Why GM Really Killed Pontiac

Why GM Really Killed Pontiac

By Jim Campisano
Photos by the author

When Pontiac joined the Oldsmobile and Oakland in the GM cemetery in 2009, there was a lot of outrage among the faithful. The most common cry was, “They should have killed Buick instead.”

GM’s retort was that Buick made a billion dollars a year while Pontiac lost that much. This, of course, was an oversimplification. The other key reason was Buick was huge in China, where its prestige rivals that of Mercedes-Benz to this day. In fact, GM sells more Buicks there than it does in the United States. Had the General killed Buick in this country, it would have severely damaged the brand in the world’s largest market—or so went the corporate logic.

Pontiac was in an interesting state when it was euthanized. Thanks to Bob Lutz, it had unique products that no other GM division sold, the rear-drive G8 and G6 two-door coupe and convertible among them. It also had the Solstice roadster, shared only by the Saturn subsidiary. For better or worse, the Solstice and the G8 were little more than niche vehicles, unable to sustain the division in the long run. Bottom line: In a status- and label-conscious world, the name Pontiac had about as much cache in 2009 as Rambler. And that’s what killed it.

True confessions: I just purchased a used 2009 G8 GT (pictured). It is an outstanding machine and I love it, though it might have the worst name in history—say G8 GT 10 times fast. It’s the best BMW Pontiac ever built, and it tried to construct quite a few over the years. Problem is every time I tell people I bought a Pontiac I get that look normally reserved for the guy whose cell phone is ringing I church. Some seem to feel sorry for me, like I’m being punished for some unknown sin. “What’s that?” is another common reaction.

After Semon E. “Bunkie” Knudsen transformed Pontiac in the late ’50s, it became an aspirational brand, the “Wide-Track” division. Bonneville. GTO. Firebird. Trans Am. In the ’70s, the Grand Prix defined the personal luxury car. Laugh now, but they flew off dealer lots back in the day.

Then came the bad times. Plastic body cladding proliferated (ribbed for her pleasure?). Rebadged Chevy (and Korean) compact cars. Inferior build quality. Minivans. The Aztek. A once proud division became the butt of jokes. No matter how good or interesting its last vehicles were, the Pontiac name had zero equity in the market.

In a way, the brand was ultimately doomed. Having four or five divisions selling essentially the same cars in the 21st century was unsustainable. There’s also infighting in the Pontiac hobby. There’s a vocal camp that doesn’t acknowledge anything built after 1981 because they didn’t have “real” Pontiac engines in them. The third- and fourth-gen Firebird guys are off on their own, and 2004-’06 GTO owners are shunned. Ultimately, Pontiac went away because no one bought its vehicles, including the very folks who professed to love them.

The Pontiac faithful might recoil at the notion of an Australian Poncho, but the G8 was the last great car to wear the arrowhead badge. My only regret is I didn’t spring for a GXP. Could GM have revitalized the brand to the point where it was once again viable? Anything’s possible. Look where Cadillac is now, rivaling the best from Europe in performance and beating them over the head from a styling standpoint. Caddy is once again an aspirational brand, though not yet to the point where GM wants it to be. And that’s a big part of the problem. Status-crazed customers would buy a Yugo for $90,000 if you put a BMW emblem on the fenders. From what I’ve seen, there was no life left in the Pontiac name. (Many G8 owners add Holden grilles and emblems to their vehicles.)

Could Pontiac be resurrected? Anything’s possible, but what would be the point? There are too many brands to choose from as it is (with China poised to further dilute the market). Ironically, Mitsubishi, often chided as being the Pontiac of Japan, is teetering on extinction in this country. Perhaps it’s best to let this once-great GM division rest in peace while we enjoy the legacy it left behind.



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