Pontiac Eulogy


Great blog about Pontiac getting killed off by a guy who was in the business.

The Soul Survivor is now just Dust in the Wind.

By Peter M. De Lorenzo

(Posted 4/27, 6:00PM) Detroit. Three years ago (3/1/06) I wrote a column entitled, “Soul Survivor or just Dust in the Wind?” It was about what Pontiac needed in order to survive and thrive again. Now, of course, it doesn’t matter. In the headlong rush to shrink General Motors – which is either looking more and more like chasing a moving target with no end in sight, or a motion-controlled train wreck, depending on your point of view – Pontiac, the once-storied enthusiast division that was breathing down Ford’s neck for second place in an auto business that once existed in a galaxy far, far away, has been relegated to the dust heap of an imploding American automobile industry, and will cease to exist sometime in 2010.

Since I’ve been writing about GM’s perpetual conundrum of too many models, too many divisions and too many dealers from Day One of this publication, it’s no big surprise that with the latest GM moves for “right-sizing” the company Pontiac was going to be put on the shelf. It didn’t have to come to this, of course, but it’s reality, as Fritz Henderson is fond of saying. The new GM will feature Cadillac and Chevrolet - and rightly so - with assists from Buick and GMC, but to see Pontiac come to an end like this, an afterthought discarded by the side of the road, is pathetic.

So today I am going to pause to honor one of the most glorious chapters in American automotive history, and an automotive brand that for one brief shining moment lit up the streets and byways of America with some of the finest automobiles this country has ever produced.

The legendary Pontiac names alone could power a rollcall from Detroit's golden era - Bonneville, Catalina, Tempest, Le Mans, GTO, "The Judge," Grand Prix, Firebird and Trans-Am. The rich additions to the automotive lexicon were legendary too - "389," "421," "455SD," "Tri-Power," "eight-lug" aluminum wheels, Royal Bobcats, "Endura" front bumpers, hood-mounted tachs, and on and on. And the marketing and advertising hooks were equally memorable - with the famous "Wide Track" campaign still resonating to this day. This was no ordinary car company, and its heyday marked an extraordinary time in American automotive history.

As most longtime AE readers know, Pontiac will always hold a special place in my heart for a number of reasons. Not the least of which is that for a kid growing up in the epicenter of the automotive universe at the time, and being part of a GM family to the core – my father was GM’s VP of Public Relations (only the second person to direct that function in the corporation’s history) – Pontiac was one of the GM brands that captured my imagination. I liked Chevrolet and Buick, too (my dad came up through Buick), but Pontiac, well, there was just nothing like it.

And there was good reason for my infatuation with Pontiac, because I had more than a glimpse of its zenith on the American scene. Much more, in fact. I was lucky enough to live it every day. When other people write about Pontiac in this age of instant automotive Internet “experts” (always minus the historical context, of course, but then again, that’s fodder for another column), they do so from afar. They don’t know what it was really like because they didn’t live it. They can’t imagine why Pontiac mattered because they didn’t feel it. And they couldn’t possibly understand how the brand resonated in America at the time because they didn’t experience it firsthand.

But I was fortunate and honored to do so.

To understand the travesty of Pontiac's current state you have to go back and understand the impact Pontiac once had on the U.S. market. It's hard to believe this now, but at one point during its glory days in the '60s Pontiac was the hottest car company in the country, breathing down Ford's neck in third place in sales. Bunkie Knudsen, the man most responsible for shaking Pontiac out of its stupor in the late 50s, sent the division in a completely new direction by leaving its staid past behind and creating a new image based around high performance and high style.

Bunkie Knudsen hired a gifted young engineer named John Z. DeLorean and let him and his equally gifted associates loose to push the envelope. And push it they did. DeLorean and his cronies - along with some of GM’s hottest exterior designers - tweaked their Pontiac offerings with hotter engines and more radical designs to the point that they didn't even seem like they were part of the GM family.

More than any other American car company, Pontiac delivered cars to the market bristling with a maverick, edgy appeal and genuine soul - a commodity so far removed from most of Detroit's products then that it was striking. Pontiac was “marching to a different drummer” - or should I say stomping its feet, loudly - with a rebel attitude so distant from the painfully conservative GM culture that it was like civil disobedience on a grand corporate scale, and it rocked GM to its core. But boy, did the bean counters love the profits that those rebels were bringing in.

If ever a car company defined "swagger" - Pontiac was it. Pontiac was GM's "pirate" division, and if they could have raised a "skull and crossbones" flag over its headquarters on Oakland Avenue in its heyday, they would have. On any given day, Pontiac was always pissing someone off down at GM headquarters because they just couldn't help themselves from bitch-slapping Chevrolet and sending Chevy executives whining to the 14th floor like little school girls over some perceived transgression. Everything Chevy did Pontiac would take pride in doing better, or faster, or with more style, and then they’d promote it more expertly too. And it drove Chevy executives crazy.

The street "buzz" around Pontiac was undeniable - and it was fueled by some of the most memorable advertising ever done for an automobile. For one fleeting moment in time, product and advertising came together in such a way that it created an American sensation, thanks to people like Jim Wangers and some of the most talented writers and art directors to ever work in the business

With the wild, march to a different drummer machines that Pontiac created and the rebel image that was expertly crafted for the brand, the streets of America were never the same. If you drove a Pontiac, it definitely said something about you. You were different from the crowd, and you went your own way. And the aura that was created around the brand translated into gold in the marketplace, sending Pontiac sales soaring.

Now, Pontiac is a mere shadow of its once-glorious self. Pontiac suffered mightily from the bureaucratic gravitational force field that has churned and stirred the traditional GM divisional structure over the years. While GM marketers scrambled to prop up seven other brands, Pontiac always seemed to be left out on the fringe with product initiatives that often fell woefully short of what the brand deserved. After resurrecting Cadillac to the tune of $5 billion, GM marketers launched Hummer. After dumping a boatload of money in a desperate attempt to save Saturn a few years ago, GM finally got around to worrying about Chevrolet. While GM was trying to pump life into Saab and Buick, Pontiac got short changed and further and further removed from its core strengths. Time and time again, Pontiac was left out in the cold to fight over crumbs of product plans that never materialized. And now, it’s being left for good.

In recent years GM's maverick division has been relegated to cribbing seconds from Chevrolet or sharing with Saturn - a revolting development that must have Bunkie Knudsen and John DeLorean spinning in their graves.

Besides growing up in an era when Bunkie Knudsen would send over the latest and greatest Pontiac - stuffed with the hottest motor, of course - for my mom to drive every year, and delivering mail at Pontiac headquarters one summer when I was 16 (yes, including to John Z's office), I became intimately familiar with one of Pontiac's last brief flings with positive notoriety during its "We Build Excitement" years when I was a writer at Pontiac's ad agency – D’Arcy MacManus & Masius – in the early '80s. Needless to say, it pains me to see the death of one of America's most compelling and storied automotive brands.

Where did GM go wrong with Pontiac? I could fill a dozen issues of Autoextremist.com delineating the division's downfall. It's no big secret that GM's struggle to apportion product and marketing attention to all of its divisions killed Pontiac, and unfortunately the corporation finds itself at death’s door for the same reasons. But then again, few people at GM in the modern era ever understood what the brand was and how it could be made relevant in this Detroit=Bad, Imports=Good era. If done exactly right, Pontiac's marching to a different drummer persona could have had tremendous appeal today in this sea of vanilla Asian transportation appliances and German techno-wonders.

But it’s far too late for that now.

Back in 1981, I did a print ad for the Firebird Trans-Am that had the headline, "Soul Survivor." It was as much a tribute to the rebel maverick attitude and the wide-open Pontiac spirit as it was about the car itself. I am proud to say now that the ad set the tone for the "excitement" era that followed and started Pontiac on its way back. Too bad the division careened in and out of relevance ever since, depending on which way the corporate winds were blowing, of course.

So here we are.

The once-proud car company that riveted a car crazy nation with a brilliant combination of high performance and high style and became an integral part of the culture of the 60s thanks to a wide-open marketing campaign that still resonates to this day is no more.

To see the one GM division that actually had a pulse - and lived to flaunt its rebel soul to great success while thumbing its nose at its corporate overseers - reduced to a historical footnote while lost in a grim morass of debt holders and looming bankruptcy is almost unbearable.

The Soul Survivor is now just Dust in the Wind.

Pontiac deserved so much better.

Thanks for listening.


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