This is the potted history of Pontiac, who sadly were discontinued in 2009 – which was a pity because Pontiac were helping to keep the Australian car industry going and it was the true sports brand in the General Motors group. The history though, starts in two places – not uncommon for the early years of the industry.
We need to go back to 1907 when Edward Murphy founded the Oakland Motor Car Company and started manufacturing cars in Pontiac, Michigan. The city was named after Chief Pontiac, not Mr Potatohead! The Chief had attacked the British forces at Fort Detroit in the 18th Century. By the way, the Red Pontiac is a variety of potato originally mutated from other potato varieties in Florida!
Murphy (strangely an Irish slang word for potato!), had owned the Pontiac Buggy Company making horse drawn buggies for the previous 14 years. His first car used a novel engine – a two cylinder that rotated the opposite way to all other engines. This was during the early years of engine development and all things were tested! After a year or so, they switched to what is now a conventional style four cylinder producing 30hp. The cars still resembled the earlier buggies and were popular – sales climbed and during 1908 they sold over 5,000 cars. This was presumably because they looked comfortably familiar to the buyers. Interestingly, Oakland cars started out as right hand drive, until left mounted steering wheels were standardised in the US.
In early 1909, William Durant bought 50% of what was becoming a successful company and a few months later Murphy died prompting Durant to buy the remaining half of the company from Murphy’s family. Durant rolled it under his newly founded General Motors corporation and renamed it the Oakland Motor Division.
The same year, Durant bought the Cartercar company who had been making cars under the Cartercar and Pontiac brands. They were also based in Pontiac and lasted until 1916 when General Motors shut them down – primarily because sales weren’t as strong as anticipated. Cartercar built “high wheelers”, which were buggy style cars that harked back to the older horse drawn transportation. Cartercar has a place in history because they used a frictionless transmission which was an early form of the Continuously Variable Transmissions we see today.
General Motors already knew the value of market segmentation and put Oakland above Chevrolet but below Buick and Oldsmobile. The cars were separate designs with shared engines and flourished for about 10 years under the GM umbrella. Oakland were building 6 and 7 litre cars called the Greyhound with smaller cars called the Light 6 and Light 4 which featured 3 and 5 litre motors. Sales were expanding and by 1916, they were selling over 30,000 cars a year.
However this wasn’t to last as quality started to drop which was around the time that head office started to look at the segment gaps that had been created by the brands. With a burgeoning market in the 1920s, it was time to plug those gaps so General Motors started a “Companion Brand” program. Essentially this doubled the brands that GM had to go to market with.
In 1926 Oakland developed their companion brand, resurrecting the Pontiac name from the kitbag, and fitted it in between Chevrolet and their own brand featuring six cylinder motors compared to the eights used by the parent company. The first car was the Chief with a 3.1 litre straight 6 producing 40hp. It was hugely successful from the launch selling over 75,000 units in its first year!
Pontiac was so successful that they cannibalised sales from Oakland and so in 1931, General Motors dropped Oakland and created the Pontiac Car Company. During that decade, Pontiac started to use more parts from the corporate bin – they took the Oakland eight-cylinder engine and slotted it into a Chevrolet body to make the cheapest 8 on the market. Sales plateau’ed to provide a brand that was a cash cow for the parent group and it was a steady, reliable brand through the 30s and 1940s with no major technological advances.
Then in 1949, Pontiac had a makeover – they designed sporty bodied cars on a standard GM platform. The pre-war cars were replaced with the Chieftain and the Star Chief powered by six and eight cylinder motors of 4 and 4.5 litres respectively. This was the beginning of their sporting heritage.
Pontiac had another makeover in the mid 1950s thanks to a team that included John DeLorean and they released the Bonneville a fuel injected version of the Star Chief and this lead to powerful sports orientated cars fitted with V8s. The 1960s saw the V8s continue and a new line of compact cars that were shared with Buick and Oldsmobile. The Tempest used a 4-cylinder motor that was basically one bank of the V8. Two other cars were launched in the 1960s that were important for the brand: the Grand Prix, a name that lasted for 40 years and the amazing GTO that also had a good life. GTO’s started out as highly tuned Tempests but took on a life of their own with classic coupe styling and big bore V8s. The name returned in 2004 as a rebadged Holden Monaro.
Then in 1967, to compete against the Ford Mustang and Pontiac’s sister the Chevrolet Camaro, they released the Firebird and the Firebird Trans Am. The Firebird was by far the best looking of the three with a choice of a 3.8 six or V8s of 5.3 or 6.6 litres. The 1st generation Firebird is my favourite for a classic plaything.
During this time badge engineering was creeping in and by the fuel crisis of 1973, many Pontiacs were based on Chevrolet or Buick designs. It was the Firebird that helped turn Pontiac’s fortunes around during the late 1970s and 1980s with cameo appearances in the Rockford Files (2nd generation), Smokey and the Bandit (a 2nd generation Trans Am) and Knight Rider, a 3rd generation model. In 1984 the Firebird was joined by the Fiero, a mid-mounted 2.5 or 2.8 litre sports coupe designed for a younger market. Although it was in production for only four years, it helped reduce the age of buyers and kept the brand young.
During the late 1980s, Pontiac seemed to become confused in its marketing message. On one hand it was selling high-powered sports coupes and on the other very staid minivans such as the Trans Sport and Montana. This continued through to 2004 when they started to ship in the Holden Monaro as a new GTO. Although it wasn’t a huge success badged as a Pontiac, it lead to Pontiac to consider other Australian made kit and so the Holden Commodore was badged up as a G8 and shipped Stateside.
However, this was too little too late and in 2009 General Motors announced that Pontiac was heading the same way as Oakland and was to be dropped as part of a restructuring. At that time General Motors was in a dire financial state, the Global Financial Crisis had hit them hard and at the time I was reporting on how much unsold stock was sitting in fields, nowhere near a dealer. At one point, General Motors had several months of inventory sitting idle and this was a big drain on their cash flow. Government funds were needed to support a full restructure and despite Pontiac having a younger image than Buick or Cadillac, it was the main casualty. Now, in the mid 20-teens, General Motors has spent a huge amount of cash trying to lower the average age of Buick owners – they had the younger buyers with Pontiac!
It’s like having a leg with gangrene – if you lop it off you have a chance of saving the rest of the body. It was actually a pity, because the Holden sourced cars were of very high quality and performance – something that lived up to Pontiac’s heritage. There was talk of private money being used to keep the marque and factories going, however GM didn’t sell and chose to shutter the brand instead.