By Robert Bravender
I've never actually owned a Pontiac. My wife had a 1980 Trans Am when I was dating her, my best friend a Formula. After we got married, my wife and I tried to get a 1967 Firebird convertible, even though it looked like someone had torched a hole through the bonnet where the unique hood-mounted tachometer was supposed to be. We eventually got a '67 Ford Mustang which we have to this day, yet I'm still extremely sad to see the Pontiac marque go. When Plymouth and Oldsmobile were orphaned by Chrysler and GM a few years back, I shrugged it off despite our family having had models of both.
Perhaps it's because Pontiac was more of a cultural icon, if you will. It was the George Barris-modified GTO convertible which the Monkees goofed around in; the "screaming chicken" Trans Am Burt Reynolds dusted cops with in the "Smokey & the Bandit" movies, the Firebird Formula James Garner could spin on a dime in "The Rockford Files. To quote their old ad campaign, Pontiac generated excitement. Sleeker and bolder than their Chevy cousins, "Ponchos" inaugurated the muscle car era with the 1964 GTO, and arguably gave it its last gasp when they put a huge 455 Super Duty engine into the 1974 Firebird.
Of course this wasn't always so. Founded in 1908 as the Oakland Car Company, it was bought a year later by GM mogul Billy Durant as part of his growing m'lange of car companies. In 1926 GM rechristened the division Pontiac after it's hometown in Michigan, which in turn was named after a fierce Ottawa chieftain. Positioned between Chevrolet and Buick, Pontiac produced moderately priced cars with modest power; it eventually settled into a reliable middle-of-the-road-ness which excited virtually no one, but by 1956 things started to change.
Now lead by the dynamic team of general manager Semon "Bunkie" Knudsen and engineers E. M. Estes and John DeLorean, Pontiac began building cars appealing to the burgeoning youth market. The trend of naming models after road races (i.e. Trans Am, Grand Am, LeMans, Grand Prix, Formula), began with the Bonneville, after the famed dry lake bed race in Utah. But the real excitement kicked in when DeLorean took over leadership of the division in 1964. Perhaps better known for the imbroglio with his own marque — partially salvaged by the "Back to the Future" movies — DeLorean took the bold step of stuffing a 389 cubic inch tri-power from Pontiac's full size line into the mid-sized Tempest. Violating GM's edict limiting engine size, DeLorean, with help from Pontiac ad man Jim Wangers, offered it as a dealer option — the legendary GTO, after Ferrari's Gran Turismo Omologato. Before the GM higher-ups knew what was happening, they had a hit on their hands and the muscle car era began in earnest.
This was soon followed by the Firebird, upscale cousin to the Chevy Camaro, a stylish ride which frankly now has a certain cache with the good ol' boy crowd, myself included. In line with their sportier image, Pontiac offered cool stuff like Wide Track styling and handling, gauges where Chevy and Buick had idiot lights, crisper lines, bigger graphics; creating an indelible youthfulness which by 1988 had made the division the third largest domestic automaker behind Chevrolet and Ford.
Of course there were a few misfires over the years. The Fiero finally gave Pontiac fans their own two-seat sports car, a mid-engined one at that, but the car never quite met expectations and now is as much relic of the 1980s as hair bands. Their overhead cam inline 6 never caught on, while the turbocharged 455 was at best a sales gimmick. The Aztec — well, what can you say about this ugly SUV? And despite waiting decades before reintroducing the celebrated GTO, the car, while wicked fast with a tuned Corvette engine, looked more like a bloated Sunfire than the tiger of old. After that, Pontiac tried to compete with the upscale import market, dropping cool badge names in favor of letter-number combinations, signaling the division's inexorable slide.
With its recently announced demise, the once glorious Pontiac marque will now join ghosts like Plymouth, Oldsmobile, Checker, AMC and Studebaker; cars once so common they were like wallpaper, always in the background of our lives — now only to be seen in old movies and car shows. And while I never personally owned a Pontiac, I did help my daughter get a cute two-door 1993 Grand Am, her first car. At least in our household the Pontiac legacy will last a little longer.