The History of Pontiac
The History of Pontiac begins with the Oakland Motor Car Company. Which was purchased by General Motors in 1909. The Oakland brand produced moderately priced vehicle slide above Chevy but below Oldsmobile Buick and Cadillac. So where does Pontiac come in, well in the 1920 GM realized that there were widening gaps between their brands. They introduced the champion make program which aimed to fill the gaps in price points between each of their brands. To fill the gap between Oakland and Chevrolet General Motors introduced Pontiac. Pontiac was a success by this time the Great Depression came and the struggling Oakland brand was dropped in favor of the more successful Pontiac. Pontiac was the only champion make to survive beyond the 1940.
Early Pontiac from the late teens to early 40s had a Native American theme with names such as the Pontiac chief. Many of these vehicles were simple Chevy or Buick bodies with larger engines installed on larger chrome strips in order to provide some visual distinction. Early on these cars were thought of as quiet and reliable but not particularly quick. One interesting note is that Pontiac used straight-8 engines in many of their vehicles. These straight eighths were cheaper than a V8 but because they had an excessively long crankshaft. They required a low red line to prevent flex in that crankshaft. Things began to change at Pontiac in the late 50s and early 60s with the introduction of a new general manager Semon bunkie knudsen. Knutsen was joined by new executives including one John DeLorean. Knudsen focused on changing the brand’s image excessive chrome was removed from the vehicle and the Bonneville was introduced to showcase a new fuel-injected engine.
In 1959 the new arrowhead emblem that we are all familiar with was introduced but branding was not the only thing that changed. Generally powerful engines were accompanied by new styling including increased glass area tailfins and lower hood profiles. All these changes led to the entire Pontiac lineup being named 1959 Motor Trend Car of the year. From the 60s to the 70s most Pontiac models were similar to other GM vehicles but had unique front and rear styling and importantly their own unique engines. Smaller and lighter unibody cars designed by DeLorean were introduced. Some Pontiac received independent rear suspension and had a near 50 50 weight distribution due to a special torque tube design.
A neat tidbit from around this time GM went to introduce a Pontiac branded version of the infamous Corvair but Knudsen whose niece had been seriously injured in a Corvair accent successfully argued against it. The Corvair was a very dangerous vehicle and the subject of the famous book unsafe at any speed.
By 1961 Knudsen moved to Chevrolet and was replaced by Pete it’s who want to continue cultivating a performance car brand. Cars such as the Grand Prix taking advantage of the growing sporty coupe market were introduced. Pontiac sporty image seemed jeopardized when GM ended factory support for all racing activities in 1963 but Pontiac continued to pump out larger and larger engines across their lineup.
In 1964 Pontiac moved to the GM a body platform. These cars had frames with the front engine and rear wheel layout. This is when the GTO was introduced. The problem was that GM had unwritten rule that mid-range cars could not have an engine larger than 330 cubic inches but DeLorean came up with the idea to offer the GTO with an option package that included a 389 cubic inch engine which put out somewhere around 325 to 348 horsepower all this focus on sport paid off and in 1965 the entire Pontiac lineup was once again named Motor Trend Car of the Year the GTO was a hit.
In 1967 Pontiac introduced its take on a pony car the Firebird. It was a variant of the Camaro and supposed to take on the incredibly popular Ford Mustang. An interesting story in 1966 sales of the once popular Pontiac Grand Prix were slowing. Pontiac need a new Grand Prix but did not have the funds to develop it. DeLorean went to his old boss Knudsen over at Chevy and asked for assistance. Knudsen agreed to share in the cost of developing the new vehicle and gave Pontiac a one-year exclusive to the car. After which Chevy would release their version. The Monte Carlo the new Grand Prix was a smashing success and moved over a hundred thousand units in 1969, more than four times what they moved in 1968.
GTO and Firebirds also got upgrades the GTO got the addition of the judge package and the Firebird got the new Trans Am package. The Trans Am debuted with a 400 cubic inch engine and by this time John DeLorean had worked its way up to general manager of Pontiac but moved on to accept a similar position at Chevy.
The 1969 Firebird got a heavy facelift and saw the death of the overhead cam six-cylinder engine along with the Firebird convertible which won’t return until the early 90s. production of the 69 Firebird was actually extended by three months because recession had delayed the 1970 Firebird and Camaro as the 70s brought increased fuel and insurance costs along with more federal regulations. The unrestricted engines of the 60s came to an end. Performance took a backseat to safety, luxury and economy. GM issued an edict saying all engines must be able to use lower octane unleaded gasoline. Pontiac also had to make nicer interiors to keep up with other Gm brands. Pontiac entered a slow decline vehicles like the Bonneville were moved and replaced with more luxurious vehicles like the Granville.
In 1972 a new manager was brought in martin cassie arrow and he was notably the first manager in over a decade who was more focused on sales and marketing than performance. Power and Pontiac engines continued to draw. The Super Duty 455 engine was an attempt to bring back some of the old racing spirit and it was intended for GTO and Firebirds but unfortunately made it into few of them. One Firebird Trans Am equipped with the 455 was tested by Caron driver and they proclaimed it to be quote the last of the fast cars and quote. The 455 would hang on for a few more years but would soon come to an end.
Pontiac focused on more fuel-efficient cars like the new ashtray and ended it all of its convertibles in 1975. The 1976 models were the last traditional American car is mostly powered by big-block V8. At this point GM vehicles began downsizing in nearly all dimensions. The late 70s also saw the end of engines designed solely by Pontiac. All future engines would come from a more centralized production.
The 1982 the Firebird got its first major redesign since 1970. Starring a knight Rider the new car was an instant success. This Firebird would also see the return of the convertible in later years and it was noted for its low drag coefficient. This would give Pontiac a platform for other performance packages and models.
1984 Fiero was next and it was a huge departure for Pontiac. It was a mid-engine car and was a huge success and hope Pontiac see increasing sales for the first time in four years. Pontiac was succeeding and was the number three car maker in America. They were bringing in young buyers. It was young buyers that were primarily driving the growth of the brand. In the early 90s Pontiac into vehicles such as minivans and light trucks. A new Bonneville was introduced and a new Firebird was introduced in 1993 with the Trans Am having a V8 playing out 275 horsepower through an available 6-speed manual.
In 1998 the Trans Am would receive an LS1 motor which produced 305 horsepower . in 2001 Pontiac would introduce the to say the least polarizing Aztec but let’s be fair Pontiac was way ahead of the curve with the activity focused SUV. If only it looked a little different and and was sold 19 years later.
2002 saw the discontinuation of the Camaro and Firebird due to saturation in the sports coupe market. In 2003 Pontiac collaborated with Toyota and introduced the Pontiac Vibe which was built in a joint plant. 2004 would see the final year of Pontiac in NASCAR but some Pontiac powered cars would continue to run in later years and still can be found at local regional tracks today. 2004 also saw the reintroduction of the GTO based on a Holden of all things. GM hoped the car would catch on with a healthy 350 horsepower and a leather interior but it did not meet expections.
2005 to 2006 the GTO offered a 400 horsepower LS2 engine that had brakes sourced from a Corvette in the mid-2000 Pontiac completely revamped their lineup. Models like the Grand Am and Bonneville were scrapped for the G6 and G9 respectively. The Solstice roadster and a hardtop were introduced and the Aztek was slowly phased out and replaced by a badge-engineered version of the Chevy Equinox.
In 2008 Pontiac introduced the rear-wheel drive high-performance G8 sedan which was Australian built and received praise for being like a poor mans BMW M5. The GXP package offered more performance and the G8 GXP was the most powerful car Pontiac ever built and was praised by many some even consider it the best drivers car Pontiac ever made. GM announcing the return of the Camaro some speculated the return of the Firebird but those were only rumors. All of this came crashing down with the financial crisis. GM was in dire position and needed assistance from the government and had to restructure. At first it seemed GM wanted to keep Pontiac and focused it on a niche sports segment. They were planning on cutting the line down to just four models but ultimately Pontiac had to be eliminated along with Hummer , Saab and Saturn. Due an approaching bankruptcy deadline and production was phased out by 2010.
A Michigan dealer owner named Jim Waldron expressed interest in buying the Pontiac brand and assumed to be closed GM plant to build the cars. He actually found financing to do this. He was unsuccessful as GM had decided to retire the Pontiac brand and unlike Saab, Hummer and Mercury Pontiac was not for sale. The last Pontiac was a white 2010 G6 Sedan built in the Orion Township assembly line in January 2010 and that is the end of Pontiac. A historic brand that no doubt is embedded in American culture and will be missed by car fans from all walks of life.