Jim Wangers on the death of Pontiac excitement

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?

The management.

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.

tyres in Redditch
These models were so representative of their era that they became mainstays in the popular culture, with starring roles in box office topping movies like "Smokey and the Bandit" starring Burt Reynolds and popular television series like "The Rockford Files" starring James Garner.
Humblerman
My first experience with Pontiac came in the form of a 1967 GTO that had a balanced and blueprinted engine. With the M21 transmission and 3.90 gears the car flat out flew. I then purchased my first 1970 GTO which was also a 4 speed and 3.90 gears and that car was even faster than the 1967 model. I have many friends with incredible Pontiacs that range from SD455s to 455HOs and of course my current 1970 Ram Air IV GTO. Pontiac built such incredible cars in the 1960s and 1970s. The Trans Am survived for over 30 years only to be dropped by some GM for lack of vision. I said it for years building 4 door passenger cars with 6 cylinder engines while Ford and Chevrolet build V8 powered Mustangs and Corvettes was a sure sign the Pontiac didn't care what they built as long as they sold cars. The Solstice is a bit late to save Pontiac from its demize but is a wonderful car. Maybe we should all run to Pontiac and buy one before their all gone. Thanks Jim Wangers for putting Pontiac at the top of the list back in the 60s and 70s with cars that surely commanded respect. The book Glory Days tells it like it was and Pontiac was clearly GMs best muscle car producer.
tweak8487
As an owner of an 08 Chev Malibu (close cousin to rental car fodder Pontiac G6) I am ashamed. When Bob Lutz took over for R&D he promised cars people wanted to buy, with Pontiac as a focal point. Now, this will apparantly never happen. I now have to pay twice for that car as a taxpayer, with the only hope of a big, rear-wheel drive V8 powered car from GM being a Buick Park Avenue made in CHINA. CHINA?! Aren't they communists, the people we fought a cold war against? In full disclosure, I receive my paycheck from a Japanese luxury car company, and have hence fourth bought domestics to keep Americans at work. My new car business will be now going to Honda. Thanks Mr. Wagoner, you just shot your countrymen in the foot.
twogoats6804
I have owned PONTIAC since my first car at 16 two sunbirds,80and91 two GTO's 68and04 my dad has two Trans am's and we have loved pontiac for years we have been to two gto nats and met mr Wangers at the 2002 gto nationals in denver CO All I have to say is General motors has lost my buisiness because Who wants a chevy once they have had the best car out there? really? goodbye general chevy hello Ford for both your cars and trucks p.s. I wouldn't have a chevy if they paid ME own it!!!!!!
jamiedunlap
i was sad to hear about the death of pontiac. as a long time owner of several pontiacs i know first hand how good the cars really were. general motors slit it's wrists in the late 70's. to cut cost it started building look a like cars with engines from different divisions across the lines. the cars themselves were'nt so bad they just did'nt have anything special to them. the 80's is where the junk started. check out any g.m. product that has survived from that era and you'll see what i mean. missing trim, flexable plastic pieces between the bumpers and bodies missing or rotted away. poor quality and weak engines were standard fare. only the trucks stayed decent looking but they started their lives out in 1973 when things were still good for the most part. i will never forget in the fall of 1985 when the 86 models were being introduced, i went to look at the new eldorado. it had shrunk even more and resembled a chisled and chromed cavalier. i thought to myself as i looked at it under a light, " i guess this is what i'm suppose to like?" the once beautifull riviera was even worse. the back end looked like an afterthought. almost every g.m. product during this time basically was junk. toyota and nissan's cars did'nt look much better but they had one thing g.m. lacked. quality and price. as the 90's came and went g.m. finally started building decent cars with the quality somewhat better but by now the korean's had entered the market and price was the main selling point. with no real difference between the divisions g.m. became a sea of sameness and pontiac was lost at sea. sad thing is that with the introduction of the g8, stupid name, i really had my hopes up that finally here was a car pontiac could be proud of. heck, they could come out with a two door version and call it a grand prix and with the new camaro a firebird would be born again. alas this is not to be because some idiot at g.m. decided to pull the plug. why not get rid of hummer and saturn instead. give different divisions some real difference and g.m. could again be competative. why is'nt there room for pontiac when all of the asian cars are growing in sales? part of the blame can be on the american public for not being brand loyal as well as buy american. now g.m. is going to sell us chevy's made in china. come on. the chinese are trying to do us in. they poisioned our pets, then our children with lead paint and tiny easily swallowed parts. they put antifreeze in our toothpaste and made sheetrock that caused us to get sick. now they are going to sell us cars? come on people, see the light. g.m. may have screwed up with this idea to sell us these so please don't buy them and let g.m. know you wont. yes it's a sad day for g.m. but if they listen to the car magazines and the public it does'nt have to be the end.
claytonnovak
GM signed it's death warrant when it started choking and then eliminated the Excitement Division. Now, what they have left is TWO old people divisions; Buick and Caddy, and the average Joe's division: Chevy. Do they really need two old people's divisions? I guess they just wanted to please the Government officials in Washington as they need their Limos and Buicks. Oh, I know, they said Buick sells well in China. Well, this is America. I guess it doesn't matter what we want. Pontiac has always out-sold Buick here.The new Camaro is nice, but too heavy and not the right vehicle for the times. GM is hoping it will save them. If I were a stockholder, I would bail now.
dzenlea
It is a bit interesting that GM has expressed no interest in selling the brand. I called analyst Jim Hall about this and he feels GM can and will market Pontiacs again, at least in the form of a few niche products, if and when the company's situation improves. But lest you grasp too tightly onto that ray of hope, Pontiac spokesman Jim Hopson says GM no more plans to resuscitate Pontiac than it does Oldsmobile, and isn't selling Pontiac because phasing the brand out is merely a matter of removing the arrow head logo from BPG dealers' signs (there are only 32 standalone dealers left). "I would not be reading much into this," he said.
YellowGoat
Why in the world doesn't GM spin off or sell Pontiac? It has been 10% of GM's sales and you would think in this cash strapped time someone would be interested in giving GM a few billion for the brand.I've owned a Pontiac since the mid-70's but the last two cars have been pretty bad. Our current 2004 Bonneville has had major engine and transmission trouble, plus a host of other annoying issues, and it only has 70,000 miles on it! The tranny and motor troubles happened while the car had only 45K miles on it. The dealers have been terrible as well, it will be good to see them close a bunch of them during this reorganization. Let the strong ones who give quality service survive and those who are arrogant and treat customers as a number go be door to door salesman.
moto54
One of GM's many problems is they didn't believe in specialization. If one division had a particular model then they all got one. Why in heaven's name did Pontiac need with butt ugly minivans and suv's? Years ago I read somewhere that Pontiac was aiming to become the domestic BMW. They were on the right path 40 yrs. ago, I mean they even had the split grill similar to BMW's kidney grill. They knew what performance meant and it certainly wasn't on some accountants ledger. Shame on you GM, you've not only destroyed a great car company but may have screwed the entire domestic business.
WDCreech
I have not supported GM since they removed independence from their division engineers. In my family, there was a mix of GM loyalists, but when GM, in their infinate wisdom, decided that all divisions should use a chevy engineered engine, all went to mostly Ford, with a couple to Mopar. I still race a traditional powered Pontiac, but will never purchase anything connected to GM again. We were loyal to them, but they didn't give a rat's a$$ about us.[IMG]http://i299.photobucket.com/albums/mm295/WDCreech/P5270003_edited.jpg[/IMG]
micro0626
GM has brought this on themselves. It was always a company that never paid attention to what the buying public was actually telling them. This company has always thought it was big enough to build cars the way they wanted and provide convincing marketing to sell those cars to the General Masses. Hey, they were wrong.Now, that this company and the rest of Detroit has realized this it is just about over for them.How really sad, concidering they and Chrysker were able to keep it up so long and build some really exciting cars in the meantime. The excitement was the key. It is gone.Chrysler has another chance in partnering with FIAT. The exciting cars this seemingly well run company has in its' stables may provide the ancestoral traditions to combine with the history of Chrysler's racing traditions to get America excited about an American Car.GM is about over. Chrysler may survive. I am just an old Chrysler and Alfa Romeo enthusiast. So what do I know?
bad65
As member of a family who's owned and driven new Pontiacs since 1955 I can speak for all of us when I saw we're done with GM.Ford will get our business from now on.
gtoguy74
Too bad the people with the most influence don't have the balls to tell it like it is when it would really matter. I guess we've all got our own ass to cover while we're making a living. Fact is, everything Mr Wangers says is what went wrong with GM over the last 30 years. I can't say that the market and circumstances didn't have some part in it but when you run a car company with a bunch of guys who don't know how to change a spark plug, all you get is a bunch of guys who can juggle the numbers for the quartly report instead of putting the effort into reliable and distinctive products. Shame really. How many bright futures have been ruined by a bunch of guys who are just shrugging their shoulders now on the 7th hole of the country club? We should have all sold our stock and headed for the hills when they hired the guy from the sun glass company to "manage" the car brands!
Fredsmilek
i wont be missing pontiac but the GTO was a classic and will miss that.

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