Pontiac’s demise may not seem like a big deal these days. The brand has only two cars worth test-driving, the G8 and Solstice, and either would look fine in a Chevrolet showroom. Back in the 1960s though, Pontiac was third in the marketplace, behind only Chevy and Ford, and was undoubtedly number one in the hearts and minds of teenaged baby boomers. A lot of that had to do with the efforts of ad man Jim Wangers, who shrewdly crafted the brand’s edgy, high-performance image. More importantly, he was a real car guy, and could often be seen at drag strips or prowling Detroit’s Woodward Avenue in a souped up, “Royal Bobcat” GTO.
When GM announced its plans earlier this week to kill the brand by 2010, I gave Wangers a call. Now 83 and still very active in the Pontiac enthusiast community, he had a lot to say about why the brand failed, and pulled no punches when it came to assessing GM’s management - past and present. Excerpts from our conversation are below.
What was your reaction to the news that Pontiac will be closed?
I must confess it did not really surprise me. The whole Pontiac concept, really, their well-earned image of building high performance cars, has been so seriously compromised over the last 30 years that none of this is really a big surprise
People ask me, “When did Pontiac start to go downhill?”
I say, the day the door hit John DeLorean in the ass for the last time. After DeLorean left, the brand was run by one after another of GM’s soldiers.
What was the secret to Pontiac’s success in the 1960s?
DeLorean was the third of three really quality general managers who really understood the picture, the image Pontiac had created for itself. [The other two were Bunkie Knudsen and Pete Estes]. Who do you blame for the brands demise?
You blame Pontiac. You blame Pontiac and their marketing team.
There were good cars that Pontiac failed to take advantage of. For instance, the early 80s 6000STE. That was a fun car to drive but it needed a better engine.
We put a presentation together for the general manager at the time, Mike Losh, to demand than he get rid of the carbureted 2.8-liter V-6. He never understood, never had an inclination to do it. And every reason that he had was a dollar, which has been what's running GM for 35 years.
One of the worst things that happened was when they came out with the new GTO. It was so badly handled, packaged, and marketed. They changed so many things, they failed to jump on what it really meant to be a GTO
When they failed with that -- that was the end. That really was the beginning of the end. When you bring back your number one nameplate, and it fails, you haven’t got much room to go anywhere else.
Then they had the crazy idea of changing the names.
If there was ever a domestic manufacturer that ever had a really good set of names it was Pontiac – Bonneville, Grand Prix, Trans Am! And then all these little boys in men’s jobs come along, and come up with insanely stupid ‘G’ names.
You’re still very active among Pontiac enthusiasts. How do you think the community will proceed now that the brand is dead?
I would say that the hobby may just thrive over it.
Pontiac badly mishandled the promotion on the new GTO. They ignored the committed the Pontiac enthusiast, and as a result, the hobby has already pretty much separated itself from the modern brand.
And it’s huge – not as big as Ford and Chevy communities - but certainly a whole lot stronger than those for brands like Oldsmobile and Buick.
In fact, there will be a huge Pontiac convention this summer, from July 7-11th. POCI [Pontiac-Oakland Club International] and GTOAA [GTO Association of America] are coming together for what could be the biggest Pontiac gathering ever.
Do you think there’s a place today for a brand like the Pontiac of the 1960s?
The answer is yes. There will always be a place for a guy who builds - and if I can use this cornball term – excitement. But no, I don’t think that place is Pontiac because they’ve allowed it to deteriorate so badly that the only people who still get it are really the all out auto enthusiast or maybe anyone who’s over 45 or 50.