The Passing of Pontiac
Friday, May 1, 2009
Pontiac, now sacrificed for General Motors to reorganize, was ironically a car that helped GM survive the Great Depression.
Sometimes irony is shrouded in the mists of forgotten history. Thus it is with Pontiac, now sacrificed on the altar of reorganization/survival by General Motors. For Pontiac was a car with enough appeal to not only survive but be a significant contributor to a reorganized GM’s survival in the very teeth of the Great Depression.
Pontiac had started in 1926 as a “companion car,” a lower-priced model of a GM car called the Oakland. The now-forgotten Oakland had been a GM mainstay—one of the three original makes (with Oldsmobile and Buick) brought under the GM umbrella when the corporation first organized in 1908. Both Olds and Buick had also introduced companion cars, the Olds Viking and the Buick Marquette, neither of which did particularly well.
But the Pontiac, cleanly styled and powered by a sturdy and reliable six-cylinder engine, quickly surpassed the Oakland in public appeal. Named for the famed Ottawa Indian chief and billed as the “Chief of Sixes,” the Pontiac racked up a surprising 76,742 sales in its first year. The Oakland, which had been around for more than two decades, built its millionth car in March 1929, but one month later the Pontiac, around for only three years, had built a half a million cars.
At the end of the 1931 model year, GM executives, sorting through the damage in the aftermath of the 1929 stock market crash, noted that Oakland sales were a dismal 13,408 cars while Pontiac sales were 84,708. Alfred P. Sloan, GM’s legendary president, saw possibilities in Pontiac in a year of poor auto sales. And so, in 1932, the Oakland ceased to be and the Pontiac Motor Company was born. Its general manager was a former Ford executive and acknowledged “car guy,” William S. “Big Bill” Knudsen, who would eventually become GM’s president.
Sloan saw Pontiac as just the automobile to complete his “ladder” of cars, ranging in price from the entry-level Chevrolet up through Oldsmobile and Buick, to the pinnacle, the Cadillac. Pontiac would be the second rung of the ladder, something to whet the appetite of the Chevy owner who wanted a bit more style and performance.
Sloan famously believed that GM’s primary goal 'was to make money, not just make motor cars.'
Sloan famously believed that GM’s primary goal “was to make money, not just make motor cars.” With typical genius, he integrated Chevy and Pontiac manufacturing. The two cars would share basic bodies, chassis, and major components. This saved GM untold millions in tooling and other manufacturing costs throughout the ’30s and beyond. And although the two cars had similar silhouettes at first glance, unique engines and more “upmarket” styling cues, equipment, and upholstery set the Pontiac apart from the Chevy. Indeed, Knudsen’s first Pontiacs, the 1933–1934 cars, displayed a distinctive identity with low-key “speed streak” streamlining, deft chrome accents, and a longer hood to accommodate the new straight “economy eight” that replaced the six-cylinder engine.
Pontiac’s image was further solidified in the mid-1930s when “silver streak” chrome strips running the center length of the hood and trunk lid became a “signature” that would last for more than two decades. Pontiac soldiered through the 1930s, the postwar ’40s, and into the ’50s as a solid GM performer, never at the front of the pack of competitors but always comfortably in the midst. Its execs were careful to keep Pontiac engineering, styling, interior appointments, and trim levels a cut above the best Chevrolet but without encroaching on Oldsmobile and Buick product levels.
This was all in that brief, happy, semi-mythical time when the working man who got moved up to supervisor might dare to think of trading in his deluxe Chevy for a new Pontiac. All the while, he looked with a wholesome, hopeful envy on the successful businessman in his Oldsmobile, the doctor in his fine Buick sedan, and the president of the local bank gliding by in his black Cadillac.
But the ladder game became more and more difficult as a growing and increasingly affluent pool of car buyers demanded ever more styling, luxury, and performance. The Sloanian ideal was blurring. Subtly at first, but inexorably, Pontiac was moving from being a dressier “big Chevy” to being a major player in the “medium price” field.
This was all in that brief, happy, semi-mythical time when the working man who got moved up to supervisor might dare to think of trading in his deluxe Chevy for a new Pontiac.
Pontiac’s big breakout and the advent of its glory years began in the car crazy mid-1950s, and the general manager who led the division into largely uncharted territory was none other than Big Bill Knudsen’s son. An even more enthusiastic car guy than his dad, Semon E. “Bunkie” Knudsen took over in 1956 and sent fresh air blowing through the whole Pontiac establishment with an emphasis on high performance, roadability, innovative engineering, and styling. In on this Knudsen breeze rode a cadre of other dedicated car guys. They occasionally gave GM bean counters heartburn but they gave the public some of the most exciting and memorable cars of the 1960s and 1970s and pushed Pontiac sales figures to unprecedented heights. Engineers and designers were eager to work for Pontiac. And the energetic Knudsen aura would continue throughout the ’60s in his successors at the Pontiac helm—Elliott M. “Pete” Estes and John Z. DeLorean.
Knudsen’s 1959 model cars, the first fully reflecting his new leadership, were a sensation. He wanted them to look lower and wider and the result was the new “wide-track” chassis that became the talk of the industry. The width between the wheels was increased 5 inches in the front and 4.5 in the back, giving the big car not only a decidedly horizontal look but also better roadability and ride. I still remember my first ride in one of these cars (a high school classmate’s dad was the local Pontiac dealer) and feeling as I looked out over the immense flat expanse of hood that the car was way too wide for the road ahead.
An array of V-8 engines (up to 345 horsepower!) provided impressive performance for the 1959s, presaging the even bigger engines and power tweaks that lay ahead. For those more economically minded, there was a “small” 215-horsepower V-8 that boasted 20 miles per gallon, harking back to the “economy eights” of the senior Knudsen’s era. But this was a decidedly new era and the proof was in the Pontiac pudding.
I still remember my first ride a 1959 Pontiac and feeling as I looked out over the immense flat expanse of hood that the car was way too wide for the road ahead.
The 1960 and 1961 cars continued the Pontiac’s crisp, clean styling, and every year from 1962 to 1970 Pontiacs were the third-biggest sellers in the nation (behind perennial sales champs Ford and Chevy), consistently delivering well over half a million cars annually and coming close to a million in 1968. Pontiac “excitement” would eventually become a marketing byword as edgy new products lured (and kept) younger buyers while compelling designs, innovative engineering, and more luxurious extras kept older loyalists coming back to its big sedans and hardtops. These bread-and-butter big cars now had new names (Bonneville, Catalina, Safari, Grand Prix) replacing the venerable Chieftan and Super Chief labels. Part of Knudsen’s corporate transformation involved getting away from what he disparaged as “that Indian concept.”
Many of the new Pontiac offerings quickly became the stuff of automotive enthusiast legend. The 1964 Tempest GTO, which allowed buyers to virtually custom order a five-passenger street rod from a candy store catalogue of factory speed equipment—all for less than $4000—became the first true “muscle car,” extolled to this day in song and story. The 1967 Firebird coupe, Pontiac’s upmarket take on the Chevrolet Camaro (in answer to the Ford Mustang), became an immensely popular and long-running favorite with “motorheads,” especially in its sometimes menacingly flashy Trans Am versions. There were even legends within legends, like the special GTO introduced in 1969 to settle the “Who’s car’s hottest?” question with its 366-horsepower Ram-Air V-8, and its “’nuff said” name—The Judge.
But if the ’60s were heavenly for Pontiac, the ’70s proved problematic and in many ways disappointing. In the face of the first oil supply crisis, dramatically increased government regulation (CAFE anyone?), and burgeoning foreign competition, Pontiac seemed at times not sure what to do and at times too full of itself. It drove cousin Chevrolet up the wall, by trying to underprice and outsell it at the same time it was sharing car bodies with it. At the same time, Pontiac moved aggressively into Oldsmobile-Buick territory, further blurring the distinctions that had characterized Sloan’s famous “ladder.”
The result over the next three decades was a plethora of models, a mishmash of once familiar names and odd new ones, a lot of engineering/styling misfires, and on top of it all a woeful decline in body fit and finish. Examples are as sad as they are plentiful. To come up with a compact car to meet the first gas crunch, Pontiac tarted up Chevrolet’s midsize Nova with a new front end and called it the Ventura (a discarded model name from 1961 to 1962). Introduced in 1971, it was a homely, obvious Chevy clone. Adding insult to injury in 1974, Pontiac took one of its most iconic performance names, GTO, and glued it onto the fenders and trunk of the lowly Ventura as part of a lackluster $195 option package.
The 1964 Tempest GTO allowed buyers to virtually custom order a five-passenger street rod from a candy store catalogue of factory speed equipment and became the first true ‘muscle car.’
As GM, bleeding money, forced more body sharing across all its divisions, Pontiac, in the name of offering variety, seemed to be offering confusion. The Grand Prix and Trans Ams of old transmogrified into Grand Ams and Grand Villes and Grand Le Mans and the styling showed an unhealthy predilection for sweeping decals and vinyl roofs, huge amounts of plastic cladding, and velour interiors with phony wood accents. More model names were added to the largely uninteresting mix: Astre and Sunbird and Sunfire, Phoenix and Fiero, and the “alphanumeric” cars of the 1980s, the T1000 hatchback, J2000 coupe, and 6000 STE sedan.
All in all, amid a sea of sameness and an indifferent build quality that left uninspired designs looking especially tired after a few years, there seemed to be fewer and fewer bright spots. The Firebird Trans Ams kept the “ponycar” flame alive. The plastic-bodied Fieros paved the way for the Saturn. The 6000 STE of 1988 was a good attempt at a European-type sports sedan for the price. But with each model year it seemed that Pontiac had lost its ability to come up with the interest and quality that foreign competitors were delivering.
Even a recent bright spot, like the crisp and powerful 2008 G8 GT sedan, is the result of Pontiac having to reach out to GM’s Australian division, Holden, to come up with a competitor. And potentially good ideas, like the Pontiac Aztek—a truly innovative combination of off-road capability, family car comfort, and surprising van or SUV-like utility—ended up snakebit. Not even the Edsel became a staple for stand-up comics as quickly as the Aztek. Packed with interesting features, it nonetheless looked like it had been sketched by some seventh-grade Goth motorhead in study hall. Azteks sat embarrassingly on dealer lots month after month, staring out at passing cars, instant orphans with their garish metallic paint baking in the sun.
With the ultimate fate of GM still in the balance, Pontiac’s prospects are very limited. GM has said that the name may survive as a “focused niche brand.” It’s a return, in a way, to its roots as a “companion car,” but it’s a sad fate for the tail that once wagged the Oakland dog until it got GM’s attention.
Ralph Kinney Bennett writes the Automobility column for The American.
FURTHER READING: Bennett wrote “Why Gasoline Is Still King” on electric cars’ limitations and “Dieselmania” on diesel’s appeal.
Image by Flickr user NYCArthur found here.