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Pontiac hits end of the road after 82 years

The last Pontiac has rolled off the line, marking the end of a century-old nameplate that fell victim to GM's bankruptcy, federal bailout and radical restructuring plan.
Image: 2010 Pontiac G6 sedans move down the line at General Motors Orion Assembly
One of the final 2010 Pontiac G6 sedans moves down the line at General Motors Orion assembly plant last week in Michigan. The production marked the end of the line for the venerable Pontiac nameplate.GM / Steve Fecht for General Motors

“We Built Excitement.”

That should have been the banner hanging over the assembly line in the Detroit suburb of Orion Township last week when workers built their last Pontiac G6 sedan.

In the months ahead, following a brief shutdown, the plant will be retooled to produce an all-new small car that could be critical to General Motors’ long-term prospects. But the rollout of that white sedan, with almost no fanfare, literally marked the end of the line for Pontiac, the GM brand that once boasted "We Build Excitement.”

How did the once-popular marque wind up on the automotive rust heap? The simple answer is that GM was required to cut four of its eight North American brands to get billions of dollars in federal aid. Pontiac would have to go, along with Saab, Saturn and Hummer.

Why Pontiac? For awhile, the brand most likely to be dropped seemed to be Buick, which has been struggling to sell even 100,000 cars a year, significantly fewer than Pontiac. But Buick has shown a few signs of life, lately. The Enclave crossover has attracted some unexpectedly young and affluent customers.

More importantly, there’s China. “Without China,” said GM design director Ed Welburn, “there’d be no Buick.” Through a series of historical flukes, Buick is the nameplate that General Motors wound up building in China, where it’s now one of most popular brands in one of the world's fastest-growing markets.  Killing Buick in the United States would irreparably harm the brand in Asia, GM officials believe.

There was no such reprieve waiting for Pontiac, despite its storied history.

The dying marque dates back to 1900, when the first car bearing the name of a fabled Michigan American Indian chief was produced by the Pontiac Spring and Wagon Works. The name was dropped a few years later when the company merged with the Oakland Motor Car Co., which itself was taken over by General Motors. But in 1926, a new model bearing the Pontiac name and Indian head logo reappeared during a preview at the New York Auto Show.

Pontiac became the low-cost alternative to Oakland in the carefully contrived GM brand hierarchy. Each of the automaker’s main divisions was similarly paired, Cadillac to LaSalle, for example. But when the alternate brands were dropped, GM unexpectedly decided to keep the increasingly popular Pontiac and abandon faltering Oakland.

While the surviving marque was a middle-class mainstay, Pontiac probably became best known in the 1960s and '70s when it fielded some of the hottest, fastest muscle cars ever to take to the streets, tire-spinning products such as the GTO and Firebird.

Legendary GM maverick John Z. DeLorean and his marketing chief, Jim Wangers, often could be found cruising the hamburger stands that once lined Detroit’s Woodward Avenue, showing off their latest Pontiac models and, more than occasionally, racing against the latest offering from one of the other domestic makers.

But the golden era of muscle cars couldn’t outlast the twin oil shocks of the '70s, when GM shifted focus to an array of econocars like the Pontiac 6000, which did little to enhance the brand’s image.

One new product after another failed to connect with consumers, the division earning the scorn of buyers with models like the ungainly Aztek crossover vehicle, often ranked among the ugliest automobiles ever.

“They should have killed the brand a long time ago,” said auto analyst Joe Phillippi of Autotrends Consulting.

But one man stood in the way. Rick Wagoner, the GM CEO ousted by the White House in March, was determined to maintain all the company’s brands. He told close allies he never wanted to repeat the painful process he experienced when GM shuttered the Oldsmobile brand earlier in the decade.

That position quickly eroded when brand consolidation became a condition of getting federal bailout funds. Initially, GM hoped to retain Pontiac as a “specialty” brand but then gave up on it entirely.

The last Pontiac products could take months to sell off, but by the end of 2010 the name will vanish from all but the history books. Along with it go about 2,000 GM dealers, about a third of the total, who were given notice as part of the automaker’s carefully managed, two-month run through bankruptcy court.

Despite the pain of the shutdown, "it will pay off in the long run,” said Susan Docherty, head of U.S. sales operations for GM.

"This will let us focus our limited resources where they’ll serve us best,” Docherty added. She acknowledged that the once-seemingly omnipotent General Motors simply couldn’t keep spending billions to develop so many different products for so many different brands, and then invest the additional money needed to market them.

By the time the four brands are fully divested, GM intends to trim its overall model count from 84 to 37.

The good news for GM is that consumers seem to be accepting the company’s new reality. GM's November sales were slightly below year-earlier levels, the company reported Tuesday. But October sales were surprisingly strong, and 95 percent of GM’s U.S. customers opted for products sold by one of the surviving four brands, said the company’s chief market analyst Mike Di Giovanni.

Yet there’s little doubt that Pontiac will be missed. The legendary brand not only lasted close to a century but helped define one of the brightest eras in automotive history.