From the early 2000s until today, the American car industry has lost five big brands to downsizing and cost-cutting. Legendary names like Plymouth, Mercury and Oldsmobile, are distant memories nowadays, but car enthusiasts everywhere still miss Pontiac. Once the most exciting GM nameplates, Pontiac has been dead for 13 years, but its legendary cars still live on as one of the most sought-after relics of the fantastic muscle car era. So, what exactly happened to Pontiac and how come a brand so strong and popular died so quietly? Let`s find out:
Loss of Direction
Pontiac`s big break happened in the late `50s, when Bukie Knudsen, one of the top GM executives, transformed the pretty ordinary brand into a performance division of the company. All of a sudden, Pontiacs weren’t sensible choices with low power and performance, no, they were getting bigger and bigger engines, bolder designs, aggressive marketing, and racing success. In just a few years, Pontiac had transformed itself into an exciting brand which had created a very lucrative muscle car market in 1964 with the iconic Pontiac GTO.
After the heyday of muscle culture, Pontiac slowly moved away from its performance image although it kept several so-called sporty models in its lineup. Fat, slow and comfortable cars like the Pontiac Grand Ville proved to be moderately successful but were more suited to Cadillac than to a company which built its image on tire-shredding muscle cars. During the `90s and early `2000, Pontiac’s performance image was appealing just to customers who remember the late `60s models.
General Motors Parenting
Being under the wing of General Motors has pros for some and cons for others. For Pontiac, it didn’t turn out brilliantly. Back in the `60s, when every GM`s division was profitable, top brass executives allowed the companies to have different and unique designs, engines, models, and components. This was the basis for Pontiac`s success since the customers got a unique product, unlike anything else on the market.
During the `80s and onwards, however, cost-cutting forced all GM`s brands to share their technology, platforms, and components, making cars very similar or identical to each other. For example, the 1988 to 1994 Pontiac Sunbird was basically the same as the Buick Skylark or Chevrolet Cavalier although Pontiac designers tried to make it more sporty and cool. Except for the brave Pontiac Fiero, all other Pontiac cars were very closely related to other GM products. One of the worst moments was the 1988 to 1993 Pontiac Le Mans, which was in fact just an Opel Kadett with different badges.
When Pontiac was at its prime, it was something between Mercedes AMG, BMW M-Division, and Alfa Romeo but more affordable and accessible. It had several powerful muscle car models such as the GTO, Firebird, Grand Prix and Catalina 2+2. It produced powerful sedans with up to 350 HP like the Bonneville and even made fast station wagons. During the `80s it had a neat two-seater called the Fiero and also was successful in producing futuristic minivans like the Pontiac Trans Sport.
Over the years, a lot of competitors emerged, mainly from Europe and all of them took a piece of Pontiac’s pie. Fast station wagons are now Audi`s speciality, roaring V8 sedans are AMG, and when you think of a muscle car, you think of a Ford Mustang, not a Pontiac GTO, which in fact created that market segment. It’s funny and sad at the same time when you realize that in the mid-`60s Pontiac produced over a million cars a year; most of them with powerful V8s, while AMG or M-Performance brands weren’t even established yet and Audi was a small, obscure economy brand.
Worsening Model Development
During the `90s, it became apparent that something had to be done and Pontiac was given the green light to “personalize” its cars a bit more, trying to differentiate it from the rest of GM`s offerings. This is how we got the infamous Pontiac Aztec. The vehicle was so weird and different that all of its useful features were simply forgotten. The Aztec was an attempt to present something new and fresh in the crossover class, but it backfired terribly since the design and appearance were very unappealing to buyers at the time.
Also, Pontiac failed to foresee the rise of the SUV class beyond the Aztec and even though it produced models like the Pontiac Torrent, it wasn’t any better (or significantly different) from the Opel Antara, Saturn XL7, Saturn Vue or Chevrolet Equinox. That said, you could argue that the Aztek was almost an SUV, but perhaps with less sporting pretensions.
In the early 2000s, Pontiac and GM managers finally managed to realize what the company needed and decided to introduce several proper performance models with significant power, decent styling, and authentic muscle car performance. The solution for wounded Pontiac was required immediately, and since there wasn’t any time or money to develop such models, Pontiac once again needed to borrow designs from other GM subsidiaries. This time, Australian Holden was the source. Unfortunately, it was too little, too late.
First was the GTO which was a Holden Monaro with a Pontiac badge. Although it had a healthy 350 HP and tire-melting performance, the floorplan was already 5 years old. It also looked nothing like the classic GTO, and in the period of fashionable retro-futuristic design, Pontiac managed to sell only around 40,000 examples while Ford sold ten times as many Mustangs with the help of retro looks.
Secondly came the G8 and Solstice roadsters. While those two were excellent cars, nobody seemed to notice them. The G8 was again a Holden model with a Pontiac logo, but it was a well-sorted and competent performance sedan. Period testers even compared it to the BMW M5 E39. The Solstice was a true sports roadster with a lightweight body and decent power, but it failed to sell enough to keep GM from pulling the plug.
On April 27, 2009, General Motors made the announcement that Pontiac would be discontinued as a brand and that all of its remaining vehicles were to be phased out by the end of the next year. Though most business activity has ceased for Pontiac, it still remains registered to GM as an active trademark. Have you ever had a Pontiac? Do you wish to see their return or not? Let me know in the comments.