Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Chief Retires: GM Discontinuing Pontiac Brand




On April 27th 2009, an official announcement was made by General Motor's CEO Fritz Henderson that the Pontiac name is going to be stricken from General Motors' brand lineup. While hints of the arrowhead brand's demise has been hinted at long before the current state of disarray for the once world leading auto company, the GM's dire restructuring has marked the decisive end of Pontiac following the 2010 calendar year. Beyond the loss of one storied brand, the fate of 2,800 Pontiac dealerships in the United States along with their employees are likely to become casualties of some 2,600 dealership closures announced in the same press conference. Famous for its Wide Track car campaign, Pontiac is an unfortunate casualty caused as American influence in the automotive market is not as conquering as it was fifty years ago.

Formulated in 1926 as a companion car under a defunct GM brand called Oakland, the name Pontiac contacts to an aboriginal chief will attempted to inspire a rise against British during the 18th century. In a short one year period after the brand's introduction, Pontiac asserted itself as one of the top six selling automobiles in 1927. For the most part, Pontiac will be remembered as a 'me too' car make with many products relating to Chevrolets to the point to they are almost unidentifiable between each other. Though the differences between to two divisions were less pronounced in recent years, Pontiac cars were originally styled as a more luxury trimmed models compared to the Chevrolets. In the early 1950s, Pontiacs were identified by more generous chrome trim and by a healthier set of available features. What could be surprising to some Bowtie fans, to buy an eight cylinder engined car in 1954 you would have to skip the Chevrolet dealership and go directly to Pontiac. As an alarming trend when considering the standardization of recent automakers, Pontiac maintained their own distinct engine designs until the 1970s. However, as Chevrolets are soon blessed with the small block V8, Pontiac would lose much of its reputation for upscale performance. However, a young Pontiac engineer turned division manager made sure that Pontiac remains uncompromised. In a short four year tenure, John Delorean uniquely marketiing Pontiac's performance potential to the younger crowd through three nameplates, GTO, Firebird, and Grand Prix.

As is the case with many long enduring automakers, Pontiac had the fortune of living through one what is revered as the greatest period in American motoring called the muscle car era. In fact, Pontiac is praised as giving birth to the historic time when in 1964 the company paired their mid-sized Tempest coupe with a 348 horsepower, 389 cubic inch V8 engine. The end result became the Pontiac GTO and would untap a baby boomer culture seeking factory built hot rods. Armed with their powerful V8s, the Pontiac GTO (earning the nickname 'Goat') immediate rose as a force in in competitive drag racing, both legitimate and illegitimate. Single year sales peaked at 95,946 units in 1966 with later models selling over 40,000 until the end of 1970 model year.


Amongst the most prized are the GTO Judge produced in limited numbers from 1969 to 1971 sporting Ram Air induction and an unique rear spoiler. Fitting for having started the era of tall American horsepower plateau, the seizing of Pontiac GTO's production corresponded with the end of the muscle car era as government emissions requirements ended the party. Striding to capitalize on the retro-themed performance cars in 2004, Pontiac attempted to recapture the GTO magic with an Australian-sourced V8 coupe. In spite of some impressive V8 power, the car sadly went largely uncelebrated and even despised by some pure GTO enthusiasts.

Apart from the storied GTO, Pontiac would also begin building another famous performance car during the peak of their big bad Goat. Tickling out just shortly after the introduction of the Chevrolet Camaro, Pontiac countered with their own version of the pony car called the Firebird. For each year starting in 1969, the most prized Pontiac Firebirds were accompanied with the Trans Am moniker (acquired on lease from the competition series for pony car racing made popular in the late 60s). The Pontiac would go 35 years in continuous production, adapting to the big block horsepower of the late 1960s, through the emission system choked era of the 1970s, the import sports car invasion of the 1980s, up to a horsepower Renaissance in the 1990s. The decision to discontinue the pony car can be debated as a lost opportunity following the sales of the revisited Ford Mustang. While Chevrolet returns with the Camaro in the 2010 model year, the Firebird's resurrection was never formally declared.

The dynamo of the Pontiac lineup, the Grand Prix was introduced in 1962 as a personal luxury car with a sporty twist. In 1988, the Grand Prix graduated to the mainstream mid-sized vehicle with styling which reflected a late 1980s design philosophy. Along with being important to the balance of Pontiac during the 1980s up to the turn of the century, the Pontiac Grand Prix was also significant in stock car racing. In NASCAR, the Pontiac Grand Prix recorded some memorable victories including Richard Petty's 200th Cup series, the 1989 championship run with Rusty Wallace, and a final victory in 2003 with Ricky Craven's aggressive fender scraping fight to the finish of at Darlington Raceway.

With the Chevrolet Corvette emerged as the halo car of General Motors, Pontiac's John DeLorean wanted the same chance to stand tall with their own sports car in 1964 called the Banshee (a name which would be recorded on no few than four Pontiac concept cars without ever making production). DeLorean's wishes were vetoed by GM's top brass out of fears of depleting the Chevrolet Corvette's image. It would not be until 1984 (long after John Delorean initial calls) when Pontiac received the blessing for a two-seat performance sports car of their own. Borrowing the Fiero name from a two-seat coupe Pontiac had sold from 1926 until 1938, the fiberglass bodied sports car was famously remembered for its mid-engined configuration and wedged profile. Unlike previous Pontiac proposals for a two-seat sports car, the Fiero was honed as a fuel efficient sport vehicle with only a 92 horsepower four-cylinder engine available in the first year. A V6 was added later but conspiracies were already constructed that GM was afraid to allow more powerful production engines into the Pontiac Fiero because they feared that the Fiero would develop a superior power to weight advantage over the Corvette. After a series of design and mechanical improvements in a four year span, the Pontiac Fiero was discontinued in 1988 leaving many Pontiac performance fans unfulfilled. To this day, a number of tuners have taken it amongst themselves using considerable forced air induction and even V8 transplants to realize what might have been for the Fiero.

Much in a similar manner to John DeLorean's personal reputation tarnishing after a failed automotive venture which created a handful of DMC-12s, the magic that once drove Pontiac through quarter-mile competitions eventually faded to just a glimmer by the time the 21st century dawned. Stepping away from cars and entering the expanding crossover vehicle market would prove as the most public embarrassment of the image-minded division. Debuting 2001, the Pontiac Aztec featured an exterior design which pleased few in the automotive styling community and would be recognized in Time magazine as 'one of the worst cars of all time'. An excessive use of Pontiac's notorious second colour tone body cladding lasted only one year changing to body colour in 2002. However, while Pontiac received a firestorm of criticism and ridicule for the Aztec, the sales of the crossover vehicle were fairly brisk with at least 125,000 made public back by a high rate of customer satisfaction. Replaced with the more conventionally designed Pontiac Torrent after 2005, the Aztec joined the GTO as perceived new product failures.

Attempting to capture this past glory, the brand's history was forfeited long-serving nameplates Bonneville after 48 years of usage in 2005 and the Grand Prix moniker in 2008. Replaced with cars given less emotional designations of G6 and G8, Pontiac did spare a name for an all-new personal sports car in 2006. Finally building the uncorrupted sports car with up to 260 horsepower eith the turbocharged GXP, the two seat Pontiac Solstice could be celebrated as a hard-fought victory long seeking a performance statement.

Similar to the historic efforts of the chief who inspired the brand, Pontiac fought bravely against the primary brands of all major automakers. Leaving a totem pole of automobiles worth remembering, the vehicles remaining for sale in 2010 will be the final addition to the soon to be lost tribe. However, it is important to accept that though the emotional connection Pontiac vehicles developed were the transcendence of every person will has and continues to work for Pontiac in management, on the assembly line, as well as in the dealership. Many of them were still planning an upcoming Pontiac G8 Sport Truck until the program's scrubbing in January. Pontiac represents a livelihood to those individuals which will require their own reconstruction plans. What remains clear to all of us as the brand reaches the end of the road in 2010, the final Pontiacs will mark an end of its 84-year journey with the grace that only its Wide Track profile can provide.

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