By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit. That I have a deep adore of every thing Pontiac is properly acknowledged. I grew up immersed in this organization – suitable in the thick of GM’s heyday – and Pontiac performed a very important position in both of those my formative a long time and my early promotion career. That is why when GM took the bankruptcy pill in 2008, I was crushingly unhappy to understand that the Pontiac Division was a single of the belongings to be jettisoned. (And Hummer, as well, but the good thing is that nameplate has now returned.)
It is challenging to consider now, but Pontiac was just an additional GM division again in the mid-50s. It experienced a lineup of stodgy vehicles, and there was practically nothing to create home about. The division existed under the GM corporate umbrella, but it was decidedly missing in just about everything when compared to GM’s other divisions: Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet and Oldsmobile. But that would all change when Bunkie Knudsen was appointed a GM vice president and the division’s typical manager in July of 1958. Knudsen was offered the assignment to inject some daily life into the division and maximize sales, and he was specified carte blanche to do it.
As a reminder, if you have been a GM vice president and divisional general manager again in the working day you have been akin to a potentate running a little state. GM’s divisional typical supervisors experienced immense energy with accountability for engineering, production, product sales and advertising. Wondering about that in comparison with how issues function right now, it does not feel true, due to the fact it was so dramatically unique from present day car small business it is like looking at from a fairytale book. But make no error, it was really real, and GM’s divisional general administrators had been like giants roaming the earth, swashbuckling their way via the working day-to-day of the business enterprise though making important, pivotal selections on the fly. Try to remember, this was a organization that debuted new cars every single fall with new sheet metallic and new attributes to go with them. Once again, in comparison with how items are completed these days, it’s just jaw-dropping to ponder how the enterprise churned back then. Certainly, as I’ve claimed numerous, quite a few times in advance of, it was a diverse time and a various period, but GM’s heyday was actually outstanding in that the corporation soared due to the fact of it, even with the bean counters hoping to rein issues in each stage of the way.
The only arena in which GM’s divisional basic supervisors had to just take a move back was when working with GM Styling, which was run with an iron fist by design and style legend Monthly bill Mitchell, who inherited the mantle from Harley Earl. The clashes amongst Mitchell and GM’s divisional typical managers were famous, and I will conserve those people tales for yet another column. But suffice to say, Mitchell obtained what he wished for the most component, even if he had to participate in the divisional common professionals off towards each other to do so.
But back to Bunkie and Pontiac. His initial hires ended up two younger and gifted engineers – Pete Estes from Oldsmobile and John Z. DeLorean from Packard. The demand to DeLorean was very specific: get Pontiac into the overall performance business ideal now. And given that Bunkie was a substantial racing enthusiast, every thing was on the table, from NASCAR to drag racing.
And all of a unexpected, hot Pontiacs stuffed with large V8s started to show up in all places, from Daytona to Pomona. And even in our driveway. Considering that Bunkie and his spouse ended up social buddies with my mom and dad, Bunkie commenced sending the best Pontiacs to our dwelling particularly for my mother to drive. Starting in the summer months of 1959, we had a series of Bonneville and Catalina convertibles that were being often vibrant purple with a white prime and a dazzling crimson interior. And they were constantly equipped with the most popular Pontiac motor at the time, which at very first were being 389 cu. in. V8s with 3×2-barrell carbs, and sooner or later 421 cu.in. V8s. Needless to say, my mom beloved her hot Pontiacs. (And my brother and I did, as well, particularly considering the fact that he experienced just gotten his license and we would “exercise” mom’s cars and trucks at each opportunity.)
The transformation of the Pontiac Division is a wonderful section of GM lore. Pontiacs went from remaining functional transportation units to some of the most popular automobiles in the market. Providing general performance engineering and styling that just weren’t readily available any where else, Pontiac rode a wave of level of popularity that took the company – and GM – by storm.
I say GM simply because, try to remember that part about GM’s divisional vice presidents becoming akin to potentates of their have international locations? Perfectly, that was correct, right until Pontiac – beneath Bunkie Knudsen’s tutelage – started to upset the pecking purchase in the business. Before Pontiac grew to become a “problem” for the other common professionals, the GM divisional hierarchy was very clear: Cadillac was up and off to the side luxuriating in its very own rarified world. Buick was future in phrases of prestige, with the tremendous-well known Chevrolet sucking up all of the air in the place mainly because of its outstanding sales numbers, adopted by Oldsmobile, which just chugged along, and then the moribund Pontiac.
At the very least that is the way it utilized to be prior to Bunkie and his “pirates” received rolling. All of a unexpected, items experienced changed. Chevrolet, which quite substantially had significant-effectiveness marketing and advertising chances cornered inside GM, was getting seriously pushed by Pontiac on all fronts. Chevrolet operatives turned a lot more incensed with every Pontiac foray into their territory, and the intramural battles in between the two divisions spilled over all the way to GM’s vaunted 14th floor, with whining Chevrolet executives complaining to top GM execs that Pontiac was intentionally encroaching on Chevy’s territory. As you can imagine, this didn’t sit very well with Knudsen and DeLorean & Co. The increasing product sales numbers, even so, have been in Pontiac’s favor so GM’s best execs really considerably allow Pontiac go, which included even much more gas to Chevy’s fire.
Then, in 1963, when GM issued its formal ban from the participation in racing as company policy (a monumentally hen-shit choice, by the way), the divisional general managers experienced to comply. (This is when Zora Arkus-Duntov, somewhat than destroying the Corvette Grand Sports activities, shipped them to trustworthy racer pals of the business, for in essence free of charge. And the company’s deeply embedded connection with Jim Hall’s Chaparral automobiles went wholly underground.)
The tiny-identified collateral hurt from that anti-racing ban was a GM internal edict that prohibited selected sized V8 from staying put in “smaller” cars and trucks, which is a joke considering these scaled-down cars ended up substantial by today’s requirements. The Chevrolet operatives dutifully complied with the edict, when Pontiac operatives, led by DeLorean and Invoice Collins – the gifted engineer who justifies most of the credit rating for this following piece of automotive heritage – made the decision to go in another direction. Prior to the racing ban, Collins had been active stuffing Pontiac’s 389-cu.in. V8s into “intermediate” Le Mans bodies, and the outcome was, unnecessary to say, magical. But when the edict took impact, Pontiac was particularly 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 decided to get all-around the ban by building the “GTO” a new alternative package deal on the 1964 Pontiac Le Mans. And the rest, as they say, is automotive historical past, as the unique “muscle” car was born. Chevrolet operatives ended up apoplectic, but by the time GM corporate bought wind of what was going on, the GTO solution experienced grow to be a person of the most sought-immediately after substantial-performance choice offers in the industry. And by 1966 it turned its very own different design.
Pontiac was red-hot, with its distinct brand of higher-functionality engineering and some of GM Styling’s very best layouts coming in wave after wave. From there, Pontiac would pile accomplishment upon success, reaching, at just one stage, a few million in yearly income. The rebels out in Pontiac, Michigan, had won.
And almost the greatest element? Pontiac was supported by sensational promotion, evidently some of the finest and most memorable marketing in the auto small business at the time. That pissed off Chevrolet’s advertisement company – Campbell-Ewald – on a typical basis, which built it even much better.
As for the intramural battle between Chevrolet and Pontiac, it ongoing. Pontiac came out with the Grand Prix in 1962, and the extended-nosed ’69 version pushed by DeLorean was one more enormous hit. Chevrolet came out with the Camaro in 1967, but the Pontiac Firebird to some, was superior searching. The ’70 Camaro, which was extraordinary in its own proper, was undercut by the fantastic ‘70 Pontiac Firebird Trans-Am and Firebird System. As late as 1984, when Pontiac arrived out with the mid-engine Fiero, the fight 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 ideal right before it was dropped. The 2nd-era Fiero, which I had the enjoyment of seeing, experienced “Corvette-killer” created all in excess of it, but there was only no way Chevrolet operatives had been likely to enable it to see the mild of working day, so they lobbied against it greatly, and it never did.
The Pontiac story is truly worth telling. And it is not just since of the incredible vehicles and nameplates like Bonneville, Catalina, Fiero, Firebird, Grand Prix, GTO and Le Mans. It’s due to the fact a bunch of maverick True Believers thumbed their noses at the company inertia that threatened to overrun GM at the time and dared to go up versus an intramural corporate rival to deliver some of the greatest and most unforgettable machines to appear out of Detroit.
I had the pleasure of doing the job on Pontiac promoting at D’Arcy MacManus & Masius from 1980-1985, and I will never ever neglect it. Even although the company was swiftly changing and Pontiac was commencing to reduce its identity inside the GM company monolith, the spirit of the previous ad greats that came just before me and my advertisement colleagues was as rigorous, lively and visceral as it could be. And we worked to make them proud every damn working day.
Is this a plea for GM to resurrect Pontiac? That is a tough “no.” Pontiac existed in a fleeting second in time and still left its indelible mark on automotive historical past – never to be recurring, but in no way to be forgotten.
And that is the Higher-Octane Fact for this week.
Editor’s Be aware: This is Peter’s popular advert for the 1981 Pontiac Trans Am Turbo V-8. As Peter states, “It was a diverse time and a diverse era.” Truer text were being in no way spoken. -WG