End of the Line for Pontiac?

By J. Smith

04.25.2009

Since this story was posted, GM has sent us a link to a press conference scheduled for 9 AM EDT Monday, April 27. The link to live video of the press conference is available here starting at 9.

 

2001 Aztek GTPontiac, which began life as an offshoot of General Motors’ long-defunct Oakland line of cars, looks to be headed for a visit with fellow Detroiter Jack Kevorkian. According to as-yet unconfirmed reports from CNN. Although still billed as the “excitement” division of GM, recent decades have seen a slew of not-so-exciting products, many that were thinly veiled knock-offs of other GM offerings, from the Chevette-based T1000 to the Pontiac G3 Aveo clone, and others which were bizarrely undesirable like the Aztek.

Although an of-shoot of Oakland, Pontiac soon surpassed its parent, which was axed in the midst of the Great Depression. Pontiac now seems poised to become a victim of the Great Recession, although years of confusion and neglect have taken it to this point. Alfred Sloan’s five division structure for GM had Pontiac slated above Chevrolet and below Oldsmobile (RIP, 2004). For the decades following its birth, it was the Buick of its day, appealing to elderly and conservative buyers.

Under Bunkie Knudsen and John Z. DeLorean, Pontiac introduced high-performance “wide track” models beginning in the mid-to-late 1950s, shedding its geriatric image with models like the tri-power 1958 Bonneville, which sported three two-barrel carbs. It captured the hearts of baby boomers with what many consider to be he first true muscle car, the 1964 GTO, with “three deuces and a four speed, and a 389,” as phrased by Ronnie and the Daytonas. On the strength of attractive Coke-bottle styling and a performance image, it catapulted past Plymouth (RIP, 2001) to take third position in the US market, behind only Chevrolet and Ford.

Another notable Pontiac from the 1960s was the Tempest, a compact based on the Oldsmobile F-85. The Tempest featured a rear transaxle and a unique flexible “rope drive” driveshaft that eliminated the driveshaft hump bisecting most cars. It achieved a near 50-50 weight distribution and had four-wheel independent suspension, which was unique among American cars of the day. For power, it relied on a large (3.2 liters), slanted inline 4, which was simply a 389 V-8 cut in half. The Tempest became mid-sized in 1964, spawning the GTO.

In the 1970’s, as performance faded and American automakers moved to “personal luxury” vehicles, adding baroque elements like opera windows, plushly cushioned seats and ever-more ornate hood symbols, Pontiac fell behind other GM brands like Buick and Oldsmobile, but stubbornly clung to keeping the Firebird a genuine performance car through the mid-1970’s, until that too had no more scream than the stylized, chicken-like bird that adorned millions of Trans Am hoods.

Although it claimed “We build excitement” throughout the 1980s, it pumped out a plethora of Phoenix (nee Citation), Sunbirds (nee Cavalier), 6000s (nee Celebrity), Bonnevilles (nee Caprice) and other GM derivatives that were distinguished only by a split grille and packed notably unexciting “Iron Duke” inline fours and wheezy 2.8 liter V-6s. The only truly unique product Pontiac had at the time was the ill-fated Fiero, whose strong first-year sales literally went down in flames amidst numerous engine fires. Nonetheless, Pontiac regained the number three position in the US market in 1988, displacing a rapidly fading Oldsmobile line.

802e_12In the 1990s, Pontiac’s sales remained strong, mainly on the back of the success of the Grand Am. Although the Grand Am was and is derided for its superfluous body cladding, it was the most popular compact car for a decade. When GM tried to shed its downscale image with the G6, which was much better than the car it replaced, it alienated former Grand Am buyers but failed to score conquest sales, ending up as queen of the airport rental car lot.

In addition, the rise of the SUV and light trucks marked a shift away from Pontiac’s bread-and-butter sedans. Its attempt to get into the minivan market with the Montana was unsuccessful. But its try at the SUV market with the Aztek, GM’s first crossover vehicle, was truly disastrous. Outlandishly unattractive, the Aztek signaled not only Pontiac’s marketing confusion and ineptitude, but GM’s inability to gauge the market. Its repugnant styling, a cynical gesture to get “hip” Gen Xers into the Pontiac fold with “bold” styling utterly failed. Most telling, the Firebird, even with scorching performance, ended production in 2002.

2004 Pontiac GTOPontiac then revived the GTO nameplate with a captive-import Holden Monaro. Although it boasted hairy performance, styling was bland. A restyled Bonneville fell far short of the mark, and the Grand Prix bit the dust after the 2008 model year.

Pontiac added some genuine excitement with the G8, another rebadged Holden, this time a Commodore. Although the G8 has received rave reviews—Motor Trend called it “the best-performing, most well-balanced production Pontiac ever”—sales have been slow to say the least. The GXP reaches 60 mph in 4.5 seconds, at a low $39,900 base price and lesser models are also tastily quick, but it has found few buyers in a depressed market and with a parent on the verge of bankruptcy.

Another nice product is the Solstice, a beautifully styled two-seater that is very fast in turbocharged GXP form. The Solstice generated considerable traffic upon its release, but interest quickly waned. The low price translated into many cut-corners, and it doesn’t quite match the Mazda Miata for refinement, handling or all-out fun.

Pontiac rounded out its lineup with the G3, the G5 and the Torrent, all badge-engineered versions of Chevrolets. Lately, Pontiac has been matched up with Buick and GMC dealerships.

In 2008, Pontiac sold 267,348 vehicles. Needless to say, 2009 sales will be considerably lower, even if GM retains it. All in all, a sad state for a once proud brand of cars.

COPYRIGHT Autosavant – All Rights Reserved

Author: J.S. Smith

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3 Comments

  1. That white Grand Am looks exactly like the one my mom used to own in the late 1990s. We used to make and sell so many of those things in Lansing back in the day.

  2. I owned 5 Pontiacs, 2 bad, 3 ok. The 1977 Sunbird (nee Monza) had a very leaky transmission which was unfixable. A 1983 Sunbird was acceptable had no great vices. A 1984 Sunbird turbo suffered many $150 electrical failures, window regulators, wipers, turn signal arm failed twice, control for power mirrors failed twice, etc. A 1989 Grand Prix was acceptable – had some of the best seats which had inflatable air bladders for adjustments. And finally a 1998 Grand Prix which was acceptable. I also drove a 1963 Bonneville convertible with a 389 and three 2-barrel carbs – a very fast large car if you could afford the gas. I learned to drive in a 1964 Tempest with manual steering. Farewell Pontiac, you’ve brought us some memories and interesting vehicles.

  3. My first car was a 1987 Grand Am SE coupe with the 3.0 liter Buick V6. It was very underpowered at 125 horsepower. I traded that in after a few months on a 1988 Grand Am SE with a three-speed automatic and 150-horse Quad 4. Next was the same car, but a 1989. I drove a 1992 Grand Am GT during one summer of my high school days (my dad is a used car dealer), then had an Oldsmobile Achieva SC for a while. Then I had yet another Grand Am, this time a 1988 turbo model with the three speed automatic (the three-speed was NOT complementary to the turbo).

    None of them were bad cars. The turbo’s engine blew a huge hole in the side of the block, but the engine actually kept running after that (it was replaced by a junkyard engine). Head gaskets were always an issue with the Quad 4s, but none of my Grand Ams’ failed while in my ownership.

    My last Pontiac was a 1999 Grand Prix GTP with the supercharged 3.8 liter. While I had that Pontiac longer than the others (nearly five years), it also had the most problems. The engine and supercharger themselves were fine, but the so-called “bulletproof” 4T65 transmission kept experiencing worn out bearings, which required expensive rebuilds (two friends with GP GTs and the 4T60 experienced the same problem) and a power steering rack failure (one of those same friends had the same problem).

    I had considered getting a G8 GT last summer when I was car shopping, but my wife was so disgusted with the last Pontiac that she was pretty strongly against it. Plus, I wanted more creature comforts such as navigation, so I wound up with a CTS. In retrospect, I wish I had the larger back seat and superior performance of the G8 sometimes, but I can’t imagine what the resale value of a future orphan like that would be. Likely even worse than my employee-priced CTS’s would have been.

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