Thursday, April 30, 2009


This week, General Motors announced that its Pontiac division will close by the end of 2010. Although I have long believed that this is a necessary step if GM is to survive, I take no pleasure in it: it is a desperate move by a dying automaker, and Pontiac was once an American icon.

Pontiac was founded in 1926 as part of GM's effort to have a brand at every price point, occupying the space above Chevrolet but below Oldsmobile. For its first three decades it fit neatly into GM's family, selling mostly unremarkable cars that the Chevy owner aspired to buy. In 1957 the first Bonneville arrived; costing the same as a Cadillac, it began the process of blurring the lines between the GM divisions that ultimately led to Pontiac's demise.

The division's greatest impact on American popular culture came in 1964. For years horsepower had been escalating, but Pontiac general manager John DeLorean kicked the horsepower wars into high gear with what some consider the first true muscle car: the Pontiac GTO. No more than a standard Tempest with a bigger engine, different transmission, and some suspension parts, the first GTO launched the muscle car era in a cloud of tire smoke and exhaust fumes. Successive GTOs raised the bar higher and higher until the government regulation and the oil crises of the 1970s ended the party.

There was a revival in 1979 when the car-chase film "Smokey and the Bandit" propelled the Pontiac Firebird - complete with screaming chicken hood decal - into the forefront of the national car consciousness. There would be other occasional flashes of brilliance over its last three decades: the mid-engined Fiero, more Firebirds, the Solstice roadster, a new GTO - but by the 1980s Pontiac was in terminal decline. Its products were unremarkable at best, embarassing at worst: rental-grade sedans, Chevys tarted up with plastic body cladding and labeled Pontiacs, rebadged Daewoo subcompacts, the Aztek. Pontiac was broken, and there was no saving it. Its death is a mercy killing.

Today I drove the last new Pontiac there will ever be, the Pontiac G8 GXP. It is classic American iron: a large sedan powered by a big honking V-8 driving the rear wheels through a six-speed manual transmission. It is big, fast, and luxurious. It possesses neck-snapping torque and superb handling. It is the best Pontiac ever made.

It was designed and built in Australia.

Ave atque vale, Pontiac. I will remember you for tire-smoking Goats and Burt Reynolds in a Firebird; I will remember you for the Solstice that was the first manual transmission car I ever drove. I will remember you for the 1970 Catalina that my father drove on his first date with my mother, and I will remember you for the 1979 Bonneville (red on red with an appetite for transmissions and police attention, a CB radio, fender skirts, and the fuel filler behind the license plate) that was the first car they ever bought new. I will remember you for the 1979 Catalina station wagon, baby blue, that was the last car my grandfather for whom I am named ever owned, and which he drove on every visit to see us. I will remember you for your exploits in motorsports - for the iconic image of Air Force One landing behind Richard Petty's blue No.43 Pontiac as he raced down the backstretch at Daytona on his way to his 200th and last NASCAR win, for Ricky Craven's fender-banging victory over Kurt Busch at Darlington in 2003 that was your last NASCAR win, and for the road-racing GTOs and GXPs and Pontiac-Riley Daytona Prototypes that in your last years showed that there was yet some driving excitement at Pontiac.

For all of these things, and more, you will be remembered: an icon fallen, but not forgotten.


Blogger Anon_e_mouse said...

There would be other occasional flashes of brilliance over its last three decades: the mid-engined Fiero ...Flash of brilliance? No, that was just the flash of the car going up in smoke, as so many did. Another classic case of sloppy GM production / lack of quality control and, while it was largely confined to the 1984 models with the 2.5 litre motor, it became the characteristic most remembered by the public during its five year run.

3:30 PM  

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