Pontiac, which GM announced yesterday is to share Oldsmobile's fate and be phased out by next year, was created by GM and launched in model year 1926. (The companies launched by David Buick and Ransom Olds predated the formation of GM in 1908.) Priced at $825, the first Pontiac was "green-lighted" by Alfred Sloan, legendary founder of the modern GM, to close a gap between GM's pricey $950 Olds sedan and $645 Chevrolet sedan.
The name derived from the Pontiac Spring & Wagon Works, formed in 1906 and honouring Chief Pontiac, an American Indian chief who led an unsuccessful revolt against the British soon after the French and Indian War. Pontiac merged with the Oakland Motor Co., acquired by GM in 1909. Intended as an affordable six-cylinder to compete with four-cylinder cars, Pontiac soon was so outselling Oakland that GM discontinued that brand in 1932.
An early ad for the first Pontiac, the six-cylinder 1926 "coach" shown at right, in the Saturday Evening Post.
While it was an underpowered model in its early years, the modern Pontiac of the second half of the 20th century was marketed as an "athletic" or performance alternative to its more prosaic Chevrolet stablemate. Sex figured more prominently in its ads, single young males being a target audience for such brand-making models as the GTO and Firebird.
Pontiac, like its Chev, Buick, Olds and Cadillac siblings, did not recover from GM's 1980s decision to share so much styling and components among its divisions that distinctions among them practically disappeared. Pontiac sales peaked in the year Saturday Night Fever was released. Last year, Pontiac claimed a pitiful U.S. market share of just 2.1 per cent.
GM resisted killing the brand. Putting Olds out of its misery had cost GM about $1 billion in payments to dealers and other expenses. As recently as its turnaround plan presented to the White House a few weeks ago, GM hoped to close Pontiac as a full-fledged division but retain it as a niche brand. Even that concession wasn't enough for President Obama's auto task force, which saw the ailing brand as a costly distraction in any shape or form - a view conceded by CEO Fritz Henderson on Monday in unveiling GM's latest "viability plan" in return for continued federal life support.
Below is an attempt to show how GM gradually destroyed the Pontiac brand with fatal design decisions.
The 1973 Firebird Trans Am, variously a "muscle car" or "lust car" in industry parlance, was a head-turning vehicle compared with its 2002 descendant, which could pass for a subcompact Pontiac Sunfire.
The 1969 Grand Prix helped define the new "personal luxury" segment of plush two-passenger coupes. By the early 1990s, GM had killed that category, and applied the Grand Prix name to a line of underpowered bloatmobiles that failed in their mission to subdue the ascendant Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.
The 1960 Bonneville boasted the arresting design befitting Pontiac's top-of-the-line offering. By 1970, the vehicle at right was easily mistaken for a Chev Impala, Olds Cutlass or Buick Regal - no surprise, since the vehicles shared platforms and bodies, with only minor detailing to distinguish them.
GM design genius Harley Earl's outrageous flair is evident in the taillight assembly of the 1957 Laurentian (sold in the U.S. as the Strato-Chief). Earl's fins and protruding rear lights were inspired by U.S. jet fighters of the era. As early as 1969, Pontiac's bread-and-butter full-size sedan was putting on too much weight and shedding curb appeal.
Three duds: The Aztec, which dealers tended to hide at the back of the lot, has joined the AMC Pacer and Gremlin, Ford Pinto and Chevrolet Vega among vehicles most cited on ugliest-ever-vehicle lists. The Fiero was a short-lived, mechanically-challenged shot at a muscle car for women. (1985 model shown.) The plain-as-a-plank Pontiac 6000 came as close to styling anonymity as any American vehicle has achieved. (1983 model shown.)
The Solstice spearheaded Pontiac's promising rebirth, incorporating the elements of quality fit and finish and daring looks that the Pontiac division at its best exemplified. Too bad Mazda got there first, with its Miata roadster, circa 1989.