By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit. That I have a deep love of all the things Pontiac is perfectly regarded. I grew up immersed in this organization – proper in the thick of GM’s heyday – and Pontiac performed a critical role in both equally my formative a long time and my early promoting job. That’s why when GM took the individual bankruptcy tablet in 2008, I was crushingly upset to study that the Pontiac Division was 1 of the belongings to be jettisoned. (And Hummer, also, but the good news is that nameplate has now returned.)
It’s hard to believe now, but Pontiac was just an additional GM division back again in the mid-50s. It experienced a lineup of stodgy cars and trucks, and there was nothing to create home about. The division existed underneath the GM corporate umbrella, but it was decidedly lacking in just about everything when in comparison 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 normal supervisor in July of 1958. Knudsen was specified the assignment to inject some life into the division and enhance sales, and he was presented carte blanche to do it.
As a reminder, if you were being a GM vice president and divisional normal manager again in the working day you have been akin to a potentate running a tiny place. GM’s divisional normal professionals had immense electrical power with duty for engineering, production, sales and marketing. Pondering about that in comparison with how items run nowadays, it doesn’t look genuine, because it was so dramatically various from modern motor vehicle company it’s like looking at from a fairytale guide. But make no blunder, it was quite real, and GM’s divisional common professionals had been like giants roaming the earth, swashbuckling their way by means of the working day-to-day of the business though making important, pivotal selections on the fly. Remember, this was a company that debuted new cars and trucks each drop with new sheet metal and new functions to go with them. Once more, in comparison with how items are accomplished now, it is just jaw-dropping to contemplate how the business enterprise churned again then. Indeed, as I’ve claimed many, lots of situations ahead of, it was a unique time and a different era, but GM’s heyday was genuinely extraordinary in that the company soared due to the fact of it, even with the bean counters seeking to rein issues in each individual phase of the way.
The only arena wherever GM’s divisional standard supervisors had to choose a action back again was when dealing with GM Styling, which was operate with an iron fist by design legend Monthly bill Mitchell, who inherited the mantle from Harley Earl. The clashes involving Mitchell and GM’s divisional typical managers were being famous, and I will save individuals tales for a different column. But suffice to say, Mitchell received what he wished for the most portion, even if he had to enjoy the divisional typical professionals off in opposition to each and every other to do so.
But back to Bunkie and Pontiac. His very first hires were two youthful and gifted engineers – Pete Estes from Oldsmobile and John Z. DeLorean from Packard. The cost to DeLorean was very precise: get Pontiac into the effectiveness business appropriate now. And due to the fact Bunkie was a substantial racing enthusiast, anything was on the desk, from NASCAR to drag racing.
And all of a unexpected, very hot Pontiacs stuffed with large V8s started off to show up almost everywhere, from Daytona to Pomona. And even in our driveway. Considering that Bunkie and his wife were being social pals with my dad and mom, Bunkie started out sending the hottest Pontiacs to our household exclusively for my mom to drive. Beginning in the summer of 1959, we experienced a sequence of Bonneville and Catalina convertibles that had been constantly vibrant crimson with a white prime and a bright pink inside. And they were often equipped with the best Pontiac motor at the time, which at 1st were being 389 cu. in. V8s with 3×2-barrell carbs, and sooner or later 421 cu.in. V8s. Useless to say, my mom cherished her sizzling Pontiacs. (And my brother and I did, way too, in particular considering that he experienced 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 aspect of GM lore. Pontiacs went from becoming practical transportation units to some of the hottest vehicles in the industry. Giving functionality engineering and styling that just weren’t obtainable anywhere else, Pontiac rode a wave of reputation that took the business – and GM – by storm.
I say GM due to the fact, don’t forget that portion about GM’s divisional vice presidents becoming akin to potentates of their individual countries? Perfectly, that was accurate, till Pontiac – beneath Bunkie Knudsen’s tutelage – began to upset the pecking buy within just the business. Before Pontiac became a “problem” for the other standard managers, the GM divisional hierarchy was obvious: Cadillac was up and off to the side luxuriating in its possess rarified planet. Buick was next in conditions of prestige, with the tremendous-preferred Chevrolet sucking up all of the air in the place for the reason that of its amazing product sales figures, followed by Oldsmobile, which just chugged together, and then the moribund Pontiac.
At least which is the way it made use of to be before Bunkie and his “pirates” got rolling. All of a sudden, things had adjusted. Chevrolet, which fairly much had substantial-performance promoting alternatives cornered inside of GM, was currently being severely pushed by Pontiac on all fronts. Chevrolet operatives became far more incensed with each Pontiac foray into their territory, and the intramural battles amongst the two divisions spilled above all the way to GM’s vaunted 14th floor, with whining Chevrolet executives complaining to major GM execs that Pontiac was deliberately encroaching on Chevy’s territory. As you can picture, this did not sit effectively with Knudsen and DeLorean & Co. The rising profits figures, on the other hand, were in Pontiac’s favor so GM’s best execs rather significantly allow Pontiac go, which included even more gasoline to Chevy’s hearth.
Then, in 1963, when GM issued its formal ban against the participation in racing as company policy (a monumentally chicken-shit decision, by the way), the divisional common professionals experienced to comply. (This is when Zora Arkus-Duntov, alternatively than destroying the Corvette Grand Athletics, shipped them to trusted racer pals of the corporation, for basically cost-free. And the company’s deeply embedded romance with Jim Hall’s Chaparral cars went totally underground.)
The minor-regarded collateral hurt from that anti-racing ban was a GM inner edict that prohibited specific sized V8 from getting place in “smaller” cars and trucks, which is a joke contemplating these smaller vehicles were being enormous by today’s standards. The Chevrolet operatives dutifully complied with the edict, although Pontiac operatives, led by DeLorean and Bill Collins – the gifted engineer who justifies most of the credit history for this next piece of automotive history – resolved to go in another path. Just before the racing ban, Collins experienced been active stuffing Pontiac’s 389-cu.in. V8s into “intermediate” Le Mans bodies, and the outcome was, useless to say, magical. But when the edict took impact, Pontiac was exclusively ordered not to things a V8 into a Le Mans to make it into a new Pontiac design.
Then, a little bit of genius. Pontiac operatives made a decision to get about the ban by making the “GTO” a new selection deal on the 1964 Pontiac Le Mans. And the rest, as they say, is automotive historical past, as the first “muscle” auto was born. Chevrolet operatives have been apoplectic, but by the time GM company bought wind of what was happening, the GTO selection had turn out to be one particular of the most sought-soon after superior-overall performance alternative packages in the industry. And by 1966 it became its personal independent model.
Pontiac was crimson-warm, with its exclusive brand name of superior-effectiveness engineering and some of GM Styling’s very best styles coming in wave right after wave. From there, Pontiac would pile success upon achievements, reaching, at a person position, three million in yearly sales. The rebels out in Pontiac, Michigan, experienced received.
And virtually the finest component? Pontiac was supported by sensational marketing, obviously some of the best and most unforgettable promoting in the car or truck organization at the time. That pissed off Chevrolet’s advert company – Campbell-Ewald – on a typical foundation, which designed it even improved.
As for the intramural struggle involving Chevrolet and Pontiac, it ongoing. Pontiac came out with the Grand Prix in 1962, and the extensive-nosed ’69 variation pushed by DeLorean was one more huge hit. Chevrolet came out with the Camaro in 1967, but the Pontiac Firebird to some, was improved on the lookout. The ’70 Camaro, which was dramatic in its own 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 battle continued. Chevrolet insisted that it could not encroach on Corvette territory, so the Fiero was limited to a 4-cylinder at intro and received a V6 appropriate ahead of it was dropped. The 2nd-technology Fiero, which I had the enjoyment of viewing, experienced “Corvette-killer” penned all around it, but there was only no way Chevrolet operatives had been heading to allow for it to see the mild of day, so they lobbied against it seriously, and it under no circumstances did.
The Pontiac story is truly worth telling. And it’s not just for the reason that of the fabulous autos and nameplates like Bonneville, Catalina, Fiero, Firebird, Grand Prix, GTO and Le Mans. It’s simply because a bunch of maverick Genuine 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 supply some of the best and most memorable devices to appear out of Detroit.
I experienced the pleasure of doing work on Pontiac advertising at D’Arcy MacManus & Masius from 1980-1985, and I will never forget it. Even while the company was quickly altering and Pontiac was commencing to shed its id within just the GM corporate monolith, the spirit of the previous ad greats that came before me and my advertisement colleagues was as intense, lively and visceral as it could be. And we labored to make them happy each damn working day.
Is this a plea for GM to resurrect Pontiac? That is a difficult “no.” Pontiac existed in a fleeting second in time and remaining its indelible mark on automotive history – never to be recurring, but by no means to be overlooked.
And that is the High-Octane Reality for this 7 days.
Editor’s Notice: This is Peter’s famed ad for the 1981 Pontiac Trans Am Turbo V-8. As Peter says, “It was a diverse time and a distinctive era.” Truer words and phrases ended up in no way spoken. -WG