Pontiac Falls From Muscle Car Glory to Graveyard
By NICK BUNKLEY
DETROIT — Pontiac, the brand that invented the muscle car under its flamboyant engineer John Z. DeLorean, helped Burt Reynolds elude Sheriff Justice in “Smokey and the Bandit” and taught baby boomers to salivate over horsepower, but produced mostly forgettable cars for their children, will endure a lonely death on Sunday after about 40 million in sales.
It was 84 years old. The cause of death was in dispute. Fans said Pontiac’s wounds were self-inflicted, while General Motors blamed a terminal illness contracted during last year’s bankruptcy. Pontiac built its last car nearly a year ago, but the official end was set for Oct. 31, when G.M.’s agreements with Pontiac dealers expire.
“They were C.P.R.-ing a corpse for a long time,” said Larry Kummer, a retired graphic artist who has owned more than two dozen Pontiacs and runs the Web site PontiacRegistry.com.
The G.M. brand that was advertised for “driving excitement,” Pontiac brought Americans the Bonneville, GTO, Firebird and other venerable nameplates. Sportier than a Chevrolet but less uppity than an Oldsmobile or Buick, the best Pontiacs, recognizable by their split grille and red arrowhead emblem in the middle, were stylish yet affordable cars with big, macho engines.
Its biggest triumph was the GTO, developed by Mr. DeLorean, the brand’s rebellious chief engineer, in violation of a G.M. policy dictating the maximum size of a car’s engine. The GTO was a hit, and the age of the muscle car had begun.
“When the muscle-car era was in its heyday, Pontiac was king,” said Frederick Perrine, a dealer in Cranbury, N.J., whose family sold Pontiacs since the brand’s founding. “It put us through school. We were the house on the block that had the swimming pool growing up.”
Ed Dieffenbach, a retired police officer, recalls admiring Pontiacs in magazines as a boy but he never bought one. But with the brand nearing death, he drove 1,300 miles last week from his home near Miami to the Lee Pontiac GMC dealership in Florida’s panhandle to trade in his Chevrolet Silverado truck for one of the last new Solstice two-seater coupes available anywhere in the country.
“I always wanted a hot rod, but never got around to it, so this is it,” Mr. Dieffenbach, 62, said after getting his new car home. “My wife sat in it last night and said, ‘Oh my Lord, wow.’ ”
But in the decades since, Pontiac’s edge and high-powered image wore off. Repeated efforts in the 1990s and 2000s to revive the brand failed. Drivers too young to remember the GTO came to associate Pontiac with models like the DustBuster-shaped Trans Sport minivan or the Aztek, a bloated-looking crossover widely regarded as one of the ugliest vehicles of all time.
By early 2009, Pontiac had fallen to 12th place in the United States market, and its top-selling model was the G6, a sedan commonly found on car-rental lots.
Pontiac, named for the Michigan city where the company started and an 18th-century Ottawa Indian chief, found itself on the wrong end of G.M.’s government-aided bankruptcy restructuring.
“They had a lot of glory years, but from the ’70s on, Pontiac just couldn’t meet the bar,” Mr. Kummer said. “It was always living in the past.”
For the most part, Pontiac’s final months generated no more excitement than its last few decades did. G.M. said dealers had fewer than 125 new Pontiacs in stock at the end of August, mostly heavily discounted G6’s, but only eight of them were reported sold in September.
“You hate to see them go, but they were floundering and couldn’t find their place in the market,” said Tim Dye, who owns 21 Pontiacs from various eras and a huge collection of Pontiac memorabilia — started with a bottle of GTO cologne from his uncle — that he had assembled over more than 30 years.
Mr. Dye’s home in Oklahoma, along with two buildings on his property, are filled with thousands of items from Pontiac’s past, including showroom brochures, advertising posters, model cars, pencils, ashtrays and matchbooks. Now that Pontiac is gone, Mr. Dye plans to turn his collection into a museum in Pontiac, Ill., a city on Route 66.
“I can’t think of anything better to do than just visit with people about Pontiac every day,” he said.
The Pontiac Motor Division was born at G.M. in 1926 as a single model under the Oakland brand, but its roots date to the 1890s, when horse-drawn carriage-making was a big industry in Pontiac, 25 miles northwest of Detroit. The Pontiac Spring and Wagon Works started building automobiles in 1907, before merging with the nearby Oakland Motor Car Company, which was then bought by G.M. in 1909.
G.M.’s first Pontiac was an $825 model known as the “Chief of the Sixes” for its 6-cylinder engine. It sold so well that G.M. shut down Oakland to focus on Pontiacs.
Pontiac became known as a conservative brand, building stodgy cars for grandmothers, until its general manager in the late 1950s, Semon Knudsen, sought a hipper image and much younger buyer. Mr. Knudsen, the son of a former G.M. president and a fan of auto racing, unveiled Pontiac’s “wide-track” design, which improved the cars’ handling by pushing the wheels five inches farther apart.
Mr. Knudsen, known as Bunkie, was once quoted describing wide-track Pontiacs as resembling “a football player wearing ballet slippers.” The style was distinctive, and Pontiac’s frequent wins on the racetrack in that era helped sales soar.
No innovation did as much for Pontiac’s high-performance image as the GTO, whose glory days were from 1964 to 1974. The original GTO’s 389 cubic-inch engine was larger than G.M. allowed in a car of that size, but Pontiac executives got around that rule by offering it as an upgrade package to an existing model, the Tempest, and no one at the corporate level was aware of the option before it went into production and dealers began clamoring for more.
“We got 5,000 of them out into the marketplace before we got around to telling the corporation what we were doing,” said Jim Wangers, a Pontiac advertising executive at the time who worked with Mr. DeLorean to create the GTO, short for Gran Turismo Omologato.
Mr. Wangers, who was born the same year as Pontiac and never thought he would outlive it, recalls the time that the German luxury carmaker BMW sent a team of engineers, designers and marketers to meet with Mr. DeLorean’s team and study how the brand did so well.
But Pontiac sales peaked in 1973, when 920,000 were sold, and the ride was mostly downhilll after that. Pontiac fans lament that the brand finally got a few worthy models in its final years — the G8 full-size sedan and the Solstice sports car — but by then it was too far gone.
Gary Lee Jr., an owner of the dealership that sold Mr. Dieffenbach his Solstice this week, remembers the sadness of losing Oldsmobile when G.M. killed that brand in 2004. But with Pontiac, he has just been eager to move on. Signs for Pontiac at his dealership had long been removed, and he said, thankfully, he had no more new Pontiacs to unload.“It was a great line,” Mr. Lee said, “while it lasted.”
Pontiac Falls From Muscle Car Glory to Graveyard - NYTimes.com