R.I.P. Pontiac Motor Division: 1926-2010

I’ve owned exactly two Pontiacs in my life: both GTO’s, both convertibles.  Sitting still, they exuded a raw, rumbling, asphalt-shaking power.  Which was a really good thing…

Zoe, Me and The Goat in Happier Times

Zoe, Me and The Goat in Happier Times

–because they never ran worth a tinker’s damn.  Truth be told, I’ve never owned more unreliable automobiles. The list of major family events where my cars wouldn’t start is legendary, including my older daughter Zoe’s Eighth Grade Graduation, where only the combined efforts of three grease monkey Dads and the janitorial staff of the Joseph Sears Elementary School brought my car to lurching, sputtering life a full three minutes after the rest of the cars had driven away for the traditional parade through town. Determined not to let Zoe down, I drove like a bat out of hell, confident in the knowledge that our entire small town police force was at the front of the parade. Screeching to a halt at a less-trafficked corner, I was able to hijack my daughter and two of her classmates out of their makeshift rides and back into the GTO before sneaking into the tail end of the line and turning down our town’s main drive.  We passed our family and friends, waving and smiling Grand Marshal style with no one the wiser.

Through the years, my Pontiacs proved to be mechanical nightmares; rusty frames, overburdened door hinges, entirely unreliable convertible top motors.  Both had huge, loud V-8 engines, yet a tiny Honda could smoke them off the line.  I got nowhere near the value out that I invested into them, with one major exception…

They looked vicious.  Exciting and sexy, they were bold in a notice-me-dammit way that no affordable production car is today.  Pontiac GTO’s and Tempests were integral to a proud Detroit muscle car heritage, even if my two specimens were pathetically out of shape.  Sadly, that era is now long gone, ground under the iron heel of assembly-line efficiency, wind tunnel dictates, and the total elimination of individuality the corporate industrial process engenders.

And there lies the real threat, not just to GM as it struggles to find a way back from the dangerous precipice it drove to under it’s own freewill, but to every American manufacturer. Yes, efficiency is useful to production.  Certainly, management can eke out greater productivity from a workforce.  But neither efficiency nor management are agents of inspiration.  They can’t capture our imagination.

In a world cluttered with too many choices and too much parity, we would be wise not to discount those rare products that represent the maverick, the singular, the non-focused group fever dream of a true-believing zealot.  Because unlike every other species, mankind alone respects and needs art.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79
tom macek says:

I had many Pontiacs and loved them all. My best car so far has been a 2002 Bonneville that I unceremoniously traded in last year for a rather starchy Buick LaCrosse. Still wish I had that Bonny or the others I owned. Loved those red dashboards.

steve brodwolf says:

Dennis, Love the blog. I had a Pontiac once. Nothing as sexy as a GTO but it was my first, “straight from the showroom” car.
It was a black Trans Am and I loved it. It was that car that brought me to Chicago. A lot of good memories are built around the cars we had. My Dad built Pontiacs at the Fisher Body plant in Hamilton, Ohio and he was damn proud of them.
Maybe he even had a hand in building one of yours. From the look on your face in that photo, I’d like to think so.

Steve

RTB says:

Look at that picture. Look at the joy. Camry, and Accord, not to mention today’s Chevy Malibu and Ford Fusion, don’t try this at home. You are all fine transportation appliances but you’ll never elicit the same kind of emotion. Nor will you be the centerpiece of great yarns like the parade story told here. Face it, you got your value out of the car not because it looked vicious. Your value is derived from moments like the one you shared. Like the Mastercard ads say, “priceless.”

The GTO was born in the era of NASA’s Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs with GM, Ford and Chrysler mimicking the space race between the US and the USSR. Much as our spaceships went higher, our cars went faster. Pontiacs reflected this “more is better” philosophy with copious quantities of horsepower, Wide Track suspensions and “road-hugging weight.” The GTO simply dialed that ethos up to eleven, only to find it dialed back down to zero during the fuel crises of the 1970s. Truthfully, this is when Pontiac died as the designers, engineers and marketers at GM never really came up with a new raison d’être for the marque. As proof I submit such scattershot efforts as the 1000, the Sunbird, and, last but not least, the rolling focus group known as the Aztec.

As for the car in this blog, today GTOs are over 40-years old. Any 1967 Toyota Corona would likely be similarly temperamental (or worse), assuming it hadn’t already biodegraded. (People forget how rusty early Toyotas, Hondas, and Datsuns got.) In its first decade on the road, I bet your car was pretty darned reliable and not deserving of the “tinker’s damn” slight. Today, it is a world of electronic fuel injection and distributorless ignition. Finding mechanics truly well versed in the black arts of four-barrel carbs and ignition points is a challenge. Hence, a fickle disposition for old cars like your Goat in the first decade of the 21st century.

I will miss Pontiac. My grandfather was an original equipment manufacturer for GM up through the muscle car era. Were he alive, he would be heartbroken by GM’s decline. But he would have smiled if he saw you haulin’ ass in your GTO trying to catch up to the parade.

MKK says:

Maybe it’s the tomboy in me or the fact that my Dad taught me about cars from the age of 5, but this story hits home to me. Makes me appreciate the classics– not just cars, but the classics in life.

P.S.-great picture!

dougK says:

great pic, d!
And Zoe looks as beautiful as ever.

Christine Osborne says:

My grandparents were faithful to Pontiacs, which is why I grew up with the understanding that it was a superior car. Their loyal brand support may also have been due to the fact that my grandfather Harry was one-part Seneca Indian and dug the logo.

chris says:

i felt exactly the same way when they stopped making studebakers back in ’64. i loved my lark but always wanted an avanti. luckily there’s a great studebaker museum down in south bend that i can visit whenever i wanna feel nostalgic.

ballcaps says:

“‘Tis better to have had a GTO and lost, than never to …” Something like that, anyway. :)