but the Grand Ams were great all-day travelers and handled great for big cars.
So where did things go wrong? Why did they last only three years before the plug was pulled? (The nameplate did return in the late ‘70s on a completely different car.) Well, the mpg figures didn’t help. The oil embargo, higher gas prices and soaring insurance rates for V-8-powered machines all killed demand for big cars and performance cars. The personal luxury machines — i.e. Thunderbirds, Toronados, etc. — of the time all underwent identity crises or disappeared altogether. And John Q. Public began falling in love with compact cars that flooded the market from both domestic, Japanese and European manufactures.
Sales of the first-year Grand Ams were promising, but those numbers dipped in ’74 and ’75. In the end, only about 71,000 cars were built in three years.
“I remember my grandfather telling me this way back at the same time a friend of my dad's had bought a Grand Prix. My grandfather said, ‘Why would you want a Pontiac? Those things get 10 miles to the gallon!’ I remember my grandfather telling me that way back when. That’s certainly one of the reasons very few got saved. They were just gas guzzlers in the age of downsizing," Duranso recalls.
“Because it’s a California car, the dry climate helped [my car], but around here the rust was terrible on them. And I can say this because it’s my car, but they weren’t the best built. The build quality was not the greatest on these cars. General Motors was going through a time where they were trying to figure out where they were going. The mid-70s cars were not the best. That’s a reason so many didn’t survive. The soft trim for any of these cars is impossible to find because it was never reproduced. Unlike the ‘68 to ‘72 A-bodies, which you could by just about anything for, the '73-and-up A-bodies, which this car is, never achieved the collector status so they never got the reproduction parts, other than mechanical stuff. This is a very difficult car to restore because you have to scrounge everything it needs. Nothing is made.”
A Grand Purchase
Duranso’s car was purchased new in California outfitted in Cameo White paint with the calling card red and blue striping. It has the optional tilt steering column and air conditioning, with the base two-barrel 400-cid V-8 under the expansive hood. “Everything else was standard: buckets and console, 400 V-8, automatic, power steering, power brakes, handling package, sway bars, body stripes, deluxe wheel covers … I added the “honeycombs,” because that’s what the car in the ad had on it when I was a kid. But this is a very basic car as far as ’73 Grand Ams go: manual windows, manual locks, standard vinyl interior …"
Aside from mounting different wheels and doing a few maintenance tidbits, Duranso said he has done very little to the handsome Pontiac since he brought it home. The exhaust needed work, but “other than minor mechanical stuff, this is the way I bought it.”
He likes having the car in largely original condition, so Duranso is in no hurry to give the car a complete makeover. The car shows some wear inside after 45 years of life, but it runs great and looks great, so there isn’t much incentive these days to tear it apart and start over, although he has stocked up on some parts. “I would call it an unrestored car," he says. "The paint job that is on it is not the best. It’s a typical paint job from the ‘80s. I would like to repaint the car eventually, but I like it the way it is. Eventually [I will restore it].”
Duranso tries to get his cars to car shows in his area several times each summer, and the Grand Am never lacks attention. It’s one of those cars that either jogs memories and makes people remember a car that hadn’t seen in a long time, or it stumps them altogether. “Outside of the Pontiac community, not a lot of people know that a Grand Am was built in the ‘70s. I get a lot of people at regular car show that say, ‘I never knew there was a Grand Am like this,” Duranso notes. “Most associate Grand Ams with the small front-wheel-dive cars which were popular cars [in the 1980s and early ‘90s]. Because they were only built for three years, ‘73-74-75, and the attrition rate on them was very high, the only people that really remember them are the people that had them back in the day.”
Whether other folks appreciate them or not, Duranso will always be a Grand Am fan. For him, it was love at first sight, and the car he lusted after at age 10 is still the car he favors today.
“To me, it’s all about the looks. It’s a very polarizing car. I doesn’t look like anything else on the road,” he says. “It’s the car that made me a Pontiac guy when I was 10 years old. It’s the car that burnt the arrowhead into my brain and I just never forget it.”
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