December 6, 2022


Let's Talk Car

SOUL SURVIVOR. – Rants – ~ the bare-knuckled, unvarnished, high-electron truth…

By Peter M. DeLorenzo

Detroit. That I have a deep enjoy of every little thing Pontiac is very well identified. I grew up immersed in this small business – ideal in the thick of GM’s heyday – and Pontiac played a crucial part in both of those my formative many years and my early promoting profession. That is why when GM took the individual bankruptcy pill in 2008, I was crushingly let down to learn that the Pontiac Division was 1 of the property to be jettisoned. (And Hummer, much too, but fortunately that nameplate has now returned.)

It is really hard to think now, but Pontiac was just one more GM division again in the mid-50s. It experienced a lineup of stodgy autos, and there was practically nothing to create household about. The division existed below the GM company umbrella, but it was decidedly missing in just about everything when when compared to GM’s other divisions: Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet and Oldsmobile. But that would all alter when Bunkie Knudsen was appointed a GM vice president and the division’s standard manager in July of 1958. Knudsen was given the assignment to inject some lifetime into the division and boost gross sales, and he was specified carte blanche to do it.

As a reminder, if you ended up a GM vice president and divisional basic manager back again in the day you had been akin to a potentate operating a compact region. GM’s divisional standard administrators had huge power with responsibility for engineering, producing, gross sales and marketing and advertising. Imagining about that in comparison with how points operate today, it doesn’t seem actual, because it was so radically distinctive from modern car or truck organization it is like examining from a fairytale guide. But make no slip-up, it was extremely real, and GM’s divisional common professionals had been like giants roaming the earth, swashbuckling their way by way of the working day-to-day of the organization though generating vital, pivotal selections on the fly. Keep in mind, this was a company that debuted new cars and trucks each individual slide with new sheet metallic and new attributes to go with them. Yet again, in comparison with how factors are finished today, it’s just jaw-dropping to ponder how the company churned back again then. Certainly, as I’ve reported many, quite a few occasions just before, it was a distinct time and a diverse era, but GM’s heyday was certainly extraordinary in that the corporation soared because of it, even with the bean counters hoping to rein items in every move of the way.

The only arena in which GM’s divisional typical professionals had to consider a phase back again was when dealing with GM Styling, which was operate with an iron fist by style legend Monthly bill Mitchell, who inherited the mantle from Harley Earl. The clashes amongst Mitchell and GM’s divisional basic supervisors had been legendary, and I will help save individuals stories for a further column. But suffice to say, Mitchell received what he required for the most component, even if he experienced to perform the divisional normal professionals off towards every single other to do so.

But again to Bunkie and Pontiac. His first hires have been two younger and gifted engineers – Pete Estes from Oldsmobile and John Z. DeLorean from Packard. The demand to DeLorean was really unique: get Pontiac into the performance business proper now. And since Bunkie was a huge racing fanatic, almost everything was on the table, from NASCAR to drag racing.

And all of a unexpected, very hot Pontiacs stuffed with significant V8s started off to clearly show up everywhere you go, from Daytona to Pomona. And even in our driveway. Considering the fact that Bunkie and his spouse were being social close friends with my mother and father, Bunkie commenced sending the most popular Pontiacs to our dwelling particularly for my mother to generate. Starting in the summer time of 1959, we experienced a collection of Bonneville and Catalina convertibles that have been normally brilliant red with a white top and a brilliant pink inside. And they were generally equipped with the best Pontiac motor at the time, which at initial had been 389 cu. in. V8s with 3×2-barrell carbs, and inevitably 421 V8s. Unnecessary to say, my mother liked her incredibly hot Pontiacs. (And my brother and I did, as well, primarily due to the fact he had just gotten his license and we would “exercise” mom’s automobiles at each individual chance.)

The transformation of the Pontiac Division is a glorious portion of GM lore. Pontiacs went from being functional transportation gadgets to some of the hottest autos in the field. Supplying efficiency engineering and styling that just weren’t available wherever else, Pontiac rode a wave of acceptance that took the small business – and GM – by storm. 

I say GM for the reason that, bear in mind that aspect about GM’s divisional vice presidents getting akin to potentates of their have nations around the world? Well, that was legitimate, till Pontiac – below Bunkie Knudsen’s tutelage – began to upset the pecking get within just the firm. Right before Pontiac became a “problem” for the other basic supervisors, the GM divisional hierarchy was crystal clear: Cadillac was up and off to the side luxuriating in its have rarified planet. Buick was subsequent in conditions of status, with the tremendous-popular Chevrolet sucking up all of the air in the place because of its incredible profits figures, adopted by Oldsmobile, which just chugged together, and then the moribund Pontiac. 

At the very least that is the way it used to be before Bunkie and his “pirates” acquired rolling. All of a sudden, things had altered. Chevrolet, which fairly considerably had high-general performance advertising opportunities cornered inside of GM, was getting seriously pushed by Pontiac on all fronts. Chevrolet operatives grew to become much more incensed with every single Pontiac foray into their territory, and the intramural battles among the two divisions spilled more than all the way to GM’s vaunted 14th floor, with whining Chevrolet executives complaining to leading GM execs that Pontiac was deliberately encroaching on Chevy’s territory. As you can visualize, this didn’t sit nicely with Knudsen and DeLorean & Co. The raising sales figures, nevertheless, ended up in Pontiac’s favor so GM’s top execs very considerably permit Pontiac go, which additional even a lot more gasoline to Chevy’s hearth. 

Then, in 1963, when GM issued its official ban in opposition to the participation in racing as corporate plan (a monumentally chicken-shit decision, by the way), the divisional typical administrators experienced to comply. (This is when Zora Arkus-Duntov, alternatively than destroying the Corvette Grand Sports activities, shipped them to dependable racer close friends of the enterprise, for fundamentally cost-free. And the company’s deeply embedded romantic relationship with Jim Hall’s Chaparral vehicles went fully underground.) 

The very little-identified collateral destruction from that anti-racing ban was a GM inner edict that prohibited specific sized V8 from becoming put in “smaller” vehicles, which is a joke taking into consideration these smaller sized cars have been substantial by today’s expectations. The Chevrolet operatives dutifully complied with the edict, when Pontiac operatives, led by DeLorean and Invoice Collins – the gifted engineer who deserves most of the credit for this future piece of automotive heritage – made the decision to go in yet another path. Before the racing ban, Collins experienced been fast paced stuffing Pontiac’s V8s into “intermediate” Le Mans bodies, and the end result was, useless to say, magical. But when the edict took effect, Pontiac was particularly ordered not to stuff a V8 into a Le Mans to make it into a new Pontiac product.

Then, a bit of genius. Pontiac operatives decided to get close to the ban by creating the “GTO” a new option package on the 1964 Pontiac Le Mans. And the relaxation, as they say, is automotive heritage, as the primary “muscle” vehicle was born. Chevrolet operatives have been apoplectic, but by the time GM corporate received wind of what was going on, the GTO selection experienced turn into a single of the most sought-after higher-functionality solution deals in the marketplace. And by 1966 it became its very own independent model.

Pontiac was purple-incredibly hot, with its exclusive brand of higher-performance engineering and some of GM Styling’s finest patterns coming in wave immediately after wave. From there, Pontiac would pile good results upon achievement, reaching, at a single stage, 3 million in once-a-year gross sales. The rebels out in Pontiac, Michigan, experienced won. 

And pretty much the greatest part? Pontiac was supported by sensational advertising and marketing, evidently some of the best and most memorable promoting in the car business enterprise at the time. That pissed off Chevrolet’s ad company – Campbell-Ewald – on a frequent basis, which produced it even better.

As for the intramural fight in between Chevrolet and Pontiac, it ongoing. Pontiac arrived out with the Grand Prix in 1962, and the extended-nosed ’69 model pushed by DeLorean was an additional enormous hit. Chevrolet came out with the Camaro in 1967, but the Pontiac Firebird to some, was improved hunting. The ’70 Camaro, which was extraordinary in its have correct, was undercut by the incredible ‘70 Pontiac Firebird Trans-Am and Firebird Formulation. As late as 1984, when Pontiac arrived out with the mid-engine Fiero, the fight ongoing. Chevrolet insisted that it could not encroach on Corvette territory, so the Fiero was limited to a 4-cylinder at intro and obtained a V6 right prior to it was dropped. The 2nd-technology Fiero, which I experienced the satisfaction of seeing, experienced “Corvette-killer” published all about it, but there was merely no way Chevrolet operatives were heading to permit it to see the light-weight of day, so they lobbied against it intensely, and it under no circumstances did.

The Pontiac story is truly worth telling. And it’s not just for the reason that of the wonderful cars and trucks and nameplates like Bonneville, Catalina, Fiero, Firebird, Grand Prix, GTO and Le Mans. It’s for the reason that a bunch of maverick True Believers thumbed their noses at the company inertia that threatened to overrun GM at the time and dared to go up towards an intramural corporate rival to deliver some of the very best and most unforgettable devices to appear out of Detroit. 

I had the enjoyment of performing on Pontiac advertising and marketing at D’Arcy MacManus & Masius from 1980-1985, and I will in no way neglect it. Even even though the organization was fast shifting and Pontiac was starting to lose its identification in just the GM corporate monolith, the spirit of the previous ad greats that arrived in advance of me and my advert colleagues was as extreme, vivid and visceral as it could be. And we worked to make them happy each damn day.

Is this a plea for GM to resurrect Pontiac? That is a tricky “no.” Pontiac existed in a fleeting second in time and left its indelible mark on automotive background – never to be recurring, but under no circumstances to be neglected.

And which is the Significant-Octane Truth of the matter for this 7 days.


Editor’s Take note: This is Peter’s famous advertisement for the 1981 Pontiac Trans Am Turbo V-8. As Peter claims, “It was a distinctive time and a unique era.” More true text had been under no circumstances spoken. -WG