By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit. That I’ve a deep love of every part Pontiac is well-known. I grew up immersed on this enterprise – proper within the thick of GM’s heyday – and Pontiac performed a vital function in each my youth and my early promoting profession. That’s why when GM took the chapter capsule in 2008, I used to be crushingly upset to be taught that the Pontiac Division was one of many property to be jettisoned. (And Hummer, too, however fortuitously that nameplate has now returned.)
It’s arduous to consider now, however Pontiac was simply one other GM division again within the mid-50s. It had a lineup of stodgy automobiles, and there was nothing to jot down residence about. The division existed below the GM company umbrella, however it was decidedly missing in nearly every part when in comparison with GM’s different divisions: Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet and Oldsmobile. However that will all change when Bunkie Knudsen was appointed a GM vp and the division’s common supervisor in July of 1958. Knudsen was given the project to inject some life into the division and improve gross sales, and he was given carte blanche to do it.
As a reminder, in case you had been a GM vp and divisional common supervisor again within the day you had been akin to a potentate operating a small nation. GM’s divisional common managers had immense energy with accountability for engineering, manufacturing, gross sales and advertising and marketing. Fascinated about that compared with how issues function at the moment, it doesn’t appear actual, as a result of it was so dramatically totally different from at the moment’s automotive enterprise it’s like studying from a fairytale e-book. However make no mistake, it was very actual, and GM’s divisional common managers had been like giants roaming the earth, swashbuckling their means by means of the day-to-day of the enterprise whereas making essential, pivotal selections on the fly. Bear in mind, this was a enterprise that debuted new automobiles each fall with new sheet steel and new options to go together with them. Once more, compared with how issues are completed at the moment, it’s simply jaw-dropping to ponder how the enterprise churned again then. Sure, as I’ve mentioned many, many occasions earlier than, it was a distinct time and a distinct period, however GM’s heyday was really outstanding in that the company soared due to it, even with the bean counters attempting to rein issues in each step of the way in which.
The one area the place GM’s divisional common managers needed to take a step again was when coping with GM Styling, which was run with an iron fist by design legend Invoice Mitchell, who inherited the mantle from Harley Earl. The clashes between Mitchell and GM’s divisional common managers had been legendary, and I’ll save these tales for one more column. However suffice to say, Mitchell obtained what he needed for probably the most half, even when he needed to play the divisional common managers off towards one another to take action.
However again to Bunkie and Pontiac. His first hires had been two younger and gifted engineers – Pete Estes from Oldsmobile and John Z. DeLorean from Packard. The cost to DeLorean was very particular: get Pontiac into the efficiency enterprise proper now. And since Bunkie was an enormous racing fanatic, every part was on the desk, from NASCAR to tug racing.
And unexpectedly, sizzling Pontiacs full of large V8s began to point out up in every single place, from Daytona to Pomona. And even in our driveway. Since Bunkie and his spouse had been social buddies with my dad and mom, Bunkie began sending the most well liked Pontiacs to our home particularly for my mother to drive. Starting in the summertime of 1959, we had a sequence of Bonneville and Catalina convertibles that had been all the time vivid purple with a white high and a vivid purple inside. And so they had been all the time geared up with the most well liked Pontiac engine on the time, which at first had been 389 cu. in. V8s with 3×2-barrell carbs, and finally 421 cu.in. V8s. Evidently, my mother liked her sizzling Pontiacs. (And my brother and I did, too, particularly since he had simply gotten his license and we might “train” mother’s automobiles at each alternative.)
The transformation of the Pontiac Division is an excellent a part of GM lore. Pontiacs went from being sensible transportation gadgets to among the hottest automobiles within the business. Providing efficiency engineering and styling that simply weren’t out there anyplace else, Pontiac rode a wave of recognition that took the enterprise – and GM – by storm.
I say GM as a result of, keep in mind that half about GM’s divisional vice presidents being akin to potentates of their very own nations? Nicely, that was true, till Pontiac – below Bunkie Knudsen’s tutelage – started to upset the pecking order inside the firm. Earlier than Pontiac grew to become a “drawback” for the opposite common managers, the GM divisional hierarchy was clear: Cadillac was up and off to the facet luxuriating in its personal rarified world. Buick was subsequent when it comes to status, with the super-popular Chevrolet sucking up all the air within the room due to its unbelievable gross sales numbers, adopted by Oldsmobile, which simply chugged alongside, after which the moribund Pontiac.
Not less than that’s the way in which it used to be earlier than Bunkie and his “pirates” obtained rolling. Unexpectedly, issues had modified. Chevrolet, which just about had high-performance advertising and marketing alternatives cornered inside GM, was being significantly pushed by Pontiac on all fronts. Chevrolet operatives grew to become extra incensed with every Pontiac foray into their territory, and the intramural battles between the 2 divisions spilled over all the way in which to GM’s vaunted 14th ground, with whining Chevrolet executives complaining to high GM execs that Pontiac was intentionally encroaching on Chevy’s territory. As you may think about, this didn’t sit properly with Knudsen and DeLorean & Co. The rising gross sales numbers, nevertheless, had been in Pontiac’s favor so GM’s high execs just about let Pontiac go, which added much more gas to Chevy’s fireplace.
Then, in 1963, when GM issued its official ban towards the participation in racing as company coverage (a monumentally chicken-shit resolution, by the way in which), the divisional common managers needed to comply. (That is when Zora Arkus-Duntov, slightly than destroying the Corvette Grand Sports activities, delivered them to trusted racer buddies of the corporate, for principally free. And the corporate’s deeply embedded relationship with Jim Corridor’s Chaparral automobiles went utterly underground.)
The little-known collateral harm from that anti-racing ban was a GM inside edict that prohibited sure sized V8 from being put in “smaller” automobiles, which is a joke contemplating these smaller automobiles had been large by at the moment’s requirements. The Chevrolet operatives dutifully complied with the edict, whereas Pontiac operatives, led by DeLorean and Invoice Collins – the gifted engineer who deserves a lot of the credit score for this subsequent piece of automotive historical past – determined to go in one other path. Earlier than the racing ban, Collins had been busy stuffing Pontiac’s 389-cu.in. V8s into “intermediate” Le Mans our bodies, and the end result was, evidently, magical. However when the edict took impact, Pontiac was particularly ordered not to stuff a V8 right into a Le Mans to make it into a brand new Pontiac mannequin.
Then, a little bit of genius. Pontiac operatives determined to get across the ban by making the “GTO” a brand new choice bundle on the 1964 Pontiac Le Mans. And the remaining, as they are saying, is automotive historical past, as the unique “muscle” automotive was born. Chevrolet operatives had been apoplectic, however by the point GM company obtained wind of what was taking place, the GTO choice had change into probably the most sought-after high-performance choice packages within the business. And by 1966 it grew to become its personal separate mannequin.
Pontiac was red-hot, with its distinctive model of high-performance engineering and a few of GM Styling’s finest designs coming in wave after wave. From there, Pontiac would pile success upon success, reaching, at one level, three million in annual gross sales. The rebels out in Pontiac, Michigan, had received.
And virtually the most effective half? Pontiac was supported by sensational promoting, clearly among the finest and most memorable promoting within the automotive enterprise on the time. That pissed off Chevrolet’s advert company – Campbell-Ewald – regularly, which made it even higher.
As for the intramural battle between Chevrolet and Pontiac, it continued. Pontiac got here out with the Grand Prix in 1962, and the long-nosed ’69 model pushed by DeLorean was one other large hit. Chevrolet got here out with the Camaro in 1967, however the Pontiac Firebird to some, was higher trying. The ’70 Camaro, which was dramatic in its personal proper, was undercut by the fabulous ‘70 Pontiac Firebird Trans-Am and Firebird Components. As late as 1984, when Pontiac got here out with the mid-engine Fiero, the battle continued. Chevrolet insisted that it couldn’t encroach on Corvette territory, so the Fiero was restricted to a 4-cylinder at intro and obtained a V6 proper earlier than it was dropped. The twond-generation Fiero, which I had the pleasure of seeing, had “Corvette-killer” written throughout it, however there was merely no means Chevrolet operatives had been going to permit it to see the sunshine of day, in order that they lobbied towards it closely, and it by no means did.
The Pontiac story is value telling. And it’s not simply due to the fabulous automobiles and nameplates like Bonneville, Catalina, Fiero, Firebird, Grand Prix, GTO and Le Mans. It’s as a result of a bunch of maverick True Believers thumbed their noses on the company inertia that threatened to overrun GM on the time and dared to go up towards an intramural company rival to ship among the best and most memorable machines to return out of Detroit.
I had the pleasure of engaged on Pontiac promoting at D’Arcy MacManus & Masius from 1980-1985, and I’ll always remember it. Although the enterprise was quickly altering and Pontiac was starting to lose its id inside the GM company monolith, the spirit of the previous advert greats that got here earlier than me and my advert colleagues was as intense, vibrant and visceral because it may very well be. And we labored to make them proud each rattling day.
Is that this a plea for GM to resurrect Pontiac? That may be a arduous “no.” Pontiac existed in a fleeting second in time and left its indelible mark on automotive historical past – by no means to be repeated, however by no means to be forgotten.
And that’s the Excessive-Octane Fact for this week.
Editor’s Be aware: That is Peter’s well-known advert for the 1981 Pontiac Trans Am Turbo V-8. As Peter says, “It was a distinct time and a distinct period.” More true phrases had been by no means spoken. -WG