I’ve been really quiet on the blog front for the past month- chalk it up to moving to Fargo, planning a wedding (mine), and somewhere along the line deciding that the blog is not my personal journal. This is where I ramble and pontificate. And I have some future posts in mind that really should offend just about everybody. But until I get the courage up to actually write and publish them, let’s settle for talking about my unbridled glee at the dismantling of Pontiac back in 2010. Most of my points are really all the same, and if I thought this out better it’s likely all one long article, but this is what happens when I don’t have an editor.
It was no longer a car company. I know this sounds odd to say, because ostensibly it was a business that produced vehicles for a consumer to drive around in. The thing is, somewhere along the lines Pontiac desperately lost sight of making great cars (and therefore profiting) and simply became a brand and a business. I firmly believe this is a bass-ackwards way of doing great business. Companies focused on the bottom line and turning a profit will follow the example of Circuit City or Grand Moff Tarkin. As Princess Leia said, “The more you tighten your grip, the more star systems will slip through your fingers.” Companies like Apple are fantastic financial standing because they focus on the product first, and realize that is what drives business and leads to profit. Name a business that has seen a true positive change from a paperwork shuffle, I dare you. Daimler-Chrysler? That travesty nearly ruined both companies, as the Chrysler build quality never improved and their production of the Mercedes ML class damaged the German marquee‘s reputation for excellence. Contrast that with Lee Iacocca’s honest-to-goodness turnaround of Chrysler 20 years earlier by focusing on the vehicles (the K-cars, the minivan, buying AMC for Jeep) and it’s no wonder Chrysler was profitable enough to repay the gov’t guaranteed loans of ’79 seven years ahead of schedule. Focus on making a fantastic product will bring profits.
Pontiac never recovered from the 1970s. Let’s just get this out in the open: the 1970s were a terrible time in history and if you disagree you’re wrong (or were a child and forgive the period out of nostalgia). We’re talking about the decade where cars began to suffer from bloat and underperformance, disco became accepted as a viable form of music, and the nation elected Jimmy Carter. Steve McQueen died in 1980 because the ’70s destroyed his will to live. Apparently the same holds true for Pontiac, because despite being marketed as the performance division of GM, they just made a bunch of slow and boring passenger cars that were simply named after races but nothing more. Bonneville, Grand Am, Grand Prix, Le Mans… All of these should send shivers down a racing fan’s spine rather than exist as the listless beige yawns that they were. Meanwhile the only real performance cars from GM were being produced under the Chevrolet banner with the Corvette, Camaro and from Buick (freakin’ Buick, the old people’s car of choice!) with the GNX.
The Aztek. Enough said. There’s a reason this car was picked to symbolize Walter White being such a nerd in Breaking Bad, and why it was destroyed to coincide with him becoming awesome in season 4.
Badge engineering. Surely somebody reading this will disagree with my performance quip above by citing the Firebird. To this I say “Poppycock!” as it was nothing more than a re-styled (and only occasionally better-looking) Camaro. This was/is a problem I understand from a business perspective (but I adressed that first), that actually winds up devaluing a brand in the eyes of anyone who gives a crap about vehicles. And while it applies to (almost) all brands, I’m bashing GM/Pontiac at the moment. Why buy a Bonneville when it’s exactly the same as a Chevy Caprice or Buick LeSabre? The Grand Prix was just a tired and outdated cosmetic design that was fundamentally the same as an Impala or Buick Regal. The same is true for the Grand Am, but applied to an Olds Cutlass. The only decent car Pontiac actually produced after the ’72 GTO was the Fiero. Even the “4th generation GTO” was nothing more than a captive import of an Australian Holden Monaro- just made uglier to fit in with Pontiac’s styling and stupid trademark grille. “But it had the same engine as a Corvette!”, I hear somebody shout in protest. Then buy a damned Corvette and at least get a well balanced vehicle (due to transmission placement) and an attractive exterior to contrast the shoddy interior and build quality.
Pontiac had to die. Thanks to GM, it became the very definition of all that was/is wrong with American automobile manufacturing alongside Oldsmobile and Buick. Going back to my first point, they quit making cars and simply started trying to fool the American public into giving them more money. Well the public wised up and now GM is trying to fool the .gov into giving them money. Frankly, I fear anything associated with General Motors is still doomed as long as they’re still lying about paying back the TARP bailout with financial tricks and now relying more heavily on subprime loans to prop them up. It’s like they’ve learned absolutely nothing from the 2008 financial crisis, and are trying to stay alive using money that’s not really there but only been promised by a demographic that has already shown they’ll simply walk away from the agreement and go into delinquency rather than make good on their word and the deal they agreed upon. This is a bad idea.
But Pontiac didn’t have to die. Flying in the face of what appears to be conventional wisdom, what could have saved Pontiac would have been an honest-to-God car guy running things, or a ruthless business man like Lee Iacocca, Carlos Ghosn, or even Steve Jobs. I don’t mean those guys, specifically, but somebody who would have shared the same basic and proven strategy: pare down, eliminate waste, and focus on making 3 excellent products instead of 30 sub-par pieces of junk. GMC maintains commercial focus, Chevrolet is the mass-market brand, Pontiac is the performance branch a la Ford’s SVT, Cadillac is the luxury division and then never bleed products across the brands. No Pontiac misadventure minivans. No Cadillac mass market attempt Cateras. People would still lose jobs and the unions would bitch and moan, but it’s the only way I see anything surviving at General Motors. A ruthless CEO or a guy who loves cars and won’t stand to see them become bastardized or tolerate a shoddy product. Then, and only then, could Pontiac have lived or anything made by GM be worth owning. General Motors’ heyday is far behind them, with very few bright spots in the past four decades, but it doesn’t have to be.
That, not bailouts, is how you save an American icon.