4 June 2012

The Golden Age of Pontiac

Pontiac went from geezer to grr-reat at the dawn of the 1960s and laid down a legacy the world won’t soon forget.

In this age of TV makeovers, how could we forget one of the greatest makeovers to ever hit the automotive industry? That would be the reinvention of Pontiac into a true performance marque beginning in the late 1950s. Powered by the efforts of Semon “Bunkie” Knudsen and his successors, Pete Estes and John DeLorean, along with marketing whiz Jim Wangers from McManus, John & Adams ad agency, Pontiac found its mojo and lit up the nation’s drag strips — as well as Detroit’s Woodward Avenue — on its way to third place in sales right behind perennial leaders Chevrolet and Ford.

Here’s what makes this story so amazing. In the mid-1950s, Pontiac was considered an “old lady’s car,” a real “grandpa’s ride.” Years of peddling straight eights and hanging on to 1930sera styling touches, including “Silver Streak” chrome trim on the hood, had taken their toll. New Deal–era nameplates like Chieftain and Star Chief didn’t help.

From a low point of 217,303 sales in the recession year of 1958, the division embarked on a 10-year tear in pursuit of the youth market. At the end of the ’60s, Pontiac had reached its peak, with over 900,000 annual sales in 1968.

Full - sized transformation
Semon “Bunkie” Knudsen, the son of former GM president “Big Bill” Knudsen, was the straw that stirred Pontiac back to life in the late 1950s. Knudsen had a plan to revitalize the division through what we would today call “youth marketing.” He told his team, “You can sell a young man’s car to an old man but you can’t sell an old man’s car to a young man.” He put money into NASCAR and drag racing teams and rushed out a limited-production, fuel-injected Bonneville convertible in mid-1957. In his own offices, he fostered a “move fast” atmosphere that attracted and inspired new talent. Knudsen recruited a team that included Pete Estes and John DeLorean. He quickly promoted DeLorean to chief engineer. And, unlike the general managers before him, Knudsen was a daily visitor to GM’s design staff, where he pushed for powerful, provocative designs. Starting with the 1959 Bonneville, which pioneered the Wide-Track look as well as the trademark split grille, Pontiacs began to set a new standard for stunning design and incredible performance.

The Pontiac Grand Prix debuted in 1962. The new Grand Prix hardtop coupe, basically a Catalina with a careful and restrained use of bright-work, was widely applauded. The GP featured a nicely detailed monotone bucket seat interior with a full range of performance options, including a floor-mounted, four-speed manual shifter.

Under the hood of the Grand Prix was the 389 V-8, which evolved from the 287 V-8 going back to 1955. The 389 was offered in a wide variety of combinations ranging from 215 to 348 hp with optional Tri-Power. A 421 was also available in the Super Duty cars (see sidebar, p. 27) that would later see production in 1963 equipped with hydraulic lifters.

And then came the 1963 Grand Prix. Vertically stacked headlamps, gently swelling rear fenders, an exceedingly spare use of chrome and a crisp, formal roofline were all an integral part of this million-dollar look. The market loved it.

Grand Prix sales almost doubled over 1962, and overall Pontiac sales in 1963 increased by38 percent from 1961. The formula was working. From Catalina to Bonneville, Pontiac was producing the most handsome full-sized cars in the industry — as well as some of the best performing.

Pontiac GTO
The Pontiac GTO evolved from the original Tempest, which was introduced in 1961 as Pontiac’s entry into the new compact class. According to Jim Wangers in his book Glory Days, the birth of the GTO took place in early spring 1963 inside a GM Proving Ground garage during an engineering brainstorm session: “A prototype 1964 Tempest Coupe equipped with a 326-cubic-Inch engine was up on a lift. DeLorean along with top assistants Bill Collins and Russ Gee were under the car discussing the chassis. Collins casually mentioned, ‘You know, John, with the engine mounts being the same, it would take us about 20 minutes to slip a 389 into this thing. We’ll probably need some heavier springs in the front end, but the engine will fit right in.’ John DeLorean looked at him, caught an approving nod from Gee, and without uttering another word, they were all in agreement.”

The GTO was born — as was the muscle car. Its name was borrowed from FIA class Gran Turismo Omologato — Italian for Grand Touring Homologated. But GTO fans quickly added an “A” to the acronym and rearranged some letters to create the affectionate nickname “Goat.”

Car Life clocked a 1964 GTO from zero to 60 in 6.6 seconds, which put it in Corvette territory before the big blocks ever arrived.

But Wangers had even higher aspirations. In a well-calculated publicity stunt, he convinced David E. Davis Jr. (see page 12), editor of Car and Driver, to compare a Ferrari GTO with a Pontiac GTO. The Pontiac showed surprisingly well. So well, in fact, that Wangers later revealed that he had snuck a big 421 V-8 into the car.

In a 1975 tribute, Davis vividly recalled the 1964 GTO’s appeal. “The message was straightline speed … it felt like losing your virginity, going into combat and tasting your first beer, all in about seven seconds.” Orders far outpaced production capability for the first year. Total production was 32,450 in ’64.

While GTO sales were not broken out as a separate model, Tempest sales went from 23 percent to 35 percent of total Pontiac production, a figure that increased to 44 percent by 1966. Clearly, the GTO was having an impact.

Meanwhile, the car kept getting better. The 1965 GTO, with its split grille, stacked headlamps and lean lines, was positively sublime. The 1966 and 1967 versions, with their subtle Coke bottle shape and buttressed roofline, might have been the most aesthetically pleasing of all. In 1968, GTO got a new design that featured a new body-color “Endura” front bumper, which was designed to resist minor dings and dents. That same year the GTO earned Pontiac its unprecedented fourth Motor Trend “Car of the Year” honor.

While all GTOs have held their value well, the pinnacle of Pontiac GTO collectibility is a 1969 Judge 400/370 Ram Air IV convertible. A rare Starlight Black version recently sold for an eyebrow-raising $682,000 at a November 2010 RM auction at the Robson Collection in Gainesville, Georgia. While ’69 Judges have been the Holy Grail of GTO collectors, Pontiac guru Steve Ames of Ames Automotive Enterprises predicts that the 1970 GTOs may soon eclipse the 1969s: “A lot more people are starting to ask about the 1970s because they like the new bold design.”

The GTO was built through the 1974 model year and would come back again from 2004 through 2006 in the form of a rebadged Holden imported from Australia. Although the newer version was a very good car, its overly smooth form lacked the visceral appeal of the original.

Pontiac Trans Am
Pontiac was a little late to the party in the pony car wars. It joined the ranks with the Firebird in February 1967, six months after the Camaro. Designer Jack Humbert had to work within a tight time frame and a limited tooling budget to create a car that contained many Pontiac cues, including an integral split-bumper grille and GTO-like horizontal tail lamps.

The ’67 (available as a two-door hardtop or convertible) was offered in five models under the theme “The Magnificent Five.” The model range included a base car with the overhead cam six that had been introduced on the Tempest a year earlier, a Firebird Sprint with a High Output OHC six, a more mainstream Firebird 326 V-8, a Firebird 326HO and the soon-to-be-legendary Firebird 400. DeLorean, it seemed, refused to offer a Firebird that didn’t have at least one engine with more power than the Camaro. The 360-hp Ram Air 400 was the result, although production numbers in ’67 were miniscule.

Firebird sales accounted for only 5 percent of total Pontiac production in 1967, but that expanded to 10 percent in 1968.

The Trans Am debuted at the Chicago Auto Show in March 1969. All cars that year featured the same Cameo White paint with blue accents. The standard engine was a 335-hp 400-cubic-inch Ram Air III V-8. An optional Ram Air IV engine, known for its round port cylinder head design, delivered 10 additional horsepower. Only eight Trans Am convertibles were built that year. According to the Hagerty Price Guide, they may be worth as much as $800,000 each today.

In 1969, Pontiac experimented with a special short deck version of the 303-cid V-8 engine for Trans Am racing called the Ram Air V. But the engine was never very successful and only about 25 were built as crate motors.

An all-new body style arrived for 1970 for both the Firebird and Trans Am. By 1971, only one engine was available in the Trans Am, that being a 335-hp 455-cubic-inch High Output V-8. The Trans Am’s famous honeycomb wheels also became an option that year. In 1973, colorful screaming chicken graphics began appearing on Trans Am hoods. Code named WW7, this $55 option appeared on nearly half of the 4,802 cars sold that year and became a Trans Am trademark.

The debut of the TV series The Rockford Files also helped visibility for the Firebird, with actor James Garner as James Rockford cruising around L.A. in his Autumn Bronze Firebird Esprit. But the Firebird/Trans Am achieved its greatest fame as Burt Reynolds’ ride in Hal Needham’s Smoky and the Bandit. “The sales of black and gold Trans Ams after that movie was unbelievable,” says Wangers.

Thanks in part to publicity like that, the Trans Am would sell well throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Trans Am/Firebird production continued through the 2002 model year, when both the Firebird and the Camaro were discontinued.

Today, Pontiac is an orphan brand, a victim of GM’s 2009 bankruptcy and reorganization. Yet in recent years, it has produced a number of truly significant cars, from the Gen 2 Fiero GT of the late 1980s to the Pontiac Solstice and powerful G8 sedan of recent times, cars that seemed worthy of a strong, vital car division.

Did Pontiac have to go? “Hell no,” says Jim Wangers. “It was all man-made, essentially a case of the decision makers losing track of what a Pontiac was and what it could still be.” Wangers suggests that if it weren’t for Buick’s recent success in China, we might have been writing Buick’s obituary instead of Pontiac’s.

Regardless, nothing will ever erase the memory of Pontiac at the top of its game, during a magical era when horsepower and passion ruled Detroit.

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To see this article in its original format, view the pdf version of the Summer 2011 issue of Hagerty magazine

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