Why I’m glad Pontiac is dead

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.

8 thoughts on “Why I’m glad Pontiac is dead

  1. That or simply go the opposite route. Disband the brand. And admit its merely a styling at this point.

    Create the “Pontiac” trim package for Chevy vehicles. If you get a Chevy Cruze in Pontiac trim. You get all the performance features (biggest engine, higher tuning, rear spoiler, tachometers, etc). If you got a Tahoe with Pontiac trim you’ll get the brush guard, pipe sideboards, larger rims and more rugged tires.

    Essentially make it so that it’s a simple way to get the given Chevy in 16-28 year old appeal.


  2. So many things to say here. 🙂

    First, congrats on the engagement. That’s fantastic!

    Second, sorry about moving to Fargo. 😉 Just kidding.

    Now to the good stuff. Grab a beer, buddy.

    Lee Iacocca was a moron! Complete power hungry idiot. While the K-Car pplat form did help save Chrysler, it also damn near killed it because Lee Iacocca kept wanting to use the platform well after it had gone stale, soggy, musty, and rancid. And this is from a huge Chrysler fan boi.

    Lee Iacocca also had the gov bail them out just before the K car was released. The car alone did not save Chrysler. The money was a big help.

    Iacocca pushed Bush Sr. (along with Ford and GM) into going to Japan to “discuss” why our cars weren’t selling there. Remember the Epic Fail from this? Bush puking at dinner, the world laughing at the moment. A monkee trained to gag when told, “Bush! Bush!”

    After getting chewn up and down on the flight home what did Iacocca say? “The Japs better remember we nuked them in WW-II!” Great thing to say when the 2.6 the 3.0, the stealth, upcomming sebring, raider, D-50 pickup and other parts and vehicles were from Mitsubishi! (who incidentally made the Zero) MORON!

    Oh yeah, one more little thing. That he and Bob Lutz not only drew up the whole “Merger of equals” with Mercedes, but even came up with the name Daimler-Chrysler.

    Iacocca = Moron.

    But he builds a GEM of a car now.

    Onto the 70’s

    No car had any horsepower due to the double whammy of new emission standards and oil embargoes. You also had the speed limit drop to 55 MPH.

    Badge engineering: Yeah, like that started in the 70’s…NOT! They were doing this big time in the 50’s and Durant, the guy who created Gm in the first place, had badge engineering as a part of the plan from the beginning. I’m talking 1910 here. Badge engineering was old tried and true by the 70’s.

    Pontiac and Gm was being run by an honest to car guy, Bob Lutz. This guy brought us the Viper. The reintroduction of the Z06, The Solstice, The Plymouth Prowler, The Jeep Wrangelr Rubicon. The 300C. The Caddilac V series, The Dodge Power Wagon. All of these were approved under his watch! He wrote a great book called “Guts” “Car Guys Vs Bean Counters” and his upcomming book -working titiled “Icons and idiots”

    Want a second opinion? Here ya go.

    “In 2001, General Motors hired Bob Lutz out of retirement with a mandate to save the company by making great cars again. He launched a war against penny pinching, office politics, turf wars, and risk avoidance.” -Leigh Beureau

    Oh yeah, in the vein of tough guys, Lutz is a Marine even though he’s from Switzerland.

    As for the Catera, THat’s what the CTS replaced. Bob also loves the ATS.

    You want to know more about Lutz and his views of GM? Check out the interview.

    • Gene, I know badge engineering didn’t start in the ’70s. I never said it did. I said Pontiac never recovered from the crap cars America made in the ’70s- they failed to ever begin making anything good again. The badge engineering was a separate point- that Pontiac didn’t have anything of it’s own or unique to draw a potential customer. There was the Fiero and…? The Firebird, I guess. It looked better than Camaros. They shared the Soltice with Saturn (which I firmly believe was shut down for not being unionized), and had the Aztek, which killed them. As for Iacocca? Hey, nobody bats 1.000! LOL. Henry Ford wasn’t perfect and Steve Jobs gave us the Apple Cube…

      Beige yawns of cars do not deserve to be named after racing heritage.

      • You’re right. Yawns of cars don’t eserved to be named after great racing heritages.

        The Fiero was good… in it’s last year. It had the GM disease of the time where they didn’t get the mix right until the image was bad. (Did you know that in 87 Pontiac put in the 16 valve, turbocharged, 4cyl engine in it that made the Fiero faster than the Corvette?)

        The Aztek was bad! OMG was it bad. It made for a great “cult car” with its wierdness, but sold horribly. I’m not sure if this was Lutz’s idea but someone really high in position at Gm made all the executives drive the thing for three months as pennence for this albatros.

        I also agree that Saturn was killed for the Union thing as well.

        I had actually came back to clarify my response because I got into a ranting ramble instead of making my point.

        My point is that GM had a huge Car guy behind it named bob Lutz and he couldn’t, or chose not to save Pontiac. It makes you wonder why. Maybe he felt the same of their yawns of cars?

        And one more very important thing. Just so you know your blog is the one that makes me think and react the most. That’s a damn good thing. Congrats! 🙂

      • I didn’t know that about the Fiero! That’s really cool! And thanks for the compliment, sir. It’s quite humbling actually, in the face of some of your posts.

  3. Pontiac was killed off by,,,Chevrolet! Why? Because Pontiac built a better car. Up to 1960, Pontiac was GM’s discount car. Then some genius hired a stock car driver named Fireball Roberts. He promptly went out and won the Daytona 500 and a whole slew of races. Suddenly Pontiac cut into Chevrolet’s sales in the NASCAR states. GM’s top brass freaked out and declared a ban on racing. Not to be deterred, Pontiac hired a bunch of young engineers and hid in the bushes for a few years. Quietly, they developed the now famous tri-power carburetor system, in which only the middle carburetor functioned at speeds up to 55 mph unless the throttle was held wide open. This gave their engines more power than the 4 bbl Chev’s, Ford’s and Chrysler’s while returning better gas mileage in normal use. Then in a sneak street performance attack, they put it on a 389 cu. in. motor and crammed it into their compact Tempest and called it the G.T.O. It took Chevrolet years and a new 396 cu, in, engine to catch up. (the Chevelle). To make things even worse, Pontiac took their Firebird and stuck in a revolutionary overhead cam 6 cyl, engine. Suddenly Chevrolet’s long standard 6 was outdated! Next they tossed the 389 into the Firebird, and hired a two-bit Florida actor named Burt Reynolds and immortalized the car in a movie called ‘ Smokey and the Bandit’. Chevrolet had had enough. They forced Pontiac’s chief performance engineer right out of GM – a guy named John DeLorean – who went out and started his own car company. From this point on, Pontiac was doomed.
    The Fierro was Pontiac’s comeback car. Chevrolet didn’t object because it used the same rear engine layout as their earlier Corvair and paid off some of the old engineering costs. But then Pontiac sinned. They made the Fierro GT. A car considered by Consumer’s Reports to be one of the best cars ever built. Worst of all, it was nearly as fast as the Corvette and sold at a fraction of the Corvette’s price. GM’s board long considered CR a commie rag and with Chevy’s pushing, the Fierro was killed off. Isn’t internal corporate politics a wonder!
    Later Bob Lutz tried to revive the brand, but it was too late. The Bonneville had out shone the Impala, the Tempest the Chevelle, the Grand Prix the Monte Carlo and the Fierro the Corvette. Since Chevrolet had it’s truck division, when GM was forced to re-organize it was time for Pontiac to go. Taking a quick look at the Chevrolet lineup today and blandness rules the roost. The Cruze is wimpy. The Malibu has been stripped of it’s 3.6 motor. The Impala is pitiful (the new model is only slightly better). The Camaro doesn’t match up against it’s competition. And the Corvette is a fragile primadonna. Only the Silverado truck can hold it’s own in the marketplace.
    Eric, I’m glad you brought this subject up. And I agree with much of what you and the others say.

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