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This was car of the year - when standards were much lower

The 1987 Pontiac Bonneville, AJAC’s first overall winner for Car of the Year.

General Motors

Twenty-six years ago, a dozen or so of the crème de la crème of Canada's automotive journalists – well, we thought so – sat around drinking beer in a Prince Edward County resort while arguing over which of the new cars we'd just driven should be named 1987 Car of the Year – and came up with Pontiac's Bonneville.

We'd been doing this for a couple of years by this time, casually evaluating a run-what-the-PR-guys-brung assortment of the year's new models and selecting "Bests" over beers, in categories that included domestic and imported sedan, sports sedan, sports car and light trucks, but 1987 was the first time we picked an overall winner.

And it marked a turning point to what has become known as the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada's Canadian Car of The Year (CCOTY) competition.

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The 2013 CCOTY TestFest vehicle evaluation is taking place this week, in vastly more sophisticated form, in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. Some 75 AJAC members are evaluating 60 different vehicle models on area roads and a performance evaluation course set up at the local airport.

Vehicles will be named "Best" in 11 categories this year plus best-overall car and utility vehicle and best technology and design. It's a daunting, definitely hard-working, but fortunately still fun, week for car guys and gals, that concludes with final test drives and balloting tomorrow. Watch this space next week for initial reports by the Globe Drive team.

Globe Drive contributor Richard Russell is CCOTY chairman and recalls the whole thing starting in the mid-1980s with somebody floating the idea it would be good to bring together a bunch of cars we journos could drive around "The County" and at Shannonville Motorsport Park and, in our infinite automotive wisdom, anoint with best in class honours.

"We drove them, then sat over a beer and said, 'Well I kind of like that one,' while others would make their case for something else. And we'd come to some semblance of agreement on what was the best of," he says. "But once we cottoned on to the fact manufacturers actually cared, we decided we'd better make it a little more scientific and accurate to provide Canadian consumers with the best information available." Consumer info is available on the AJAC website.

The first step toward the direction of removing "I liked this one, it goes like stink" subjectivity was the introduction of a paper ballot. "It was pretty simple, but it was something you filled out, and couldn't change your mind on after submitting, after being talked out of or in to something based on someone else's opinion," says Russell.

Since then, it's evolved into a week-long round of back-to-back individual and instrumented testing of category vehicles with results that are subjected to complex weighting factors to level the playing field. "The goal is to produce as purely objective results as possible, that consumers can confidently use in selecting a vehicle," says Russell.

Subjectivity may have still been rampant back in 1987, but the AJAC members who selected the Pontiac Bonneville SE as Car of the Year did put some serious thought into their decision. As did the staff at Car & Driver magazine, which put the Bonneville SE on its top 10 list for the year.

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The Bonneville name – borrowing on the glamor of the Utah salt flats on which record runs are made – was first seen on a concept car in 1954, but not until 1957 on a production car. This first Bonneville was a fuel-injected high-performance full-size-in-every-way, 2-1/2-ton rear-drive convertible, that was called the Parisienne in Canada until 1981.

Bonnevilles remained full-blown in the 1960s, got a bit smaller as the 1970s progressed and switched to a still rear-drive mid-size platform in the early 1980s, just as demand for full-size cars was growing again in the United States. This led to still full-sized Canadian-made Parisiennes being shipped south, branded as Bonnevilles until 1986.

By this time, the writing on the wall read, for a good time go front-wheel-drive – which General Motors had been transitioning to since the introduction of the X-car in 1980. By the mid-80s, it was offering H-body platform-based front-drivers in the form of the full-size Buick LeSabre and Oldsmobile 88. Pontiac finally got its version in 1987, pitching the Bonneville SE as a Euro-style sports sedan.

A majority of us must have bought into this notion, despite what today would seem performance capabilities barely reaching the tepid level, but those who were driving in those days will recall the standards were considerably lower.

The '87 Bonneville was introduced in base LE form and in the sportier SE versions AJAC members voted for. The LE was priced at $15,995 and the SE started at $17,787.

Its front-drive platform was conventional with independent suspension, power rack-and-pinion steering, front disc/rear drum brakes and its nicely contoured four-door bodywork was 5,047 mm long, a little shorter than a current Chevy Impala. Under the hood was an all-iron 3.8-litre fuel-injected V-6 that was rated at 150 hp and 200 lb-ft of torque and drove the front wheels through a four-speed automatic transmission. Fuel economy ratings were 15.1 L/100 km city, 8.2 highway.

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The floppy disc I stored my review on is long gone but Car & Driver magazine was impressed with its handling and ride and Euro-sporty flavour, although not so much with its lame, politically correct 85-mph speedometer. It said the interior "is the closest thing to a BMW's this side of the Black Forest," and the woodgrain trim was "convincing."

So, you see, we knew what we were talking about when we named it AJAC's first official Car of the Year. Or, maybe it was the beer.

Back in 1987

Rick Hanson returns to Vancouver, completing his 26-month, 34-country, 40,000-km wheelchair trip around the world. The Loonie one-dollar coin is introduced and the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement rolls out.


Microsoft launches Windows 2.0 and Sierra Entertainment debuts video game Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards.


NASCAR racer Bill Elliot wins the Daytona 500 but Dale Earnhardt wins the championship. Al Unser Sr. takes the win in the Indy 500 and Brazilian Nelson Piquet is named Formula One champ.


Aretha Franklin becomes first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.


The Simpsons – Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie – are first seen as short subjects on The Tracey Ullman Show and pop star Michael Jackson releases Bad.

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