They built excitement (sort of, once in a while)

Previously on this blog I wrote about the four brands — Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Mercury and Plymouth — killed during this century by General Motors, Ford and Chrysler.

Of those four, the brand with the most personal experience with me is Pontiac. In rough order: My aunt once owned a 1969 LeMans, there were two gold 1970 Catalina wagons on our street during the 1970s, and a couple of times I rode in a classmate’s family’s 1974 lime green Grand Ville convertible.

And we’ve owned two, both Sunbirds. The second of the Birds was probably the most fun car we’ve ever owned. It was a 1992 SE coupe, black, with the V-6 and five-speed. It accelerated quickly (though with the second worst torque steer of any car I’ve driven), and paradoxically the faster we drove it, the better the gas mileage. (Mrs. Presteblog had a 90-mile one-way trip every day when she volunteered in the Atlanta Olympics. At an average 75 mph, she got 33 mpg.) It was, however, a car not for the tall, either in getting in and out or in sitting behind the driver’s seat.

I’ve liked Pontiacs because they built cars that were sportier — better performance and handling — than you’d expect in that kind of car. Everyone knows about the Firebird (about which more shortly, and by the way many photos here are from Pontiacs Online) …

… and GTO (ditto) …

… but in the ’60s Pontiac had a car I would have loved to own, the Catalina 2+2, because nothing says full-size luxury …

… like bucket seats and a console. Many Pontiacs, including our last Sunbird, had a full set of gauges, as opposed to other comparable GM models and their idiot lights.

GM killed Pontiac, along with Hummer and Saturn, while getting its federal bailout. Oldsmobile died a few years earlier. That undid the dream of GM chairman Alfred Sloan, whose goal was to propel buyers up GM’s food chain — from Chevrolet to Pontiac to Olds to Buick to Cadillac — as buyers became more prosperous.

Truth be told, though, Pontiac really didn’t stand out beyond being a slightly fancier Chevrolet — for instance, Pontiac’s answer to Chevy’s Nomad, the Safari …

… until GM named Semon “Bunkie” Knudsen the Pontiac general manager, and Knudsen appointed assistant Olds engineer Elliott “Pete” Estes as Pontiac’s chief engineer and hired a former Packard engineer, John Z. DeLorean.

Knudsen hit on the concept of performance to distinguish Pontiac from GM’s other brands, even if “performance” was a sometimes illusory concept. Pontiac followed Chevrolet by introducing fuel injection to increase horsepower. (The old systems were very finicky, and like Chevrolet Pontiac discovered bigger engines made horsepower easier.) Knudsen liked stylists’ drawings of the 1959 models with the wheels farther out toward the sides of the car, and hence the “Wide Track” Pontiacs were born. (The wide track did lead to slightly better handling, if that was possible given the Stone Age tires every car of those days had.)

Estes replaced Knudsen, who went to Chevrolet, and DeLorean became Pontiac’s chief engineer. Before he replaced Estes as Pontiac GM (Estes followed Knudsen to Chevrolet), DeLorean created the rear-mounted transmission of the first Pontiac Tempest, the overhead-cam straight six of that era, and hidden windshield wipers. (Really.)

As Pontiac’s chief engineer and then GM, DeLorean and his marketing people brought the world the 1964 GTO. It wasn’t the first time that a small car had a big engine, but it was the first time for a factory vehicle. In this case, the second iteration of the Tempest got a 389 V-8 and various other performance parts, and a genre, the “muscle car,” was created. (Arguably, anyway. Others claim credit.)

DeLorean was nothing if not ambitious, not to mention willing to bend GM rules as far as he could. One of those rules required upper management approval for new models. To avoid that, the first GTO was an option package. DeLorean also was told to sell no more than 5,000 so the thing would go away. When sales topped 30,000, GM management couldn’t ignore money coming in the door.

Meanwhile, Chevrolet had the Corvette. DeLorean wanted one too. So he devised the Banshee, one of which had his overhead-cam six …

… the other of which had Pontiac’s 326 V-8:

And then he came up with another Banshee:

All three were spiked by GM management, for two reasons. The Corvette was finally making decent sales numbers, and management was obviously concerned about losing sales. The GM chairman at the time also felt that two-seat cars detracted from an image of safety. (Because, you know, metal car dashboards and cars without rear seat belts didn’t.)

Pontiac’s consolation prize, however, was its own version of GM’s new F-body car, the Mustang-fighter Chevy Camaro.

Meanwhile, Pontiac’s full-size offerings included the Grand Prix, whose hardtop version had a more formal roofline than the other big Pontiac two-doors. Buick had the beautiful Riviera, and Oldsmobile had the innovative Toronado, and the Grand Prix was neither of those. So Pontiac devised something new — a two-door based on a longer four-door midsize chassis, and thus was created …

… the new Grand Prix, a car that wasn’t mechanically innovative, but would you care if you got to drive one of those?

The new Grand Prix was a great finish to the ’60s, arguably Pontiac’s greatest decade. After your greatest decade, of course, things go downhill from there.

There were a few highlights, such as the 1973-75 Grand Am, an attempt at competing against European car makers, if that’s possible with a 400 V-8 …

… as well as its 1978-80 successor …

… the Firebird, iconic thanks to the TV series “The Rockford Files” …

… and the movie “Smokey and the Bandit” …

… the Pontiac Fiero, a two-seater that Pontiac killed just as it was getting good …

… the Solstice roadster …

… and the return of the GTO (actually an Australian Holden Monaro) from 2004 to 2006:

Those are the highlights. Mostly, though, Pontiac suffered because of problems that were GM’s problems, not just Pontiac’s. GM sent out into the world a series of cars for each of its four decisions that were to the untrained eye indistinguishable from each other, to wit:

  • Chevy Impala/Caprice, Pontiac Catalina/Bonneville, Olds Delta 88/98, Buick LeSabre/Electra.
  • Chevy Malibu/Monte Carlo, Pontiac LeMans/Grand Prix, Olds Cutlass/Cutlass Supreme, Buick Century/Regal.
  • Chevy Nova, then Citation, Pontiac Ventura, then Phoenix, Olds Omega, Buick Skylark.
  • Chevy Cavalier, Pontiac Sunbird/Sunfire, Olds Firenza, Buick Skyhawk.

P0ntiac also had the Astre to Chevy’s Vega and the original Sunbird to Chevy’s Monza. Pontiac even had a version of the Chevy Chevette; the T1000 was replaced by a Korean car to become the itty bitty LeMans, which was a terrible thing to do to the LeMans name.

And then came the Dustbusters. Pontiac proposed a minivan that would have stood out from any other van on the road …

… but instead got one of the Dustbusters (because it looked exactly like a rechargeable hand-operated vacuum cleaner of the time), as did Chevy (Lumina APV) and Olds (Silhouette, described in the movie “Get Shorty” as “the Cadillac of minivans”).

(Something I just noticed: The Dustbusters look quite similar to the 2000s Honda Odyssey. But there’s a huge difference: Honda has a reputation for great design and quality. GM did not, and as current owners of GM cars getting recalled for bad ignition switches would tell, should not.)

Pontiac did not have a pickup, at a time when pickups were GM’s most profitable vehicles. (This was probably less of an issue for Pontiac dealers, many of whom also sold GMCs.) The irony was that for a brand that claimed “We build excitement!”, other than the Firebird, Pontiac usually didn’t build excitement, unless you consider red instrument panel lights to be exciting.

Well, there was the Aztek, which was exciting if you consider retch-inducing ugliness to be exciting:

The Aztek supposedly was screwed up between concept …

… and actual execution. That’s a hard argument to make. Other than not having the awful gray plastic on the bottom, what’s better about the concept?

Pontiac also managed to confuse potential buyers through other ham-handed decisions. The Bonneville, arguably the best looking of the 1977 downsized B-bodies …

… suddenly became one of the less-well-done midsizes …

… until Pontiac discovered there was still demand for a big Pontiac. So Pontiac trotted out the Parisienne …

… which was absolutely indistinguishable from the same-year Chevy Caprice …

… which prompted Pontiac to redo the Parisienne to look like the previous big Bonneville.

(Side note: The Parisienne was the Bonneville in Canada. Pontiac had an odd history in Canada, with Canadian Pontiacs using Chevy bodies and engines. I have looked for why this was, and I can’t find an answer, other than possibly GM’s Canadian assembly plants, or some old quirk of Canadian law.)

Around this time, Pontiac trotted out the 6000 …

… which to many was indistinguishable from the next iteration of the Bonneville …

… though at least the Bonneville got better …

I know a few owners of the last Bonneville. It’s a nice car — better-than-decent performance with its almost bulletproof 3800 V-6 (or, after the demise of the Olds Aurora, a V-8), and well designed — except for its case of Tall-People-Should-Not-Drive-Front-Wheel-Drive-Cars Syndrome.

The last full-size Pontiac was the G8, based on the Holden Commodore:

The G8 passed away when Pontiac passed away in 2010. You might have thought that with Olds’ demise that Pontiac would have been able to bridge the gap between Chevy and Buick (which survived the brand purge because Buicks sell well in China, though no one can really explain why), but either Pontiac management made too many bad decisions, or Pontiac was too hamstrung by GM management to do more than they were able to do.

Which is too bad, because Pontiac served a niche at GM for owners who didn’t want a plain Chevrolet, but didn’t want a higher-priced Buick, or people who wanted the image of excitement in their car.

 

 

Advertisements

One thought on “They built excitement (sort of, once in a while)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s