By Brian Earnest
Sometimes, Father really does know best.
Michael Ford wasn’t took thrilled when his dad shot down all his hopes of buying a Corvette. Ford was only 19 at the time, and his old man wasn’t having his teenager tearing around Philly in a ‘Vette.
“Here I was, 17, 18 years old and I’m looking around for a Corvette in Philadelphia,” laughs Ford. “It was a very inner city type environment, and I guess to have a teenage kid with a Corvette is not exactly the smartest thing. My father didn’t let me have one, for obvious reasons, but I wasn’t happy about it.”
Ford has more appreciation for his dad’s good judgment today because he still owns and loves the car that he bought instead of a Corvette — a beautiful 1977 Pontiac Grand Prix. It is about as near-perfect an example of its breed as you’ll find anywhere, it’s got a timeless and cool combination of style and sophistication, and Ford is just as smitten with the Nautilus Blue beauty today as he was the day he first spotted it.
“My friend had a ‘72 Grand Prix which was a really nice car. I still had my heart set on the Corvette, but I was loosing those arguments. My father wasn’t having anything of it,” recalls. “One day we came across a car lot in South Philadelphia and I saw it across the lot. What caught my attention was really the color of the car. It had that blue that really caught your eye; white top, whitewall tires, rally wheels … It really stood out from the crowd.
“They had taken it in as a trade-is. My father was actually looking at a Monte Carlo. He liked the Monte Carlo and he wanted something bigger for me with more metal [laughs]. The Grand Prix was a similar size as the Monte Carlo and it clearly passed his muster. Between the two cars, as far as I’m concerned, the Grand Prix had it all over the Monte Carlo from every angle. Not to knock the Monte Carlo, it was a very nice car, but everything about [the Grand Prix] was a step up over the Monte Carlo in my eyes. It was everything you’d want for a first car.”
Indeed, Ford managed to snag a stellar example from the last year of what was for many car fans the salad days of the Grand Prix. Pontiac’s handsome and popular personal luxury cruiser was ticketed to be part of wholesale company downsizing and redesign plans, and more than 288,000 buyers walked out of showrooms with their model year ’77 B-body beauties before the changes came. Three different versions were offered: a base J, a sporty SJ and luxury LJ. Included in the $5,108 base price were a plush, comfortable cabin, an automatic transmission (THM 400), power front disc brakes, variable ratio power steering, and a choice of three different V-8 power sources: an optional 301-cid setup making 135 hp; a standard 350 (5.7-liter) with 170 hp, and the four-barrel 400-cid (6.6-liter) V-8 with 180 hp.
Ford’s car is a base J model with the 301 V-8, which Pontiac also called it’s “5-liter” engine. GM offered the new 301 mill largely under the guise of promoting better economy, although its 23 mph highway, 16 city were only marginally beter than the detuned 350 and 400. And while the 301 won’t send the Grand Prix blasting off from any starting lines, Ford has found GM’s claims that the 301 would be a durable, long-running engine that would not disappoint owners.
“The 301 is not the motor that all the collectors want … but actually it got kind of a bad rap to be honest,” Ford says. “It’s a very good motor, a very reliable motor. You get as good of mileage and a little better emissions than the bigger engines, but obviously not the hp of the 400. But when you get it on the highway it will run all day with no issues. People always badmouth the 301 because it’s not the 400. I understand where they are coming from, but they’ve owned a 301, if you what I mean.”
If you wanted to compete with the Thunderbirds, Cougars, and Charger SEs of the day in the personal-luxury class, you had to offer a lot of standard goodies and plenty of boxes to check on the options sheet, and Pontiac certainly obliged Grand Prix buyers. New Grand Prix options included CB radios and a digital AM/FM stereo information center and clock. This year's grille was no longer a wrapover style: only five vertical sections of bold elements on each side of the divider. The grille pattern repeated in two sections below the bumper. Quad rectangular headlamps were now separated by clear park/signal lights, forming three separate units on each side. Narrow amber vertical marker lenses stood to the rear of front fendertips. Both the hood and decklids were designed with sharp creases. Standard equipment list included GR78 × 15 blackwall steel-belted radial tires, tilt wheel, heater/defroster, wheel opening and rocker panel moldings, window and roof drip moldings, and a clock. LJ added velour seat upholstery, a remote-controlled driver's mirror, and deluxe wheel covers. SJ had a 6.6-liter V-8 engine, GR70 × 15 tires, Rally II wheels with trim rings, accent striping, bucket seats with console, Rally RTS handling package, and rally gauges.
Ford warmed up to the idea of a full-size cruiser back in 1981 when he first jumped in the Grand Prix for a test drive. The car was four years old at the time but had only been driven 29,000 miles.
“All my friends had their first cars by the time I got mine and they all had nice cars. They were all driving Cadillacs and Lincolns and cars like that — none of them were brand new, but they were pretty car nice for kids growing up in the city,” he recalls. “That was the style then — big, luxury cars. Everybody liked those big personal luxury cars of the ‘60s and ‘70s.”
Ford says he drover his Grand Prix nearly every day for about seven years and never really considered the idea of keeping it permanently and turning into a collector car. Things just sort of turned out that way after he got married and didn’t need the Grand Prix for daily transportation duties. “She had a ‘73 Grand Ville convertible and then her second car was an ‘81 Grand Prix and both of those cars were optioned out to the max. They were top of the line,” he says. “After we got married my car when into the garage. It was an everyday car up until then, but then we didn’t need it.”
With his car resting, Ford began to entertain the idea of restoring it eventually. That led him on a parts search that lasted for many years as he scoured shows, flea markets, want ads and the Internet collecting pieces he figured he’d need to make the car look and drive like new again.
“I guess I started getting sentimental about it,” he says. “When we got our house in ’87, it was just a 10-year-old car. Most guys have gotten rid of their car by then, but my car went into the garage... For as many of these cars as they made in ’77, they’re very few of them left. I’ve been to Hershey many times, been to Macungie many times, been to a lot of big shows up and down East Coast, and you never really see the ‘73-‘77 Grand Prixs. It’s very rare that you see one, and nobody makes and parts for them anymore. Parts are really hard to find.
“My father passed away in 2001, and that’s when I decided to do something. He was always proud of me for holding onto it as long as I did. Once he passed way, that’s when I took it off the road and decided to have it restored.” James Klotz did most of the restoration work at Marquis Auto Restorations in Philadelphia. The work took about years to the day and Ford admits he had plenty of separation anxiety from his baby, but the results were worth it.
“What started out as a quick repaint and rust repair ended up being 5 years,” he laughs. “Once we got the paint off it and started doing body work, one thing leads to another and before you know it a lot of time goes buy. But the time was well spent, and the money was well spent. The car was in good shape to begin with. I was always kept in very good condition. I always cleaned and waxed it and never let it deteriorate. I really didn’t think it needed much work when I decided to restore it, but I went a little overboard. I was just making sure we were doing things right.”
It might be a base J model, but Ford’s Pontiac is still far from bare-bones. He has even added a few options that weren’t on the car originally, and everything works perfectly, right down the authentic 8-track player. “It’s really nicely optioned out now: power windows, power doors, moon roof, tilt wheel, cruise, AM/FM with 8-track … power bench seats with the six-way adjustments, lighted vanity mirror … rally gauges, clock, trip-ometer, rear defroster … It’s also got some little things like the power trunk release, the interior lamp group with the opera window lights and courtesy door lights. It’s got intermittent wipers. It’s got an 8-track console for bench seat cars, which is a pretty rare thing to find … It’s got the front fender cornering lights, rear trunk carpeting and paneling. The larger bumper guards were optional, too.”
“Before I had it restored, I’d take it to shows and it was a strong second-place car. It was almost always top three in its class, but I wanted something nicer. I wanted something that could win its class every time out, or have had a chance anyway, and that’s what has happened. I’ve been very lucky at shows with the car.” Among the honors he has since collected are his AACA First Junior, Senior and Grand National Awards.
“You just don’t see these around, and you never see any in this kind of condition,” Ford says. “This one is probably as nice as any that exist. Yeah, I worry when I drive it, but I’ve been pretty lucky with it up until now, so I’m not going to obsess about it. I try not to let myself get crazy and get overly protective about it.”
Ford has still toyed with the idea of picking up a Corvette, but has never pulled the trigger. He’s been more than happy to just be a die-hard Grand Prix guy and, in an ironic twist, prefers his Pontiac in part because it’s much scarcer than a Corvette. Chevy built only 49,213 Corvettes in ’77 compared to 288,000 Grand Prixs, but he finds the big Pontiacs are much fewer and farther between these days.
And beyond that, he has simply had too many good times and feels too many nostalgic vibes toward his Grand Prix to ever want another car. “I never outgrew this car! That’s what it comes down to,” Ford concludes. “I’ve got a lot of memories with this car. I’ve been on a lot of dates with this car, gone to a lot of drive-in movies with this car. I’ve been all over — cruised up and down Jersey Shore; I've done a lot of stupid things that young guys do with first cars have been done with this car [laughs]. I’ve made a lot of mistakes with this car.
“I’m proud of it. I look back on it and if my dad let me get that Corvette when I was a teenager, I don’t think I’d have it now. I would have probably moved on.”
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