It Was 13 Years Ago We Said Goodbye

Thirteen years ago this week, General Motors folded its Pontiac Motor Division, in the midst of a chaotic bailout and reorganization that also axed Oldsmobile (earlier), Saturn, Hummer and a slew of other sub-brands and products.

Leaner, yes, and meaner too. They not only have fewer makes, they have less heart.

Pontiac is the one I miss.

I learned to drive in one. Still have to stop and stare, slack-jawed and envious, whenever I see a survivor: Grand Prix, Grand Am, Bonneville, Catalina, Parisienne, LeMans, GTO, Ventura, Tempest, Firebird, Trans Am. Once in a blue moon (or a silver streak), you see a Can Am, Grand Ville or Executive.

I even have a little love for the Phoenix and Astre, ill-fated though they were.

The only Pontiac I never could love was the Aztek, and I’m not alone in that.

It’s funny how, when you were young, you drove old, faded, rusty cars, and dreamed of the day you’d have “better” ones. Now, I look back and I would trade my better one for the right Firebird or GP, without looking back.

Later on, my family had a ’79 LeMans wagon, black with blood-red vinyl seats so over Armor-All’d that you would slide around with every turn.

The whole story of Pontiac is fascinating, even if you’re not a hard-core car cultist like me. GM started the brand in 1926 to pair up with the now forgotten Oakland brand in its pantheon of price-escalating marques, and soon Pontiac was a mainstay. In the late ’50s and early ’60s, it shed a stodgy image (as a ’70s/’80s kid I was surprised to learn this) and its Indian-themed model names, to become “wide-trac”, performance and youth-oriented.

Someone once said you can’t get a young man to buy a old-man car, but you’ll always be able to get an old man to buy a young-man car.

Pontiac proved it.

Execs like Pete Estes and John DeLorean (yes, that DeLorean) transformed Pontiac into a division its siblings envied and tried to poach from. I don’t think you can match a ’60s GTO or a ’70s Grand Prix for bumper-to-bumper sex appeal and desirability. Pin-up stuff.

Toward the end, Pontiac suffered terribly from “badge-engineering”, whereby the several GM divisions played shell games with one platform, trying to differentiate their models with badging and nothing more. It works with a great car, like the “Colonnade” coupe platforms of the 1970s, but was disastrous as Pontiac showrooms began parking (and not selling) cheap-looking, ugly things. Hello, Aztek. Or T-1000. Ugh.

Well into the 1990s, many Pontiacs were still cool. The morning host at my New York station had a new gleaming-white ’92 Bonneville that looked like success on four wheels.

Maybe the brand would’ve been canceled for its namesake, an Ottawa Indian chief. A lot of things go that way, nowadays. And let’s face it, the soul of style and craftsmanship has been exorcised out of Detroit, mostly. There are remnants: the new Corvette, the final Cadillac sedans, here and there you can tell someone perhaps remembers those Pontiacs.

Even today, whenever I see a Tesla logo, from a distance, it almost looks a LITTLE like a Pontiac arrowhead badge.

Pontiac, you and I have a history. And maybe a future.


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