Car generations usually don’t get nicknames, but somehow a marketing term wound up being the nickname of the midsized A-body automobiles made by GM between 1973 and 1977. These cars were launched into a buzzsaw of rapid changes in the auto industry. They were controversial but wound up being quite successful. This is the story of the Colonnades.
First some terminology. “Colonnade” means row of pillars, it’s a term usually used in the context of building architecture, but for 1973, GM brought it to the car world.
Before then, the “Pillarless” look, with no B-pillar was a popular one on 2 and 4 door cars. It made cabins feel open and airy, with the windows down, it was almost like driving a convertible. But the lack of a strong middle pillar made it a no-no when the government decided to impose rollover regulations.
So, all versions of GM’s new A-bodies would need to be pillared, hence the name Colonnade. For the same reason, convertibles were discontinued. To say the least, those big pillars were controversial. There were 2 Colonnade roofs, the coupe style above…
...And the sedan. While not everyone liked the look, the incredible visibility from the big windows was widely praised.
There was also a more traditional notchback coupe with a more vertical roofline and large B-pillars with opera windows.
And of course there were station wagons.
The reason for those new roofs was certainly the reason for critics’ disdain. The A-bodies from 1968-1972 had serious muscle car pretensions, especially in the forms of the Chevrolet Chevelle SS 454, the Pontiac GTO, the Oldsmobile 4-4-2, and the Buick GS-400. But now all that was gone. The Colonnades were a reminder that the carefree days of the 60s were over. It was now a world of sky high insurance premiums and layer upon layer of new government safety and emissions standards. Furthermore, there was a gathering consensus that traditionally sized cars had gotten too big which meant intermediates had to pander to those buyers who preferred vinyl roofs to 4-barrel carburetors. And so, it was resentment of the changing times that the Colonnades symbolized that fueled the hatred.
The Colonnades were to be launched in 1972, but a strike delayed them until 1973. This meant they would be among the first new cars to have the much hated 5 mph bumpers from the get-go. They also included low overlap cams and exhaust gas recirculation valves to cut down on smog. But there were other changes for the better. A new suspension system greatly improved handling, there was also significantly more rear seat room, larger fuel tanks, and bigger trunks.
Now that I’ve discussed the Colonnades as a group, I shall talk about each one, going in order from worst to best.
Pontiac Le Mans/Grand Am
When the new Le Mans, and the more expensive Grand Am, was released, Pontiac was still in the glow from the 60s golden age. In fact, in 1973, it was the 2nd best selling Colonnade, behind only the Chevelle. In an attempt to keep a morsel of the 60s alive, a GTO model was offered. It could be had with a 6.6 liter or 7.5 liter V8 making 230 or 250 horsepower, respectively. But less than 5,000 were sold and it was dropped for 1974. Other engines offered were a 4.1 liter Chevrolet I6 and Pontiac’s 5.7 liter V8.
The drop in sales was staggering, down by 80% in just 2 years. It was so bad that they had to remove the Grand Am name in 1976. Meanwhile, the Grand Prix, a prettier coupe version, managed to outsell the Le Mans, which offered sedan and station wagon variants, by staggering margins in 1976 and 1977.
The Lemans was updated for 1976 with new rectangular headlights, but because nobody bought these cars, the most most people saw of it was in Smokey and the Banditt where it was used by Sheriff Buford T Justice, played by Jackie Gleason, in his hilarious, but unsuccessful, attempts to catch Banditt.
The car that had been previously known as the Skylark became the Century in 1973. The top trim level was the Century Regal, a name that was spun off in 1974. In 1973, only a coupe version was available, sedan and station wagon variants didn’t arrive until the next year. But at the time, coupes were by far the most popular body style in the midsized market so it wasn’t a big deal. Power initially came from either Buick’s 5.7 liter V8 or a larger 7.5, but the need for fuel economy forced the 7.5 to be discontinued for 1975 and a tiny 3.8 liter V6 to be added. An Oldsmobile 6.6 was added in 1977 for station wagon models. Styling was very good, with baroque curves similar to the ever-popular Chevrolet Monte Carlo. The Regal/Century had the advantage of there not being another purpose designed midsized personal luxury coupe in Buick’s lineup, unlike Pontiac. Sales were fairly strong throughout.
In 1976, Buick decided to give 3 different front ends to its Colonnade lineup: one for the Century coupes, one for the Regal coupes, and one for the sedans and station wagons. I prefer the one they put on 4 door models, as it reminds me of the mid 60s Cadillacs with those wide-set stacked headlights. But again, it was the coupes that were the big sellers. It was called the me-decade for a reason.
The Chevelle was certainly the most stylistically challenged of the Colonnades with those frog eye headlights. For 1973, there were 3 trim levels: the base Chevelle, the Chevelle Malibu, and the all-new Chevelle Laguna. Power came from a 4.1 liter 6, or 5, 5.7, 6.6, and 7.4 liter V8s.
The Laguna came with a front end made of a rubbery plastic material known as Endura. It had already been used on the Pontiac GTO and Firebird and on the Camaro. Its big advantage was its dent resistance, which is why it could meet the 5 mph bumper standard without a Jay Leno-style jaw. Pontiac had commercials where men would slam the front with a sledgehammer and leave no damage. It was also immune to rust. But there were problems, as you can see in the photo above, the paint would fade and discolor, they would also crack. The Laguna experiment as a whole was a disaster, sales were laughable and in 1974, the sedan and station wagon versions were eliminated and the coupe was repositioned as a sporty car, like the old SS.
But sales continued to be pitiful, even after a facelift for 1975. Despite significant success in NASCAR, the Laguna was dropped after 1976.
For the rest of the Chevelle lineup, Chevrolet kept trying new looks to make it attractive. But just like that woman in that episode of The Twilight Zone who got dozens of plastic surgeries but couldn’t be made “normal”, the Chevelle remained a freak. The worst one was in 1974 when Chevy had the gall to put a Mercedes Benz-style grille on, complete with a hood ornament.
Like all the Colonnades, the Chevelle was given rectangular headlights for 1976. But it still had a face only its mother could love.
Just like the LeMans, the Chevelle would be overshadowed by its more attractive sister, the Monte Carlo. The Monte managed to outsell it in 1976 and 1977.
Now we come to the big daddy, the most successful Colonnade by far. I already did a diary about the Cutlass, but I didn’t really get to talk enough about the Colonnade version. The engines included 5.7 liter and 7.5 liter rocket V8s. GM’s switch to corporate engines is much criticized by armchair pundits, but I don’t see how you can justify the costs of having each division make different engines with identical displacement. In 1975, a Chevrolet 4.1 liter I6 and a 4.3 liter V8 were added to improve fuel economy. Trim levels were the S, the Salon, and, most famous of all, the Supreme. One unique option were the “strato” front bucket seats which could be rotated 90 degrees to ease entry and exit. The car was widely praised, even a German automotive magazine waxed lyrical, their only complaint being fuel economy (grey imports were a fairly common thing back then, which is why they would be reviewing it).
1976 brought new squared off styling complete with rectangular headlights. This really touched America in the right place.
1976 saw sales skyrocket to 500,000. This made the Cutlass America’s best selling car, ahead of the unstoppable full sized Chevrolet. In 1977, it rose to over 600,000, although this time it wasn’t enough to beat the big Chevy. The Colonnade made the Cutlass into one of America’s favorite through the 70s and 80s, you couldn’t throw a rock without it hitting a Cutlass. It made Oldsmobile into America’s 3rd best selling brand. Nearly 80% of Colonnade Cutlasses were coupes, and ¾ of those were the Supreme line. It was the right car at the right time, a big stylish coupe that carried Oldsmobile’s reputation for quality.
1978 brought the end to the Colonnades. They were downsized to meet the government’s Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards.
The Colonnades were controversial vehicles among car enthusiasts when they came out and still generate heated debates today. I happen to like their swoopy styling and I accept that they were cars of their times. They came when government regulators, insurance companies, OPEC, and buyers were putting a vise on the muscle car market. Most of them succeeded at what they tried to do and sold by the bucketful at a time when Americans realized that there is such thing as too big.