A week ago yesterday, I picked up my new car, a 2013 red Chevy Malibu. Sad to say, it just seems like an end of an era in my life. In the 16 years I’ve had my driver’s license, I’ve owned and driven two Pontiacs – a 1989 red Grand Prix and a silver 2002 Grand Prix. That’s it. I tend to hang on to cars. I don’t think I exaggerate when I say that I believe my 1989 Grand Prix saved my life.
July 24, 2002 I was in a bad car accident in Austin, Texas. I was driving on highway 290 on my way to work at Applied Materials. I was almost to work when a big white moving truck made a left-hand turn in front of me; I had the green light and was traveling 55 MPH. The other driver did not see me. I slammed on the brakes so hard I broke my big toe and fractured the metatarsal. I was lucky. Most of the front end of my car ended up under the side of the truck. I hate to think of the possible fate of any front-seat passenger I may have had. Fortunately the only other injuries I had from the crash was a bad cut behind my ear from the molding on my driver’s side door and a small cut on my knee. Despite not having airbags, I did not get bombarded with glass from the windshield. Fortunately the safety glass held. At 5 ft. 0, airbags might have made things worse prior to smart airbag technology.
Ironically I originally planned to sell that car after the end of my co-op with Applied Materials. Instead I found myself car shopping for a new Grand Prix in Austin, Texas with my Mom. There are so many memories of that 1989 Grand Prix though, I was very sad to see it go, despite its quirks. My parents purchased the red 1989 Grand Prix new in 1989; I was 8 – and excited for a new family car. Prior to that car, my Mom drove full-size vans that doubled as canoe livery vehicles throughout the summer. Suffice to say my Mom was very happy to have a car again! I was just as excited to go car shopping with my parents. It was a 2-door, red, and sexy for its time. Of course it was love at first sight.
One snowy Christmas Eve a year or so after my parents purchased the car, my parents, my sister, and I found ourselves helping a young woman who ended up in the ditch. As we drove home from festivities at my grandparents’ home in Standish, we were nearly home when my parents saw a set of headlights in the ditch. My Dad backed up the car and helped the driver, a young woman on her way to her parents’ home for Christmas. My Mom, in her gorgeous fox coat, which my Dad had trapped for her, climbed into the backseat with me and my sister. As the driver wasn’t badly hurt and didn’t want medical attention, we drove her to her parents’ home. It is one of my favorite childhood memories. When you are just newly 9 years-old, I suppose it passes for adventure.
I think the intention always was to hang onto that car until I was old enough to drive. In the 1995 model year, Pontiac came out with an entirely redesigned Grand Prix, the wide track. At the time my parents were friends with a couple who owned the local GM dealership. Mr. W knew what he was doing and drove one of the new Grand Prixes over to my parents’ house. All of us fell in love with that car. Hook, line, sinker. My Mom ended up with the car and the 1989 Grand Prix was put in the pole barn until I could drive. At the time, there weren’t many 1995 Grand Prixes on the road yet, and my Mom got plenty of looks in her new car (of course it was red too). At 14, I have to admit I was envious.
Now I had a car of my own! I had nearly a year to play around with what would become my car, drive it in the campground, and set it up exactly as I wanted it. I couldn’t wait to drive, even if it meant driving my little sister everywhere too. A few months after I got my license, I ended up in my first fender-bender in that car one icy February morning on my way to school. It was the first car crash my sister and I had ever been in. We both just absolutely burst into tears – and then drove on to school and called Mom.
In many ways, it was E’s car too. It seemed as though each school day my sister and I would fight over control of the radio and tape deck. There were certain single tapes I had in the car that she insisted on playing over and over again; it drove me crazy. I hate to admit this, but I used to make E pump my gas. It was a while before I did it myself. On cold winter nights, I picked her up from 4-H ski club, along with her skis, which we would have to put through the trunk into the backseat. She even drove my car throughout my freshman year at Michigan State and had her 5 CD changer installed in the trunk. Eventually, though, she ended up with my Dad’s old Jeep, which is an entire post on its own.
After my sophomore year at MSU I ended up with an internship at IBM out in Rochester, Minnesota. There was only one problem: I still wasn’t comfortable behind the wheel. On my first day of driver’s education, back in June 1995, my cousin A, who is only 10 months older than me, ended up being hit head on by a drunk driver. Fortunately A survived; the other driver did not. A owned a white 1988 Grand Prix, and it too probably saved her life.
As one can imagine, her crash left an impression on me as a new driver, especially since we grew up together and went to the same schools. I simply didn’t trust other drivers. Things were better by my sophomore year at MSU, but the idea of driving out to Minnesota for the summer was daunting. My Grandma ended up riding out to Rochester with me and then flew home. By the end of the summer, I looked forward to the drive home by myself.
My drive home from Minnesota is one of my favorite memories of my 1989 Grand Prix. I loaded up my sister’s 5 CD changer with my favorites and drove through Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the UP of Michigan. It happened to be a gorgeous August day, and I was anxious to start getting ready for my year of adventures in Ecuador and Spain. After all those years, I finally started to feel comfortable behind the wheel.
If I learned how to drive in my 1989 Grand Prix, I learned to love to drive in my 2002 Grand Prix. That poor car: I put it through a lot! It has a few trips from Michigan to Texas and back again on it, and almost exactly 183,000 miles when I turned it in last week.
The thing is: It was not the original car I wanted. My Mom talked me into it. Sure, I wanted another Grand Prix, but I wanted a sexy gold 2001 with leather seats and a sun roof. The cars happened to be about the same price. My Mom talked me out of the gold 2-door though. She brought up the fact that I’d probably be moving at least once after college and the 4-door gray would be infinitely more practical. She couldn’t have been more right. I moved several times with the help of that car.
The funny thing is that the 2002 I owned echoed some of the styling of the Grand Prixes of the 1970s. As a child, the Mom of one of my best friends owned a chocolate brown late 1970s Grand Prix – a boat of a car. I remember thinking how deep the backseats were back then. The same goes for the 2002. In fact, three of my little cousins, all siblings, ended up getting carsick riding in the backseat of my car. I doubt any of the three could see out the side windows at the time.
Oddly, I can’t say I have any memories of dating in either of my cars. I didn’t date in high school, and when I finally did date in college, we always ended up either not driving or taking my date’s car. I do have very fond memories of my boyfriend Brian’s old Pontiac 6000 though. It wasn’t particularly sexy or great looking, but Brian more than made up for that. It was just a great car with even better memories. Originally owned by Brian’s Grandma Menja (Marie), Brian drove the 6000 throughout high school and college. Brian totaled the car in 2001 only to have it fixed up and continue driving it until after we graduated from college in 2004.
In fact, most of our first date – the worst blind date I’ve ever been on – took place in that car. It happened to be a rainy, freezing late February night in 2000, and since we couldn’t decide what to do next on our date, we spent a good share of the evening just driving around Bay City, trying to get warm and dry after getting caught in a freezing rain walking along the riverfront. After we finally got together in 2004, we always seemed to find ourselves driving around in that car. We drove all over Lansing, East Lansing, and Michigan State. I loved that car too and was sad to see it go.
One of the best memories I have of that car is coming home to my apartment in East Lansing on graduation day to see him sitting on the trunk of his Pontiac looking like the best graduation gift ever. My family couldn’t come to the graduation ceremony for my Spanish degree from the College of Arts and Letters, they were coming the following day for my graduation from business school, so Brian decided to come. Memories of that last semester of college and that spring are some of the best of my life, thanks largely to Brian.
Yeah, you could say that I liked Pontiacs. I will never understand GM’s decision to kill the brand. If they ever bring it back, I will definitely take a look at what they have to offer. Since Pontiac’s demise in 2009, I’ve heard time and time again that the Aztec was to blame. I have to admit, it is quite possibly the ugliest car I’ve ever seen, although I don’t think it was the sole reason why GM decided to kill Pontiac. Unfortunately, Pontiac’s untimely demise left a huge hole in downtown Bay City. Dunlap Pontiac closed its doors in downtown Bay City after 85 years in business.
I love cars, and I’m not sure if I could truly call myself a Michigander if I didn’t. Last week I not only said goodbye to a car I owned for over 10 years, I said goodbye to a brand I loved. I’m just glad my Mom still owns her 2007 Pontiac Solstice. I loved my Pontiacs. I love my new Chevy Malibu too. What I really love is the freedom a car represents. I think it is time for a road trip. Feel free to share your car memories in the comments.