Would-a, Should-a, Could-a, or The One that Got Away

One of the most essential elements of writing is research, and I’ve never heard the definition expressed better than by Diana Gabaldon, “If I send someone to the store for franks and beans, that’s exactly what they will return with. But if I go shopping myself for franks and beans, I may come home with steak or curried chicken.”

Her point was well made, if we don’t let ideas roam free and have their place, then we corral our own creativity and the truly great results may never see the light of day. I think this is fabulous advice for the practice of writing, and indeed it could work for many other applications, but for the brain of a car-guy it can spell danger.

The very act of research is exploration, and that makes it oh-so easy to slip down the rabbit hole. Thank goodness it’s not a crime to explore ideas, but as a car-guy I sometimes question my own sanity, but so did Van Gogh…so much for comparisons.

I’ve never met a gearhead in my adult life that couldn’t wistfully run down a list of automotive regrets. There is always ‘the one I used to own,’ or ‘the one I never should’ve sold,’ and especially, ‘I wish I had one just like that.’ It’s the car-guy equivalent to the hunting/fishing story of ‘the one that got away.’

For me the unicorn has always been the Pontiac Firebird Trans Am. Unlike the mythical horned horse, I actually captured and owned one such beast for a short period of time, only to be forced to sell it due to a work layoff.


I have lamented on these pages more than once regarding the lost object of my passion, but time eventually proved it to be a woefully impractical creature, and I thought that fact might finally lay the fantasy to rest for good. But just when you thought you were in the clear, the devilish crafters at Pontiac shot me with another poison arrow.

My weakness for the 2000-up model Bonneville is also no stranger to this blog, and multiple entries can be found documenting my temptations all the way up to my dance with the sultry wench that lasted almost four years. “Bonnie the Ghosthawk,” as she was called both in affection and rage, was a beguiling creature that lured you in with all the things she did so well, and then sucker punched you while blowing kisses. Never has a car looked so good being pulled onto a rollback tow truck, especially when the driver can’t shut up about, “Man, this is a nice looking car!”


Yes, it was gorgeous…even as a 4000 lbs paper weight. After this happens several times the beauty begins to lose its shine, and with miles on the high side of 150k, I sent the car on its way. I have discovered that it hasn’t been without regret.

The connection to the Bonneville was deep rooted, and I honestly don’t recall if the phrase I’ve used so often came from a magazine ad or if it flew off the top of my head. But I clearly remember telling my friend as we stood staring at the glimmering red 2000 Bonneville SSEi under the lights of the Richmond International Auto Show, “This is what a Firebird Trans Am looks like when its all grown up.”

With the coming of the 2005 model year, ‘Maximum Bob Lutz’ was given the reigns to product line up at GM, and he decreed Pontiac was to be transformed into the ‘American BMW.’ Mr. Lutz is as car-guy as you can get without a petroleum blood transfusion, but his goals proved to be ill-fated. However, in his defense, the Bonneville GXP proved to be one of his last great gifts before the demise of the Pontiac marque.   (Yes, the G8 was a great car, but it soldiers on in other guises)


If ever a Bonneville personified the ‘Adult Trans Am,’ the GXP pulled out all the stops for the H-Body platform, including rumbling V8 power. Now, many will immediately boo-hiss the Northstar engine shoehorned under the aluminum hood, but rabbit-hole research uncovered some interesting points.

The quad-cam, multi-valve screamer was designed to answer upscale powerplants from Europe, and early on it was hailed by the automotive press as a great achievement, but time proved the hi-tech engine to be unreliable and expensive to repair. But was it really? We all know how much America loves an underdog, and there is a loyal group of savvy technicians and master mechanics who believe GM purposely engineered the Northstar to fail on or about the 100k mile mark. I can’t say it sounds like paranoid conspiracy theory because time has proven the results, and I can say it sounds like something corporate bean-counters would approve without hesitation.

The upside is this loyal group of Northstar enthusiasts has solved the design weak points, and it’s now possible to own a Northstar and enjoy its rev-happy performance without fear of self destruction.

The GXP version of the Bonneville was also blessed with better brakes, sport suspension, a unique interior treatment, and a clean, slick exterior style that exudes its more athletic attitude. The GXP looks like it means business as any adult Firebird should. No, it will never be a performance match for a real Trans Am, but then a Firebird doesn’t have a back seat fit for any human with legs, or a trunk capable of carrying more than a weekend beach bag (especially if its equipped with T-tops.)

The Hemi engine in my Dodge Magnum is considered by many to be “bulletproof,” but rabbit hole research also proved this engine, like most, has its signature flaws. Expensive to repair?  Let that beast overheat once (hoses and such do fail occasionally) and it will reward you with a dropped valve seat, which generally destroys lots of other stuff in the process. By comparison the Northstar head gasket problem sounds mild.

What is really a shame was the best looking, best equipped Bonneville was also its swan song. Even worse, you find many pristine examples of this seductress lurking on Autotrader, but shoppers cut them a wide berth because of the dreaded Northstar. Like so many other automotive ideas, resources are what make realities, and if you have those resources you can pick up a beautiful, sexy sedan for well under the $10k price range, invest another $4k in the improved/rebuilt Northstar, and be rewarded with a fun-to-drive Pontiac icon.


It wont get the best fuel mileage out there, but then my Hemi downs 89 octane like a redneck swilling beer on race day, and given the current crop of trucks and SUVs that are roaming the highways, you’d still be miles ahead…and looking awfully good doing it.

If I had such resources, would I own one? Like Van Gogh, I’m probably insane enough to try. Sexy women have always had the power to compel men to the brink of stupidity and beyond, and wear a smile in the process.

Bonnie the ____ (enter your descriptor) has such power in my world…for better or worse, for richer or poorer…wait, that sounds rather familiar for some reason.

– T. August Green


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