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The Rise and Fall of an American Icon
The Pontiac story is not unlike that of any other manufacturer in the industrialized America of the 20th century. Some were successful, some not. And like so many company stories, the successes and failures can be associated with specific players.
In 1956, Semon "Bunkie" Knudsen was given the task to improve sales or Pontiac would soon be history. Knudsen brought on Pete Estes and John DeLorean to form the team that did more than revive the brand. They created an image of style and performance that carried Pontiac for almost two decades. Gone were the Indian head iconic hood ornaments and the ornate “silver streaks.” Knudsen’s aim was racing. He understood that success on the track was a surefire way to get noticed. He was also aware that the Baby Boomers were ready to buy cars that would excite them.
In 1957, the first Bonneville with Pontiac’s first fuel injected engine was entered in the Daytona Beach race. The first Bonnevilles were offered only as convertibles and were powered by a 310 hp V-8 that reached 144 mph on the Salt Flats.
When 1959 rolled around, Pontiac introduced a car that was 64 inches wide - wider than any car at the time. It was awkward in its appearance until a designer extended the wheels out to the overhanging sheet metal. This gave the car the appearance of stability and good handling in the turns. Marketing came up with the term “Wide Track” Pontiac and the die was cast – Pontiac was in the performance business.
Corporate supported high performance racing with equipment called, “Super Duty.” Anyone could purchase parts over the dealership counter and go racing. Almost by whim, the 1964 GTO evolved from the compact Tempest model. DeLorean mated a jazzed-up full-sized 398 V-8 engine to the mid-sized Tempest. Word got out, and the Baby Boomers discovered a lightweight “hot rod” with a very hot engine. The Muscle Car era was born.
Pontiac added the ’63 Grand Prix, an elegant but powerful “personal luxury car,” the ’67 Firebird, ’69 Grand Am and Firebird Trans Am, etc. Sales were good until the fuel crisis of 1973 hit Detroit hard. Big cars with poor fuel efficiency fell in value. Small imports gained. To compete with the imports, Pontiac renamed some models to sound European - the J-2000, the 6000 STE, etc. Some performance models became front-wheel drive with smaller displacement engines. The big V-8s were replaced with supercharged V-6s. Beauty and performance faded and were replaced with conservative design and merely adequate performance. Efforts were made to bring back the excitement by re-introducing popular models. Unfortunately, these efforts fell short. What was unique about Pontiac was the image of performance, but the designs became generic with other GM brands.
And then there was the Aztek. The Aztek was a bold step in the right direction and in line with Pontiac’s earlier personality, but implementation fell short again. The car lacked a definition of style. Although the car had many positive aspects to its credit, it has become the butt of many jokes in the industry.
What is apparently missing these past decades is the team of Bunkie Knudsen. They dared to move out of the safe zones and they let their creativity run. Without that team, Pontiac declined until the marquee was discontinued by GM in 2010.