The rearview mirror: a brand born from the Roaring Twenties


Alfred P. Sloan was appointed President and CEO of GM in 1923.

It is a brand born this week of 1926, the one that lives with fervor in the hearts of car enthusiasts: Pontiac.

This is the brand that gave us Grands Prix and GTO, Firebird and Trans Am before peddling atrocities like the T1000, Astre and Aztek, vehicles that irreparably tarnished a brand whose image should have been the easiest to see. manage GMs.

A brand born for its price

It took General Motors until 1924 to put his house in order after the ousting of GM founder William Durant. Under GM President and CEO Alfred P. Sloan, who had been appointed the previous year, the product line was reduced to a price range consisting of Chevrolet at $ 510; Old, $ 750; Oakland, $ 945; Buick “4”, $ 965; Buick “6”, $ 1,295; and Cadillac, $ 2,985.

But Sloan saw gaps in the portfolio that needed to be addressed. “The most obvious gaps in this line were between the Cadillac and Buick ‘6’ at the top and between the Chevrolet and Olds at the bottom,” Sloan recalled in his book ‘My Years With General Motors’.

This led to the 1927 LaSalle, priced at $ 2,000, a junior Cadillac that would last until 1940. But the greatest danger was the gap between Chevrolet and Oldsmobile. “If General Motors wasn’t going, someone else would sooner or later,” Sloan said, not caring whether the new car stole business from Chevrolet or Oldsmobile. “It would be better if we take business from our own divisions rather than let our competitors do it. “

Chevrolet President William “Big Bill” Knudsen developed the first Pontiac.

Sloan therefore requested that the space be filled with a new car using a Chevrolet body and chassis powered by a new 6-cylinder engine. (At the time, Chevrolet offered only 4-cylinder power.) Chevrolet president William “Big Bill” Knudsen was tasked with developing and testing it; Oakland would bring it to market. The new car was nicknamed Pontiac, Oakland name when it was known as the Pontiac Buggy Company.

(Two other sister brands debuted later, Oldsmobile’s 1929 Viking, which lasted one year, and Buick’s 1929 Marquette, which lasted two years.)

A new car – so ordinary – new

So the first Pontiac went on sale this week in 1926, priced at $ 825, halfway between the $ 645 Chevrolet and the $ 950 Oldsmobile. While the new Pontiac plugged a hole, it wasn’t exceptional, with its 3.0-liter L-6 engine producing 40 horsepower at a lazy 2,400 rpm.

The new car didn’t do much to increase sales of Oakland’s more expensive. When the Great Depression hit in 1929, GM considered killing both Oakland and Pontiac. But in 1930 Pontiac was passing Oakland seven to one, so the decision was made to kill Oakland. Pontiac would outlive all of its sister brands and be the only one to survive its parent company.

A 1926 Pontiac, essentially a Chevrolet with a 6 cylinder engine. (Photo credit: RM Auctions)

Pontiacs became senior Chevrolets, offering features you couldn’t get from the bowtie brand, like an automatic transmission or an 8-cylinder engine. These were safe and solid conservative offerings that generated decent sales, but were otherwise unattractive, much like an Oakland. But that would change in 1956, with the arrival of Semon “Bunkie” Knudsen, the son of Chevrolet president “Big Bill” Knudsen in the 1930s.

Pontiac gains a new leader – and a new image

Bunkie would be the youngest division manager appointed at that time. His youth would prove invaluable as he brought new blood, including Elliot “Pete” Estes of Oldsmobile as chief engineer as well as John DeLorean who hailed from Packard. (The two would go on to run Pontiac and Chevrolet, with Estes becoming president of GM and DeLorean leaving GM to start his ill-fated auto company.)

The 1957 Pontiac Bonneville would mark the birth of Pontiac as a GM performance brand. (Photo credit: RM Auctions)

Next, Knudsen introduced the Bonneville, a top-of-the-line model with Rochester fuel injectors, hydraulic valve lifters and a racing cam. Producing 300 hp, it would prove to be a model for what was to follow.

For 1959, Pontiac received its first split grille style, part of the brand it would retain for the remainder of its race, as well as its famous “wide gauge” chassis. Winner of MotorTrend’s Car of the Year award in 1959, its sales increased by almost 57%.

In 1961, the compact Pontiac Tempest debuted with GM’s first post-war 4-cylinder engine, four-wheel independent suspension and a rear transaxle. 1962 saw the debut of the two-door Grand Prix, the division’s first personal luxury coupe, followed in 1964 by the first muscle car, the V-8-powered Tempest GTO, a $ 300 option package that would become its own model.

Three years later, Pontiac presented its answer to the Mustang, the 1967 Firebird, followed by its more muscular sister, the 1969 Trans Am. It looked like in the 1960s Pontiac couldn’t do any harm. But that would soon change.

A new era brings new challenges

The 1964 Pontiac Tempest GTO, the first American muscle car. (Photo credit: RM Auctions)

As the new decade dawns, the team that made Pontiac successful has evolved. In 1974, the GTO would be based on a Chevrolet Nova, followed by the Pontiac Astre, a thinly disguised Chevrolet Vega, in 1975. But Pontiac’s image remained firm, thanks to booming sales of the Firebird and the Trans Am, accented by the chicken hood sticker screams.

But in the 1980s, Pontiacs differed little from those offered by other divisions, with one exception, the 1984 Fiero, a mid-engined, space-structured two-seater coupe. It looked like a sports car, but didn’t work like it. Crafted from the GM parts bin, its engine dated from the Tempest of 1961. The Fiero died after four years.

Bad product decisions continued, including the Montana MPV, Aztek crossover, and Korean-built Le Mans subcompact. Even the popular compact Grand Am would have seen its marketing muscle gutted when it was renamed the G6. Even the revival of the GTO failed when its badge was affixed to the Australian-built Holden, doing little to attract baby boomers who remembered the original.

The Pontiac Aztek has been praised for its utility, vilified for its odd design.

The end is coming

When GM filed for bankruptcy in 2009, the company had the option of retaining four divisions. That GM would keep Chevrolet, GMC and Cadillac seemed to be inevitable.

Oldsmobile was already gone, having been phased out in 2004. It was not difficult to understand that Saab and Saturn were closed. The question was whether to keep Buick or Pontiac.

Considered only for sales in the US market, the answer would have been to keep Pontiac. But GM had been selling Buicks in China for a decade – a lot of them. The promise of what was to become the world’s largest auto market and the country’s long-standing admiration for Buick, a brand favored by the last Chinese emperor, forced GM’s hand.

After 84 years, Pontiac was dead.


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