In Memoriam: Pontiac – Party’s Over

[cars name="Pontiac"], the brand that thrilled us with the first muscle car but later embarrassed itself with a long series of plastic-cladded, rebadged Chevrolets, has reached the end of the road.

Perhaps the biggest tragedy for the brand that once truly did build excitement was that few were particularly shocked or aggrieved when General Motors CEO Fritz Henderson announced it would be phased out by 2010 – not even Jim Wangers, the marketing maven who shaped the brand’s “Wide Track” image in the 1960s and remains active in the old-car hobby today.

“The whole Pontiac concept, the well-earned image of building high-performance cars, has been so seriously compromised over the last thirty years that none of this is really a big surprise,” he said.

Pontiac grew out of an earlier brand, Oakland, which was the second carmaker to join a fledgling General Motors in 1908. By the 1950s, Pontiac had become an old man’s car, but in the latter half of the decade, division manager Bunkie Knudsen began the performance-themed makeover that would drive Pontiac to its glorious peak. The fuel-injected ‘57 Bonneville, the wide-track ’59 Pontiacs, and the handsome ’63 Grand Prix were just precursors to the GTO, which arrived in 1964 (under chief engineer and later division manager John De Lorean). It ignited the muscle car craze and cemented Pontiac’s identity. The Firebird Trans Am – with a big boost from the movie Smokey and the Bandit – helped power sales to an all-time high in the late ’70s, but Pontiac spent the following decades squandering its brand equity. Recent efforts like the ’04 GTO, the Solstice, and the G8 weren’t enough to turn back the clock, although the G8, at least, deserves to live on – perhaps as a Chevrolet.

For now, we take this space to remember Pontiac’s greatest hits – and some of its most humiliating misses.

The “Great One”

The story of the birth of the GTO and Pontiac’s wild success in the 1960s has been told time and again. But this latest, timely release, which features large color photographs of GTOs and other hot Ponchos on nearly every one of its 348 pages, manages to capture the cars’ immense visual impact as well., $50

Hits and Misses

A look back at where things went right, and where they went wrong, horribly wrong.

Pontiac By The Numbers

13,569 Number of GTOs sold in 2004, the first year of the reborn car’s disappointing run.

74 Horsepower, net, of the Daewoo-built 1988 Pontiac LeMans with a 1.6-liter four-cylinder.

267,348 Vehicles sold in 2008.

12 Pontiac’s market position through 2008.

84 Years from Pontiac’s establishment in 1926, as part of the Oakland division, to its planned elimination in 2010.

896,980 Vehicles sold in 1978, Pontiac’s best year. Trans Am sales alone topped 90,000that year.

370 Horsepower, gross, of the 1970 GTO Judge with a 400-c.i. (6.6-liter) Ram Air IV V-8.

3 Pontiac’s market position through much of the 1960s, when it trailed only Chevrolet and Ford.

5000 Number of GTOs Pontiac originally expected to sell in 1964.

415 Horsepower, net, of the 2009 G8 GXP with a 6.2-liter LS3 V-8.

$226,521.63 Winning bid on eBay for a 1963 Tempest Super Duty, one of six built by Pontiac specifically for factory drag racing. The car had neither its engine nor its transmission.

32,450 Number of GTOs actually sold in 1964.

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