The orphans formerly in your garage

The Iola Old Car Show, which I try to attend (but may not be able to this year), has an interesting theme for this year:

The 40th Anniversary Iola Old Car Show and Swap Meet will be held July 12-15, 2012. The IOLA ’12 theme has been selected: “21st Century Orphans: A tribute to Plymouth, Oldsmobile, Mercury and Pontiac”.

Three of those four nameplates represented steps upward from General Motors’ and Ford’s value lines. GM formerly had a strategy of having buyers step upward, from Chevrolet to Pontiac to Oldsmobile to Buick to Cadillac. Mercury represented the midpoint between Ford and Lincoln.

The exception to that group is Plymouth, which was to Chrysler what Chevrolet was to GM and the Ford brand was to the Ford Motor Co. It seems strange to me that Chrysler got rid of Plymouth but then split off trucks from Dodge to create the Ram brand. Given that all Chrysler dealerships seem to carry all its brands now, creating a new truck-only brand makes little sense, but I don’t work in automotive marketing.

All four of those brands have been somewhere within the family’s driving experiences. My grandfather the farm implement salesman owned a succession of mid-sized Plymouth or Dodge station wagons, minimally equipped (right down to the dog-dish hubcaps and, in at least one case, a three-speed column-shift manual transmission) beyond a trailer hitch, stuffed from behind the front seat to tailgate and from floor to ceiling with three-ring binders and brochures of whatever he was selling. He died from complications of prostate cancer somewhere in his 80s (his age is another story), not from being decapitated by one or more of his binders after being rear-ended.

This Dodge Coronet is similar to the Plymouth Satellite(s) that served as my grandfather’s farm implement library on wheels. Note the lack of whitewall tires and the manually cranked rear window.

My parents own an Olds Bravada, the last new Olds …

… and formerly owned an Olds Intrigue.

The latter was the six-cylinder attempt to complement another Olds I’ve driven that I thought was quite a good car, the Aurora with the Cadillac-sourced Northstar V-8.

The Bravada was Olds’ SUV, almost indistinguishable from a Chevy Trailblazer or GMC Envoy. It holds the distinction of being the last Oldsmobile.

My in-laws owned two Mercury Grand Marquis, the last of Ford’s large rear-drive sedans.

The Grand Marquis was nothing more than a Ford Crown Victoria styled and equipped slightly fancier. But the Grand Marquis had good power, good fuel economy and handling compared to their 1970s iterations, and great room for occupants and their stuff. Ford a year ago made the mistake GM made in 1996 by ending the Crown Victoria and Grand Marquis, thus cutting off most of the police market, which Dodge is happy to snap up with its rear-drive Charger and Chevy with its rear-drive (Australian-sourced) Caprice.

The other car in my grandparents’ garage for a while was a late 1960s Mercury Monterey or Park Lane, which I remember looking exactly like Steve McGarrett’s first Mercury in the original “Hawaii Five-O.”

(I don’t believe Grandpa drove his Mercury with the incessant tire-squealing McGarrett was fond of doing.)

I had an aunt and uncle who owned a late ’70s Marquis, silver with a gray interior, a car larger than the Chevy Caprice we had at the time. (Hard to imagine a car bigger than the 18-foot-long 4,300-pound Caprice? Well, they were.)

Our biggest experience was with Pontiac. My wife purchased two Sunbirds, the second probably the most fun car we’ve owned.

The ’92 ‘Bird (an SE, not the GT pictured) had a 3.1-liter V-6 that appeared to have far more than the rated 140 hp and 185 lb-ft of torque, particularly with the five-speed manual transmission in such a light car, and yet bizarrely got better gas mileage the faster it was driven. (As in 33 mpg at 80 on trips to and from 1996 Atlanta Olympics venues.) It also had an exhaust note that begged the driver to stomp the loud pedal to the floor. It also had the second worst torque steer of any car I’ve driven (the worst: The 1990 Ford Probe GT with the turbo four), and it was not really designed for a 6-foot-4 driver, particularly getting in and out. But it did in fact meet the Pontiac motto of “Driving Excitement.”

My mother-in-law replaced her last Grand Marquis with a Bonneville. It’s a nicely designed and put-together car. (Our oldest son particularly enjoys what happens to the speedometer when the E/M button is pushed, accelerating the car from 60 mph to 100 km/h.) Too bad it only came in a sedan.

The Pontiac I would have liked to own was owned by the family of a high school classmate:

This battleship (the picture does not do it justice) is a 1974 Grandville convertible in Limefire Green Metallic. (Or put another way, a metallicky fluorescent green, which was available on other GM cars of the mid-’70s too.) Theirs had a white interior. I rode in it a couple times during a summer school carpool. They never had the top down, but that was immaterial. This was traveling in style, Pontiac’s answer to the Caprice that was so large it could move the tide.

With the exception of the Plymouth (Chrysler must have appreciated the slightly upscale position of Dodge), all three were steps up from GM’s and Ford’s baseline models. So why did GM kill Pontiac and Olds and why did Ford kill Mercury?

Pontiac and Olds became brothers, using the same engines (with Buick) to distinguish themselves from Chevy. (The Chevy 350 V-8 was not the same engine as the Pontiac/Olds/Buick 350 V-8, their 400 V-8s also were dissimilar, and Chevy had a 454 V-8, while Pontiac, Olds and Buick had a 455 V-8.) Pontiac meant nothing at GM until the late ’50s, when Pontiac management started making the cars more exciting, beginning with the “Wide-Track” marketing gimmick. (Or so I read; owners of late ’50s Pontiacs swore the cars handled better when the wheels were pushed wider by the stylists.) Then came John DeLorean (yes, that DeLorean), who developed the GTO, the simple exercise of taking a mid-sized car and stuffing in as much engine as could fit into it, with various other go-fast and handle-somewhat-better-than-stock parts. Then came the Firebird and the outrageously orange GTO Judge.

Those were the good days. (I could write an entire blog about the oddity of Pontiac in Canada, in which Pontiacs were assembled on Chevrolet bodies with Chevy engines, but this isn’t a Canadian blog.) The bad days came in the early ’80s, when the Bonneville name was for some reason moved from GM’s full-size platform (shared with the Caprice) to its (poorly designed) mid-sized platform, and Pontiac rolled out its Parisienne (what it called the Bonneville in Canada), which was a Chevy Caprice with Pontiac logos. That flopped (among other things, the fender skirts of the Bonneville disappeared), so GM hastily used the previous-iteration sheetmetal, with fender skirts, for the new! Parisienne.

There was also the sad story of the Fiero, an underpowered two-seat fiberglass-bodied car that GM got around to fixing by adding a V-6. Of course, as soon as it became a good car, GM killed it.

Olds was known for its Rocket V-8 from 1949 onward, and Olds came out with the first full-size front-drive car, the 1966 Toronado. Olds to me will be known forever for the Vista Cruiser (which was initially shared with Buick) and its motor coach-style roof windows.

Later Olds tried to distinguish itself as being an international-like car, emphasizing handling. It worked well enough that the Cutlass was 1976’s best selling U.S. car. That’s not such a weird idea (Pontiac did the same with the 1973–75 Grand Am), but it failed in large part because mid-sized Oldsmobiles were the approximate size of the biggest European cars, and in those days Americans weren’t all that accepting of four- and six-cylinder engines (which were not nearly as sophisticated in design as Euro fours and sixes) when they could have a V-8.

People were crazy about a Mercury in the early ’50s. And Mercury later brought car-buyers one of the most underrated model names, the Turnpike Cruiser. (As for the aforementioned Marquis, an annual running joke in Car & Driver magazine was the magazine’s regret in each new-car issue that the Marquis was not offered with a de Sade option.) If I had the money, it might be fun to own the space-age named Marauder X-100 of 1969 or 1970:

This might be the ultimate post-tailfins large car, even if it is yet another answer in search of a question. Hidden headlights? Check. Fender skirts? Check. Available in a convertible? Check. (But not a sedan or station wagon.) Behemoth V-8? Of course. But it also had bucket seats and a floor-shifted automatic.

Ford did as little as possible to distinguish the Ford brand from Mercury in my lifetime. (Perhaps because in all but the smallest markets, Mercurys and Lincolns were sold by the same dealership and cobranded as Lincoln–Mercury.) Mercury had nearly everything Ford did, just a bit fancier — the Bobcat to the Pinto, the late ’60s Cougar to the Mustang, the early ’70s Cougar to the Torino, the Comet to the Maverick, the Monarch to the Granada, the Montego to the Gran Torino, the late ’70s Cougar to the LTD II, the late ’70s Cougar XR-7 to the Thunderbird, the late ’70s Capri to the late ’70s Mustang, the Marquis to the LTD, and the Grand Marquis to the Crown Victoria.

Plymouth had the same problem; it was difficult to distinguish Plymouth Valiants from Dodge Darts, or Volarés from  Aspens, or Satellites from Polaras, or Furys (Furies?) from Monacos, or Gran Furys (Furies?) from Royal Monacos. In the case of one late 1970s Madison police car, it was impossible for assembly line workers to distinguish the two; one side had the markings of a Volaré, while the other side was marked as an Aspen.

Mercury did a couple things differently. Mercury imported the early ’70s Capri from Europe, and slapped a Mercury logo on a late ’80s Australian Ford Capri convertible. Lincoln–Mercury dealers also sold de Tomaso Panteras, as close to a Corvette as Ford’s ever gotten.

Pontiac, Olds and Mercury all died for essentially the same reason: GM and Ford, respectively, failed to differentiate them from, in Pontiac’s case, Chevrolet and Olds, in Olds’ case, Pontiac and Buick; and in Mercury’s case, the F0rd brand. Particularly in the early ’80s, other than possibly styling, there was no real reason to buy a Pontiac over any other GM brand. Olds died in 2004, and GM killed Pontiac largely to convince Congress it was deserving of a bailout. (GM wasn’t.)


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