By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit. That I have a deep adore of anything Pontiac is properly acknowledged. I grew up immersed in this business – ideal in the thick of GM’s heyday – and Pontiac performed a crucial position in equally my formative decades and my early marketing career. That is why when GM took the individual bankruptcy pill in 2008, I was crushingly dissatisfied to understand that the Pontiac Division was a single of the assets to be jettisoned. (And Hummer, also, but luckily that nameplate has now returned.)
It’s tough to consider now, but Pontiac was just a different GM division again in the mid-50s. It experienced a lineup of stodgy autos, and there was very little to produce property about. The division existed underneath the GM company umbrella, but it was decidedly missing in just about every thing when compared to GM’s other divisions: Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet and Oldsmobile. But that would all alter when Bunkie Knudsen was appointed a GM vice president and the division’s common supervisor in July of 1958. Knudsen was supplied the assignment to inject some lifestyle into the division and raise income, and he was presented carte blanche to do it.
As a reminder, if you had been a GM vice president and divisional standard manager back again in the working day you had been akin to a potentate functioning a smaller place. GM’s divisional basic professionals had huge electric power with duty for engineering, manufacturing, revenue and advertising. Wondering about that in comparison with how items work currently, it does not appear serious, due to the fact it was so significantly diverse from today’s automobile company it’s like looking through from a fairytale e book. But make no oversight, it was very real, and GM’s divisional basic managers have been like giants roaming the earth, swashbuckling their way as a result of the working day-to-working day of the business enterprise although earning essential, pivotal decisions on the fly. Recall, this was a enterprise that debuted new automobiles every slide with new sheet metallic and new options to go with them. Once more, in comparison with how items are performed these days, it’s just jaw-dropping to contemplate how the small business churned back then. Of course, as I’ve said several, quite a few periods ahead of, it was a diverse time and a different era, but GM’s heyday was actually amazing in that the corporation soared due to the fact of it, even with the bean counters attempting to rein things in each individual action of the way.
The only arena where GM’s divisional general administrators experienced to consider a move back was when working with GM Styling, which was run with an iron fist by structure legend Invoice Mitchell, who inherited the mantle from Harley Earl. The clashes amongst Mitchell and GM’s divisional common supervisors have been legendary, and I will save people tales for a further column. But suffice to say, Mitchell got what he wanted for the most component, even if he experienced to engage in the divisional standard supervisors off against every other to do so.
But again to Bunkie and Pontiac. His to start with hires were two young and gifted engineers – Pete Estes from Oldsmobile and John Z. DeLorean from Packard. The demand to DeLorean was really specific: get Pontiac into the efficiency business correct now. And given that Bunkie was a large racing fanatic, anything was on the table, from NASCAR to drag racing.
And all of a sudden, incredibly hot Pontiacs stuffed with major V8s commenced to present up in all places, from Daytona to Pomona. And even in our driveway. Due to the fact Bunkie and his spouse were social friends with my moms and dads, Bunkie started sending the best Pontiacs to our residence exclusively for my mother to travel. Starting in the summer months of 1959, we experienced a collection of Bonneville and Catalina convertibles that were being normally vibrant red with a white major and a dazzling crimson interior. And they were constantly equipped with the best Pontiac motor at the time, which at initial ended up 389 cu. in. V8s with 3×2-barrell carbs, and at some point 421 cu.in. V8s. Unnecessary to say, my mother beloved her incredibly hot Pontiacs. (And my brother and I did, much too, specifically given that he had just gotten his license and we would “exercise” mom’s automobiles at each and every possibility.)
The transformation of the Pontiac Division is a superb section of GM lore. Pontiacs went from getting useful transportation products to some of the best autos in the business. Featuring efficiency engineering and styling that just weren’t accessible everywhere else, Pontiac rode a wave of reputation that took the small business – and GM – by storm.
I say GM because, keep in mind that part about GM’s divisional vice presidents getting akin to potentates of their possess international locations? Effectively, that was real, till Pontiac – under Bunkie Knudsen’s tutelage – began to upset the pecking order inside the firm. In advance of Pontiac became a “problem” for the other basic supervisors, the GM divisional hierarchy was very clear: Cadillac was up and off to the facet luxuriating in its possess rarified entire world. Buick was subsequent in conditions of prestige, with the super-preferred Chevrolet sucking up all of the air in the home for the reason that of its outstanding revenue figures, followed by Oldsmobile, which just chugged alongside, and then the moribund Pontiac.
At least that is the way it applied to be right before Bunkie and his “pirates” received rolling. All of a unexpected, items had altered. Chevrolet, which pretty considerably experienced higher-performance internet marketing prospects cornered inside GM, was being seriously pushed by Pontiac on all fronts. Chevrolet operatives grew to become extra incensed with every Pontiac foray into their territory, and the intramural battles amongst the two divisions spilled about all the way to GM’s vaunted 14th floor, with whining Chevrolet executives complaining to top rated GM execs that Pontiac was deliberately encroaching on Chevy’s territory. As you can imagine, this didn’t sit properly with Knudsen and DeLorean & Co. The escalating sales quantities, even so, were in Pontiac’s favor so GM’s major execs pretty a great deal let Pontiac go, which extra even more gasoline to Chevy’s hearth.
Then, in 1963, when GM issued its official ban in opposition to the participation in racing as company policy (a monumentally rooster-shit conclusion, by the way), the divisional normal professionals experienced to comply. (This is when Zora Arkus-Duntov, alternatively than destroying the Corvette Grand Sports activities, delivered them to trustworthy racer mates of the organization, for in essence free of charge. And the company’s deeply embedded partnership with Jim Hall’s Chaparral cars and trucks went completely underground.)
The very little-identified collateral harm from that anti-racing ban was a GM inner edict that prohibited specific sized V8 from becoming put in “smaller” cars and trucks, which is a joke contemplating people scaled-down cars and trucks have been enormous by today’s criteria. The Chevrolet operatives dutifully complied with the edict, whilst Pontiac operatives, led by DeLorean and Bill Collins – the gifted engineer who justifies most of the credit history for this future piece of automotive historical past – made the decision to go in a further way. Right before the racing ban, Collins experienced been chaotic stuffing Pontiac’s 389-cu.in. V8s into “intermediate” Le Mans bodies, and the result was, useless to say, magical. But when the edict took influence, Pontiac was specifically ordered not to stuff a V8 into a Le Mans to make it into a new Pontiac product.
Then, a bit of genius. Pontiac operatives decided to get all-around the ban by producing the “GTO” a new solution package deal on the 1964 Pontiac Le Mans. And the rest, as they say, is automotive heritage, as the initial “muscle” vehicle was born. Chevrolet operatives were apoplectic, but by the time GM corporate bought wind of what was occurring, the GTO option had turn out to be 1 of the most sought-right after substantial-overall performance solution packages in the market. And by 1966 it became its own separate design.
Pontiac was red-warm, with its exclusive brand of superior-functionality engineering and some of GM Styling’s ideal patterns coming in wave soon after wave. From there, Pontiac would pile accomplishment on achievement, reaching, at one issue, 3 million in yearly income. The rebels out in Pontiac, Michigan, experienced won.
And practically the finest section? Pontiac was supported by sensational promoting, evidently some of the best and most unforgettable promoting in the car or truck business at the time. That pissed off Chevrolet’s advertisement agency – Campbell-Ewald – on a typical basis, which made it even far better.
As for the intramural fight concerning Chevrolet and Pontiac, it ongoing. Pontiac arrived out with the Grand Prix in 1962, and the lengthy-nosed ’69 edition pushed by DeLorean was a further massive hit. Chevrolet came out with the Camaro in 1967, but the Pontiac Firebird to some, was much better looking. The ’70 Camaro, which was extraordinary in its have proper, was undercut by the magnificent ‘70 Pontiac Firebird Trans-Am and Firebird System. 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 acquired a V6 suitable prior to it was dropped. The 2nd-era Fiero, which I experienced the enjoyment of viewing, had “Corvette-killer” penned all about it, but there was simply just no way Chevrolet operatives were being going to allow it to see the mild of working day, so they lobbied in opposition to it greatly, and it never did.
The Pontiac story is really worth telling. And it’s not just for the reason that of the magnificent autos and nameplates like Bonneville, Catalina, Fiero, Firebird, Grand Prix, GTO and Le Mans. It is mainly because a bunch of maverick Accurate Believers thumbed their noses at the corporate inertia that threatened to overrun GM at the time and dared to go up versus an intramural corporate rival to deliver some of the greatest and most unforgettable devices to arrive out of Detroit.
I experienced the pleasure of functioning on Pontiac marketing at D’Arcy MacManus & Masius from 1980-1985, and I will never ever fail to remember it. Even nevertheless the business enterprise was quickly altering and Pontiac was beginning to shed its identity in just the GM corporate monolith, the spirit of the former advertisement greats that came prior to me and my advert colleagues was as intense, lively and visceral as it could be. And we labored to make them very pleased every damn day.
Is this a plea for GM to resurrect Pontiac? That is a tricky “no.” Pontiac existed in a fleeting second in time and still left its indelible mark on automotive record – never to be repeated, but in no way to be overlooked.
And which is the Superior-Octane Reality for this week.
Editor’s Note: This is Peter’s famed advertisement for the 1981 Pontiac Trans Am Turbo V-8. As Peter suggests, “It was a unique time and a distinctive era.” More true words were in no way spoken. -WG