As this issue goes to press, General Motors is busily off-loading its last 450 new Pontiacs, most of them G6s. It's hardly a fitting final act for a brand that gave us some of the twentieth century's most memorable cars - the GTO, the Trans Am, and the Grand Prix, to name but a few. But Pontiac could have met a similarly ignoble end six decades ago, and thus never have even lived to see its glory days, if not for the success of one man, Semon E. "Bunkie" Knudsen, and one car, the 1959 Pontiac Bonneville.
For much of the 1950s, Pontiac was the weakest link in an otherwise indomitable GM juggernaut. The brand's reputation for conservatism didn't jibe with postwar America's craving for glitz, glamour, and speed. Knudsen, an engineer and son of a former GM president, was named Pontiac's general manager in 1956 and given five years to effect a turnaround. Knudsen knew that Pontiac couldn't justify its existence as merely a nicer Chevrolet. Buick had already carved out a niche as the luxurious brand of choice among doctors; Oldsmobiles were renowned for their sophistication. Pontiacs, Knudsen decided, would be sporty. He immediately ordered the brand's theretofore trademark (but frumpy) chrome striping on the hood and the trunk removed from every car and added a new top-of-the-line model, the Bonneville, to attract younger buyers. In defiance of an auto-industry gentlemen's agreement banning racing, Knudsen committed to factory-backed NASCAR and NHRA teams, which soon enjoyed huge success thanks largely to the brand's newly developed V-8. He also assembled a team of hard-core auto enthusiasts, from a young John De Lorean on the engineering side to ad man and drag racer Jim Wangers.
Knudsen's efforts came to fruition in the 1959 model year. The all-new sheetmetal, developed under the auspices of Bill Mitchell, was the polar opposite of the baroque designs coming out of Chevrolet and Cadillac, with clean, sweeping lines and, for the first time, a split grille and an arrowhead hood ornament. Although all Pontiacs received the new styling, the most significant in terms of promoting the marque's fast-living image was the Bonneville. Available as a two- or four-door hardtop, a station wagon, and a convertible, it stood apart from lesser Star Chiefs and Catalinas with special trim, more interior features (including a padded dash), and the brand's most powerful four-barrel and Tri-Power V-8s with up to 345 gross hp. Knudsen loved the new look on prototype cars save for one flaw: the extremely broad body drooped awkwardly over the 1958-spec chassis. He thus demanded that the wheels be pushed out to the edges for a more aggressive look. "Quite frankly, it was done as a styling move," admits Wangers. Nevertheless, the new car's 64-inch track - the widest in the industry at the time - provided the perfect hook with which to sell Pontiac's new performance image. Wangers and his team preached to the buying public the added handling, comfort, and security offered by Pontiac's new "Wide-Track" lineup. It worked. Sales for '59 increased by a remarkable 76 percent (to 383,320), and the once-stodgy brand caught the attention of America's budding youth culture.