Goodbye, Pontiac

The headlines that rolled across the newsphere last week told a sad story: General Motors’ Pontiac, which will be phased out by next year, was an enthusiast’s brand that ran out of juice. This year, as we head for 10 million annual new car sales — a 40% plunge from just two years ago — there is little room for an aged Pontiac.

While Pontiac launched thousands of cultural references — songs like Ronnie & The Daytonas “Little GTO” are still heard on oldies stations today, and late-era Boomers have fond recall of KITT, the Firebird Trans Am in the ’80s TV series, “Knight Rider” — the fiscal and managerial woes of GM forced it to the junkyard.

Brands “only play offense well. They don’t play defense well,” Fritz Henderson, president and chief executive of GM, said in announcing Pontiac’s demise on Monday. He said it with a cold finality that Pontiac didn’t deserve.

The storied brand, 83 years old, was shilled by Frank Sinatra, cartooned by famed artist Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, and managed in the ’60s by bon vivant and engineer John DeLorean, who was part of the team that developed the iconic GTO.

“The legend of Pontiac was born with the GTO,” said Jim Wangers, who is bound inextricably to Pontiac as the man who marketed the brand in the early to mid-’60s. “It came at the right time and in the right place, set up just so it could dominate the landscape.”

On the ropes in the mid-’50s, Pontiac was handed over to Bunkie Knudsen, son of GM President William Knudsen. Fix the brand or it will be killed, he was told.

Bunkie Knudsen decided that Pontiac would take on a new look and a new image, that of power. He borrowed the V8 engine from GM mate Chevrolet and widened the Pontiac wheelbase for the Catalina, formerly a timid family car. Then he approached a new racing operation in North Carolina, called NASCAR. Would they allow a Pontiac onto the track, he asked. In 1961, the Catalina won the Daytona 500. Pontiac was on the map of motorheads, who were realizing the inner beauty of Pontiac’s power by doing their own power-amping out of garages everywhere.

GM honchos, though, were catching heat for Pontiac’s speedy reputation and in January 1963 ordered a halt of all Pontiac racing activities.  

But one afternoon shortly after the edict, DeLorean and two other engineers, Bill Collins and Russell Gee, got together with another idea. Why not put a massive engine in one of the new models and sell it to the public?

“The saying was still, ‘what won on Sunday would sell on Monday,’ ” Collins said. “We were originally just making a car to win NASCAR.”

The trio hatched the GTO, a supersize me performance car that invigorated the inner speed racer everywhere. It placed Pontiac into the annals of street rod history — now sandlot racing rather than big track affairs — and launched an entire segment, known soon as “muscle cars.”

All of a sudden, Pontiacs were for cool kids and drag races. Sales jumped and its reputation soared.

“They built those cars with the big engines. I think they made 5,000 of them, and when the dealers got them, they went out of their minds,” Wangers recalled. “Consumers could not believe that we were building a car like this.”

The GTO went from 0 to 60 miles per hour in 4.6 seconds, a blazing speed for the era.  It was a Charles Atlas on wheels and coveted by an entire generation of greasers and gear heads. The GTO was joined by the Firebird and the Grand Prix to form a triumvirate of American performance that would set the pace for years to come.

In 30 days, Wangers said, there were orders for 15,000 more, then 20,000. Ford developed the Mustang, Plymouth the Barracuda and Chevy came about with the Camaro.

Pontiac continued its muscle onslaught with the Grand Am and The Trans Am into the ’70s. The cultural references were non-stop; Burt Reynolds drove a Trans Am in 1977’s Smokey and the Bandit movie (photo), while the LeMans was used prominently in the 1971 flick French Connection (photo).

It was GM’s heyday and by 1984, Pontiac sold its best: 850,000 cars.

“Pontiac managed to keep its brand alive for all those years through making good cars, and that allowed for recognition like it got in those movies and TV shows,” said Todd Turner, analyst at consulting firm Car Concepts.

The brand faltered badly as the years passed, though, and a confluence of poor product decisions, stricter environmental and safety laws, and strong competition did a number on Pontiac.

Over the past six years, Pontiac has seen its sales drop by almost 50 percent, from 516,832 in 2003 to 267,348 last year, according to Car Concepts numbers.

By 2007, nearly half of Pontiac sales were for fleet, such as car rentals and municipalities, which pay about 50% of cost. This compared to 35% of other domestic brands. Pontiac was on life support before Monday’s announcement pronounced it terminal. Perhaps, though, the death knell is for more than just Pontiac.

“I’m not sure what happened to Pontiac,” said Bill Hoglund, who was general manager of Pontiac in the early 80s. “Maybe what turns people on is not what we had when Pontiac did so well. Today’s excitement is apparently not about Pontiac.”

Turner, of Car Concepts, was more dire: “With the loss of Pontiac, the question that remains is did we lose a piece of history, or does General Motors even have a future?”