The Truth About Cars » le mans The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Mon, 28 Jul 2014 12:01:32 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars no The Truth About Cars (The Truth About Cars) 2006-2009 The Truth About Cars The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars » le mans Capsule Review: Porsche 911 GT3 (996 Vintage) Sun, 24 Nov 2013 14:00:04 +0000 IMG_1167

Over an uncharacteristically lazy Labor Day weekend, I found myself chatting with Derek Kreindler about subjects near and dear to the apex of TTAC’s masthead:  semiotics, the musical oeuvre of John Mayer, and – briefly – automobiles. Given my mild disappointment with Porsche’s newest mid-engined cars, he suggested a Porsche 911 GT3 from the 996 generation, pronouncing it “certified badass.”  I protested that they were quite rare, and I’d never had the opportunity to drive one, but I’d check local listings to pacify him.  Lo and behold, there was a Speed Yellow example on a used car lot less than 10 miles away from me.  I called and confirmed that the car was still available; I could test drive it provided I arrived at the dealer within 30 minutes.  I was out the door before the receiver went dead.

When I arrived at the dealer at the tail end of a slow Saturday afternoon, one of the few remaining employees offered “you probably know more about these cars than I do.”  I was assured that this was the case when he pulled the car around and encouraged me to go for an open-ended test drive alone, a 24 year old given the keys to a searingly Speed Yellow, barely domesticated $60,000 race car with a weighty clutch and 380bhp unbridled by any electronic nannies to save me from tears and expensive bodywork.  I had also watched  this marketing clip just a few hours before; alas, I was unable to make it to Road Atlanta that day, but it was quite easy to imagine doing so in the future:

Click here to view the embedded video.

The 996 model years are roundly criticized by detractors for a variety of reasons:  the abandonment of air-cooling, the arrival of thoroughly modern chassis and interior designs that killed the charming anachronisms unique to the 911 genus, and those unfortunate headlights.  Fortunately, the GT3 version of the car is the most handsome of its contemporaries, with a subtle yet purposeful aerodynamic bodykit and a stance that is unmistakably motorsport-derived.


After taking in the car’s sheetmetal and brilliant paintwork, it was time to drive away lest the dealer representative change his mind.  A previous owner had chosen to retrofit the seats that many GT3s abroad enjoyed from birth; affectionately called “Dumbo seats,” they cost well over $5,000 including shipping, provided you can find a pair.  They are veritable hip-huggers and quite form-fitting for a Southerner who’s fond of fried chicken.  Nevermind, once ensconced within – you sit “in” them rather than “on” – they offered tremendous lateral support and transmitted every scintilla of feedback to my posterior.  Unfortunately the rest of the interior was a letdown, all amorphous plasticky curves, bereft of the never-obsolete quality that oozes from the earlier air-cooled cars.

Screen shot 2013-09-02 at 4.45.32 AM

GT3s of all generations eschew the vestigial 911 rear seats in favor of a natty placard reminding you what type of car you’re driving, as well as an expanse of carpeting into which the finest of used car dealers will vacuum an attractive stripe pattern if you ask nicely.


Left foot firmly on the non-floor-mounted clutch pedal, I inserted the key – still on the left – and cranked the engine.  After a whirr from the starter, the engine barked before settling into a clattering, lumpy idle, in the fashion of the air-cooled engine introduced in the 964, from which the Mezger engine inherits much of its base architecture.  Among the 996 attributes I cataloged above, an additional criticism leveled against the car relates to the fragility of the all-new engines fitted to the standard, “cooking” Carreras, which were somewhat prone to unexpected, catastrophic failure.  Fortunately, the Mezger engine is the descendant of decades of motorsport glory, so it avoids those issues, although it has some minor issues of its own (chiefly, the weeping rear main seal that plagues garage queen cars).  Gingerly testing the clutch pedal, I pulled into traffic.  The GT3, with its low ride height, heavy clutch, and recalcitrant shifter was not exactly at home in the bump-and-grind traffic found in the land of strip malls, fly-by-night buy-here-pay-here used car lots, and Compramos Oro enterprises, so I made way for a nice office park nearby.

The first chance to test the car’s abilities came on a downhill cloverleaf ramp.  Predictable 911 traits surfaced as the front end washed wide before the rear end hooked up, giving the first opportunity to test the powertrain as I merged into traffic.  The flat-six’s lungs engulfed oxygen as the revs soared, the gruff induction noise giving way to the mechanical rattle and hum of symphony in the key of P-flat as redline neared, before I slotted third gear, then fourth… at which juncture I confirmed the stopping power of the binders; sufficient to leave welts where the seatbelt met flesh.  As thrilling as the powerplant was, it was let down a bit by the gearbox; Porsche chose to fit the “base” GT3 with a dual mass flywheel, reserving the racier single mass, lightweight flywheel for the GT3 RS, a car not offered on our shores in 996 guise.  After fitting the more aggressive clutch and flywheel assembly to my car, I’d argue that the minor refinement compromises – audible gear lash at idle and low revs – would suit the nature and character of the high-revving GT3.  Furthermore, the 996 GT3′s shifter features somewhat long throws and imprecise engagement, demerits rectified in the later 997 generation of the GT3.

Once at speed on a section of I-75 that I know quite well, the compromises of the GT3′s chassis revealed themselves.  Although the longer wheelbase of the 996 reduced the tendency of the 911 to porpoise over bumps, and the superior dampers provided body and wheel control that embarrassed my 993, the ride was extraordinarily firm, inducing a wince at every surface imperfection and expansion joint.  Fortunately I only had to travel a few miles before I reached the office park I had in mind – a loop of nearly a mile that rises and falls as it winds around a leafy complex full of anonymous office buildings along the Chattahoochee river.

After a cautious exploratory lap of the deserted office park, I pushed a bit harder on subsequent circuits.  Once apace, the characteristics that were vices on the highway became virtues; the chassis provided supreme mechanical grip at reasonable public road speeds, the steering was sublimely tactile, weighting up and – crucially – unweighting with remarkable clarity and fluidity, the helm positively shouting its feedback where my 993 whispers and modern Porsches are absolutely mute.

The GT3 was a physical, intense drive, snaffling over bumps and cambers with the rear end poised to step wide at the slightest provocation, perhaps attributable to its Pirelli tires of unknown age or provenance.  Once used as intended, the entire car resonated with unmistakable, pur sang race car heritage.  After a few more loops I returned the GT3, reflecting on Porsche Motorsport’s ministrations on the 996 as I re-traced the earlier route in my familiar 993.  A lengthier sojourn would have provided more opportunity to assess the car’s range of abilities in situations both mundane and special, but I was able to form a sufficient opinion of the car in a brief period of time.  Although the car shone brightly in a spirited environment, its optimization for that narrow usage rendered it torturous as a daily driver candidate, my intended use for any car I might purchase.

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David Walton grew up in the North Georgia mountains before moving to Virginia to study Economics, Classics, and Natural Light at Washington and Lee University. Post-graduation, he returned to his home state to work in the financial services industry in Atlanta.  A lifelong automotive enthusiast, particular interests include (old) Porsches and sports car racing.


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François Bruère, Artiste Officiel Des 24 Hueres Du Mans Thu, 29 Nov 2012 14:00:03 +0000

Some positions are dream jobs. Let’s say that you’re a car guy and that you like to paint and that you also happen to live in France. What could be a better job than being the official artist of the 24 Hours of LeMans race? François Bruère is that car guy and that’s his dream job. I first came across François while he was setting up his display at the automotive art show & sale that was part of the Concours of America at St. John’s festivities in suburban Detroit. Bruère has spent 30 years refining a style that combines hyperrealistic renderings of automobiles with sepia toned backgrounds, often historic, that give his work a distinctive, immediately recognizable style.

In addition to showing his works regularly at the Concours, Bruère has also been commissioned by the Concours to produce a poster of this year’s two Best of Show winners. The American winner was a 1933 Chrysler Imperial CL Sport Phaeton owned by Joseph and Margie Cassini, and the Foreign winner was also a 1933 model, a Delage D8S Coupe Roadster owned by the Patterson Collection. In a manner of speaking Bruère’s painting is one artist rendering the work of other artists, though they worked with steel and chrome instead of paint and canvas. Both of those cars have custom bodies. The D8S was was a design exercise, a concept car if you will, a collaboration between Delage and one of the most prestigious French coachbuilders, Carrosserie de Villars, for the 1934 Paris auto salon. The Chrysler has a body made by the equally prestigious American coachbuilder LeBaron. The car and its provenance are unique. By 1933 LeBaron was part of the Briggs body company and it was being run by designer Ralph Roberts, who would go on to design Chrysler’s dual cowl Newport show cars. This Imperial Sport Phaeton (it’s not quite a dual cowl body since the rear passenger’s windshield cranks down into the thin panel behind the front seat) was customized by LeBaron per Roberts’ direction and given by him as a present for his wife. An automotive rara avis : a one of one designer’s car, an already custom car further customized by the factory. The Imperial was part of the esteemed collection of the Milhous brothers and the Cassinis paid $1.21 million for it last February.

The Chrysler dominates the painting, sitting in front of the Delage in the foreground while in the background is the valet entrance and bell tower of St. John’s, a former seminary. Because of Bruère’s sepia tone backgrounds, the Chrysler particularly stands out since the white Delage tends to blend in. It’s not surprising that the artist highlighted the Chrysler. It’s an impressive car, one of the first American cars to have a hood that extended to the base of the windshield. Roberts had earlier done a proposal for Lincoln with that cowl-less feature that had been rejected by Edsel Ford so he just parked it in the garage at LeBaron’s Detroit facility. Later, when Walter P. Chrysler was at the same garage inspecting a proposal for the Imperial, he saw the Lincoln and told Roberts that was what he wanted. Already sleek by 1930s standards, Roberts customized his wife’s car with lengthened front fenders and skirted fenders in the back, lowered headlights, “French disc” wheel covers, and a radiator shell that was painted, not chromed. Also, Roberts moved the sidemounted spare tires to the back of the car.

More pics here.

Though I think he has the color a bit more aqua than the darker steel greyish green of my own photos of the car, Bruère captures the magnificent Chrysler quite well. If you want a copy of the poster, you’ll have to wait until next year’s concours. In the meantime, though, you can buy signed prints of the poster Bruère did of an Auburn roadster for the 2006 show as well as other historic show posters at the Concours’ web site store, starting next week. Bruère sells prints of his other works at his own website,

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can dig deeper at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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PSA Withdraws From Le Mans, Claims It’s The Money Wed, 18 Jan 2012 18:21:14 +0000 When a car company removes itself from Racing, it usually has one of two reasons:

  1. The company was luckless on the racecourse and just can’t stomach paying for losing.
  2. The company is in dire straits financially, and spending money for frivolous ventures such as car racing just doesn’t look right.

For France’s Peugeot, it’s both.

According to Reuters, PSA Peugeot Citroen will withdraw from Le Mans endurance racing. They say it’s the money. “This decision has been taken in the context of a difficult economic environment in Europe,” a company statement says. Reuters explains:

“Europe’s second-biggest car maker is struggling to rein in costs and revive flagging sales after a series of profit warnings. In October, Chief Executive Philippe Varin announced plans to save an additional 800 million euros ($1.03 billion) this year, including some 6,000 job cuts.”

As we saw yesterday, PSA lost a full point of market share in Europe last year, sales were down 8 percent. That while #1 rival Volkswagen took two points of market share and expanded its EU sales by 7.5 percent.

But then, there is that other reason, again the words of Reuters:

“Peugeot last claimed victory in the 89-year-old Le Mans 24 Hours contest in 2009, before losing to Volkswagen’s Audi team in the following two seasons.”

Now THAT is intolerable. Losing market share to le boche is one thing. But losing market share AND Le Mans is impardonnable!

Let’s say it’s for financial reasons and blame the difficult economic environment in Europe, oui?

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Could Fuel Efficiency Save Racing? Sat, 15 Oct 2011 19:36:02 +0000 With Audi and Peugeot dominating the last several Le Mans races using diesel technology to outlast the competition, it seems that the famous French race is becoming the premiere stage for developing and highlighting the latest fuel-saving technology. And why not? Most marketing of new fuel-saving technology highlights the preserved performance and enhanced reliability as much as pure energy savings alone. And leadership in this suite of attributes is about to receive a little more competition, as Toyota announces that

In 2012, Toyota will take part in several races of the FIA World Endurance Championship, including the Le Mans 24 Hours, with a prototype “LMP1” car featuring a gasoline-electric hybrid powertrain.

Get Hyundai on board, and bring BMW’s new i brand into the mix, and the international racing business could be re-energized by the the competition to demonstrate the perfect compromise between performance, reliability and efficiency. As many of the top racing series see declines in viewers and manufacturer participation due to their increasing irrelevance to mass-market vehicles and brands, the golden age of endurance racing could just be dawning.


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Book Review: Sports Car Racing In Camera, 1950-59 by Paul Parker Thu, 10 Feb 2011 15:00:12 +0000
A proper coffee-table car book ought to be heavy on the grainy action photos, light on the words, and include photographs of Škoda 1101 Sports and Renault 4CVs at Le Mans. Sports Car Racing In Camera, 1950-59 qualifies for inclusion in even the most crowded coffee-table real estate.

Normally, I give review copies away after I’m done with them, lest I run out of shelf space for my collection of Nixon biographies and Emile Zola novels, but this one is a keeper. In fact, this shot of Ak Miller from the 1954 Carrera Panamericana is going to be sliced out, framed, and hung on my office wall.

The book is broken down by year, with a chapter for each year of the 1950s and a breakdown of teams, drivers, and results for each year. Unsurprisingly, most of the photographs were shot at European events, though we do get a few from Sebring and other New World events. Here’s Jack Fairman behind the wheel of an XK120 at Dundrod in 1951.

Porfirio Rubirosa digging his car out of a ditch!

Those who enjoy drooling over photos of 1950s Ferraris and Maseratis will find their Italian car-porn needs amply satisfied with this book; there’s even something for the Osca aficionados.

This is a Haynes book, written by a Brit for the British market, which means that some of the photo captions contain near-disturbing levels of attention to detail. You’ll also get some double-take-inducing Anglocryptic turns of phrase, e.g., “…their dominance was interrupted by Jean Behra’s Gordini biffing Tony Rolt’s D Type up the bum at Thillois on lap 21.” Biffing up the bum! No matter— I’ll take this over the “Go Dog Go” style I slog through in some of the drag-racing books I won’t be reviewing.

This fine book earns a Four Rod Rating (out of a possible OM615-grade five). Murilee says check it out!

Sports Car Racing In Camera, 1950-59 by Paul Parker
SCRIC-14 9781844255528 SCRIC-01 SCRIC-02 SCRIC-03 SCRIC-04 SCRIC-05 SCRIC-06 SCRIC-07 SCRIC-08 SCRIC-09 SCRIC-10 SCRIC-11 SCRIC-12 SCRIC-13 Rating-4ConRods-200px Zemanta Related Posts Thumbnail

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An Illustrated History Of Panhard Thu, 25 Mar 2010 15:04:58 +0000

To many today, the French automaker Panhard (pronounced panAR) may be unknown or rapidly slipping into obscurity. But the story of this once renowned firm, one of the very earliest pioneers of the automobile is remarkable and more relevant than ever. It developed a distinguished series of ultra-efficient two-cylinder cars in the post war era that culminated in this tasty 24TC of 1967, the very last Panhard. It reflected the French approach to automobile making perfectly: innovative, eccentric, stylish, and all to often, out of the mainstream and financial success. But Panhard’s efforts were always highly memorable, advanced, and foreshadowed the cars of today and the future. Before long, we may all be driving updated versions of small, ultra-light and super-efficient 850 cc two-cylinder cars like this.  And if this delightful and sporty coupe is anything to go by, it may be something to actually look forward too.

Panhard et Levassor was established in 1887, and built its first car in 1891 based on a license of the Daimler patent. But instead of the rear engine that the first Daimler and Benz cars used, Panhard placed the engine and radiator at the front, with rear driven wheels, and a crude sliding-gear transmission. As such, it was the first FR (front engine – rear wheel drive) car, and that configuration became known as the “Systeme Panhard”. That configuration was later adopted by both Benz and Daimler and is still going strong. And the well-known Panhard Rod or track bar was commonly used on live rear axles .

Panhard became a modest sized builder of mid to upscale technically conventional cars primarily for the domestic French market. Much of their output during the period up to WW II was not particularly memorable, but the very beautiful Dynamic of 1935 certainly was. It reflected the popular aerodynamic influence of the time, and is analogous to the Chrysler Airflow of the same vintage.

But after WWII, Panhard decided to completely re-invented itself, abandoning the upper-middle class cars and developing an ultra lightweight low cost car for the post-war era when automobiles were expected to become available to all. It was a similar line of thinking as that at Citroen, which conceived its solution to the problem with its iconic 2CV.

Panhard put itself to a more ambitious and slightly more upscale task, taking on the development of a concept by AFG (Gregoire) a radical aluminum-bodied FWD compact sedan with an air-cooled boxer twin driving the front wheels. This unusual car even used aluminum in the main frame members (see above two photos). It was an exercise in exploring the outer limits of weight reduction in the pursuit of an optimum ratio of performance to efficiency, and Panhard took on the challenges of making it a production vehicle, the most advanced of its field.

The final result was the 1946 Dyna X, roomy enough four four in comfort, but with decent performance from its tiny but highly economical 600cc boxer twin. But its main competitor, the rear-engined but otherwise more conventional Renault 4CV outsold it by huge margins, and Panhard was challenged to carve out a niche in the increasingly crowded market, especially given the high cost of aluminum.

The little twin’s engine size began a series of incremental increases up to 850 cc, and combined with the car’s remarkable light weight, the Dyna X began to be seen more as a car with sporting potential. It became a popular entry in competitive touring events, and more serious sporty offshoots were inevitable. One could say it took a somewhat similar trajectory as the Corvair: intended to be a low-cost economy family sedan, but finally finding its true mission in enthusiast circles.

By 1952, Panhard embraced its sporty aspect fully, and the goofy little Junior was put into production (See Dyna Junior CC). Think of it as the French Austin Healey Sprite, but with a wide bench seat to accommodate a cozy threesome. That’s much more in the French spirit than those unromantic English bucket seats.

In 1954, the new Dyane Z replaced the X. It had a substantially roomier body, but still kept the basic layout, components and even the aluminum construction. That didn’t last, though, and within a few years, steel began to replace the more expensive large aluminum pieces. But the Dyna remained a remarkably light , roomy and efficient car nevertheless.

In fact, the wider Dyna Z was considered a six-passenger car (even a stretch in that time of sleek bodies), and its front compartment shows the tasteful and tidy design to maximize interior space. Note the well padded and smooth dashboard, an early concession to safety. And its more conventional four-on-the-tree stick shift, unlike the earlier umbrella handle shifter of the earlier models. In 1955, Citroen bought a 25% stake in Panhard, opening up the a much larger dealer network, and leading to the eventual complete takeover in the early sixties.

This vintage ad highlights the Dyna’s key features: 130 kmh (80 mph) top cruising speed, 7 liters/100kmh fuel consumption (34 mpg), and room for six! I’m not going to try to convert the price. The Dyna Z was simply unparalleled in its abilities to deliver these numbers in its time. One is readily tempted to call it the Prius of its time, although in looks it reminds me slightly more of the first Taurus.

The Firm of Deutsch Bonnet (DB) built a series of sports racers based on the Dyna that were phenomenally successful, especially in the long distance races like Le Mans and Sebring, where an Index of Performance (based on engine size) played perfectly to the Panhard formula. Their reliability and surprising speed allowed them to often score in the top ten, even against the big Jaguars and Ferraris of the day.

The DB panhard success story went on for years, and finally culminated in its most extreme manifestations in 1964.

Here are the 1964 Le Mans prototype CD Panhard and its production variant, the fastest of the street Panhards. (A full brochure is here). The street model had Panhard’s “Tigre” engine that developed 60 hp from 850 cc, quite an accomplishment for the times, more than double of typical “sporty” cars of the times in terms of hp/liter. Top speed was over 110 mph. The Le Mans prototype was the first to feature a “long tail” and other aerodynamic aids. Top speed was some 140 mph. These are incomparable cars of their times, despite all the attention that the big-engined Ferarris and Ford GTs receive.

In 1960, the aging Dyna received a questionable new front and rear and was now called the PL17. It was also starting to show its age, but the lack of profits kept Panhard from developing a new car. Engine power was increased, and by the latter years of the 17′s production run, the standard engine (still 850 cc) developed 50 hp, and the optional Tigre 60 hp.

Like all Panhards, convertible and commercial variants were available, like this pickup. A seemingly odd combination, but every taste was catered to, including those with a Panhardomino on their mind.

Even a station wagon went into production in 1963. But Panhard saved its best for last, the stunning 24 Series Coupe, which also debuted in 1963. It came in both a short wheelbase 2+2 version like the one at the top of this article, and the long wheelbase coupe/sedan (below). Citroen refused to let Panhard build a four door version because it didn’t want it to compete with its own sedans, and a similar-sized car it had in the works .

Still powered by the 850 cc boxer twin, it came in 50 and 60 hp versions. But performance expectations were increasing, and the Pnanhard formula was running out of time. Citroen wanted Panhard’s production capacity for building 2CV vans, and so it was a short lived finale. Panhard lives on a as a military contractor, but the car building was la fin.

The Panhard 24 was obviously profoundly influenced by the the 1960 Corvair; of course it was hardly alone in that regard in Europe at that time, as the Covair left a wide swath of imitators. But the distinctive front end of the 24 went its own way, with a preview of what Citroen’s DS would be sporting in a few years’ time.

Citroen now fully owned Panhard, and tried to slot it between its large DS/ID models and its small cars. There was even an proposal to build an economy DS/ID using the Panhard drive train. Economy of scale in production was the goal, but it was all in vain. The world was moving on to bigger engined cars, and Panhard’s unique approach was becoming irrelevant. The 24 was the swan song, and a lovely one at that. It’s a sought after collectible now, and a memoir of a time when a radical approach to the efficiency-performance equation was pursued with a vengeance.  History repeats itself, but perhaps this time the Panhard formula will be more enduring.

]]> 43 An Illustrated History Of Pontiac: Part I – 1926 To 1970 Sat, 13 Mar 2010 21:39:05 +0000

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.

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