It was a poorly kept secret in the days leading up to GM’s press release Monday morning at 9:00AM. Pontiac is officially on its way out, the General planning a phase out to be completed by the end of 2010. Ever since GM submitted its Viability Plan to the US Congress, asserting that there were four core brands-one of them not Pontiac-the Excitement division’s future was in doubt. In the months that followed, the only word from GM was that Pontiac would be some sort of “focused niche brand”. What the focus or niche was supposed to be was unclear. In the end, my guess is GM themselves couldn’t define a viable future for Pontiac that made much financial sense.Ã‚Â
It’s a sad day for Pontiac fans, or for anyone who appreciated the brand’s history and the more exciting cars that were built over the years. Pontiac is often credited for creating the muscle car in the 1960’s when an option for a big, high-horsepower V-8 was available for its otherwise sedate Tempest, thus creating the legendary GTO.Ã‚Â
But when GM fell, Pontiac fell right along with it. The end of the muscle car era, and the rise of the Malaise Era of the 1970’s has been well documented, characterized by strangled V-8 engines and indifferent build quality. But greater than that was Pontiac’s constant search for an identity over the past several years. For the past 35 years Pontiacs cost a little more than Chevy’s and featured slightly different styling. Most of the time Pontiac had few, or no unique cars to themselves.Ã‚Â
Pontiac and its marketing managers clung to the idea that Pontiac represented excitement, and was the performance division of GM. This made Pontiac a target in the enthusiast-driven automotive media. In other words, when Pontiac goofed, the media was all over it.
The Aztek is going down in history as the ultimate whipping boy for Pontiac. Defenders of the Aztek will tell you it is practical and handy. That’s great, but it made for an awful Pontiac. This early crossover is a symbol of what a Pontiac should not be. It was incredibly ugly, slow, and had fairly crude mechanicals. The Aztek wasn’t a car, it was a punch-line that did irreparable damage to the brand.Ã‚Â
Sadly, the media wasn’t just laughing at the Aztek alone. For a period of nearly twenty years, in an effort to jazz up the look of their cars, Pontiac added plastic, ribbed body cladding to nearly all of its cars. The look was cool for maybe a year. After that, it was a source of ridicule. Years ago, I recall reading when Bob Lutz joined GM, he said about Pontiac: “No more body cladding.”
Bob Lutz stayed true to his word, but still, Pontiac couldn’t buy a break it seemed. Forty years after its introduction, Pontiac revived the GTO, and the car fell flat on its face. Few cared, and even fewer people bought one, despite the fact that the performance would wreck a stock GTO from the past, and could give a modern BMW M3 a run for its money. The new GTO was a boring looking car, and no one forgot that it was an Australian car, which made it impossible to convince anyone it was a reborn American muscle car.
Badge engineering, as we’ve seen, is enough to kill any brand equity. But when GM gave Pontiac the rare chance to go on their own, and have their own car, the results never met anyone’s expectations. I will argue that GM never gave Pontiac the tools or enough money to compete. A promise of performance and excitement was often given, but seldom seen. Still, I am sad to see Pontiac go.Ã‚Â
In the coming weeks, The Garage will be remembering the highs and lows of Pontiac. Stay tuned.