By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit. That I have a deep like of every little thing Pontiac is very well recognized. I grew up immersed in this business – right in the thick of GM’s heyday – and Pontiac performed a crucial job in both of those my formative decades and my early marketing occupation. Which is why when GM took the bankruptcy pill in 2008, I was crushingly dissatisfied to study that the Pontiac Division was a person of the property to be jettisoned. (And Hummer, far too, but the good news is that nameplate has now returned.)
It’s difficult to believe now, but Pontiac was just an additional GM division back again in the mid-50s. It had a lineup of stodgy vehicles, and there was absolutely nothing to produce residence about. The division existed below the GM company umbrella, but it was decidedly missing in just about almost everything when when compared to GM’s other divisions: Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet and Oldsmobile. But that would all modify when Bunkie Knudsen was appointed a GM vice president and the division’s typical manager in July of 1958. Knudsen was provided the assignment to inject some lifetime into the division and boost product sales, and he was presented carte blanche to do it.
As a reminder, if you were a GM vice president and divisional general supervisor back in the working day you ended up akin to a potentate running a modest nation. GM’s divisional standard professionals had immense electricity with accountability for engineering, producing, profits and marketing and advertising. Wondering about that in comparison with how factors function right now, it does not seem authentic, because it was so drastically unique from modern automobile small business it’s like examining from a fairytale book. But make no slip-up, it was quite real, and GM’s divisional basic managers ended up like giants roaming the earth, swashbuckling their way by way of the working day-to-working day of the small business although creating important, pivotal decisions on the fly. Keep in mind, this was a organization that debuted new automobiles each individual tumble with new sheet metal and new characteristics to go with them. All over again, in comparison with how things are performed currently, it’s just jaw-dropping to ponder how the enterprise churned again then. Of course, as I have said many, quite a few times just before, it was a unique time and a distinct period, but GM’s heyday was actually impressive in that the company soared for the reason that of it, even with the bean counters seeking to rein points in every stage of the way.
The only arena where by GM’s divisional standard administrators experienced to just take a action again was when working with GM Styling, which was operate with an iron fist by style legend Monthly bill Mitchell, who inherited the mantle from Harley Earl. The clashes involving Mitchell and GM’s divisional common supervisors have been legendary, and I will help save all those stories for a different column. But suffice to say, Mitchell acquired what he preferred for the most aspect, even if he experienced to play the divisional general managers off versus each individual other to do so.
But again to Bunkie and Pontiac. His to start with hires were two younger and gifted engineers – Pete Estes from Oldsmobile and John Z. DeLorean from Packard. The demand to DeLorean was pretty precise: get Pontiac into the effectiveness business ideal now. And given that Bunkie was a substantial racing enthusiast, every little thing was on the table, from NASCAR to drag racing.
And all of a unexpected, warm Pontiacs stuffed with large V8s begun to exhibit up almost everywhere, from Daytona to Pomona. And even in our driveway. Considering that Bunkie and his wife were social mates with my dad and mom, Bunkie commenced sending the hottest Pontiacs to our household exclusively for my mother to generate. Starting in the summer season of 1959, we experienced a sequence of Bonneville and Catalina convertibles that had been normally shiny red with a white leading and a vivid pink interior. And they were generally equipped with the most popular Pontiac motor at the time, which at to start with were 389 cu. in. V8s with 3×2-barrell carbs, and at some point 421 cu.in. V8s. Unnecessary to say, my mom beloved her sizzling Pontiacs. (And my brother and I did, much too, specifically considering that he had just gotten his license and we would “exercise” mom’s autos at every single chance.)
The transformation of the Pontiac Division is a wonderful element of GM lore. Pontiacs went from currently being practical transportation products to some of the best vehicles in the field. Giving functionality engineering and styling that just weren’t accessible any place else, Pontiac rode a wave of acceptance that took the business enterprise – and GM – by storm.
I say GM for the reason that, bear in mind that component about GM’s divisional vice presidents remaining akin to potentates of their possess nations around the world? Nicely, that was genuine, until eventually Pontiac – beneath Bunkie Knudsen’s tutelage – commenced to upset the pecking purchase in just the corporation. In advance of Pontiac became a “problem” for the other normal administrators, the GM divisional hierarchy was very clear: Cadillac was up and off to the aspect luxuriating in its very own rarified globe. Buick was next in terms of prestige, with the super-preferred Chevrolet sucking up all of the air in the area simply because of its incredible income numbers, adopted by Oldsmobile, which just chugged along, and then the moribund Pontiac.
At minimum which is the way it utilised to be right before Bunkie and his “pirates” obtained rolling. All of a unexpected, points experienced modified. Chevrolet, which quite substantially experienced superior-performance internet marketing possibilities cornered within just GM, was staying severely pushed by Pontiac on all fronts. Chevrolet operatives grew to become far more incensed with each individual Pontiac foray into their territory, and the intramural battles in between the two divisions spilled in excess of all the way to GM’s vaunted 14th floor, with whining Chevrolet executives complaining to best GM execs that Pontiac was intentionally encroaching on Chevy’s territory. As you can consider, this did not sit nicely with Knudsen and DeLorean & Co. The raising gross sales numbers, having said that, were in Pontiac’s favor so GM’s best execs very substantially enable Pontiac go, which included even extra gasoline to Chevy’s hearth.
Then, in 1963, when GM issued its official ban against the participation in racing as corporate policy (a monumentally chicken-shit choice, by the way), the divisional standard managers experienced to comply. (This is when Zora Arkus-Duntov, instead than destroying the Corvette Grand Sporting activities, shipped them to trusted racer good friends of the corporation, for in essence free of charge. And the company’s deeply embedded marriage with Jim Hall’s Chaparral vehicles went completely underground.)
The small-known collateral harm from that anti-racing ban was a GM inside edict that prohibited selected sized V8 from remaining put in “smaller” vehicles, which is a joke taking into consideration all those smaller cars had been substantial by today’s specifications. The Chevrolet operatives dutifully complied with the edict, when Pontiac operatives, led by DeLorean and Monthly bill Collins – the gifted engineer who warrants most of the credit score for this subsequent piece of automotive record – resolved to go in yet another route. Just before the racing ban, Collins experienced been occupied stuffing Pontiac’s 389-cu.in. V8s into “intermediate” Le Mans bodies, and the end result was, unnecessary to say, magical. But when the edict took outcome, Pontiac was precisely ordered not to things a V8 into a Le Mans to make it into a new Pontiac design.
Then, a bit of genius. Pontiac operatives determined to get all over the ban by building the “GTO” a new choice package deal on the 1964 Pontiac Le Mans. And the rest, as they say, is automotive history, as the authentic “muscle” motor vehicle was born. Chevrolet operatives were apoplectic, but by the time GM corporate acquired wind of what was going on, the GTO solution had develop into a person of the most sought-following large-effectiveness selection offers in the market. And by 1966 it turned its have individual design.
Pontiac was pink-very hot, with its exclusive brand of higher-functionality engineering and some of GM Styling’s greatest types coming in wave immediately after wave. From there, Pontiac would pile success upon good results, reaching, at a person position, 3 million in annual product sales. The rebels out in Pontiac, Michigan, had won.
And nearly the ideal element? Pontiac was supported by sensational marketing, plainly some of the greatest and most unforgettable marketing in the car enterprise at the time. That pissed off Chevrolet’s ad company – Campbell-Ewald – on a normal basis, which produced it even better.
As for the intramural fight in between Chevrolet and Pontiac, it continued. Pontiac came out with the Grand Prix in 1962, and the extended-nosed ’69 version pushed by DeLorean was an additional big hit. Chevrolet arrived out with the Camaro in 1967, but the Pontiac Firebird to some, was far better wanting. The ’70 Camaro, which was spectacular in its have appropriate, was undercut by the fantastic ‘70 Pontiac Firebird Trans-Am and Firebird System. As late as 1984, when Pontiac arrived out with the mid-motor Fiero, the battle ongoing. Chevrolet insisted that it could not encroach on Corvette territory, so the Fiero was limited to a 4-cylinder at intro and obtained a V6 correct just before it was dropped. The 2nd-era Fiero, which I had the satisfaction of looking at, experienced “Corvette-killer” prepared all in excess of it, but there was only no way Chevrolet operatives were heading to allow it to see the light of day, so they lobbied against it heavily, and it never ever did.
The Pontiac story is value telling. And it is not just because of the fabulous vehicles and nameplates like Bonneville, Catalina, Fiero, Firebird, Grand Prix, GTO and Le Mans. It is simply because a bunch of maverick True Believers thumbed their noses at the corporate inertia that threatened to overrun GM at the time and dared to go up in opposition to an intramural company rival to deliver some of the greatest and most memorable machines to come out of Detroit.
I experienced the enjoyment of functioning on Pontiac advertising at D’Arcy MacManus & Masius from 1980-1985, and I will never neglect it. Even however the business enterprise was quickly modifying and Pontiac was starting to get rid of its id inside of the GM corporate monolith, the spirit of the former advertisement greats that arrived just before me and my advertisement colleagues was as intense, vibrant and visceral as it could be. And we labored to make them happy just about every damn day.
Is this a plea for GM to resurrect Pontiac? That is a tough “no.” Pontiac existed in a fleeting minute in time and remaining its indelible mark on automotive record – never to be repeated, but by no means to be forgotten.
And that is the Substantial-Octane Fact for this 7 days.
Editor’s Be aware: This is Peter’s famed advert for the 1981 Pontiac Trans Am Turbo V-8. As Peter suggests, “It was a different time and a unique era.” Truer text had been by no means spoken. -WG