Goodbye to Pontiac
July 29, 2009
Tuesday, July 28, 2009 Over the past few months there has been some shocking news hitting the airwaves in this country. Our political system is in the toilet, our Congress seems to have lost their minds, GM and Chrysler are bankrupt, and the bad news just keeps coming and coming.Unfortunately with all this junk going on, it’s easy to overlook some very important and hard-hitting stories. One of those stories is the death of Pontiac.To get the full impact of what this means to the automotive world, we have to look at how Pontiac and GM came together, and Pontiac’s unique position in the history of the automobile. In the late 20’s Pontiac joined GM, and it was positioned between Chevrolet and Oldsmobile in price and status. Its image of value and style made it an instant success and everybody was happy. However, after WWII and into the 50’s, Pontiac had become stagnant and had begun to be viewed as an “unexciting” car that appealed to “older” buyers. You know…your GRANDMOTHERS car! The image was totally out of touch with the up and coming young market that wanted zip and style and power. In the Mid-50’s top GM management realized the problem and was seriously considering killing Pontiac and folding it into the Oldsmobile division. But there was a faint glimmer of hope. There was one young executive that thought he could do something with the ailing Pontiac division. So GM brass decided to give Semon “Bunkie” Knudsen 5 years to try and turn Pontiac around. Five years isn’t much considering it takes a couple of years just to get anything new out on the market! Undaunted, Knudsen immediately assembled a group of young, aggressive hot-rodders like Pete Estes and John Delorean and they immediately went racing with the Bonneville and the Grand Prix cars, and hooked up with hot rod drivers like Mickey Thompson and Fireball Roberts and suddenly Pontiac was a force to be reckoned with on any racetrack. Then it happened, GM pulled the rug right out from under everyone, by banning ANY motorsports involvement in 1963. The stupidity of this decision has never been fully explained or understood, but the results were predictable. It was a HUGE blow to all of GM and their performance and racing divisions. Pontiac was especially hard hit, because it disconnected Pontiac from its most successful program -- racing. The guys at Pontiac (Knudsen, Delorean, Estes) were more than a little ticked off about the GM’s decision because they were just starting to make some real progress with Pontiac, and now it looked like all of that was going to go down the toilet with a giant sucking sound. The die was cast and Pontiac knew they had to do SOMETHING or they were going to die. Little did we know, all that high-performance racing mojo was about to spill out onto the street and create an American original called the Muscle Car. As fate would have it, one day John Delorean had a new 64 Tempest on the lift and was lamenting the fact that GM had a 330ci displacement limit on midsized cars. One of the mechanics made the comment that the 389ci engine would drop right in the car. WHAT?!? There was a moment of silence as those words hung in the air like a fat peach waiting to be picked. A 389 in a TEMPEST?!? It was unheard of! it was insane! It was AGAINST THE RULES!!! All eyes were locked on Delorean as he stared at the car…what would he do? Delorean grinned…he was just enough of a renegade to take the plunge, and throw his career on the line. Besides, he was still ticked off about the racing ban. So he gave the go-ahead to load the 389 with a tri-power, stuff a 4spd behind it, and shove it into the unsuspecting Tempest. Of course what he ended up with a tire-shredding street machine that took his breath away. He knew he HAD to get something like this on the market for all those young hot rodders out there! So in one of the greatest gambles in automotive history, Delorean dubbed the car the GTO (to give the finger to Ferrari) and he and Estes basically “sneaked” the car past all the GM red tape to get it on the market. By the time GM got wind of the GTO, it was already selling like hot cakes with more orders rolling in like waves. So instead of firing Delorean, GM gave him a raise, and began to look for ways to get Chevrolet into this new Muscle Car game. All through the Muscle Car wars Pontiac was at the leading edge. The Firebird, GTO Judge, Trans Am, Bonneville, these were all great cars and they were roaming the streets. Everybody knew that you’d better be on your game and have your car tuned right if you wanted to mix it up with a Pontiac. As the 70’s rolled in with its fuel shortages, and government regulations, (sound familiar?) the whole Muscle Car movement came to a screeching halt. In just a few short years, performance cars had all but vanished from the scene, and Pintos, Vegas, and AMC Pacers puttered around loaded with environmentalists pretending to save the planet. It was a dark time in automotive history, and everyone at Ford, Chevy, Dodge, and all the others were trying to please the government and put out those “responsible” cars. But the old renegade spirit at Pontiac was not dead yet, and in a last act of defiance, they stuffed a big engine into a black Trans Am, plastered a big gaudy bird all over the hood, and gave it to a bunch of southern boys to make a movie about running bootleg Coors beer over state lines. The result was “Smokey and the Bandit” and the automotive world has never been the same since. That movie and that black Trans Am is credited with not only reviving the auto industry at that time, but actually changing the attitude of the American public from one of pessimism, fear and worry, to one of confidence, laughter, and perseverance. What an amazing thing for a car to do! From there on it became a slippery slope for Pontiac, as bad designs, mismanagement, stupid ideas, and other big business BS began to take their toll over the years. So it really comes as no surprise that GM is going to axe them. We all know that time marches on and nothing lasts forever and we are OK with that. But it’s only right to give credit where credit is due, and there is a huge amount of credit that goes to the cars and the company that gave us so much hot rodding history…….Thanks Pontiac……you may be gone, but your cars and legacy will live on and on! I definitely invite everybody to share their Pontiac stories here. Whether you loved ‘em, hated ‘em, owned one, never owned one, whatever….. Let us know what you think and have to say about them.