Attempting to sport-ute the minivan

1998 Pontiac Montana Thunder ConceptAh, Montana. Otherwise known as Big Sky Country, or Land of the Shining Mountains. That’s rather appropriate considering there are 77 named mountain ranges within its borders. In fact, the state’s name itself is derived from the Spanish word for mountain.

In any event, without much effort the mind connects the word Montana with rugged imagery. That was no doubt part of the intent when, starting in 1997, Pontiac used the name for an options package on their second-generation Trans Sport minivan. It so happens that the sport-utility segment was burgeoning and dealers were clamoring for product to cash in on it. Reflecting that trend, the Montana package provided a slightly more durable look to the family hauler primarily with unique wheels and bodyside cladding.

It caught on, and within a couple of years over 80% of Pontiac’s vans were being ordered with the option. In accordance with that popularity, the “Trans Sport” name was dropped and simply “Montana” was adopted in its place, for 1999.

Even though masquerading as a pseudo ute helped the model’s sales, Pontiac created a concept Montana infused with more of what they were good at: sport.

Here comes thunder
1997 Pontiac Rageous ConceptLightning precedes thunder and I’d say the prior year’s Rageous concept counts since it caught not only the public off guard but, reportedly, also the media. (See my post on the surprisingly versatile 1997 Pontiac Rageous concept.)

Modern concept cars, in many cases, are substantially closer to what ends up in consumers’ driveways than what was being teased even a decade ago. While the 1990s bore seemingly countless eye-popping concepts, derivative production models could rarely be associated with their supposed inspiration (unless viewed parked next to each other, from a distance, while squinting).

1998 Montana Thunder concept on stage

Maybe not as predictable as a post-flash crackle, the Montana Thunder was Pontiac’s second take on a minivan concept. This second one seems less svelte but has more flash.

1998 Montana Thunder concept flip-up tv-vcrSince the Montana Thunder concept is minivan-based, it includes several practical features, some of which are available today. However, that doesn’t mean it shied away from some of the wild detailing that would come to typify Pontiac for many years.

On the practical side of this concept was the center console that could be moved and positioned for mid- or rear-passengers to enjoy the cutting-edge, flip-up TV/VCR combo. The console, covered in bright red leather, could also be removed for portable enjoyment.

1998 Pontiac Montana Thunder concept front seatsFor those choosing to stay inside the Montana Thunder, there is room for six and each is treated to a bucket-style seat that suspends the occupant on stretched netting, framed by bright red and light gray leather bolsters.

Safety belts are attached directly to each of the seats’ frames rather than the van’s structure.

Pontiac style and excess
1998 Pontiac Montana Thunder concept dashboardConsistent with what had been and would continue to be a Pontiac strong suit, the instrumentation was set on red backings featuring a turned-metal finish. This detail harkens back to Pontiac dashboards from the early eighties and before.

Encapsulating each area of information are cylinders of chrome and brushed aluminum. The speedometer provides a reading up to 140 MPH and the tachometer maxes out at 7,000 RPM, red-lining around 6,200. To maintain visibility, the entire gauge cluster moves up and down when the steering wheel is adjusted.

To help keep the driver’s eyes on the road, the steering wheel is equipped with two track balls for controlling a small digital display. And, for easy access to OnStar navigation and communication controls, buttons are built into both the driver’s and front passenger’s armrests. Seeming incredibly out of place is the parts bin, multi-function stalk protruding from the left of the steering column.

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