Where Pontiac went wrong.

I’ve seen a lot of classic old cars lately.  One in particular stood out to me.  A GTO.  Everything good about Pontiac started out here.


Small car, simple, reliable, clean lines, and a nice big fat powerful engine.  This is a winning formula.  But Pontiac drank the Koolaid of their own greatness, bowed to the pressures of Parent Company GM who force fed them crap like they were Tail End Charlie in The Human Centipede.   But Pontiac used to be good… and at times along the way, shown absolute brilliance.

Pontiac’s catch phrase was “We build excitement”, and after that was “Wider is Better”.  Unfortunately “Excitement” meant that they took something totally coma-inducingly boring, and threw on some plastic body cladding to make it wider.  This was utter failure on every level.  At no point now one had the guts to tell upper management that they were all complete idiots.  The G8 GXP was absolutely awesome.  But it came too late.  The 2004 GTO was the first time since 1967 that the Brand really looked at it’s self and said that they needed to get serious again.  Shortly there after, they brought out the Solstice.  Which was great, but was a close miss.  It was almost there.  The Solstice was also run as the Saturn Sky… Which was a solid hit.  Can you see the difference?  The Solstice looks like it was swollen from a food allergy, where the Sky looked lean and mean.  This small, light, efficient sports car may not have sold all that well, but they did sell to those that appreciated the concept.  The Sky’s are demanding a premium price still, where several of the Solistici that I’ve seen have been selling for a deeper discount.
But where did Pontiac go wrong?  What happened to that Excitement?  2001 happened.  Pontiac released the Aztek.  Worse yet, the Design Team of the Aztek was not abducted and executed by firing squad as a sacrifice to the Gear-Headed Gods of Horsepower and Torque.  Pontiac keep pushing the Aztek through 2005.  Which means they kept backing it and hoping that it would take off with a sudden appreciation for it and Dan Colen paintings.  I had a friend that was a Pontiac Salesman at a Dealership.  I asked him what the hell was wrong with Pontiac.  He just shook his head and quit the next day.  This was about 4 months after the Aztek had come out and landed at his dealership.  He had worked there for 12 years.

Another guy that left Pontiac –  John DeLorean.  He’s the guy that gave us the Pontiac GTO and tried to do many other awesome things at Pontiac until 1969, when he was sent to Chevy.  But when LeLorean left, that was the death knell for Pontiac since no one after him had enough balls to keep the brand alive.  Look what happened to Pontiac after he left… The Firefly, the 6000, the Sunburst, the Wave, the 3rd Gen “Tempest”… don’t even get me started on the Montana. And then that Aztek.  

None of them had the Excitement that the Pontiac Badge tried to sell.
So where did Pontiac go wrong?  They didn’t find the next John DeLorean.  John went on to bigger and better things… He build the 1.21 Gigawatt Time Machines (that only produced a measly 130 horsepower at the wheels) and then he went and originated the Breaking Bad concept.
Pontiac needed a Rockstar Lead Singer… but never found another.  They were Guns and Roses after Axle left.  They were David Lee Roth after Van Halen left.  Pontiac was doomed.

GM should have set Pontiac apart from the rest… made them their performance marquee brand.  They really had something special and they crushed the life out of it, slowly, cruelly, like keeping an unloved child locked in a basement all it’s life, until it dies and gets buried in the back yard in the middle of the night.  Shame on you, GM.  Shame on you.

22 thoughts on “Where Pontiac went wrong.”

  1. Late 60’s Pontiac…
    You want a 6 banger? OK, here is one with an over head cam and a 4 bbl.
    Early 60’s Pontiac,..
    Oh, the car is too heavy? we will drill a bunch of holes to lighten it up, slap on aluminum body parts, bell housing, and third member.
    Car and Driver will test our 64 GTO against Ferrari’s GTO? We will stuff a 421 under the hood and tell them it was a 389.
    Early 70’s Pontiac…
    The smog equipment is strangling the power out of the fast cars? We will release our baddest car yet. 455 SD TA.
    Pontiac holds a very special place in my heart.


  2. Also after De Loran left, Pontiac started losing quality. The
    GM shave $00.70 here and there and figured they could save their way to high profits mentality took charge. They started putting plastic parts into the power train and stuff. You don’t let accountants take over your marketing.

  3. 1st car was a 65 Pontiac Catalina 2dr 389 v-8. Ran like a dream and was loud as heck. Hush Thrush duals that dumped at the differential. With the 8 track at full blast you could not hear “Color My World” till the vocals at idle,under acceleration that motor could sing. Car got totaled in front of the house when parked. Always have a soft spot for mid 60s Pontiac land barges.

  4. Still miss my green Pontiac Firebird 1970’s version….drove all over the Dakota’s while in the USAF out there.

  5. I always wanted a gto but never had the money. I had a 1990 and then a 1994 grand am. say what you want but they were great in the snow.

  6. George your analysis is exactly right. But I am more impressed by your self control. I saw you were talking about Pontiac and I thought for sure you would blow up like a MOAB when you mentioned the dreaded Montana van.

    The new job and new location are working magik on you. Some of us remember the adventures of that pontiac “shop statue”… those were dark times indeed on the blog.

    I think this new kinder gentler Ogre is kinda scary… in a good way.

    1. I had to hold myself back on the Montana. The whole post would have been about the Montana and my loathing for it.

  7. Pontiac went bad when they put in seats big guys hated, dropped roof lines for style and adopted the GM back breaker seats. (OK, I have a Ford Fanny and Fit Fords Fully.)
    Ford roof lines are too low now and I had to buy a Honda Fit S for a commuter.

    GM died of it’s own bureaucracy needed to fight the Fed bureaogoddery. See C&D interview with the guy who tried to turn it around after the “rescue.”

    My Sister kept an old F/R Bonneville for years, despite Cleveland winters. Now she has a Buick, and you cannot use the backseat for humans, despite the four doors.

    Who notes if the US Government hadn’t killed business in the USofA, Honda would be a US company out of Marysville, OH by now. Sigh.

  8. One amusing thing about the Solstice/Sky – some engineers planned ahead, and designed the frame to accept a V-8. You can actually pull the engine out of a Corvette and cram it under the hood, with surpisingly little effort.

    But that used to be the norm – now it’s worthy of note when someone thinks about real power.

    Modern cars have become so disappointing that I’ve pretty much given up on them. F-350 diesel, and I’m likely to get an a diesel Excursion as a second vehicle. Only gasoline engine I own is my chainsaw, and even that is a “hot rod” among chainsaws (Husqvarna 394xp with a 24″ bar – with almost 4 cc’s per inch of bar, the thing cuts like a laser and balances like a much smaller saw).

  9. The head attorney, a man of incalculable integrity and upstanding virtue, when I worked for them he was the general secretary and staff legal counsel at Stanford — had an original dark blue GTO.
    He was one of the guys who made Stanford what it was, like HP had the “HP Way” – and he was a Mormon – Darryl Pearson. It hasn’t been the same since he passed away, things have gotten really out of whack there.

  10. Wasn’t the Solstice/Sky an Opel GT under the skin? And the G8 was a Holden, an Australian car?

    The first of only two American cars I ever owned was a ’68 GTO. 400 hi po, four on the floor, how I loved that car. Got 9 mpg, but I still loved it.

  11. The only Pontiac that was my very own was a ’71 LeMans. Really liked that car. I think your analysis is dead on, George.

  12. My apologies, the Opel GT was derived in common with the Saturn Sky. So says wikipedia, at any rate.

  13. I still lust after the 2+2. Yeah, it was a boat. But it was a fast, very cool boat, and I loved it.

    You don’t let accountants take over your marketing.
    That’s the truth. You don’t let them do any design, either, or you’ll give engineers a bad name. My dad used to joke that “an engineer was a man whose daughter had been raped by a mechanic”. But it is the bean counters that have cars build shoddily-remember the plastic timing chain gear that GM invented? My father made a fortune in the ’80’s replacing them.

  14. Weight gain killed Pontiac performance.

    They had a great idea with the GTO in the first few years: Tempest body (lightest they had) with 389 engine and the performance goodies (4 speed, positraction diff, etc).

    Then they found more horsepower (good) but at the same time started porking up the body (bad). So, in stock form, the cars ran mid to high 14 second quarters, except for a couple years when their ram air package and 400 ci engine got them down into the high to mid 13’s.

    I drag raced in those days. 1970 Plymouth Duster 340 4 speed. Drastically underrated 275 hp engine. Yet, we ran low 14’s right off the showroom floor because of lighter weight. And I was able to get into the high 13’s almost instantly and into the low 13’s on street tires in Showroom Stock (just a few legal suspension mods, low restriction intake, better tires and lower restriction mufflers). MOPARs could be made quicker than GM stuff on a budget.

    GM could have made the Pontiacs a lot quicker and more competitive in stock classes if they had not porked them up. A 1970 GTO was over 500 lbs heavier than my little “A” body MOPAR. That’s a terrible handicap to try to overcome.

    MOPAR understood the need to keep the bodies light. GM did not.

    By 1972 (and smog control) it was all over for Detroit muscle until recently with electronic fuel injection and modern high flow catalytic converters. Even then the rear wheel drive Pontiac muscle cars (GTO and G8) were actually based upon and pretty much re-badhed Australian GM Holdens.

    As technology marches forward, my current little 2.3L four banger 2008 Mazdaspeed 3 runs identical times as my old MOPAR, 13.2’s at 106-107.

    1. “By 1972 (and smog control) it was all over for Detroit muscle until recently with electronic fuel injection and modern high flow catalytic converters.”

      The 1973-74 455SD would like a word with you.


      1. Indeed. Mid to high 13’s wasn’t bad and against the air pumped low compression engines that caved to “smog control” it was spectacular. But, think about how good that would have been at 3,100 lbs or so compared to the outright obese 3,800 lbs+ the SD ended up with.

        More than anything else, weight killed Pontiac.

        1. Considering that they were the quickest factory production cars Pontiac had ever sold, I figure they coped OK.
          Pontiac of the time had similar weights to the other GM cars, within 100 lbs or so.
          Pontiac’s Firebird flourished in the sales race thruout the 70s.
          What killed Pontiac was losing their identity .


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