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June 21, 2009

Pontiac: A Qualified Lament

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I recently wrote about General Motors' Saturn brand, which appeared to be on its way to oblivion. Since then, ex sports car racer turned billionaire Roger Penske has begun negotiations to take over the brand name as the keystone for the strategy of creating a "virtual" automobile company. From what I've read, the concept is to market cars built by actual -- not virtual -- manufacturers and badge and sell them in the USA under the Saturn banner. This is a step beyond the 1920s practice of creating "assembled" cars whereby a company would buy most of a car's bits from companies specializing in chassis, motors, bodies, etc., and then assemble them at a factory, selling the result with the company's brand name(s). Examples are Moon and Jordan.

Another GM brand on the extinction list is Pontiac, and all evidence to date suggests that it will go the way of its departed sister Oldsmobile, presumably at the end of the 2010 model year. The Wikipedia history of Pontiac is here

I confess to having a soft spot in my heart for the Pontiac brand. That's because my family has had three or four of them (depending how one counts -- see below). The first family car I remember was our 1941 Pontiac that I wrote about here. My father bought a 1951 Pontiac the day they were introduced and I bought a 1995 model. Truth is, that '95 wasn't my first choice. But I was getting a supplier discount on GM cars at the time because they were buying my data. As a result I could get more car for the money by buying GM -- which I did on three occasions (the other cars were a 1990 Chevrolet and a 1996 Oldsmobile).

Here are photos of examples of Pontiacs from those model years, the '96 shown being nearly identical to the one I owned.


1951 Catalina -- we had a sedan.

1995 Grand Am

The first Pontiacs appeared in 1926, the make being a "companion" brand to GM's Oakland line. My grandfather bought a used Oakland of 1920 vintage, so I suppose that might count as the fourth "Pontiac" my family owned. Oakland was named after a county abutting Detroit's northern boundary and Pontiac is its county seat. Since the city of Pontiac was named after an Indian chief, the cars were given Indian symbology (a chief's head hood ornament, for instance, and one model was dubbed "Chieftain"). All this was dropped in the late 1950s (before political correctness took hold, though for what it's worth I remain puzzled why it is shameful to honor ethnic groups by naming cars and sports teams after them). In the case of Pontiac, the brand was given a big makeover during those years, and the Indian connection didn't fit the performance image management desired to create.

The Great Depression saw the end of weak car makers and the tightening up of operations for the survivors. General Motors had four companion brands -- most newly launched before the Crash: Oakland's Pontiac, Oldsmobile's Viking, Buick's Marquette and Cadillac's LaSalle. The Viking and Marquette were killed quickly along with Oakland (in 1931) which had proved less viable than Pontiac; the LaSalle continued through the 1940 model year.

Thus, by the mid-1930s GM had a range of car makes representing a price/prestige ladder with some price overlap allowed. Omitting LaSalle which served as an entry-level Cadillac, GM's line from bottom to top was: Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick and Cadillac. The concept, which I consider brilliant, was that buyers could work their way up or down the spectrum depending on their ability to pay and perhaps their desire to impress friends and neighbors. For instance, X dollars could buy one a top of the line 6-cylinder Chevrolet or else an entry-level Pontiac six. X plus N dollars meant one could afford a "straight-eight" (cylinder) Pontiac or a cheap Olds. And so on. Therefore, if your neighbor pulled a brand-new mid-range Buick (the Super line) straight 8 onto his driveway and what you owned was a lousy Oldsmobile 88, you, your wife and most certainly all the teenage boys in the neighborhood knew pretty much where you stood economically. This, even though your hot V-8 Olds could easily whip that Buick Super in a drag race.

This marketing nirvana began to break down in the 1960s pressured by growing sales of small foreign-made cars such as Volkswagen and the compact-sized U.S.-made Rambler. GM, Ford and Chrysler added smaller sized cars into their lineups. By 1963, for instance, one could buy a standard size Chevrolet, a compact Chevrolet (the Chevy II) or the small Chevrolet Corvair. Pontiac, Oldsmobile and Buick lines included "compacts" along with standard sized models. Eventually, most American brands included cars from a variety of "platforms" -- standard, compact, minivan, SUV and so on. The result was a drastic weakening of Alfred P. Sloan's price ladder concept and a parallel weakening of brand images.

Truth is, Pontiac didn't have much of a brand image before 1960 other than its place on the GM continuum. In the late 40s, one of its advertising slogans was something like "the 100,000 mile car," implying what in those days passed for great reliability. There were other slogans, but Pontiacs were basically dull cars that served as stepping stones between low-priced Chevrolets and the technologically experimental and, by the early 50s, hot performing Oldsmobiles. Whereas Olds got its "Rocket" V-8 motor in 1949, Pontiac had to make do with an obsolescent straight-8 through the 1954 model year. (A straight-8 had eight cylinders in line, making for a long motor that required an impressively long hood. This was a big deal in the 1920s and 30s and expensive makes such as Buick and Packard boasted of them. But the V-8 was the road to really high performance, and the crop of new V-8s introduced around 1950 by Chrysler, Cadillac, Olds and Studebaker killed off the American straight-8 motor -- the last of which were built during the 1954 model year.)

At the end of the 1950s Pontiac management got rid of the famous "Silver Streak" styling cue and extended the axle lines so that the outside edges of the tires were nearly at the sides of the car, a feature touted as "Wide-track" and is found on virtually all cars today. In 1963 its new Grand Prix model was given a significant restyling. It had clean (for that era), yet distinctive lines that made it a gotta-have car. Then came Pontiac's version of the "muscle car," the GTO, based on a compact platform. This was followed by the Firebird that appeared in 1967 model year. It went through several design iterations before disappearing after the 2002 model year. These cars led to Pontiac's long-used slogan about "building excitement."

In recent years, Pontiacs have not been very exciting. True, a hot Australian Holden was tricked out with left-hand drive and Pontiac trim and called "GTO" but most potential buyers never believed that it was a real "Goat" and sales were weak. The Aztek crossover SUV was oddly styled and became a laughingstock and sales flop. The current G6 and G8 models, whatever their other virtues, are poorly styled (see below). Its Solstice sports car is a niche model that failed to influence sales of the rest of the Pontiac line.

So Pontiac began life as a sort of nothing brand that owed its existence to its place in a price hierarchy. Then it had ten or 15 years of truly distinctive glory followed by 35 years of living off that glory while it became once more a nondescript car of no special appeal.

The Pontiac brand has been around for about 70 model years (there were no 1943-45 models due to the war), and I can't illustrate all the interesting examples here. But below are a few to supplement the Pittenger family ones shown above.

Pontiac's "Silver Streak" styling cue first appeared on 1935 models and continued through 1958. This ad is from 1935. Silver Streaks can be seen on the '41 and '51 Pontiacs pictured above.

This advertisement is for the gorgeous new 1963 Grand Prix. The art was by the fabled team of Van Kaufman (backgrounds) and Art Fitzpatrick (cars). I wrote about the latter in this posting. The setting is Paris, with the car on the Alexandre III bridge and the Grand Palais in the background. The cars shown are slightly distorted, a common practice in advertising, though that distortion was less evident for a reader holding a magazine at reading distance than it is viewed small, on a computer screen. In 1963 car styling was trending towards simpler lines and surfaces following the baroque tail fin era of the late 1950s. The Grand Prix was part of that trend, but nevertheless stood out. Partly this was due to the clean yet, at the time, subtle treatment of the side panels. Much of the rest had to do with the crisp folds at the fender tops and the scooped rear window ("backlight" in stylist jargon).

A first-series Firebird muscle car, this from 1969. Firebirds were generally nicely styled and the main reason why Pontiac could get away with the "excitement" claim in its advertising for so long.

The current G6 model is a styling failure, in my opinion. Actually, there's nothing much wrong with it from a professional design standpoint aside from the awkward rear door window treatment -- that odd pinch at the rear was a mistake. The car is clean looking, something design purists have extolled for decades. But that clean look is the big problem. A successfully styled car has to whisper, nay, shout "Buy me!" The G6 just sits there hoping to be inducted into The Museum of Pure Modernist Forms. Compare the G6 to the '63 Grand Prix. Which one, given the context of its time, turns your head and opens your checkbook?

This 2009 G8 model is a V-8 based on an Australian Holden. It's not as bland as the G6, but it doesn't strongly announce that it's a real performance car either. Not in the USA anyway. GM was struggling to keep costs in line long before its collapse and the ideal or making use of an existing Holden model made economic sense. Unfortunately, the only place true American performance cars should be developed is -- guess where? -- the USA.



posted by Donald at June 21, 2009


I always wonder. I'm grew up without driving (very big city) so I never felt the allure of the muscle car. What is it you guys like about these cars so much? Is it a symbol of masculinity? I know you get a lot of snooty people sneering at car-love, I'm not sneering, I'm just curious.

Posted by: SFG on June 21, 2009 12:40 PM

SFG -- I have no answer, though Lord knows there have been all sorts of theories about car-love. They tend to be grounded in politics and pop psychology, mostly -- neither source giving me much confidence in the resulting explanation.

For what it's worth, as they say, here is my own situation. According to what my parents used to tell me, even when I was a couple of years old, I enjoyed watching cars pass by from our living room window. Apparently, I could distinguish convertibles from sedans. I vaguely remember calling them "California cars," a term my father probably used -- at that age I couldn't have had any idea as to what "California" was.

So in my case, it's hard to claim my interest in cars stemmed from the masculine domination of the prevailing political system or that it had to do with a subconscious need to emulate mounted knights of the Middle Ages. Perhaps it was actually genetic (tee hee).

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on June 21, 2009 1:11 PM

That 1951 Catalina was a beautiful car. I don't think Pontiac ever made a prettier model. I can't really say I'm going to miss the Ponticacs on the road these days. They are pretty dreadful looking in my opinion.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on June 21, 2009 5:16 PM

I actually think that the Australian version of the "Pontiac" is actually better styled than the U.S. Version. I got to see the U.S. model when it was in the prototype stage as they were driving it about near the area where I live. My companions and I all thought that the Aus model was the better looker.

Here is a link to images of the stock standard local model.

Posted by: slumlord on June 22, 2009 5:40 AM

SFG: why is one woman more beautiful to one man than another? Why do some people like sunsets and others like sunrises? For me, a muscle car is a visceral feel. You turn the key and are rocked by the sheer power of the engine in front of you...before you even step on the gas.

As to Pontiac: always was a fan...glad to see them go. Also need to get rid of Cadillac, Chevrolet, Buick, Saab and GMC. They all make pretty much the same cars with slightly different packaging and different emblems. All of that unnecessary branding just introduces too much overhead. One brand, one set of models & fewer dealerships means lower costs. Lower costs means you might actually be able to make a profit again. It's really not that difficult.

Posted by: Upstate Guy on June 22, 2009 1:02 PM

Back in the late 1980's I bought my one and only Pontiac. It was a 2-door LeMans, probably close to ten years old but in very good condition and with remarkably low mileage. It ran fine, but within six months it also began to rust ... and just kept on rusting. I had to get rid of it soon afterwards. To this day I cannot imagine how a car could remain in good shape for ten years and then turn into a rustbucket almost overnight. It wasn't because the car had been in a different climate, because some old parking-permit stickers on a side window made it clear that the car had been in the same city as me for at least three or four years.

Posted by: Peter on June 22, 2009 3:07 PM

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