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Thrill is gone — GM’s Pontiac bites the dust

Pontiac’s demise was an ignominious end for a brand whose products fired the imagination of enthusiasts of traditional American muscle cars. By Dan Carney.

The party is finally over at General Motors’ “We Build Excitement” division, Pontiac.

The company said Monday it will discontinue the brand as part of its consolidation effort, letting it slim down its payroll and concentrate resources on its remaining, strategically more important brands: Chevrolet, Buick, Cadillac and GMC trucks.

“Pontiac was one of America’s greatest car brands with an illustrious history,” lamented industry commentator Peter DeLorenzo, who runs the blog and once worked for Pontiac’s marketing department.

“It is a shame what happened to it. When they ran themselves off the rails, they forgot what Pontiac was all about and decided it would become another rebadged division within the corporate hierarchy,” he said.

It is an ignominious end for a brand whose products fired the imagination of enthusiasts of traditional American muscle cars.

The company started as just another of the myriad of carmakers in Michigan in 1907, in the form of Oakland Motor Car company. General Motors founder William Durant acquired Oakland in 1909 to be a part of the new automotive giant, according to Pontiac spokesman Jim Hopson.

By 1926, GM management concluded that the company’s vaunted  “stepping stone” business model had a step missing between its entry-level Chevrolet brand and the more aspirational Oldsmobile brand, so Oakland added Pontiac models to fill that gap. Later, the Oakland name was dropped entirely in favor of Pontiac, the city where the company was based, which was in turn named after the famous Indian chief.

Through the ‘50s, Pontiac remained an unremarkable brand for people who couldn’t afford Oldsmobiles. But in 1959 the company launched the “wide track” Bonneville, with the claim that its width provided a handling advantage, and public perception began to shift.

In the early 1960s, U.S. carmakers decided that they would not compete against one another in racing, and they further decided to avoid emphasis on performance. Predictably, this gentlemen’s agreement broke down, both because of decisions at other companies and because it was ignored within the company.

Like today’s computer engineers and software coders putting in overtime on side projects, in the 1960s General Motors engineers spent their weekends at the company’s proving grounds building and testing new ideas. One outcome was the installation of the company’s big 389 cubic inch V8 from its full-size Bonneville into a lighter intermediate sized LeMans/Tempest body.

“It was a Skunk Works thing, and they were smoking everybody,” said Hopson.

Because the powerful “389” was too big an engine to pass muster with GM corporate guidelines of the day, the engineers outmaneuvered their overseers by building the cars and giving them to regional sales reps, who in turn took them to dealers to gauge public reaction to the potential availability of the hot-rod motor as an option for the LeMans.

They returned to Detroit with 5,000 orders in hand and went to the board of directors seeking permission to build what would become the legendary GTO. When the board observed that such a car was against the rules, the team asked, “What should we do with these 5,000 orders?” explained Hopson. With orders in hand, the board relented and Pontiac’s most revered model was born.

Showing the same perverse chutzpah as when they named Pontiac’s mid-sized sedan after the most famous race in France, the 24 Hours of LeMans, Pontiac marketers named the new big-engine option package after the most sensuous Ferrari sports car of the day, the GTO. Two years later the GTO became its own model.

Enthusiast magazine Car & Driver promptly incensed purists with a tongue-in-cheek comparison test of the sturdy Pontiac GTO against the aquiline Ferrari GTO.

Also during the 1960s muscle car heyday, Pontiac introduced an overhead cam six-cylinder engine that promised the power of a V8 with the efficiency of a six-cylinder and the public ignored it like an umpire tuning out home-team hecklers.

At the same time, Ford was cooking up its gigantically popular Mustang, which was just the company’s entry-level Falcon economy car dressed up with sleeker bodywork and badged with the name of a fondly remembered World War II fighter plane. In response, General Motors introduced its own Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird “pony cars” in 1967 to compete for Mustang buyers.

Shortly thereafter emissions regulations, safety concerns and spiraling insurance costs combined to kill off the original generation of muscle cars.

The company switched to comparatively gutless low-compression engines in 1971, the point at which traditionalists conclude that “real” GTO production ended. In 1974 the company offered another GTO model based on the small Chevrolet Nova, exacerbating the outrage.

“At swap meets, you don’t see many of the ’74s,” noted Hopson.

Pontiac’s all-time sales peaked in 1973 just shy of a million cars, at 920,000. The Firebird carried the brand’s “excitement” banner through the 1970s, with a starring role in the Burt Reynolds film “Smoky and the Bandit,” which prompted consumers to pursue purchases of black-and-gold Firebird Trans-Ams with the relentlessness of Jackie Gleason’s sheriff character chasing Reynolds’ bandit.

The 1980s brought a fresh new Firebird in 1982 and the tiny Fiero, a mid-engined sports car the Pontiac execs got approved over howls of protest from jealous Corvette executive who worried about their car’s position as GM’s premiere sports car. 

Those objections, however, were sufficient to cripple the Fiero’s chance of success because Pontiac was limited to using off-the-shelf parts from existing cars. Over time, the company’s engineers beavered away at the Fiero’s shortcomings, but by the time the car was fixed in 1988 it had developed a bad reputation among sports car buyers and the company dropped the model. 

“If they had not used off-the-shelf parts it would have survived,” opined Harley Holt, who was chief engineer of International Research, a company that specialized in souping up Fieros to achieve their potential. “By the time it got better, it was already dead.”

Key among International Research’s improvements was revised bodywork, which was easy to change because the Fiero’s innovative space-frame chassis used plastic bodywork. Unlike Pontiac’s innovative six-cylinder engine, the plastic bodywork know-how lived on in the Saturn cars that followed. 

“They were super proud of the clip on body panels,” Holt recalled. “The factory was like a show place. They were constantly taking people out there to show them their new production method. They had regular tours and it was fully booked.”

After the Fiero’s failure, Pontiac was left to languish with undistinguished models that were little different from those at other GM divisions.

“Everything they did from the ‘90s on was too little too late or just wrong,” remarked DeLorenzo.

Near the end, Pontiac enjoyed the favor of Bob Lutz, who headed product development at GM until his retirement this year, with a revived GTO, the two-seat Solstice roadster, which could be seen as a latter-day Fiero, and the G8, a sedan that aimed to compete with BMW. As was the case with the Fiero, in the end, these cars were too little, too late.

Oldsmobile suffered a similar fate when that division was mothballed in 2004 following a resurgence with its much-praised Aurora model. But Pontiac’s demise will be more keenly felt in the enthusiast community, said DeLorenzo.

“Oldsmobile never had the emotional connection with enthusiasts that Pontiac did,” he said.

And in the end, Pontiac lasted just one year longer than Oldsmobile’s century plus one. The division was still GM’s third-largest seller, with 278,000 sales last year, and it enjoyed the youngest average age of any GM brand.

But in the end, there just wasn’t enough “Excitement” left.