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 vehicles above Chevy, but below Oldsmobile, Buick and Cadillac. So where does Pontiac come in? Well, in the 1920s, GM realized that there were widening gaps between their brands. So 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 to survive beyond the nineteen forties.
Early Pontiacs from the late 20s 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 and 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 straight engines in many of their vehicles, these straights were cheaper than V ones. But because they had an excessively long crankshaft, they required a low red line to prevent flex in that crankshaft.
Things began to change, that Pontiac in the late 50s and early 60s with the introduction of a new general manager that was joined by new executives, including one John DeLorean.
DeLorean notes and focused on changing the brand’s image. Excessive chrome was removed from the vehicles, 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. Really 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.
Pontiac is growing with the sporty coupe market
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 Pontiacs received an independent rear suspension and had a near 50:50 weight distribution due to a special talk to design. A neat tidbit from around. This time, General Motors wants to introduce a Pontiac branded version of the infamous Corvair. But the general manager, whose niece had been seriously injured in a Corvette accident, successfully argued against it.
The Corvair, of course, was a very dangerous vehicle and the subject of the famous book, Unsafe at Any Speed. By 1961, Pontiac’s general manager moved to Chevrolet and was replaced by vets who want to continue cultivating a performance car brand.
“I know I’ve been focusing a lot on the business history up until now, but now I’m going to talk a bit more about the cars because these are some of the most famous nameplates ever to roll off the production line.”
Cars such as the Grand Prix taking advantage of the growing sporty coupe market were introduced Pontiac sporty image 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’s body platform. These cars had frames with the front engine and rear-wheel layout.
This is when the GTO was introduced. Now, the problem was that GM had an unwritten rule that midrange 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. Those options 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 the 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 needed new grand improvements but did not have the funds to develop them. DeLorean went to his old boss, Knudsen, and asked for assistance.
Knudsen agreed to share in the cost of developing the new vehicle and gave Pontiac a one-year exclusive, after which Chevy would release their version – the Monte Carlo. The new Grand Prix was a smashing success and moved over 100 000 units in 1969, more than 4 times what they expected. 1968 Firebirds also got upgrades. The GTO got the addition of the judge package and the Firebird got the new TransAm package.
The TransAm debuted with a 400 cubic engine and by this time John DeLorean has worked his 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 6-cylinder engine. Along with the Firebird convertible, which won’t return until the early 90s. Production of the 1969′ Firebird was actually extended by three months because the recession had delayed the 1967’s Firebird and Camaro as the 1970s brought increased fuel and insurance costs along with more federal regulations. The unrestricted engines of the 1960s came to an end.
The performance took a backseat to safety, luxury, and economy. GM issued a note 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, and Pontiac entered a slow decline. Vehicles like the Bonneville were removed and replaced with more luxurious vehicles like the Grandville. In 1972, a new manager was brought in, Martin Caserio. 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 drop.
The super duty for the 5.5L engine was an attempt to bring back some of the old racing spirits, and it was intended for Firebirds, but unfortunately made it into a few of them. One Firebird TransAm equipped with the 4.55L was tested by car and driver, and they proclaimed it to be “the last of the fast cars”. This engine would hang on for a few more years but would soon come to an end.
Pontiac focused on more fuel-efficient cars and ended all of its convertibles in 1975. The 1976 models were the last traditional American cars, mostly powered by a 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 80s saw the same continuing trends of luxury safety and fuel economy from the 70s. Now rear-wheel drive was on the decline with the first front-wheel-drive Pontiacs coming out.
It was not all bad news, though. The Firebird was still offered with the TransAm package and selling well due to its presence in movies such as Smokey and the Bandit. The Firebird also offered the first turbocharged V8 to come from Pontiac for the 1980 and 1981 model years. Firebird got its first major redesign since 1970, starring in Nightrider. 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. The 1984 year was next and it was a huge departure for Pontiac. It was a mid-engine car and it was a huge success and helped Pontiac increasing sales. For the first time in 4 years, Pontiac started to focus on technology with the:
- digital dash abs,
- steering wheel,
- mounted radio controls
- other advanced features.
Pontiac was succeeding and was the number 3 carmaker in America.
They were bringing in many young buyers. It was young buyers that were primarily driving the growth of the brand. In the early 90s, Pontiac on to vehicles such as minivans and light trucks. A new Barnesville was introduced and a new Firebird was introduced in 1993, with the TransAm having a vote putting out 275 horsepower through an available 6-speed manual gearbox. In 1998, the TransAm would receive a new motor which produced 305 horsepower.
Check the right options in the new TransAm could put out up to 320 horsepower and this number may seem measly today. But remember cars like the 1998 Mustang GT were playing out just 225 hp, so it blew away the competition in 2001. Pontiac would introduce the, to say the least, polarizing Aztek.
But let’s be fair. Pontiac was way ahead of the curve with activity focused SUV if only it looked a little different and was sold 19 years later.
The end of Pontiac
2002 brings 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. If you ask me, I would be sad to see the Camaro and Firebird be lost only for this thing to come out the next year. But there are people who drive these and he absolutely loves it. 2004 would see the final year of Pontiac and NASCAR, but some Pontiac powered cars would continue to run in later years and still can be found at local regional tracks today.
The year 2004 also saw the reintroduction of the GTO based on a Holden of all things. GM hopes the car would catch on with a healthy 350 horsepower and a leather interior, but it did not meet expectations. For 2005 and 2006 was offered a 400 horsepower engine that had brakes sourced from a Corvette in the mid-2000s. Pontiac completely revamped their lineup. Models like the Grand-Am and Bonneville were scrapped for the G6 and G9 respectively.
The Solstice Roadster and the hardtop were introduced. The Aztec 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 Sedan, which was Australian built and received praise for being like a poor man’s BMW M5. The package offered more performance and that was the most powerful car Pontiac ever built and was praised by many. Some even consider it the best driver’s car Pontiac ever made. With 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 a dire position and needed assistance from the government and had to restructure. At first, it seemed GM wanted to keep Pontiac and focus 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 to 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 a soon to be closed GM plant to build the cars. He actually found financing to do this. He was unsuccessful.
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 2006 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.