It’s Time To Compare The Most And Least Parisianne Cars Named Parisienne

Parisienne To

Yesterday, David was telling me a two-fisted tale of daring and adventure about getting an alternator for his old Postal Jeep from a junkyard, and how he pulled the one he needed from an old Pontiac Parisienne. I didn’t really hear the rest of his story from that point on (I think he mentioned something about accidentally swallowing three spark plugs and part of a rusty hose clamp?) because I was too overcome with the idea of the Pontiac Parisienne and how it may very well be one of the absolute least “Parisienne” cars ever built by human hands, from Paris or otherwise. And that made me remember the other car named Parisienne, the Renault 4 Parisienne, and how that car is absolutely, 100%, uncut, raw Parisienne. This needs to be explored a bit.

Just so we’re all on the same page, the word “Parisienne” means, literally, a woman or girl from Paris, France. In popular culture, the implications of a Parisienne are usually of young, attractive, and stylish woman, as is maybe most obviously portrayed by Brigitte Bardot, who starred in a movie called La Parisienne:

Parisienne1 Poster

When you hear the term Parisienne, I suspect that for most people the vague images conjured up in their heads is something like what you see up there, all coquettish and maybe saying ooh-la-la in a café. Something like that.

Now let’s look at what the Pontiac Parisienne is, specifically the one I’m most familiar with, the fifth-generation one that was sold in America from 1983 to 1986. The Parisienne name had been used on Canadian-market Pontiacs since 1958, where it was mostly a slightly more up-market Chevy Caprice or Impala, depending on the year.

The Parisienne we got in America was a GM full-size B-platform car, filling the slot that the Pontiac Bonneville had held in America until the Bonneville was downsized to a mid-sized platform. So, in America, our Parisienne was essentially a badge-engineered Chevy Caprice with a different grille and taillights and other trim, and you could have it as a sedan, coupé, or station wagon. It was huge, it was boxy, it made absolutely nobody think of Paris.

I mean, look at this thing, and then try to explain to me how much it reminds you of, say, Amélie:

Pontiac1

I’m not saying there’s anything inherently wrong with the Parisienne or any of GM’s other huge, sharp-cornered boats of that era, but I can’t think of anything that reminds me less of Paris or France or ancient Gaul or anything even remotely related to that than this car.

Pontiac 2

And it’s not like GM seemed to be going out of their way to push that association, either. If they had, I suspect they wouldn’t have decided to use NFL defensive tackle William “The Refrigerator” Perry of the Chicago Bears for this ad, as I’m pretty sure he wasn’t someone most Americans identified with Paris:

Can we talk about this ad for a moment? The Refrigerator seems so charming and just happy to be there, and I love how this commercial tells you precisely three things about the Pontiac Parisienne: it can come with a sunroof, it’s big, and when you open the door, the dome light turns on. You know, like a refrigerator.

I really hope there were at least some potential buyers out there for whom these were their three big questions that needed answering before pulling the trigger on buying a big new Pontiac.

There is at least one other mass-produced and sold car that bore the name Parisienne, and it is very, very French.

R41

The Renault 4 Parisienne was developed very specifically for its namesake: Parisian women. To sell more cars to women, Renault teamed up with the fashion magazine Elle in July 1963 where over 4,000 Elle readers got to spend 48 hours with a new, specially “feminized” Renault 4, with glossy black paint and special hand-painted caning designs on the side or a tartan plaid.

R4 Elle

Response was so good from this experiment that the Renault 4 Parisienne became its own model within the R4 range, and would be sold from 1964 to 1968.

R4 Paris2

The Renault 4 Parisienne is about as literal a translation of the concept of a “Parisienne” from human form into automotive form as you can possibly get. It was created specifically for Parisiennes, based on what Parisiennes wanted, and designed to evoke the style and image of Parisiennes wherever it ended up.

The only other car named Parisienne is about as French as a fast-food french fry. How often do you find commonly named things this far apart in, well, everything? Walt Disney and Walt Whitman, maybe. It’s just too good. So, with that in mind, I propose utilizing this wonderful confluence for something interesting.

I’m proposing a new sort of scale we can use to make expressing a complex concept more effective. It’ll be called The Parisienne Scale, and the scale goes from Pontiac to Renault. It’s a scale used to determine how successful something is at living up to its name, and if it’s at 100 Pontiacs on the scale, it’s terrible at it, and if it’s at 100 Renaults, it’s amazing.

Parisienne Scale

So, for an automotive example, we might meet someone who feels like the 2022 Chevy Blazer only rates 45 Pontiacs when it comes to living up to the Blazer name, while they also think that, even though it’s a different kind of car, conceptually the 2022 Ford Maverick actually scores about 25 Renaults when it comes to living up to its earlier namesake.

Polaroid is still around, but I’d say it only scores about a 30 Pontiacs when it comes to living up to the Polaroid name, because back in the day Polaroid was the only option for instant photos, and now they’re just another bit player in the photography and printing space, with little to distinguish them. On the other hand and used in a slightly different, but still valid context, the product Goo-Gone scores like a 90 Renaults, because it definitely lives up to its name and makes goo, you know, absent.

That guy who the QAnon people think is the not-dead JFK Junior? He’s scoring like 95 Pontiacs. Elephant seals? I think they deserve like 55 Renaults, they pretty well live up to the elephant part of the name.

This is useful, isn’t it? It’s just what you needed, I bet! Now go forth and spread this innovation, and rate everything with a name on the Parisienne Scale!

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64 Responses

  1. My grandmother was of the old school “trade cars every three years” set. She had a Parisienne that she traded for a Chevy Lumina, which she regretted, as the Lumina was much rougher on rock roads around the farm. Then she traded the Lumina for a Buick, which she declared just incredibly boring.

    It may not have been French, but for a certain set of the population, it was a good car.

    1. This comment caught my attention. I had a 91 Lumina and I lived in the middle of farmland Indiana and drove on a bunch of shitty backroads. I had many people comment about the smoothness of the ride. I’m curious what year Lumina your grandma had because her experience is completely different from mine. I know the Lumina gets a lot of hate but as a 16 year old with a car less than 2 years old that had a V-6 and could move I loved that damn thing.

    1. The wickerwork is not painted on, it is a waterslide transfer, exactly like the ones in plastic model kits and exactly as fiddly to get straight. Remarkably it is still available in rolls, swearing optional.
      Radford minis may look similar but are even more difficult to fix. They sanded real wicker to the thickness of a sheet of paper, glued it to the car and then applied lacquer! Do not scratch either of these cars!!!!!!!

  2. The Pontiac Parisienne, and that ad for it, evoke something else entirely for me: my hometown of Oswego, Illinois. I can picture that car in the front window of Detzler Pontiac, and I remember meeting Refrigerator Perry and his teammate Walter Payton – both genuinely nice guys, by the way – when they came to our high school for some appearance or other.

    1. I used to see Sweeteness often when he filled up his Countach at a gas station in Hoffman Estates that I also frequented. He really was an outstanding person, unlike any other celebrity I’ve met.

    2. My dad still quotes that commercial to this day. Where was the fridge when the power went out at our house on super bowl sunday back in 1986? We missed seeing his touchdown because CommieEd couldn’t keep the lights on.

  3. It’s absolutely astonishing to me that Torch can just come out here, babble absolute bullshit with a thin veil of car culture over it and we all just nod along and give him a round of applause at the end.

    Are we in a cult? It feels like we’ve been sucked into a cult…

    (Disclaimer: this isn’t an insult, I am 100% on board for all Torch content, it really does make this website a very special place.)

  4. I think the real question is, what group is most slighted by Pontiac, the women of Paris or the Aztec civilization? I don’t really know if naming a car (or any product really) after a group of people is a great plan. Imagine if you will the pearl clutching if the new Telsa mini-van was called the Karen. (Tesla selected because they don’t have a mini van and I feel like Musk likes to troll folks)

    1. Well, the Parisienne was just a badge engineered B-body, which meant it still had all the B-body attributes – elegant Sheer Look styling, plush interior, comfortable ride, decent (by ’80s GM standards) build quality.

      The Aztek was hideous, hard riding, and made mostly of the kind of plastic at home in Toys ‘R Us. You could argue the Parisienne was also better for active outdoor lifestyles, since it had a higher tow rating, for bringing a boat or camper along, although, the Aztek did turn into a camper itself, which reduced the need, I guess.

  5. The ’86 Pontiac DID have partial rear fender skirts, something seen a lot o french cars, mostly Citroëns, but they also look a bit like those on the Renault 16. So I think that year model could move up a notch, to say 99 maybe?

  6. I remember these from childhood. I also recall how, because the name was too long for my dumb kid brain to process, I defaulted to reading it as the Pontiac Parmesan. Which probably makes about as much sense as Parisienne.

    1. I had a 1984 Parisienne without the fender skirts. I don’t think it ever had them, but this was in the mid-90’s so they could have been long gone.

      I *did* have a ’79 Bonne coupe with the fender skirts and they somehow made the car look even longer than it was.

  7. Pontiac used alot of names not that are not really relatable, granted there were some nice looking cars depending upon the era. . The LeMans, not the car you’d see running the 24 hours of LeMans, especially the later Daewoo version. The Bonneville sort of big and Bulky to be running for a land speed record. Couldn’t image a Grand Prix competing in the Grand Prix.

  8. When will Torch do an article about the Geo Metro versus the Nash Metro(politan)? That’s gotta be next, right? What about the battle of the GTO’s? Did Mitsubishi (who called the GTO the 3000GT stateside) or Pontiac do it better? For this last one, we’d also get to see a return to the Pontiac scale for comparison’s sake.

    I’m sorry Torch, I really wish that some other manufacturer had made a car called the GV or the GVX for you to do a shootout with your favorite eastern european gettabout. (Gettabout? Yeah, it gets about 2 blocks away from the driveway before filling the driver up with regret)

  9. I associate the Pontiac Parisienne with Montreal because that’s where I first saw them in 1975. The Renault 4 is a new one for me and seems like the sort of thing Alain Delon would have driven past in a stolen Citroën DS.

  10. “I’m not saying there’s anything inherently wrong with the Parisienne or any of GM’s other huge, sharp-cornered boats of that era, but I can’t think of anything that reminds me less of Paris or France or ancient Gaul or anything even remotely related to that than this car.”

    Oh I dunno. Early to mid 80s GM cars smoke, smell bad, are almost always in need of a bath, DGAF, complain loudly when you try to get them to do work and are highly prone to going on strike.

    Sounds French to me.

  11. As someone from a middle-class area that was in high school and college in the 1990’s, big beat-up GM B-bodies from the ’80s were a pretty common ride among my social circle. I remember seeing The Lion King at the drive-in in the summer of ’94, lounging with my high school girlfriend on the indestructible hood of her sister’s ’79 Bonneville.

    But the Parisienne? There’s one standout memory with that particular model. December 1997. Beavis & Butt-Head Do America is released in theaters. My and some college buddies pile into one guy’s ’85 Parisienne to head to the movies. In a minor blizzard. I remember being in the back seat, staring wide-eyed out the back window as a Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority bus slides toward the Pontiac’s back bumper, wheels locked. The Parisienne magically found some traction just in time to fishtail out of the bus’s path.

    To this day I’m annoyed with younger, dumber me for getting into that car in that weather. To die while going to see the Beavis & Butt-Head movie in a blizzard would have been just embarrassing.

    1. Having been to Philly, you would see 60s-80s unrestored American iron just about every corner well into the first half of last decade. Hell, I vividly remember the 80s Olds diesel rumble that we otherwise associate more with trucks (the big three diesel engines of course!) here in FL.

  12. French nitpicker here…

    Parisienne actually has several meanings :
    – Une Parisienne ( A Parisienne ) can either be a female born or living in Paris.

    – By extension, to any French that’s not living/born in the Ile de France area a Parisian/Parisienne is somebody that comes from said Ile de France. And the fun thing is that it doesn’t imply that you meet one of above requirement ( being born or living in Paris before moving )… just that you came from the Ile de France area.

    – à la Parisienne means at the Parisian way ( usually used for food recipe… After all… France and Gastronomy )

    1. Oh and since I forgot to mention it, I’d go 100% Renault for obvious reasons.

      Side note : I’m not certain of it, but I think the R4 Parisienne was a precursor of lots of limited series small cars in France, where a given model was given a name ( for example AX Spot [ Spot, *not Sport* the sport existed too, but it was the high end model ], AX Thalassa, AX K-Way, and many more [ I’m more aware of the AX branded models than other French car builders as I drove an AX Spot, and it was always fun to watch the amount of interior fitting difference between each branded model, as the base model was always the same : the low end 956cm3 engine platform, and each brand model had only one single color ] )

      1. “AX Spot [ Spot, *not Sport* the sport existed too, but it was the high end model ]”

        There really should have been a Spot with a retuned engine and former suspension sold as the AX Spot Sport. Or Sport Spot, although that sounds more like something you need to wash out of your kid’s football (either kind) uniform.

      2. The Parisienne may very well have been the inspiration for those limited editions by French automakers. Renault kept it up for a long time, the last model I remember having all sorts of limited edition models was the first gen Clio (although by that time those “special editions” were more like trim levels and were produced in massive numbers). The Quatrelle had amazingly cool limited editions: Haute Couture, Safari, Sixties, Jogging, etc. for the final production years they introduced the TL Savane and GTL Clan but those were produced in larger numbers. There was also the final special edition Bye-bye, which had a number plaque on the dashboard (I read somewhere they numbered them in countdown from 1000 to 13 but I’ve also found images of the 0001 plaque so I’m not sure what’s the truth there).

  13. Oh look, it’s an article about some American car and the best car ever!

    I have to admit my ignorance of American classics, I’d never heard of the Pontiac Parisienne. But I mean, it’s hard to keep track of all the American cars when the biggest automakers took a design and slapped badges for 3 or 4 different brands, and sometimes the name was a trim level of a discontinued model, which they then brought back in a completely different segment. And hey, of course, let’s introduce slight aesthetic changes every year so people in the future have something to argue about and also completely forget… It’s just hard to keep track if you didn’t grow up with those cars.

    Meanwhile Renault was like “this is fine, let’s name it after the nearly-obsolete, power-based taxation bracket that it falls in and build it virtually unchanged for 31 years with the same name. We’ll drop the base model a couple of years after introducing it, update the drivetrains and trim level names halfway through the production run, refresh the front fascia and the interior a few times until we settle for the cheapest version we can make while selling limited edition models every now and then. Then, let’s slap some plastic cladding on some of them so people know that’s the top of the line model for the final decade of production and call it a day.” and bam, next thing you know they were making one of the most iconic cars ever, for which there are parts still being produced to this day, three decades after it was discontinued. Less is definitely more sometimes.

  14. The Pontiac Parisienne as it was sold in the US in the ’80s was a classic example of a car built for dealers, not customers. It had Pontiac road wheels, steering wheel and a different two-tone color break than a Caprice. Other than that, it offered nothing customers couldn’t get in a Chevy Caprice. But there were still a fair number of Pontiac-only dealers in the early ’80s and they wanted a full-size car to sell (“We Build Excitement” branding notwithstanding), so GM’s first big move to reestablish the Sloan ladder that had been taking a beating since the late ’50s was undone, and then some, after just one year by bringing a Canadian Cheviac south of the border.

    1. GM initially wanted to phase out the B-body entirely, and go to all FWD unibody cars (in the expectation that gas prices were going to double by 1985, and the company wanted to be proactive about the next round of needed downsizing, instead of another delayed reaction). Instead, fuel prices crashed to historic lows, the market for the big RWD body-on-frame cars ended up staying relatively healthy, customer interest in GM’s new FWD boxes was lukewarm, and, so, the third round downsizing was frozen in its tracks partially implemented.

      Cadillac – entire Deville line and most of the Fleetwood range downsized to FWD, execpt for RWD Fleetwood Brougham trim level, kept as separate model

      Buick – Electra and LeSabre downsized to FWD, except for the station wagon body style, which carried on as a separate model

      Oldsmobile – 88 and 98 downsized to FWD, except for the station wagon body style, carried on as separate model

      Chevrolet – Impala and Canada-only Bel Air discontinued, Caprice retained, but model offerings scaled back a bit

      Pontiac – Catalina discontinued, Bonneville downsized to FWD, Canada-market Parisienne retained and eventually added to US range, RWD station wagon continuously produced for US market as separate model

      US Dealers balked at poor consumer response to the new Bonneville and the continued popularity of Chevy’s Caprice and demanded that they be given back a B-body sedan to complement the Safari wagon that they continued to sell.

  15. We had an ’86 Parisianne Safari Wagon growing up. Light brown with wood sides and a sand-colored interior. Also the jungle-of-spokes wheels. Had a hood ornament and a brushed aluminum roof rack. Thing was an absolute tank, had power everything, the two-way tailgate AND a rear-facing ‘back-back/way back’ seat.

    Absolutely the best car on earth to grow up in.

    http://www.cincyclassiccars.com/wp-content/gallery/1986-pontiac-parisienne-safari/IMG_1547.JPG

  16. “…So, in America, our Parisienne was essentially a badge-engineered Chevy Caprice with a different grille and taillights and other trim, and you could have it as a sedan, coupé, or station wagon….”

    Yes, that would be from 1982 to 1986, which was a minor revision of Caprice’s grille and taillamps. The Parisienne, sold exclusively in Canada, from 1977 to 1981 had its own protruding grille and egg crate taillamp design along with the rear wheel skirts. Those design elements weren’t shared with Caprice or other B-platform cars.

    The rear wheel skirts were eliminated from 1982 model and returned for 1985 model year as to differentiate itself further from Caprice.

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