By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit. That I have a deep appreciate of all the things Pontiac is well identified. I grew up immersed in this business – proper in the thick of GM’s heyday – and Pontiac performed a very important purpose in each my formative yrs and my early advertising and marketing career. That’s why when GM took the individual bankruptcy pill in 2008, I was crushingly dissatisfied to study that the Pontiac Division was 1 of the property to be jettisoned. (And Hummer, much too, but luckily that nameplate has now returned.)
It’s tricky to believe now, but Pontiac was just a further GM division again in the mid-50s. It experienced a lineup of stodgy vehicles, and there was absolutely nothing to produce home about. The division existed underneath the GM company umbrella, but it was decidedly missing in just about everything when in comparison 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 standard manager in July of 1958. Knudsen was offered the assignment to inject some existence into the division and enhance profits, and he was given carte blanche to do it.
As a reminder, if you were a GM vice president and divisional general supervisor back again in the working day you have been akin to a potentate jogging a tiny place. GM’s divisional basic professionals had enormous electricity with obligation for engineering, producing, revenue and marketing and advertising. Pondering about that in comparison with how items operate currently, it doesn’t appear to be genuine, due to the fact it was so substantially distinctive from present-day vehicle business enterprise it’s like reading from a fairytale reserve. But make no mistake, it was incredibly real, and GM’s divisional typical managers ended up like giants roaming the earth, swashbuckling their way through the day-to-working day of the enterprise though building important, pivotal selections on the fly. Bear in mind, this was a small business that debuted new autos just about every slide with new sheet metal and new capabilities to go with them. All over again, in comparison with how points are finished now, it’s just jaw-dropping to ponder how the small business churned back then. Certainly, as I have mentioned many, quite a few situations right before, it was a distinctive time and a diverse period, but GM’s heyday was really outstanding in that the corporation soared due to the fact of it, even with the bean counters striving to rein factors in each move of the way.
The only arena where by GM’s divisional normal supervisors experienced to get a move back again was when working with GM Styling, which was operate with an iron fist by design and style legend Monthly bill Mitchell, who inherited the mantle from Harley Earl. The clashes involving Mitchell and GM’s divisional basic administrators have been legendary, and I will save all those stories for one more column. But suffice to say, Mitchell got what he preferred for the most part, even if he had to engage in the divisional standard managers off against every single other to do so.
But back to Bunkie and Pontiac. His initially hires were being two youthful and gifted engineers – Pete Estes from Oldsmobile and John Z. DeLorean from Packard. The cost to DeLorean was extremely particular: get Pontiac into the efficiency business right now. And due to the fact Bunkie was a large racing fanatic, anything was on the desk, from NASCAR to drag racing.
And all of a sudden, warm Pontiacs stuffed with big V8s started off to display up everywhere, from Daytona to Pomona. And even in our driveway. Considering the fact that Bunkie and his wife were being social pals with my mom and dad, Bunkie started sending the hottest Pontiacs to our house specifically for my mother to drive. Beginning in the summer season of 1959, we experienced a series of Bonneville and Catalina convertibles that have been often vivid purple with a white top rated and a dazzling crimson inside. And they were often equipped with the most popular Pontiac engine at the time, which at initial were 389 cu. in. V8s with 3×2-barrell carbs, and finally 421 cu.in. V8s. Useless to say, my mom beloved her hot Pontiacs. (And my brother and I did, much too, in particular since he had just gotten his license and we would “exercise” mom’s vehicles at every single opportunity.)
The transformation of the Pontiac Division is a wonderful aspect of GM lore. Pontiacs went from currently being functional transportation equipment to some of the most popular automobiles in the field. Supplying effectiveness engineering and styling that just weren’t accessible everywhere else, Pontiac rode a wave of popularity that took the organization – and GM – by storm.
I say GM due to the fact, recall that section about GM’s divisional vice presidents staying akin to potentates of their own nations? Well, that was true, till Pontiac – under Bunkie Knudsen’s tutelage – commenced to upset the pecking purchase inside of the organization. Before Pontiac became a “problem” for the other common professionals, the GM divisional hierarchy was apparent: Cadillac was up and off to the facet luxuriating in its own rarified world. Buick was future in terms of status, with the super-well-liked Chevrolet sucking up all of the air in the place for the reason that of its outstanding sales figures, adopted by Oldsmobile, which just chugged along, and then the moribund Pontiac.
At least which is the way it utilised to be right before Bunkie and his “pirates” acquired rolling. All of a sudden, items had improved. Chevrolet, which very substantially experienced higher-efficiency promoting possibilities cornered inside GM, was remaining very seriously pushed by Pontiac on all fronts. Chevrolet operatives grew to become 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 prime GM execs that Pontiac was deliberately encroaching on Chevy’s territory. As you can envision, this did not sit well with Knudsen and DeLorean & Co. The rising gross sales quantities, nonetheless, ended up in Pontiac’s favor so GM’s leading execs rather a great deal enable Pontiac go, which added even a lot more gas to Chevy’s hearth.
Then, in 1963, when GM issued its formal ban from the participation in racing as corporate coverage (a monumentally hen-shit final decision, by the way), the divisional general managers experienced to comply. (This is when Zora Arkus-Duntov, fairly than destroying the Corvette Grand Sports activities, delivered them to dependable racer friends of the corporation, for basically absolutely free. And the company’s deeply embedded marriage with Jim Hall’s Chaparral cars went absolutely underground.)
The minimal-recognized collateral destruction from that anti-racing ban was a GM inside edict that prohibited sure sized V8 from getting put in “smaller” automobiles, which is a joke taking into consideration these smaller sized vehicles were being substantial by today’s standards. The Chevrolet operatives dutifully complied with the edict, though Pontiac operatives, led by DeLorean and Bill Collins – the gifted engineer who deserves most of the credit score for this next piece of automotive heritage – made the decision to go in a further direction. In advance of the racing ban, Collins had been busy stuffing Pontiac’s 389-cu.in. V8s into “intermediate” Le Mans bodies, and the final result was, pointless to say, magical. But when the edict took influence, Pontiac was particularly ordered not to things a V8 into a Le Mans to make it into a new Pontiac model.
Then, a bit of genius. Pontiac operatives made the decision to get all-around the ban by earning the “GTO” a new possibility package on the 1964 Pontiac Le Mans. And the rest, as they say, is automotive background, as the primary “muscle” auto was born. Chevrolet operatives have been apoplectic, but by the time GM corporate obtained wind of what was happening, the GTO choice had turn out to be just one of the most sought-immediately after large-effectiveness choice packages in the field. And by 1966 it turned its personal different model.
Pontiac was pink-incredibly hot, with its distinctive brand of higher-performance engineering and some of GM Styling’s greatest designs coming in wave after wave. From there, Pontiac would pile achievement upon achievement, achieving, at one particular position, three million in once-a-year revenue. The rebels out in Pontiac, Michigan, experienced won.
And almost the best element? Pontiac was supported by sensational marketing, obviously some of the greatest and most memorable advertising in the automobile small business at the time. That pissed off Chevrolet’s advertisement company – Campbell-Ewald – on a normal foundation, which designed it even far better.
As for the intramural struggle among Chevrolet and Pontiac, it ongoing. Pontiac arrived out with the Grand Prix in 1962, and the long-nosed ’69 model pushed by DeLorean was a further massive strike. Chevrolet came out with the Camaro in 1967, but the Pontiac Firebird to some, was greater on the lookout. The ’70 Camaro, which was remarkable in its individual suitable, was undercut by the magnificent ‘70 Pontiac Firebird Trans-Am and Firebird Method. As late as 1984, when Pontiac arrived out with the mid-engine Fiero, the struggle ongoing. Chevrolet insisted that it could not encroach on Corvette territory, so the Fiero was restricted to a 4-cylinder at intro and got a V6 proper in advance of it was dropped. The 2nd-technology Fiero, which I had the pleasure of seeing, experienced “Corvette-killer” written all about it, but there was basically no way Chevrolet operatives had been likely to enable it to see the light-weight of day, so they lobbied towards it intensely, and it hardly ever did.
The Pontiac story is worth telling. And it’s not just since of the magnificent cars and nameplates like Bonneville, Catalina, Fiero, Firebird, Grand Prix, GTO and Le Mans. It is since a bunch of maverick Genuine Believers thumbed their noses at the company inertia that threatened to overrun GM at the time and dared to go up in opposition to an intramural corporate rival to supply some of the greatest and most memorable devices to occur out of Detroit.
I experienced the enjoyment of operating on Pontiac promoting at D’Arcy MacManus & Masius from 1980-1985, and I will hardly ever ignore it. Even nevertheless the organization was swiftly altering and Pontiac was commencing to shed its identification inside the GM company monolith, the spirit of the previous advert greats that came ahead of me and my ad colleagues was as powerful, lively and visceral as it could be. And we labored to make them happy each and every damn day.
Is this a plea for GM to resurrect Pontiac? That is a challenging “no.” Pontiac existed in a fleeting moment in time and left its indelible mark on automotive background – never to be repeated, but in no way to be neglected.
And that is the Large-Octane Truth for this 7 days.
Editor’s Be aware: This is Peter’s famed ad for the 1981 Pontiac Trans Am Turbo V-8. As Peter claims, “It was a diverse time and a distinctive period.” More true words and phrases ended up never ever spoken. -WG