Goodbye Pontiac

 It really looks like Pontiac will disappear from the American automotive landscape like so many other brands of cars.  Oldsmobile and Plymouth have gone and many brands that were around in my youth have also disappeared.

My first exposure to a Pontiac was as a very small boy.  My parents had a post-war Pontiac sedan that was dark in color (weren’t they all back then) and had multiple chrome stripes that ran down the center of the hood and trunk.  The hood ornament was the profile of an American Indian that represented the tribe for which the car was named.  It had a huge back seat that was smooth and broad.  Seat belts were not yet a fixture of automobile interiors.  As young children we could get lost in that seat and the edges of the door windows towered over our heads.  It was the car that I had my finger slammed in the door as my sisters and I were piling in.  The old doors had to be slammed well or they did not latch and I still had my hand in the door jamb as I was settling in to my seat when one of my sisters closed the door.  I wailed and cried and later lost a finger nail temporarily.  I’m sure it was as a traumatic moment for my mother as it was for me.

One summer it was the car that transported the family to Minnesota and back.  My sister Lauri was given to car sickness so she kept a metal coffee can in her lap to heave in.

I learned later that my grandfather had a Pontiac dealership in the village prior to World War II, hence my father’s bias toward the brand.

In 1964 he bought a Pontiac Tempest for my mother.  The next summer my mother, my sisters, and I used it to go back to Minnesota again.  Upon our return we crossed the canal bridge in Sagamore only to be greeted by a forest fire of gigantic proportions.  It straddled route 6, the Mid-Cape Highway, and had originated in Mashpee’s Otis Air Force Base.

The next year, 1966, my father traded in the Tempest for a GTO.  I couldn’t believe my eyes.  I had seen the first GTO in 1964 and the young boys in the village talked about that for quite a while.  To have one in our own driveway was unbelievable.  Pontiac instructed the owners to put 500 miles on the car before you were to accelerate under full power so my father and I would go out nightly and drive toward Boston and back so that we could accumulate those miles all the quicker.  Soon we had turned enough of the odometer ahead and my father let the tiger roar.  The Rochester Quadrajet carburetor opened its huge secondary butterflies and it sounded like all the atmosphere in the vicinity was being consumed by the car’s engine.  Its vacuum roar competed with the pulses of the exhaust.  All while we were pinned to the seat backs.  It was marvelous. 

Today there is no GTO, or Firebird.  The brand now accounts for 9% of General Motor’s light vehicle sales.  It started out in 1926 as brand known for its six cylinder powered roadsters that evolved into V8 powered sporty sedans and coupes.  John DeLorean fathered the GTO which initiated the muscle car era.  Mustangs, Cameros, Baracudas, Chargers, and Pontiac’s own Firebird were icons of that era.  By the 1970’s two gasoline shortages big, thirsty V8 engines were no longer beneficiaries of fuel that sold for a quarter of a dollar.  The 80’s were when GM touted Pontiac Excitement.  Unfortunately all that excitement was left back in the sixties and the Firebird’s big V8 engines cranked out less and less horsepower.  A brief spurt of creativity and flawed excitement came with the Pontiac Fiero that was the product of corporate politics and was symptomatic of the disease that infected much of corporate America.  It used innovative technology in it space-frame mid-engine design, but was doomed to failure.  Pontiac produced some forgettable cars including the god-awful Aztec van.  The only bright spot of late has been the two-seater Solstice.  Powered by an anemic four cylinder, there was enough hue and cry prior to its release that a turbo charged version was added as a much needed option.  Due out this year is coupe version that looks beautiful even if it is too late to save the brand.

Some may ask why it takes the government to ask the hard questions of the GM corporate executives.  The fact is that corporations that get that large become organizations of kingdoms where the prime directive is to preserve the kingdom over the health of the corporation as a whole.  The CEO has no motivation to run it as a business since rarely are they rewarded for their business acumen. Their job becomes the challenge of maximizing their career and not the business.

So another automotive brand will fade from our memories – soon to be followed by a handful of others as GM is re-organized as it should have been twenty years ago.

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7 Responses to Goodbye Pontiac

  1. Pingback: Goodbye Pontiac

  2. Noel says:

    For a very long time Pontiacs did nothing for me. Just rebadged Chevy’s, Buicks & Oldsmobiles to me. In the past 2-3 years I have had them as rentals and been equally impressed and depressed after putting a couple thousand miles on them.

    The G6 GT with the 200 hp V6 I had for a week in SoCal, and another in S. Florida they seemed like a pretty nice little car. It lacked the light up the tires cojones of my Saab with the same horsepower (there’s nothing like a good turbocharger!) but it was a decent ride. 30+ mpg highway at 75-80, fun on the twisties if you were semi-reasonable and the seats and steering were OK. Loved the big sunroof!

    Then a month on the road brought me a string of Grand Prix sedans, including one with a supercharger. And all of them were just bloated domestic sedans. Yawn. I had one of them on Highway One in California for a 3.5 day weekend and I kept wishing there’d been more options at National’s Emerald Aisle. Total appliance.

    Then last fall I had a day with a G8. Unfortunately it was in suburban Chicago, so I couldn’t really play, but that was a great automobile. 365-ish horsepower, nice V8, RWD, amazingly good steering. I’d actually consider buying one, despite the cheapish interior.

    GM, and other automakers need cars like the G8, that put the fun back in driving. Like Jim and his dad opening up that ’64 GTO.

    It’s a shame GM can’t pick the best of all their stuff –and there is some good stuff– and put it all out there for sale. I don’t give a hoot about which GM brand it is, but the model makes a real difference.

    Pontiac, RIP. Hummer’s no loss. They’re killing Saturn, which is too bad, as the Opels Saturn is selling are actually decent cars.I’m betting Buick will go, too, or be made the highline of Chevy. Caddy has some nice rides these days.

    IMHO, this is only the beginning of consolidation and we’ll see more brands go away.

  3. markitude says:

    Jim,

    I think interchanability was a blessing and a curse to the US automakers. The big 3 figured out they could built multiple cars on the same platform. To my mind the effeciency benefits led to laziness and forced design constraints that underminded the brand. To make matters worse, all the brand thought they needed a product in every segement. When you have Oldsmobile SUVs, and Pontiac minivans, well, the messaging gets pretty murky. I think the car companies would have been best served building one or two things that they were know for being excellent at, and saved a lot of money trying to be everything to everyone. Because, when you go that road, you become commodity and wind up competing on price and if you aren’t the master of the supply chain, you aren’t going to win that one.

  4. Jim's Sister says:

    You forgot to mention that I fell out of the back seat on Main Street because I forgot to lock the back door of the car, and you could just lean on the handle and the door would pop open. Luckily Mom was going 25 miles an hour, and back then, there was little traffic, so nobody ran over me. I still protest that that was a good thing.

  5. Lee K says:

    Why was Plymouth? Why is Mercury? Why is Pontiac? What does the brand bring except a confused message with rebadged minivans, SUVs and sedans? GM is headed towards Chapter 11. The question is what will the new brand strategy be? Why should it be any more than Chevy (entry level and midrange) and Cadillac (luxury)? Perhaps keep GMC around for fleet truck sales. Dismantle the dealer network and relearn the lessons that Saturn had in the early days when they approach cult-car status with legions of rabidly loyal customers.

  6. Jim says:

    Pontiac was slowly strangled starting in the 70s, imho, with me-too cars (can anyone say Sunbird?) that let Pontiac dealers get some of that Chevy traffic volume. Let’s face it, to the dealer it’s all about moving cars, not about driving excitement. It’s why Pontiac was set to have its own version of Chevy’s Aveo — dealers wanted something fuel-sipping to sell. Having rented an Aveo for two weeks recently, I feel pretty qualified to say it is 100 miles away from what Pontiac was otherwise trying to do with its cars.

    I’m sad to see some of Pontiac’s current offering die. I think Pontiac had a couple of the most exciting offerings in the whole GM lineup. But I also think that this exit was inevitable, a victim of a manufacturer/dealer relationship sysstem that was outdated even 30 years ago.

  7. Noel says:

    I loved the G8 I rented last fall. I kept thinking, “Where has this kind of car been?” While some bits of the interior were cheap and the radio was indecipherable while driving, the car had all the right moves. And for less than 30 large. A real deal. I slung it around some onramps, booted it into freeway traffic and it felt pretty much European, but with that V8 grunt you don’t get with a big six or a turbo four like I’m used to. It’s sad to see that when GM finally gets it right that they have to pull the plug.

    As I said in a previous post, this was a car I’d actually consider buying.

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