Grand Prix, GTO, Firebird, LeMans, Catalina 2+2, Bonneville. The names instantly evoke automotive excitement — provided you were an enthusiast between the ages of six and sixty during the sixties. For today’s pistonheads, these storied names; indeed, the entire Pontiac brand long lost its adrenal association long before it was euthanized. Bob Lutz’ attempts to inject some life into the once-storied excitement division all came to naught: GTO, Solstice and G8. He might as well have been mainlining meth into Pontiac, but decades of budget-priced, badge-engineered mediocrity had taken their toll. Pontiac’s fall from grace may not be the worst (best?) example of GM’s branding cataclysm, but it’s certainly one of the most emotive. Pass the Kleenex.
GM created Pontiac in 1926, naming it after a local Indian chief who led a failed rebellion against the British. The company’s first car was an inexpensive six-cylinder “companion” to GM’s more expensive Oakland brand. Ironically, Pontiac waxed while Oakland waned. The Depression undoubtedly played the role of killer, as it did to so many of the mid to expensive brands. Pontiac barely survived, and the fact that it did owes to the first use of cross-divisional sharing of manufacturing and bodies at GM. It was a prescient move that would eventually come to absorb all the GM divisions.
GM President Alfred P. Sloan, the “father of the modern corporation” spent his career shaping the delicate balance between once-independently run divisions into a coherent structure that still allowed creativity, initiative, and the divisions’ unique qualities to blossom. Pontiac was too close to Chevrolet and too small to survive the Depression, so for 1932, Pontiac’s manufacturing was combined with Chevrolet, saving enormous cost for tooling, engineering and production. It was the prototype for GM, and Pontiac spent the rest of its life trying to differentiate itself sufficiently from Chevrolet, despite their fundamental similarities.
The 1933 Pontiac enjoyed a handsome restyle, and a new straight-eight engine that would end up lasting until 1954. The “big car” look and the new engine helped Pontiac’s “Economy Straight Eight” revive the brand’s fortunes, and sales took a steady upwards trajectory. The 1935 Pontiacs were the beneficiary of a bold ribbed band, called Silver Streak, echoing the fluted streamlined trains of the time.
In Sloan’s “a car for every pocketbook” dictum, Pontiac’s prices slotted in exactly between the most expensive Chevy and the cheapest Oldsmobile. The positioning defined the brand; a Pontiac was a realistic step up the ownership ladder for the Chevy driver of the thirties. Pontiacs of the time did not emphasize performance; in fact a good running Ford could probably out run one. The goal was to entice low-end buyers to step up to a more stylish and higher prestige brand.
As the Depression eased, Pontiac stayed in the sweet spot, introducing its resolutely conservative, middle class customers to industry-firsts like the column-mounted gear shift and a choice of six and eight cylinder engines. And it worked handsomely, propelling the Silver Streaks to fifth place in the sales charts in 1937 with the stylish new cars of that year.
In 1941, the final pre-war GM cars were introduced. Pontiac had two distinct levels: the smaller cars shared Chevrolet bodies, and the larger ones used the corporate B-body along with the junior Oldsmobiles and Buicks. The three-body hierarchy was now solidly established, and would stay largely intact until 1959, when all GM cars (except Corvette) shared a single basic body design, with some variation in wheelbase length. These larger Pontiacs, like the Streamliner 8 below, were the equivalent of the Bonneville in the sixties and seventies, competing with the mid-level full-sized cousins at Olds and Buick.
Pontiac’s immediate post-War years were profitable, but the pricing and styling demarcations that protected Pontiac from cannibalism were increasingly under attack from below (Chevrolet) and above (Oldsmobile). By ’56, the division was once again in trouble, struggling to distinguish itself from its more successful brother brands. And this despite an excellent new V8 that came along in 1955, the same year that Chevrolet introduced its new lightweight V8.
1955 Pontiac styling was predicted by the Strato Star concept, one of the many delectable delights of GM’s touring Futurama road show that hit its peak years in the early fifties. The actual fifty-fives were handsome enough, but the front end was a bit blunt for the times and not as effective as the impeccably clean and handsome ’55 Chevys. Pontiac also had/got to share the stylish Nomad wagon, dubbed the Custom safari wagon.
In 1955 Semon E. “Bunkie” Knudson took over as General Manager, a job his father had held in the thirties. He brought a youthful energy and performance orientation that began Pontiac’s transformation into the (genuine) Excitement Division. Tri-power carburation (3 x 2 barrel carbs) was one of the hallmarks of Pontiac performance, and one it cultivated successfully until the performance era began to croak. As usual, the Mad Men went overboard, with a ridiculous claim of “Gives You two Engines For The Price of One”.
By ’59, a Pontiac’s tri-power 389 was churning out 345 horsepower. And Pontiacs were putting on quite a show on the Nascar tracks. But performance was just the first step of Knudsen’s make-over for Pontiac. For the new 1959 cars, he came up with a brilliant scheme to widen the tracks of his cars, since the whole corporate fleet looked like their new finned bodies were hanging out into thin air over their wheels. The simple fix gave the Pontiacs a distinct stance, and an enduring marketing slogan that propelled the Wide-Track Division to fourth place, a stunning validation of Knudson’s approach.
Although the marque had gone racing several years earlier, the new models’ purposeful stance and stylish sheet metal instantly redefined Pontiac as a performance brand. Their timing couldn’t have been better. Increasingly affluent and unflaggingly optimistic Americans were ready to fully embrace a car brand offering youthfulness, style, and most of all, excitement.
The 1960 models (above) were arguably the most successful of the controversial ’59-’60 GM finned space ships, and were captured so perfectly in the numerous rendered ads by the team of Fitzpatrick and Kaufman. A whole piece dedicated to their artistry is here.
But that excessive era gave way to the more compact 1961 cars, the first fully under new GM Styling Chief Bill Mitchell. And once again, the Pontiac studio came up with the most dynamic variation of the theme. There is a spring to this Pontiac’s body, an enthusiasm to get up and go that simply isn’t there in any of the other corporate ’61s, despite their generally good looks that year. But this was just the warm up act for the Pontiac’s true summit year, 1963.
It’s difficult to fully convey the impact the full-sized 1963 Pontiacs had on both the public and the industry. It may not be an exaggeration to say that they were the most influential cars of the whole post war era. Pontiacs simply were THE cool car of the era, the ultimate date-mobile of the time. And they solidified the dramatic jump to the third place in the sales standing Pontiac enjoyed from ’62 through ‘70.
But it was the other car makers that were perhaps the most blown away; stylists around Detroit were severely humbled by the ’63s, and they spent the next decade slavishly copying and rehashing its influential design features, including stacked headlights, a peaked nose, clean unadorned sides, judicious use of chrome, a tail worthy of the sculptural nose, and a cohesiveness that would rarely be achieved again.
Pontiac’s ability to successfully downsize the ’63’s styling to its mid-size cars was almost equally brilliant. It was something that had mostly eluded Detroit, but the new ’64 -’65 mid sized Tempest/Le Mans pulled it off, unlike their less than spectacular predecessors from 1961-1963.
The GTO story can’t be given full justice here, but it crystallized the ability of Pontiac to have their finger on the pulse of the youthful buyer emerging as a significant consumer force. John Z. DeLorean’s subversive ploy to get the GTO in production despite a corporate ban on mid sized cars with big engines was typical of the his youthful ambitions to fight the stultified GM culture.The result made the 1964 GTO the seminal performance car of the era. By dropping the big 389 engine into the light, mid-size Tempest (along with suspension, tire, appearance and interior upgrades), the American enthusiast car reached its zenith. As did Pontiac.
It’s important to note that in this pre-German/Japanese invasion era of fossilized British roadsters, the GTO (and its many imitators) offered the best overall bang-for-the-buck equation. Pontiac was BMW before BMW was cool (or available). And Car and Driver largely made its reputation extolling the virtues of the emerging American muscle car. It was a renaissance in the making, but one that also sowed the seeds of its eventual collapse. Let’s put that off as long as possible.
In 1965, GM unveiled a dramatic new styling theme with large hips and curvaceous sides, commonly referred to as Coke-bottle styling. A subtle version of the upswing in the hips had been seen in the ’63 Grand Prix. Although the ’65s were handsome enough in this new idiom, they were not the style leaders as they had been two years earlier. And the excessive weight and size made them increasingly irrelevant in winning the hearts and minds of the younger buyers, who’s idea of a cool car was as changeable as the Top 40. The heyday of large Pontiacs was over, and it was perhaps a foreshadowing of things to come. But there was still hay to make in the second half of the sixties, just not with the big barges.
The 1967 Firebird opened a new avenue for Pontiac in the rapidly expanding pony car segment. Arguably with a more handsome face than the rather modest Camaro’s, the Firebird would become the only carrier of the Pontiac flame well into the seventies. But that’s another chapter, still to be written. One of the Firebird flavors was the unique Sprint, which tried to woo a Euro-oriented buyer with its OHC straight six, based on the Chevy block. In four-barrel HO form, it made some 215 hp, and offered the type of handling with its lower weight over the front wheels that was rarely seen from Detroit.
Pontiac managed another styling coup with their 1968 GTO. With its Endura resiliant front end, it was a remarkable milestone in both technology and styling. For the first time, chrome was absent, and a unified and integrated front end was achieved for the first time. It’s not a stretch to say that this is the father of all modern car’s front ends, and successfully predicted the disappearance of the chrome bumper forever. It wasn’t a straight line, due to the 5 mph bumpers of the seventies, but this Goat, with its lack of a continuous belt line is a remarkable prophet of styling to come.
The golden decade for Pontiac ended with one more breakthrough car, the 1969 Grand Prix. Its significance was not only that it was remarkably handsome, which it was, but that it solely created a genre that would dominate the sales charts in the seventies and early eighties: the mid-priced mid-sized semi-luxury coupe.
Sitting on a stretched version of the new intermediate cars, it drew it inspiration from the thirties and forties, by adding a much longer hood to the front of what was essentially the same car under the skin as the GTO/Le Mans above. It was a tacit admission or prediction that the large cars were falling out of favor with buyers, due to their excessive size and the growing influence of imports that made small cars cool.
Even though the large Pontiacs were starting to slip increasingly into over-sized mediocrity by 1970, let’s leave this first Chapter of Pontiac on a high note, and acknowledge the brand as being the most dynamic and influential in that most exciting of decades.