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Old Pontiacs Never Die

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by John Gunnell  More from Author

Pontiac is gone, but collectors will trade away.

Photos by the author and Rick Jensen


Dave Doern, of Chicago, was a man who loved Pontiacs. He was involved with the Trans Am Territories that Pontiac put on at Road America years ago when Firebirds were selling like hot cakes and Pontiac Motor Division (PMD) was on a roll. Working in his Chicago shop, Dave put the strobe lights on the actual 1989 Turbo Trans Am Indy Pace Cars. Linda Vaughn, the legendary Miss Hurst, told Classic Cars & Parts, “Dave was just like a brother to me.”

Dave Doern passed away on April 26, 2009. He must have known what was coming. The very next day, General Motors announced that its Pontiac brand would cease to exist by the end of 2010. GM had decided to sacrifice its high-performance brand as part of GM’s dramatic restructuring efforts.


Historical Overview

Pontiac evolved out of Edward M. Murphy’s desire to move his Pontiac Buggy Co. into the auto age. During the summer of 1907, Murphy organized Oakland Motor Car Co. The first Oakland was built in January 1908. That September, Murphy died at age 44. Soon afterwards, Oakland joined GM.

In early 1925, Alfred R. Glancy took over at Oakland and introduced a companion car called Pontiac. The six was designed to sell for the price of a four, and became a runaway success. Oakland was killed in 1931. During 1932, Oakland Motor Car Co. became Pontiac Motor Co. The 1935 Pontiacs were the first to use “Silver Streak” chrome moldings. This Pontiac trademark lasted until 1957, when the character of the Pontiac changed completely.

GM’s one-step-up family car suddenly became GM’s performance car. Semon “Bunkie” Knudsen was behind this change. He was the son of former GM president William S. Knudsen. At 43, he was GM’s youngest general manager. Knudsen gave the Pontiac image a total makeover. His innovations included a fuel-injected 1957 Bonneville convertible and the Transcontinental station wagon. With a revamped engineering group headed by E.M. “Pete” Estes, hot new Pontiacs were developed. Starting with the 1959 models, an image of a youthful car with appeal across the broad spectrum of new car buyers emerged.

In the fall of 1960, following intensive research, development, and testing, Pontiac introduced the Tempest. It became an immediate success and the outstanding engineering achievement of the year. The Tempest moved PMD into third place in sales. Long regarded as the hot spot in auto sales, third has a reputation of being hard to keep. Several carmakers have occupied the position, only to lose it quickly to another make. Pontiac dominated third place all during the 1960s and the 1970s, setting many sales records.

There’s a mystique surrounding America’s first muscle car. Everyone loves the story of how GM wouldn’t let its divisions sell factory hot rods, so Pontiac engineers John DeLorean, Bill Collins, and Russ Gee snuck the GTO to dealers as a LeMans option kit. Ad man Jim Wangers did a bang-up job promoting sales of this GTO option, and the car carved its own market niche. The GTO package arrived in mid-1964. It included a big-car 389 V-8 and some special appearance items in place of regular LeMans trim. There were GTO grille, fender, deck lid, and glove box door emblems, simulated engine-turned aluminum instrument panel inserts, and a hood with a dummy air vents. The GTO version of the 389 had special 10.75:1 compression 421 H.O. heads, big valves, a hot cam, a heavy-duty cooling system, starter, and battery, and low-restriction dual exhausts. The base four-barrel version produced 325 hp at 4,800 rpm. The Tri-Power option made 348 hp at 4900 rpm.

GTO stood for “Grand Turismo Omologato,” an Italian term for “grand touring coupe.” In his memoir Glory Days, Wangers credited DeLorean with coining the European name, but U.S. enthusiasts preferred calling the car the “GTO,” the “Goat,” the “Great One,” the “GeeTO,” or the “Tiger.” The 348-hp GTO hardtop did 0-to-60 mph in 6.6 seconds, and the quarter-mile in 14.8 seconds. With the GTO option, a Tempest coupe was $2,852 and 7,384 GTO coupes were made. The two-door hardtop was the most popular GTO. It cost a bit over $100 more than the coupe, and Pontiac built 18,422 of these. The convertible, priced at $3,081, had a 6,644-unit production run.

In 1965, John Z. DeLorean took over at Pontiac. A new overhead-cam six arrived. In January 1967, Pontiac unveiled the Firebird. Aimed at the youth market, it was offered with the six, as well as with V-8s as large as 400 cubic inches. The year 1968 was another milestone for Pontiac: Production and sales records were set as 943,253 cars were built, an all-time high. Pontiac’s GTO was chosen “Car of the Year” for “being so successful in confirming the correlations between safety, styling, and performance.” Contributing to its success was an energy-absorbing Endura front bumper developed by Pontiac engineers.

The 1969 Grand Prix was a phenomenal success. Its sales more than tripled over the previous year to 105,000. Car Life magazine awarded the Grand Prix its “Car of the Year” award. By 1971, Pontiac held the third spot in sales for the 10th time in 11 years. The 1973 Pontiac lineup was highlighted by a totally redesigned intermediate series, topped by a stunning-looking “soft-nosed” Grand Am. Pontiac sales of 854,343 for 1973 were the second-best in history.

The “Golden Anniversary” 1976 lineup included a sporty new Sunbird. Pontiac’s 1977 model lineup was headlined by the introduction of the completely redesigned full-size cars. Continuing fuel economy improvements highlighted 1978. Pontiac was still on a roll and sold more new cars–871,391–during the 1978 model year than in any previous model year in its history. Firebirds, led by the Trans Am, continued among the hottest performing and most popular cars in the auto industry, setting an all-time model year sales record of 175,607 units.

In 1978, Pontiac’s 400-ci V-8 was discontinued in an effort to increase average fuel economy and help GM meet more stringent federal standards. The handwriting was on the wall, but the company still gave the performance market the best it could with a 4.9-liter (301-ci), four-barrel, turbocharged Pontiac V-8 introduced as a federal option for Firebird Trans Am and Formula models. A white Limited Edition Pontiac Turbo Trans Am was chosen as the official pace car for the 64th running of the Indianapolis 500 race, May 25, 1980.

In the 1980s the focus turned to economy with cars like the 1981-1/2 Pontiac T1000 and the J2000. The Bonneville name adorned a more fuel-efficient 1982 luxury car. For performance fans, an all-new, ultra-aerodynamic Firebird arrived as a 1983 model. Available in three distinct formats–base coupe, performance-oriented Trans Am, and sophisticated S/E–each Firebird had its own identity. The Trans Am was powered by a 5.0-liter, four-barrel V-8.

The 1983 lineup introduced the Pontiac STE as a high-style, world-class performance sedan. The STE was designed to compete head-on with the best import sedans in the special touring market. The standard engine was a 130-hp, high-output, 2.8-liter two-barrel V-6. 1984 was a banner year for Pontiac, which took a major step as the GM performance division with the introduction of the two-seat Fiero. It was the first production car in the world to utilize a “space-frame chassis” with separate reinforced “Enduraflex” plastic body panels. The Fiero was a tremendous success at first, with sales of nearly 100,000. This nearly doubled overall Pontiac sales. Also new was the 150-hp Turbo Sunbird.

In January 1984, GM announced the formation of two new car groups: the C-P-C Group (Chevrolet, Pontiac, GM Canada) and the B-O-C Group (Buick, Oldsmobile, Cadillac). As a part of the C-P-C group, Pontiac was charged with developing a product line for the late 1980s that would bring to the entry-level youth market exciting, fun-to-drive, performance-oriented sporty vehicles. In 1985, Pontiac introduced a new driver-oriented Grand Am. Dealers sold 785,617 cars, their best performance since 1979, but nowhere near the good old days.

Early in 1987, the Bonneville was converted to a front-drive platform and the next season brought a front-drive Grand Prix. In 1989, Pontiac offered GM’s first all-wheel-drive car, the 6000 STE. Also new were limited editions of the Trans Am 20th Anniversary and the McLaren Turbo Grand Prix. Only 1,500 anniversary Turbo Trans Ams were built. A 3.8-liter turbocharged engine rated at 250 hp powered them. Two thousand McLaren Turbo Grand Prixs were built.

As the 1990s bowed, the Trans Sport APV (all-purpose vehicle) arrived. The Firebird took on a new look for 1991. It received an exterior overhaul to improve aerodynamics and also got more muscle. The Grand Am remained Pontiac’s sales leader. In 1994, Pontiac gave the Bonneville SSEi a supercharger package. Pontiac also announced a special model to honor the silver anniversary of the Trans Am. This 25th Anniversary Edition Trans Am included Bright White exterior finish, a bright blue centerline stripe, anniversary logos and door badges, lightweight 16-inch aluminum wheels painted Bright White, and white Prado leather seats with blue 25th Anniversary embroidery. PMD said it would build a very limited number of 25th Anniversary Trans Am GT convertibles to honor the eight famous T/A ragtops made in mid-1969.

Excluding later Aussie imports, from here on Pontiac’s lone rear-wheel-drive model was the Firebird. It was offered as a coupe or convertible in three series: Base, Formula, and Trans Am. The Canadian-built car was even hotter with the optional WS6 Ram Air Performance and Handling Package. The 1996 Bonneville did get an optional 240-hp supercharged 3800 Series II V-6 with 240 hp. By 1998, Formulas and Trans Ams got a new, all-aluminum, 5.7-liter 305-hp V-8 and six-speed transmission. A Ram Air package provided 320 hp. Styling was freshened with a new front fascia. A midyear Formula option was an autocross package with a beefed-up suspension. A 30th Anniversary Limited Edition Trans Am showed up in 1999.

When 2000 arrived, Pontiac said it was “poised to lead GM into the New Millennium.” Unfortunately, its hopes were pinned to the Aztek, which flopped. The 2000 Bonneville debuted in the fall. The SSEi’s 240-hp supercharged engine was good for sub-seven-second 0-to-60 times. A factory-backed “assault on the Salt” promotion was designed to show that the Bonneville was in touch with its 1957 high-performance roots. It included a Bonneville racer with a supercharged 3.8-liter V-6 that put out “well over 500 hp.” Bonneville veteran Mike Cook made a 150-mph preliminary run, followed by an easy 189-mph pass. Engine and computer problems set in, but Cook managed a top run of 195 mph.

Pontiac’s time was running out. Daytona 500 Pace Cars and Montana vans could not turn the tide. On Sept. 25, 2001, GM announced it would stop selling Firebirds. For many, PMD’s continued existence was a question mark from then on. Even Bob Lutz and truly good Aussie GTOs and G8s couldn’t save Pontiac. 



Fallout for Pontiac Collectors

How will Pontiac collectors be affected by the death of the brand? Experts think the affect will be minimal. “It’s doubtful there will be any effect on the price of collectible Pontiacs,” said GTO guru Paul Zazarine. “They’re so far removed by time and definition from the Pontiac of today.”

Marty Schorr, author of many Pontiac books, said, “I’m not sure it will influence the values of collector Pontiacs, either positively or negatively. It might influence the collectibility of certain models, especially the last high-performance models. Rare, desirable collector cars will always appreciate, but I’m not sure if it matters whether the nameplate or marque is still being made.”

Joe Stout, a collector whose family sold Pontiacs, said, “From a collector’s standpoint, my first car was a 1932 Pontiac and its value will remain the same. Orphan cars, for the most part, have held their value. What was popular when it was new will still be in demand.”

Another person who sees no affect is auctioneer Dana Mecum, whose father owned a Pontiac agency. “Pontiac collectors are well entrenched and loyal,” he opined. “They are brand loyal to vintage Pontiacs. I think brand loyalty to the new car has been gone for several years. I have heard mention of a spike in the market, like when Enzo (Ferrari) died. I don’t think anything like that will happen without new blood coming into the arena; the current economic climate probably will not support a spike. Besides, in most Pontiac aficionado’s minds they quit building Pontiacs a long time ago.”

Muscle car collector Mike Guarise, of Barrington, IL, said, “I was disappointed when I heard the news that confirmed rumors surrounding Pontiac’s demise, but I doubt that this will have any affect on the collectibility or values of any vintage Pontiacs.”

Jim Mattison’s Pontiac Historic Services documents cars for collectors. He said, “I believe that the interest and collectibility of Pontiacs will continue on and even grow. Since the release about the demise of Pontiac was announced, I’ve noticed a marked increase in folks looking to purchase a Pontiac.”


Good-Bye Old Chief

Many Pontiac hobbyists were stunned by the decision to cancel the brand, and the Internet is filled with discussions of why the Chief is gone. Joe Stout summed things up when he said, “I feel sorrow that GM let the brand lose it uniqueness! My dad and I were Pontiac dealers for many years. We survived on what the factory sent us in the way of product, sometimes good and sometimes bad. Pontiac lost the edge on design and performance and went the way of all the others, to their demise! GM did not let the divisions have enough latitude in decision-making, thus all cars grew alike. This and over-dealering due to greed split the pie too thin!”  


What Pontiacs Will Be Most Collected in the Future?


Paul Zazarine:
Super Stock Pontiacs from 1959-63; Tri-power and Ram Air GTOs (especially convertibles); early Trans Ams from 1969-74.

Marty Schorr: Super Duty street and racecars; Experimental Factory racecars; 1961 Bonneville 389/348 Tri-Power coupes; 1969 Trans Am convertibles; 1973-74 Super Duty Firebirds; 1964-66 Tri-Power, four-speed GTOs.

Dana Mecum: 1970 Firebird Formula 400 four-speeds; 1969 Trans Am convertibles; 1961 Super Duty Catalinas; 1964 GTO convertibles; 1978 “Bandit” Trans Ams.

Mike Guarise: 1969 Trans Am convertibles; 1970 Ram Air IV GTO Judge convertibles; 1969-70 Ram Air IV GTO Judges; 1973 Super Duty Trans Ams; 1964-65 Tri Power GTOs.

Jim Mattison: Special Edition Trans Ams (“Smokey and the Bandit” cars) from 1977-81; GTO Judges 1969-71 with convertibles and Ram Air IV cars at the top; 1973-74 Super Duty Trans Ams and Formulas; Firebird and GTO Ram Air cars, with Ram Air II and Ram Air IV options at the top.


Will Pontiac Historic Services Still Be Available to Collectors?

Pontiac Historic Services performs historical research services for owners of 1961-97 Pontiacs for a fee. PHS provides VIN info and information packets about a car with copies of original window stickers.

“PHS is now in its 19th year of helping Pontiac collectors and enthusiasts to authenticate their cars and help to keep the Pontiac hobby clean,” Jim Mattison told us. “PHS began out of our love for automobiles and the need for this type of service in the Pontiac community. We have built an excellent reputation for PHS in the collector car hobby that is envied by the other automotive nameplates. PHS has always been an independent company, and not part of Pontiac or GM. With the recent announcement about Pontiac, many have feared that we also might go away. Nothing could be further from the truth! We plan to be around to help Pontiac hobbyists for many years to come!

Information about PHS is available at P.O. Box 884, Sterling Heights, MI 48311-0884. You can visit www.phs-online.com or email 1gmman@home.com.


What Becomes of the Pontiac Historic Vehicle Collection?

For many years, Pontiac had owned two cars–a first-year 1926 Pontiac coupe and a 1908 Oakland. The late John Sawruk–who was Official Historian for Pontiac–worked tirelessly to put an expanded Pontiac Historic Vehicle Collection together. At one point, Pontiac Historic Services was the caretaker of these cars, so we asked Jim Mattison where they are headed in the future.

“As you already know, GM has sold off a number of the cars from the GM collection at Barrett-Jackson Auctions in Scottsdale and Palm Beach,” Jim noted. “While it is difficult to predict the future, I’ll forecast that for GM to accumulate as much cash as possible for them to survive, the remainder of the cars in the GM collection will also be sold. I believe that they will eventually regret selling their heritage, but the people that are currently calling the shots are not ‘car people.’”

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