General Motors' Branding Fiasco Part Three – Pontiac Only Lived Twice

Paul Niedermeyer
by Paul Niedermeyer
We’re committed to finding, researching, and recommending the best products. We earn commissions from purchases you make using links in our articles. Learn more here
general motors branding fiasco part three pontiac only lived twice

Grand Prix, GTO, Firebird, LeMans, Catalina 2+2, Bonneville. The names evoke automotive magic— provided you were an enthusiast between six and sixty during the ‘60’s. For today’s pistonheads, these storied names; indeed, the entire Pontiac brand has lost its adrenal association. Even the drop-dead gorgeous Solstice can’t rescue a marque now known for budget-priced, badge-engineered mediocrity. Pontiac’s fall from grace may not be the worst (best?) example of GM’s branding cataclysm, but it’s one of the most emotive.

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 the Oakland brand’s pricier machine. Pontiac waxed while Oakland waned. The Depression killed Oakland; Pontiac barely survived.

To reduce production costs, GM President Alfred P. Sloan and Executive Vice President William S. Knudsen decreed that Pontiacs should share major components with Chevrolet. In 1933, a last minute “big car” restyle and a new engine helped Pontiac’s “Economy Straight Eight” revive the brand’s fortunes.

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. Ironically, Pontiacs were aimed at customers who cared more about economy and comfort than performance and handling.

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 engine options. In the last years before WWII, Frank Hershey led Pontiac’s design studio to new heights.

Pontiac’s post-War years were profitable, but the pricing and styling demarcations that protected Pontiac from cannibalism were 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.

The division had been feeding their V8 a high-oats diet. By ’59, Pontiac’s tri-power (three two-barrel carburetors) 389 was churning out 345 horsepower. That same year, out of the blue, Pontiac introduced “wide track” styling.

Although the marque had gone racing several years earlier, the new models’ purposeful stance and stylish sheetmetal 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. From ‘62 to ‘70, Pontiac was America’s third most popular automotive brand.

The first of Pontiac’s high-water marks: the 1963 Grand Prix coupe. A Bill Mitchell styling masterpiece, the GP conveyed the exclusiveness and formal elegance of the Buick Riviera coupe, at about three-fourths the price. AND it was sportier and more youthful; the killer date car of the times.

The 1964 GTO was 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.

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).

Except for the Firebird, the seventies were not kind to Pontiac. Performance was (mostly) out, styling become blobby and quality problems were notorious. Pontiac tumbled out of the coveted number three spot. It returned to its pre-sixties roots: a mostly boring, lost-in-the-shuffle GM division, saddled with an endless curse of badge-engineered small Chevys: Phoenix, Astre, Sunbird, J-2000, T-1000, etc.

Having lost its authentic performance and styling “cool,” Pontiac began an endless series of self-conscious attempts to capture BMW-like cachet (e.g. the original 1973 Grand Am).

The mid-late eighties witnessed a brief sales resurgence. These were smallish cars, like the later front wheel-drive Grand Am. But these sales came straight out of ailing Olds’ and Buick’s hide, not the booming imports.

The more avidly Pontiac tried to “Build Excitement” in the eighties and nineties, the more pathetic the results: GM clones sporting way too many spoilers and garish body cladding. Pontiac had become the Wal-Mart BMW.

Could Pontiac have become a legitimate American BMW? Perhaps. A return to the brand’s original re-positioning would have required an unwavering commitment to performance. The resources were certainly there. GM continued building formidable rear wheel-drive sedans in Europe and Australia. These should have been Pontiac’s specialty decades ago, long before the recent GTO and future G8.

Instead, GM positioned Pontiac as a “full-line” automaker, forcing it to compete with its GM siblings with idiotic versions of identical products.

Pontiac is a dead brand. Lacking any presence outside of North America, it has no relevance to GM’s global future. Excitement is a fleeting phenomenon, as was Pontiac’s heyday.

Paul Niedermeyer
Paul Niedermeyer

More by Paul Niedermeyer

Join the conversation
2 of 54 comments
  • Nino Nino on May 25, 2007
    indi500fan: May 23rd, 2007 at 11:57 am My neighbor has an 88 Fiero GT for sale on his front lawn. The darn thing looks as good or better than anything on the road now. They got the problems fixed just in time to kill it off. (Of course it shouldn’t take 5 model years to fix the problems.) One of those with a 260 hp DI turbo Ecotec would be a fun ride. My kind of post! I still have a soft spot for the Fiero even though the '85 GT I had broke a clutch and flywheel at 7300 miles ( just broke into bits and which the dealer refused to pay for). I still look around if any are for sale and start fantasizing about V8 Northstars in the engine bay...cut rate Ferrari performance....etc. Then my wife screams at me that we have too many cars already!
  • Nino Nino on May 25, 2007

    I think that the Pontiac G6 is a handsome design (in the CamCord sense), but extremely poorly executed. Given an interior upgrade and a name change (Grand-Am?), I believe this car can be a hit. Of all the cars based on this platform, I believe it be the best looking. The availability of a coupe and convertible are big plusses.

  • Charles When I lived in Los Angeles I saw a 9-5 a few times and instanly admired the sweeping low slug aerodynamic jet tech influenced lines and all that beautiful glass. The car was very different from what I expected from a Saab even though the 900 Turbo was nice. A casual lady friend had a Saab Sonnet, never drove or rode in it but nonetheless chilled my enthusiasm and I eventually forgot about Saabs. In the following years I have had seven Mercedes's, three or four Jaguars even two Daimlers both the 250 V-8 and the massive and powerful Majestic Major. Daily drivers of a brand new 300ZX 2+2 and Lincolns, plus a few diesel trucks. Having moved to my big farm in central New York, trucks and SUV's are the standard, even though I have a Mercedes S500 in one of my barns. Due to circumstances with my Ford Explorer and needing a second driver I found the 2006 9-5 locally. Very little surface rust, none undercarriage, original owner, garage kept, wife driver and all the original literature and a ton of paid receipts and history. The car just turned 200,000 miles and I love it. Feels new like I'm back in my Nissan 300ZX with a lot more European class and ready power with the awesome turbo. So fun to drive, the smooth power and torque is incredible! Great price paid to justify going through the car and giving her everything she needs, i.e., new tires, battery, all shocks, struts, control arms, timing chain and rust removable to come, plus more. The problem now is I want to restore it and likely put it in my concrete barn and only drive in good weather. As to the writer, Alex Dykes, I take great exception calling the 9-5 Saab "ugly," finding myself looking back at her beauty and uniqueness. Moreover, I get new looks from others not quite recognizing, like the days out west with my more expensive European cars. There are Saabs eclipsing 300K rourinely and one at a million miles and I believe one car with 500K on the original engine. So clearly, this is a keeper, in love already with my SportCombi. I want to be in that elite club.
  • Marky S. I own the same C.C. XSE Hybrid AWD as in this article, but in Barcelona Red with the black roof. I love my car for its size, packaging, and the fact that it offers both AWD and Hybrid technology together. Visibility is impressive, as is its small turning circle. I consider the C.C. more of a "station wagon" by proportion, rather than an “SUV.” It is fun to drive, with zippy response and perky pick-up. It is a pleasant car to drive and ride in. It is not trying to be a “Butch Off-Roader”, or a cosseting “Luxury Cruiser.” Those are not its goals or purpose. The Corolla Cross XSE Hybrid AWD is a wonderful All-Purpose Car (O.K. – “SUV” if you must hear me say it!) with a combination of all the features it has at a reasonable price.
  • Ernesto Perez There's a line in the movie Armageddon where Bruce Willis says " is this the best idea NASA came up with?". Don't quote me. I'm asking is this the best idea NY came up with? What's next? Charging pedestrians to walk in certain parts of the city? Every year the price for everything gets more expensive and most of the services we pay for gets worse. Obviously more money is not the solution. What we need are better ideas, strategies and inventions. You want to charge drivers in the city - then put tolls on the free bridges like the Brooklyn, Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges. There's always a better way or product. It's just the idiots on top think they know best.
  • Carsofchaos The bike lanes aren't even close to carrying "more than the car lanes replaced". You clearly don't drive in Midtown Manhattan on a daily like I do.
  • Carsofchaos The problem with congestion, dear friends, is not the cars per se. I drive into the city daily and the problem is this:Your average street in the area used to be 4 lanes. Now it is a bus lane, a bike lane (now you're down to two lanes), then you have delivery trucks double parking, along with the Uber and Lyft drivers also double parking. So your 4 lane avenue is now a 1.5 lane avenue. Do you now see the problem? Congestion pricing will fix none of these things....what it WILL do is fund persion plans.