Pontiac had quite a run. Started in the 20’s as a simple marque for General Motors in a lower-medium price bracket, the brand flew under the radar for long enough to become perceived as a car maker for old people. Nothing of note had come from the automaker in decades, and buyers had scattered, leaving mostly just geezers as the scraps.
By the late 50’s, GM knew they had to change things up to keep the doors open. At the start of the 60’s, a wave of new style washed over the Pontiac stable, quickly followed by a wave of high performance. Pontiac’s image changed almost overnight in the early 60’s, and by the mid-sixties they had started what is considered by many to be the highpoint of domestic performance- the muscle car era. Doddering old Pontiac, infused with new blood and new ideas, pulled a fast one on upper management and created the genesis of many separate legends in one fell swoop, and the domestic car scene would never be the same again. All just by releasing the world’s first true muscle car, the GTO.
While a small team of hotrodders saved Pontiac, GM’s large corporate apparatus would eventually doom it. The former company is gone, after a precipitous fall from grace. Yet they very nearly rose again from that fall, producing some of their greatest cars right at the end. These are the cars and a few of the stories that defined the rise and fall of Pontiac.
20 Kept Them Afloat: 1965 GTO
Without the introduction of the GTO, the Mustang, Firebird, Camaro, Challenger, Charger, Cuda, and many others may have never existed. This entire movement was started by a few hotrodders working undercover inside Pontiac, who were tasked with bringing it back.
Their plans to put a big engine in a smaller car were far more than GM was prepared to handle, but the hotrodders snuck around corporate and made it happen.
The GTO, starting as a trim package and quickly maturing into its own model, combined a relatively lightweight platform with a significantly more powerful engine than normal, matching Pontiac’s new styling and starting a new genre in the automotive world.
19 Kept Them Afloat: 1967 Firebird
In a quick attempt to capitalize on the success of the GTO and combat the recently released Mustang, the team behind the GTO pushed their Banshee concept- a smaller, lighter, streamlined sports car designed to have big V8 power. GM corporate was not happy with the prospect of a car outperforming their darling Corvette, however, and scrapped the project. Instead they were given the chassis of the new Camaro, and told to make do. Like the Camaro, Pontiac’s Firebird was made to directly compete with the Mustang, instead of leapfrog it like the Banshee. And like the Camaro, the Firebird became an icon. While not as light or powerful as the Banshee would have been, the public still loved it.
18 Kept Them Afloat: 1974 Bonneville
For what it was worth, at the higher end where GM engineers were actually allowed to use parts that were higher quality than the worst available, things were much better.
Plush land barges were a staple of the Domestic auto industry, and were done better than any other place in the world, and for cheaper.
But then the oil crisis hit, as well as federal emissions legislation, and changes in how car makers measured horsepower. A shockwave slammed through the domestic auto industry, and lethargic GM management was instantly sent into panic mode in a futile attempt to change. The Bonneville, once a beacon, would never shine as bright again.
17 Kept Them Afloat: 1997 Grand Prix
In the late 90’s, after a decade of mostly crushed dreams, there was a ray of hope. With a new entry into the full-size segment, Pontiac introduced a new generation of the Grand Prix, a car that while built to a budget, actually had something proper about it. Large and comfy, the Grand Prix was equipped with a selection of V6 engines that included the legendary 3800. Reliable, relatively easy to work on, simple, and generally powerful, the 3800 wakes up the Grand Prix into a real boulevard cruiser. The 3800 was joined by a supercharged variant, which definitely provided significant oomph.
16 Kept Them Afloat: 2009 G8
In their last gasp, they pulled something truly great from the other side of the world. The Pontiac G8 was their opus, a final send off of the great muscle cars of yore from the Pontiac brand.
An imported Holden, the G8 brought muscle back from Australia, where exciting GM cars were still being made, if only for a little while longer.
Sales weren’t spectacular, largely due to an import markup and the ongoing financial crisis, but the impact the G8 made in the enthusiast community was what one would expect as a tribute to the great old Pontiac. In 2010 the marque shut down, but at least one can rest assured what greatness lived in Pontiac was saluted at the every end, with two long black trails of burnt rubber and smoke.
15 Put Them Out: 1971 Ventura
As the Firebird and GTO started their next generations, GM corporate meddling continued. The Ventura was Pontiac’s version of the compact Chevrolet Nova, a car that was designed and marketed as a cheap family runabout, but had the virtues of small size and weight, as well as an engine bay large enough for real power. The car was offered with a Pontiac 350, but only allowed to be so with a dramatic detune, cutting over a third of the engine’s possible horsepower. This would be a sign of how Pontiac’s fortunes would eventually be run into the ground by the accountants who ran GM.
14 Put Them Out: 1973 Astre
For decades, General Motors had been effectively resting on its laurels as a company, which was shocked into creating muscle cars against its will. Despite these world beaters, the company’s main focus was cutting costs in its cars in an attempt to maximize profit, while unintentionally neutering their vehicles in the process. This was worst at the low end of the market, as exemplified by the subcompact Astre.
A carbon copy of the already soon-to-be legendarily terrible Chevy Vega, the Astre was supposed to be slightly upmarket.
The team at Pontiac had their own ideas for a subcompact, which were immediately shot down in favour of a car with a selection of asthmatic four cylinder engines. This one is a '77, but 1973 was when it all went downhill.
13 Put Them Out: 1977 Phoenix
While the oil crisis threatened to kill off the massive boats at the top of the Pontiac lineup outright, now GM management was forced to focus on the lower end of the range, specifically the compacts and sub compacts. This focus wasn’t necessarily a good thing, however. The Phoenix is a good example of this, a car so bland as to be offensive. Micromanagement continued to reduce Pontiac’s in-house engineering crew to mere henchmen of their out of touch overlords. Overshadowed dramatically by better put together Japanese and European rivals whose engineers were actually allowed to strive, the Phoenix’s greatest achievement to date is being crashed a lot in 80’s movies.
12 Put Them Out: 1982 Sunbird
Things didn’t get much better. Pontiac would never truly reclaim its 60’s heyday, though the engineers certainly would attempt to appease their masters while trying to make them happy. The Sunbird remained unworthy of its name, drab and boring even compared to competing vehicles in its less than sporty class.
Despite new, more efficient engines and unibody construction, Pontiac just didn’t have any zest anymore.
This wasn’t helped by an impending nearly company-wide switch to front wheel drive, which while modern, was most certainly not as exciting as a rear wheel drive car to pilot. The Sunbird, like all other Pontiacs of the time besides the undaunted Firebird, was nickel and dimed beyond death.
11 Put Them Out: 1983 T1000
While the new age began at Pontiac, the old was managing to hang on in the T1000, a rebadging of the Chevy Chevette. While incredibly light and somewhat nimble, the T1000 was choked with a series of unreliable and weak inline four engines, not to mention significant rust problems that were very likely the result of further attempted cost cutting. Eventually the Chevette and T1000 finally completed their death throes, creating a vacuum in the sub compact slot of Pontiac’s lineup. The cost cutters at the top and the car guy engineers at the ground level had very different ideas regarding what the next step after the regrettable T1000 should be.
10 Put Them Out: 1984 Fiero
A small cadre of engineers, in the vein of those who built the GTO, had an idea while deep in the bowels of a once again struggling Pontiac. A mid engined sports car, cheap but incredibly nimble and powerful, with state of the art suspension and brakes, paired with a stalwart V6 engine. But GM corporate was now quite experienced at catching errant ideas, and the bean counters quickly managed to castrate what would have been another world and Corvette-humbling domestic sports car. Corporate mandated this new mid engined coupe be a new economy car, and while the basic layout was retained, everything from the engine to suspension was dramatically downgraded. What remained was not only pathetically slow, but dangerous to drive.
9 Put Them Out: 1985 Grand Am
Things were also pretty terrible in the standard compact range. The Phoenix was an utter failure, and believing the culprit to be the Phoenix’s aging features and old fashioned rear drive layout, Pontiac introduced the Grand Am.
What followed is by now an old story.
Utterly boring, not entirely reliable, and designed with maximum cost cutting in mind, the Grand Am may have been a better car than the Phoenix, but was even less exciting. The cost cutters went truly nuts in 1988, importing a disgusting Daewoo subcompact and slapping the classic “Le Mans” badge on it in a terribly misguided attempt to sucker in buyers. Things were getting truly bleak at Pontiac.
8 Put Them Out: 1998 Sunfire
But despite best efforts, GM’s broken 70 year old branding scheme continued to drive Pontiac into the dirt. In the 1920’s, GM management had “invented” the practice of providing a different brand for every notional step of the market. The problem with this is that by the 80’s all it amounted to is the same cars with five different badges on them, and other incredibly inefficient business practices like having three of the same kind of engine, just to keep artificial separation between marques that were really the same. The Sunfire, like the Sunbird before it, was a dud, largely because of GM corporate’s broken “brand engineering.” All this front-drive “sporty” car did was put another nail in Pontiac’s quickly forming coffin.
7 Put Them Out: 2000 Aztek
While Pontiac’s management was only getting worse, their financial situation wasn’t too bad. Their cars, even the terrible ones, were selling, the economy was accelerating and people were buying cars like never before. Management thought whatever they were doing was actually positive, and thus decided to hammer it even further home. Enter the top of many “ugliest cars” lists, the Pontiac Aztek.
While it fit perfectly on the GM balance sheets and corporate view of what the public wanted, the reality was very different indeed.
The Aztek was the very worst of inter-company politics given form- it was legendary in all the wrong ways. Even in the car buying playground that was the early 2000’s, no one wanted an Aztek.
6 Put Them Out: 2003 Vibe
Pontiac was headed down fast, but didn’t know it yet. The Vibe was introduced as a joint venture with Toyota, who provided reliable running gear. Once again, a corporate whiz idea that didn’t do well in the real world where people aren’t numbers. Overweight and dramatically underpowered, the Vibe entirely missed out on the sport compact explosion that was kicked off by the release of The Fast and the Furious. Terrible suspension and an interior made of the worse materials available for the sake of cost cutting sealed the car’s fate. Mediocrity had found a place to stay in Pontiac.
5 Put Them Out: 2004 Montana
It quickly appeared that the last vestiges of the brilliance that created the GTO had been entirely stamped out of Pontiac with the gavels of overzealous accountants. By the mid 2000’s Pontiac was transitioning into building only rebadged versions of Chevrolets, which didn’t have much point in existing since the Chevrolets already did. The Montana was even worse than some, however, because while it was a Pontiac and a Chevy, it was also an Oldsmobile. If the individual trims had more differences than minor interior shuffling and fascias, this might make some sense, but they didn’t. GM was building three of the same vehicle, spending nearly three times the money they needed to, for something as basic as a minivan.
4 Put Them Out: 2005 Torrent
Minivans, as well as sedans, were quicky being surpassed by crossovers, however. The public liked the high riding stance and SUV-like looks of crossovers along with their car-like driving experience.
GM attempted to jump on this trend, but the accountants were still in control.
The Torrent was a Chevy Equinox with lipstick and different power steering settings, including the Equinox’s mediocre interior and yawn-inducing driving characteristics. GM was fundamentally broken, and even though the car market was soaring, cracks had formed and were going to eventually burst, and the world’s largest car maker would not survive as it was. Little did anyone know this reckoning was going to come not in decades, but in moments.
3 Put Them Out: 2008 G6
Business was as usual. Corporate goals had been reached with Pontiac’s replacement for the Grand Prix, and the G6 had been released with a massive giveaway on Oprah’s TV show, which in corporate’s eyes had guaranteed a surge in sales from a key demographic. But the charade was up. The global financial crisis arrived in 2008, decimating car sales across the board. A top heavy and inefficient GM faltered, and then began to totally collapse. The G6, which while not deserving to replace the Grand Prix, was a decent car by Pontiac standards. It didn’t matter. All that built up mediocrity came crashing in, and GM fell into bankruptcy partly as a result of their own terrible branding decisions for the past 80 years.
2 Put Them Out: 2009 G3
General Motors, the global juggernaut, was at a loss. Nothing they had done was helping, and the entire organization across dozens of countries and several continents was about to go down the drain.
The US government, seeing a threat to the future survival of the US economy, stepped in as General motors was restructured in a worst-case scenario.
While GM was floundering, desperately attempting to right itself, in terms of cars all it could do was the same old. The G3 was a terrible little hatchback and/or sedan that was a rebadged Chevy Aveo, and didn’t have any reason to exist besides that GM had always done things this way.
1 Put Them Out: 2009 G5
Things were going to have to change, however, and the writing was on the wall. The US government mandated that General Motors trim the fat from it’s lineup, and Pontiac was on the chopping block. While car people knew Pontiac for their few years of brilliance in the muscle car era, and a few sparks of goodness since, the general public only knew of their many recent missteps, not even counting the decades of mismanagement GM had burdened them with. GM’s last gasp of brand engineering was a Chevy Cobalt compact car with a different grill, ushering in a pathetic end for a sad and wasteful practice in Pontiac’s history.
Sources: CarAndDriver.com, Motor1.com, MotorTrend.com