By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit. That I have a deep appreciate of every thing Pontiac is perfectly known. I grew up immersed in this small business – suitable in the thick of GM’s heyday – and Pontiac played a critical part in both my formative several years and my early marketing vocation. That’s why when GM took the personal bankruptcy tablet in 2008, I was crushingly upset to study that the Pontiac Division was a single of the property to be jettisoned. (And Hummer, much too, but luckily that nameplate has now returned.)
It is hard to believe that now, but Pontiac was just yet another GM division back again in the mid-50s. It had a lineup of stodgy vehicles, and there was almost nothing to create home about. The division existed under the GM company 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 change when Bunkie Knudsen was appointed a GM vice president and the division’s typical manager in July of 1958. Knudsen was offered the assignment to inject some lifestyle into the division and enhance gross sales, and he was supplied carte blanche to do it.
As a reminder, if you had been a GM vice president and divisional typical manager back again in the working day you have been akin to a potentate working a little nation. GM’s divisional basic administrators experienced immense energy with duty for engineering, production, revenue and advertising and marketing. Pondering about that in comparison with how issues function today, it doesn’t appear to be authentic, due to the fact it was so dramatically distinct from present-day motor vehicle business enterprise it is like looking through from a fairytale guide. But make no blunder, it was very real, and GM’s divisional typical administrators were like giants roaming the earth, swashbuckling their way via the day-to-working day of the organization whilst building critical, pivotal selections on the fly. Don’t forget, this was a enterprise that debuted new cars each individual fall with new sheet metal and new features to go with them. All over again, in comparison with how issues are performed nowadays, it’s just jaw-dropping to contemplate how the small business churned again then. Certainly, as I have stated lots of, a lot of instances right before, it was a distinctive time and a unique period, but GM’s heyday was definitely remarkable in that the company soared mainly because of it, even with the bean counters seeking to rein factors in every single move of the way.
The only arena where GM’s divisional general supervisors had to choose a move back again was when working with GM Styling, which was run with an iron fist by design and style legend Bill Mitchell, who inherited the mantle from Harley Earl. The clashes involving Mitchell and GM’s divisional basic supervisors had been legendary, and I will help you save those stories for a further column. But suffice to say, Mitchell got what he needed for the most portion, even if he experienced to enjoy the divisional typical administrators off from each other to do so.
But again to Bunkie and Pontiac. His 1st hires ended up two young and gifted engineers – Pete Estes from Oldsmobile and John Z. DeLorean from Packard. The demand to DeLorean was pretty certain: get Pontiac into the general performance business proper now. And considering the fact that Bunkie was a massive racing fanatic, almost everything was on the table, from NASCAR to drag racing.
And all of a sudden, incredibly hot Pontiacs stuffed with significant V8s started to display up just about everywhere, from Daytona to Pomona. And even in our driveway. Since Bunkie and his wife ended up social good friends with my dad and mom, Bunkie begun sending the hottest Pontiacs to our property exclusively for my mother to travel. Beginning in the summer time of 1959, we experienced a sequence of Bonneville and Catalina convertibles that were being normally dazzling pink with a white best and a bright pink inside. And they were often equipped with the hottest Pontiac motor at the time, which at first had been 389 cu. in. V8s with 3×2-barrell carbs, and ultimately 421 cu.in. V8s. Needless to say, my mom cherished her incredibly hot Pontiacs. (And my brother and I did, way too, specially considering the fact that he had just gotten his license and we would “exercise” mom’s autos at each and every option.)
The transformation of the Pontiac Division is a glorious section of GM lore. Pontiacs went from staying realistic transportation gadgets to some of the hottest cars and trucks in the marketplace. Supplying functionality engineering and styling that just weren’t accessible everywhere else, Pontiac rode a wave of popularity that took the business – and GM – by storm.
I say GM simply because, remember that portion about GM’s divisional vice presidents getting akin to potentates of their have nations around the world? Well, that was correct, until finally Pontiac – beneath Bunkie Knudsen’s tutelage – commenced to upset the pecking order within the company. Just before Pontiac grew to become a “problem” for the other normal professionals, the GM divisional hierarchy was distinct: Cadillac was up and off to the aspect luxuriating in its individual rarified environment. Buick was following in conditions of prestige, with the super-common Chevrolet sucking up all of the air in the place due to the fact of its outstanding profits quantities, adopted by Oldsmobile, which just chugged together, and then the moribund Pontiac.
At least that is the way it utilised to be right before Bunkie and his “pirates” got rolling. All of a unexpected, items experienced modified. Chevrolet, which fairly a lot experienced significant-efficiency marketing prospects cornered within GM, was staying seriously pushed by Pontiac on all fronts. Chevrolet operatives turned extra incensed with just about every Pontiac foray into their territory, and the intramural battles among the two divisions spilled about all the way to GM’s vaunted 14th floor, with whining Chevrolet executives complaining to major GM execs that Pontiac was intentionally encroaching on Chevy’s territory. As you can visualize, this did not sit perfectly with Knudsen and DeLorean & Co. The growing revenue numbers, nonetheless, had been in Pontiac’s favor so GM’s leading execs really considerably permit Pontiac go, which extra even far more fuel to Chevy’s hearth.
Then, in 1963, when GM issued its formal ban against the participation in racing as company coverage (a monumentally chicken-shit final decision, by the way), the divisional normal managers had to comply. (This is when Zora Arkus-Duntov, somewhat than destroying the Corvette Grand Sports, shipped them to dependable racer close friends of the enterprise, for fundamentally absolutely free. And the company’s deeply embedded romance with Jim Hall’s Chaparral cars and trucks went fully underground.)
The minimal-regarded collateral damage from that anti-racing ban was a GM interior edict that prohibited specified sized V8 from being put in “smaller” cars and trucks, which is a joke considering individuals lesser autos had been massive by today’s criteria. The Chevrolet operatives dutifully complied with the edict, even though Pontiac operatives, led by DeLorean and Invoice Collins – the gifted engineer who warrants most of the credit history for this following piece of automotive background – determined to go in a different way. In advance of the racing ban, Collins had been occupied stuffing Pontiac’s 389-cu.in. V8s into “intermediate” Le Mans bodies, and the outcome was, pointless to say, magical. But when the edict took impact, Pontiac was precisely 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 resolved to get all around the ban by generating the “GTO” a new solution bundle on the 1964 Pontiac Le Mans. And the rest, as they say, is automotive heritage, as the unique “muscle” car was born. Chevrolet operatives had been apoplectic, but by the time GM corporate obtained wind of what was occurring, the GTO option experienced develop into one particular of the most sought-right after high-overall performance possibility offers in the marketplace. And by 1966 it grew to become its very own separate product.
Pontiac was crimson-scorching, with its distinctive brand of large-efficiency engineering and some of GM Styling’s best designs coming in wave soon after wave. From there, Pontiac would pile achievements upon success, achieving, at just one point, 3 million in yearly income. The rebels out in Pontiac, Michigan, had gained.
And almost the most effective section? Pontiac was supported by sensational advertising, obviously some of the ideal and most unforgettable advertising in the automobile company at the time. That pissed off Chevrolet’s advert company – Campbell-Ewald – on a normal basis, which made it even greater.
As for the intramural struggle in between Chevrolet and Pontiac, it continued. Pontiac came out with the Grand Prix in 1962, and the prolonged-nosed ’69 edition pushed by DeLorean was one more enormous strike. Chevrolet came out with the Camaro in 1967, but the Pontiac Firebird to some, was improved searching. The ’70 Camaro, which was extraordinary in its possess proper, was undercut by the wonderful ‘70 Pontiac Firebird Trans-Am and Firebird System. As late as 1984, when Pontiac came out with the mid-engine Fiero, the battle continued. Chevrolet insisted that it could not encroach on Corvette territory, so the Fiero was restricted to a 4-cylinder at intro and got a V6 correct just before it was dropped. The 2nd-era Fiero, which I experienced the enjoyment of seeing, had “Corvette-killer” published all in excess of it, but there was only no way Chevrolet operatives had been going to allow for it to see the light of working day, so they lobbied versus it intensely, and it hardly ever did.
The Pontiac tale is value telling. And it is not just due to the fact of the fabulous cars and nameplates like Bonneville, Catalina, Fiero, Firebird, Grand Prix, GTO and Le Mans. It is due to the fact a bunch of maverick Real 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 provide some of the finest and most unforgettable devices to arrive out of Detroit.
I experienced the satisfaction of operating on Pontiac marketing at D’Arcy MacManus & Masius from 1980-1985, and I will never ever overlook it. Even nevertheless the business was swiftly modifying and Pontiac was commencing to reduce its id within just the GM company monolith, the spirit of the previous advert greats that came in advance of me and my advert colleagues was as rigorous, lively and visceral as it could be. And we worked to make them very pleased every single damn working day.
Is this a plea for GM to resurrect Pontiac? That is a tough “no.” Pontiac existed in a fleeting instant in time and remaining its indelible mark on automotive heritage – never to be recurring, but hardly ever to be forgotten.
And that’s the Large-Octane Reality for this week.
Editor’s Note: This is Peter’s famous advertisement for the 1981 Pontiac Trans Am Turbo V-8. As Peter claims, “It was a distinct time and a distinct era.” Truer text ended up never spoken. -WG