14 August 2013

Battle of the Orphans

Pontiac and Plymouth may be gone, but they sure aren’t forgotten


Sure, they're all important individually. But when a car comes along that has them all and more, it's a game changer.

In the 70-plus years in which Pontiac and Plymouth co-existed — Pontiac opened for business in 1926 and shuttered its doors in 2010; Plymouth lived from 1928 to 2001 — the two automakers produced myriad models, many of which are now considered iconic. But which was the best of the bunch? And did it rightfully earn the title of “game changer?” We decided to find out.

Using a bracket playoff system similar to the NCAA basketball tournament, we nominated 32 cars — 16 from each marque — and paired them up. Then, round by round, we narrowed the field to the Sweet 16, Elite Eight, Final Four and Championship. Since a decision this important couldn’t possibly be made without help, we invited eight automotive experts to decide it for us. Our panel (in alphabetical order) included Eddie Alterman, editor-in-chief of Car and Driver; Thomas Bryant, editor emeritus of Road & Track; Colin Comer, automotive author, collector and muscle car authority; Gary Gastelu, automotive editor of FoxNews.com; Jean Jennings, president and editor-in-chief of Automobile magazine; Ken Lingenfelter, CEO of Lingenfelter Performance Engineering and a noted collector; Wes Raynal, editor of AutoWeek; and Matt Stone, automotive journalist, author and Speed TV commentator. In the first round, each judge was given two random pairings; in the second, one pairing. The third and final rounds were decided by a group vote.

Our experts immediately asked, “What are we looking for?” And that’s the beauty of the “Pontiac vs. Plymouth” showdown. There were no specific guidelines. Best-looking car? Most historically significant? The car they’d most like to own or drive? Yes and/or no. It was a gut reaction and up to them.

Deciding how to pair the cars wasn’t as easy as expected. Should we match them by era? Similarity? Random draw? In the end, there wasn’t a perfect method. So, figuring the best cars would advance no matter where they sat in the pecking order, we used a combination of ideas to set the list, then randomly chose which panelist voted on which pairings in the first two rounds. Surprisingly, few of our experts labored long over their choices, certainly not in the opening round.

Alterman started off by selecting the 1956 Fury over the 1957 Bonneville convertible and its fuel-injected engine. “I have to go with (designer) Virgil Exner on this one. I like the look, plus the Fury was faster. With that said, I still have a soft spot for the Pontiac, because it serves as a reminder that more than the Corvette had fuel injection in 1957.” Mopar won again as Alterman selected the base-model 1970–71 Plymouth Barracuda over the ’69 Grand Prix.

Comer had a relatively easy time of it, too, picking the 1964 GTO over the 1967 Belvedere GTX (“Is there any question?”) and the 1950 Chieftain Catalina over the 1951–52 Cranbrook Belvedere, because “the Chieftain was still available with a smooth straight-eight and Plymouth made due with a straight-six.”

Gastelu reasoned that “the 1942–48 Pontiac Torpedo convertible’s streamlined style embodied American optimism during dark times,” which was good enough to defeat the 1941–49 Plymouth Special Deluxe. And he also chose the 1968–70 Road Runner over the 1967–69 Firebird, going with “pure and cheap speed” over “a fancy Camaro.”

Jennings immediately sensed that pitting the 1935 Pontiac against the 1939 Plymouth Deluxe was unfair, “since the Plymouth had the advantage of being four years newer,” making it lighter, with better options. “Plus,” she said, “it cost less, model for model.” She also selected the 1961–62 Catalina despite the 1964–66 Barracuda’s “cool, giant Jetsons’ bubble back.”

For Lingenfelter, the 1933 Pontiac Economy 8 was an easy winner over Plymouth’s Six Cylinder of the same year, not only for the obvious engine differences but because of Pontiac’s “upgraded style and streamlining.” The 1970–73 Duster 340 didn’t stand a chance, either, and was eliminated by the 1969–71 GTO.

Raynal selected the 1955–57 Safari wagon over the 1955–56 Belvedere, since “it looks cool” and offered its owners an opportunity to “tailgate in style.” He also picked the 1970 Road Runner Superbird, a “no brainer” against the 1971–74 Trans Am.

Finishing off the first round, Stone voted against the “cute as hell” 1949 Deluxe Suburban and chose the 1942–49 Streamliner woodie wagon, which he said “was a design leader and more luxurious” than the Suburban. He also gave the nod to the 1958 Bonneville over the 1957–58 Fury. His reasoning: “The Fury’s Hemi V-8 had been around a few years, and Pontiac’s fuel injection was more of a technological advance — and still pretty rare.”

With the field cut in half, 16 cars entered the second round — 10 Pontiacs, six Plymouths. Fewer cars meant tougher choices. Or so it seemed.

Late models dominated this round, though Gastelu picked Pontiac’s 1933 Economy 8 over Plymouth’s 1939 Deluxe. “Ford may have brought V-8 power to the masses, but the Economy 8 delivered the smooth and quiet refinement of straight-eight power to the middle class and firmly established Pontiac as a standalone brand after the demise of Oakland.”

In Alterman’s opinion, the 1942–49 Streamliner was too much for the 1942–48 Torpedo. “It was the last of the half-timbered Pontiacs,” he said. Plus, he admitted to “an inexplicable weakness for wagons.”

Power won out in the remaining six second-round pairings. Bryant went for the 1970 AAR ’Cuda, “an exciting car even though it didn’t receive as much attention as Mustang and Camaro.” And Comer selected another ’70 Plymouth, the Road Runner Superbird. “The lightweight Super Duty Pontiacs (like the 1961–62 Catalina) were really the cars that helped save Pontiac’s image. But my winner by a nose (and a wing) is the ’Bird. These aero warriors were so fast that NASCAR had to scramble to find a way to slow them down.”

Jennings reacted to her pairing — 1958 Pontiac Bonneville vs. 1968–70 Plymouth Road Runner — with disbelief. “How can one compare the still-dowdy Pontiac Bonneville of 1958 with the knife-sharp, Hemi-engined Plymouth Road Runner? No contest. The Road Runner was clean, mean, fast and fabulous … and cheap.”

Despite picking the ’64 GTO over the ’56 Fury, Lingenfelter — an admitted Pontiac man — expressed an appreciation for the Plymouth. “It was pretty cool, with a 303-cubic-inch engine, dual quads, 240 horsepower, big brakes and a standard tach. But the ’64 LeMans with the GTO option package was very, very cool and set the stage for future GTOs.”

Stone opted for another GTO, the 1969–71 model known as “The Judge,” over the underdog 1955–57 Safari wagon. Among the GTO’s many strengths: “The Endura bumper was a big breakthrough, setting the tone for the body-colored, composite bumper and grille treatments on most of today’s cars.” Meanwhile, Raynal selected the 1970–71 Barracuda over the 1962–64 Grand Prix.

Panelists now had a chance to weigh in on every remaining matchup, and their opinions were surprisingly consistent. The only close battle in this round was between the ’70–71 Barracuda and the ’69–71 GTO, and the Barracuda rolled on with a 5-3 victory.

Jennings went for the Barracuda. “It was finally fully sized in 1970 and highly desirable — with many powertrains and a bunch of wild paint and trim schemes.” Lingenfelter agreed, choosing the “way cool” Barracuda for its “beefy suspension and engine.” Stone added, “It’s how a muscle car should look.”

In easier wins, the ’70 AAR ’Cuda and ’70 Road Runner Superbird knocked out the only remaining pre-1950 cars — the Straight 8 and Streamliner woodie wagon — and the ’64 GTO cruised past the ’68–70 Road Runner. The most concise support for the AAR ’Cuda came from Alterman, who gave a two-word explanation: “Dan Gurney.” Comer followed suit, poking some fun at the overmatched 1933 Straight 8: “It’s really hard to channel Dan Gurney and Swede Savage in a pre-war Pontiac.”

With only four cars left, it all came down to muscle. The ’64 GTO faced the ’70 Road Runner Superbird, and the ’70–71 Barracuda was pitted against the ’70 AAR ’Cuda. Once again, neither showdown really materialized, as the GTO and AAR ’Cuda won easily, both by 6-2 votes.

Alterman picked the GTO in a matchup he said “in many ways pits Alpha against Omega.” Gastelu added his support: “I don’t recall any songs written about the Superbird, and I doubt any will be.”

The AAR also scored big. Comer described the car as “visually stunning, with performance to back it up.” Jennings added, “Who knew you could take an E-body and make it into a Trans Am contender?”

In a fitting conclusion to a 32-car playoff that saw more landslides than close votes, there was just no beating the Goat. In a 7-1 vote, the GTO’s historical significance couldn’t be denied.

Alterman called it “the original, a seedpod containing the soon-to-bloom outlaw spirit of the muscle car.” Comer had more to say: “The car was nothing revolutionary, but it was greater than the sum of its parts. More importantly, the marketing and resulting cultural phenomenon it created transcended the 389-cid station wagon engine in a Tempest that was the GTO. Now, all of this would have meant nothing if the car sucked, but it didn’t. These were just good cars.”

Stone offered his support: “The AAR didn’t make the impact, with subsequent ripples, that the GTO did. It really set the pattern for the mid-’60s mid-sized muscle car.” And Gatselu made an important point: “The AAR Cuda is both desirable and collectible, but if it never existed, the world would be roughly the same as it is today. Not so for the GTO. Pontiac’s finest ushered in an era of American-style and affordable performance that perseveres today.”

Nearly 50 years after it burst onto the scene, it looks like the “Get Turned On” still has the same effect.

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