December 1, 2023


Where Innovation Lives

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

8 min read

By Peter M. DeLorenzo

Detroit. That I have a deep really like of every thing Pontiac is perfectly recognized. I grew up immersed in this business enterprise – right in the thick of GM’s heyday – and Pontiac played a essential part in both of those my formative several years and my early marketing career. That is why when GM took the bankruptcy pill in 2008, I was crushingly unhappy to discover that the Pontiac Division was just one of the belongings to be jettisoned. (And Hummer, way too, but the good thing is that nameplate has now returned.)

It is tough to feel now, but Pontiac was just a different GM division back in the mid-50s. It experienced a lineup of stodgy cars and trucks, and there was very little to create household about. The division existed less than the GM company umbrella, but it was decidedly lacking in just about every little thing when compared to GM’s other divisions: Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet and Oldsmobile. But that would all adjust when Bunkie Knudsen was appointed a GM vice president and the division’s standard supervisor in July of 1958. Knudsen was supplied the assignment to inject some existence into the division and enhance gross sales, and he was offered carte blanche to do it.

As a reminder, if you ended up a GM vice president and divisional general manager back in the working day you ended up akin to a potentate running a small nation. GM’s divisional common administrators had immense electrical power with responsibility for engineering, manufacturing, revenue and marketing and advertising. Contemplating about that in comparison with how matters function these days, it doesn’t appear authentic, mainly because it was so substantially different from modern vehicle organization it is like examining from a fairytale reserve. But make no miscalculation, it was incredibly real, and GM’s divisional normal professionals were being like giants roaming the earth, swashbuckling their way by means of the day-to-day of the organization though building vital, pivotal conclusions on the fly. Keep in mind, this was a small business that debuted new autos just about every tumble with new sheet metal and new attributes to go with them. Again, in comparison with how matters are carried out nowadays, it is just jaw-dropping to ponder how the small business churned back then. Certainly, as I have explained numerous, quite a few occasions ahead of, it was a various time and a different period, but GM’s heyday was really impressive in that the corporation soared mainly because of it, even with the bean counters making an attempt to rein factors in each individual move of the way.

The only arena the place GM’s divisional standard administrators experienced to just take a move again was when dealing with GM Styling, which was run with an iron fist by design legend Monthly bill Mitchell, who inherited the mantle from Harley Earl. The clashes in between Mitchell and GM’s divisional typical managers were being famous, and I will preserve these stories for one more column. But suffice to say, Mitchell obtained what he needed for the most portion, even if he experienced to perform the divisional basic administrators off from every other to do so.

But back to Bunkie and Pontiac. His 1st hires ended up two younger and gifted engineers – Pete Estes from Oldsmobile and John Z. DeLorean from Packard. The charge to DeLorean was pretty unique: get Pontiac into the efficiency business suitable now. And considering the fact that Bunkie was a big racing enthusiast, every little thing was on the table, from NASCAR to drag racing.

And all of a unexpected, sizzling Pontiacs stuffed with large V8s begun to show up everywhere you go, from Daytona to Pomona. And even in our driveway. Considering the fact that Bunkie and his spouse had been social buddies with my mother and father, Bunkie started out sending the most popular Pontiacs to our home specially for my mom to generate. Beginning in the summertime of 1959, we experienced a series of Bonneville and Catalina convertibles that ended up normally bright purple with a white top rated and a vibrant red interior. And they were normally equipped with the most popular Pontiac motor at the time, which at initially were 389 cu. in. V8s with 3×2-barrell carbs, and eventually 421 V8s. Useless to say, my mom loved her hot Pontiacs. (And my brother and I did, as well, particularly considering the fact that he had just gotten his license and we would “exercise” mom’s cars and trucks at every single chance.)

The transformation of the Pontiac Division is a glorious portion of GM lore. Pontiacs went from getting simple transportation products to some of the best cars in the sector. Presenting general performance engineering and styling that just weren’t readily available any place else, Pontiac rode a wave of attractiveness that took the organization – and GM – by storm. 

I say GM since, bear in mind that portion about GM’s divisional vice presidents staying akin to potentates of their possess international locations? Very well, that was real, right until Pontiac – underneath Bunkie Knudsen’s tutelage – began to upset the pecking buy in just the business. Right before Pontiac became a “problem” for the other normal managers, the GM divisional hierarchy was apparent: Cadillac was up and off to the side luxuriating in its individual rarified environment. Buick was next in conditions of status, with the tremendous-well known Chevrolet sucking up all of the air in the room due to the fact of its remarkable gross sales numbers, followed by Oldsmobile, which just chugged together, and then the moribund Pontiac. 

At minimum that is the way it employed to be ahead of Bunkie and his “pirates” got rolling. All of a unexpected, factors experienced transformed. Chevrolet, which very much experienced high-functionality advertising chances cornered within GM, was staying very seriously pushed by Pontiac on all fronts. Chevrolet operatives grew to become far more incensed with just about every Pontiac foray into their territory, and the intramural battles among the two divisions spilled above all the way to GM’s vaunted 14th floor, with whining Chevrolet executives complaining to top GM execs that Pontiac was intentionally encroaching on Chevy’s territory. As you can think about, this didn’t sit well with Knudsen and DeLorean & Co. The raising revenue numbers, however, had been in Pontiac’s favor so GM’s prime execs pretty much permit Pontiac go, which included even much more gasoline to Chevy’s fireplace. 

Then, in 1963, when GM issued its formal ban towards the participation in racing as company plan (a monumentally rooster-shit final decision, by the way), the divisional common supervisors had to comply. (This is when Zora Arkus-Duntov, rather than destroying the Corvette Grand Sports activities, shipped them to trustworthy racer pals of the firm, for mainly free of charge. And the company’s deeply embedded romance with Jim Hall’s Chaparral autos went absolutely underground.) 

The very little-acknowledged collateral harm from that anti-racing ban was a GM internal edict that prohibited sure sized V8 from staying place in “smaller” vehicles, which is a joke taking into consideration those people more compact automobiles were being massive by today’s standards. The Chevrolet operatives dutifully complied with the edict, whilst Pontiac operatives, led by DeLorean and Bill Collins – the gifted engineer who deserves most of the credit history for this subsequent piece of automotive record – resolved to go in an additional path. In advance of the racing ban, Collins had been chaotic stuffing Pontiac’s V8s into “intermediate” Le Mans bodies, and the result was, unnecessary to say, magical. But when the edict took influence, Pontiac was particularly ordered not to things a V8 into a Le Mans to make it into a new Pontiac model.

Then, a little bit of genius. Pontiac operatives resolved to get close to the ban by producing the “GTO” a new alternative package on the 1964 Pontiac Le Mans. And the rest, as they say, is automotive record, as the original “muscle” vehicle was born. Chevrolet operatives were being apoplectic, but by the time GM corporate got wind of what was going on, the GTO alternative experienced develop into 1 of the most sought-following high-overall performance selection offers in the marketplace. And by 1966 it turned its individual independent model.

Pontiac was purple-incredibly hot, with its distinctive model of superior-efficiency engineering and some of GM Styling’s most effective patterns coming in wave just after wave. From there, Pontiac would pile success upon accomplishment, achieving, at one particular issue, 3 million in yearly profits. The rebels out in Pontiac, Michigan, experienced received. 

And virtually the most effective component? Pontiac was supported by sensational promotion, plainly some of the finest and most unforgettable promotion in the vehicle enterprise at the time. That pissed off Chevrolet’s advertisement agency – Campbell-Ewald – on a normal foundation, which built it even superior.

As for the intramural battle concerning Chevrolet and Pontiac, it continued. Pontiac arrived out with the Grand Prix in 1962, and the extended-nosed ’69 version pushed by DeLorean was yet another massive strike. Chevrolet arrived out with the Camaro in 1967, but the Pontiac Firebird to some, was improved searching. The ’70 Camaro, which was extraordinary in its personal correct, was undercut by the amazing ‘70 Pontiac Firebird Trans-Am and Firebird System. As late as 1984, when Pontiac came out with the mid-engine Fiero, the struggle continued. Chevrolet insisted that it could not encroach on Corvette territory, so the Fiero was limited to a 4-cylinder at intro and bought a V6 right right before it was dropped. The 2nd-technology Fiero, which I had the pleasure of viewing, experienced “Corvette-killer” composed all in excess of it, but there was only no way Chevrolet operatives were heading to allow it to see the gentle of day, so they lobbied against it seriously, and it never did.

The Pontiac tale is truly worth telling. And it is not just since of the magnificent cars and trucks and nameplates like Bonneville, Catalina, Fiero, Firebird, Grand Prix, GTO and Le Mans. It’s because a bunch of maverick Correct Believers thumbed their noses at the company inertia that threatened to overrun GM at the time and dared to go up towards an intramural company rival to supply some of the greatest and most memorable equipment to appear out of Detroit. 

I experienced the enjoyment of performing on Pontiac advertising and marketing at D’Arcy MacManus & Masius from 1980-1985, and I will never ever forget about it. Even though the business was quickly transforming and Pontiac was starting to shed its id inside of the GM corporate monolith, the spirit of the previous ad greats that came right before me and my advertisement colleagues was as extreme, vibrant and visceral as it could be. And we worked to make them proud each damn working day.

Is this a plea for GM to resurrect Pontiac? That is a really hard “no.” Pontiac existed in a fleeting minute in time and left its indelible mark on automotive historical past – never to be recurring, but never ever to be neglected.

And that’s the High-Octane Fact for this 7 days.


Editor’s Take note: This is Peter’s famed advertisement for the 1981 Pontiac Trans Am Turbo V-8. As Peter says, “It was a different time and a different period.” Truer terms had been never spoken. -WG

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