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R.I.P. – A History of the Pontiac Brand

Chief PontiacAs a Pontiac FANatic, 30-year employee and resident of Pontiac Michigan. Cool Rides Online asked me if I would do a story on the now DEFUNCT GM brand. So let us start from the very beginning, the name.  The Pontiac Motor Car Company name was chosen to honor the city of Pontiac, Michigan which was named in honor of the Great Chief Pontiac.

Pontiac or Obwandiyag (c. born 1720 – April 20, 1769), was the Ottawa tribe leader who became famous for his role in Pontiac’s Rebellion (1763–1766), an American Indian struggle against the British military occupation of the Great Lakes region following the British and Iroquois victory in the French and Indian War.  Historians disagree about Pontiac’s importance in the war that bears his name.  The city of Pontiac, Michigan was named for him, as well as a town in Illinois and a region/municipality bordering the Ottawa River in the province of Quebec.

Although the first Pontiac car didn’t debut until 1926, the division’s history actually dates back to 1893, when Edward M. Murphy established the Pontiac Buggy Company in Pontiac, Michigan. The company produced horse-drawn carriages.  As it became clear that motor car sales were going to eclipse carriages, Murphy wisely started the Oakland Motor Car Company, an offshoot of the buggy company, in 1907.


First Pontiac model ever builtBy 1920, General Motors was in disarray.  The company’s seven divisions were fighting for the same customers, and none were priced to compete with Ford’s $500 Model T.  At the time, GM’s prices ranged from $795 for the lowest-end Chevrolet, to $5,690 for the highest-priced Cadillac.  Since GM wasn’t in the position to rival the Model T, a committee of company executives under the leadership of new GM President, Alfred Sloan, decided to create a car to fill a long-standing price gap between Chevrolet and Oldsmobile. In addition, the new vehicle would serve as a platform to share vehicle components in an effort to improve volume efficiency.  Hence Pontiac was created as a new car line under the name of Oakland.

The first Pontiac, the Series 6-27, debuted at the 1926 New York Auto Show.  Built on a 110-inch wheelbase, it featured a Fisher-designed body and a six-cylinder L-head engine.  The two closed models, a coupe and a sedan, achieved maximum speeds of 50 mph.  Until the Pontiac debuted, most cars had fabric tops, leaving passengers little protection from the elements and road debris.  As it turns out, Pontiac’s decision to produce only closed cars was warmly welcomed by customers.  Priced at $825, Pontiac sold 76,742 cars in its first year on the market.  The following August, it offered a four-door landau sedan, at $895.

In 1927, GM asked Harley Earl to create Art & Colour, the industry’s first formal design studio, within GM.  Earl designed the highly successful La Salle, and later became head of GM Design.  In 1960 Pontiac offered the first Super Duty performance package for sale as an option, so racing enthusiasts could outfit their vehicles.


1964 Pontiac GTOIn 1964 The GTO offered Pontiac a way to preserve its racing heritage without actually participating, since GM had banned all factory racing in 1963.  GTO was actually an engine option, a way to get around the ban on engines of more than 330 cid as standard equipment.  The GTO sold 31,000 cars in its first year, hampered only by capacity. The GTO is credited with creating the “muscle car” era in Detroit.  Throughout the 1960s, Royal Pontiac, a Pontiac car dealer in Royal Oak, Michigan, offered a special tune-up package for Pontiac 389 engines.  Many were fitted to GTOs, and the components and instructions could be purchased by mail as well as installed by the dealer. The name “Bobcat” came from the improvised badges created for the modified cars, combining letters from the “Bonneville” and “Catalina” nameplates.  Many of the Pontiacs made available for magazine testing were equipped with the Bobcat kit.  The TIGER would forever be linked with the GTO. http://geetotiger.com/newGeeTO.html

In 1967 The Firebird, named after a deity in Indian mythology who symbolized action, power, beauty and youth, debuted Feb. 23.  The first Firebird was essentially a modified Chevy Camaro.  Pontiac, under tight deadline, created a unique front end and tail lamps, added wide-oval tires, and five distinct models.  The Firebird also used Pontiac engines, which were mounted further back for better balance and less understeer.

Justa6, 1980 Pontiac SunbirdThe 70’s brought about the gas crisis, emissions, detuned engine’s, and the end of the GTO nameplate.  The TA and the screamin chicken took over top status for Pontiac.  The Astra and then Sunbird were introduced as well.  1980s brought some shuffling.  My Sunbird was the last run of the bodystyle and the new T1000 took its place.  The shortlived T1000 then was replaced with the J2000 that Rick Dobberton made famous and they even made a model of his car.  The Sunbird was then brought back in the late 80’s.  The Grand AM and Grand Prix were staples through the 90’s with the Bonneville also making a great comeback being built at the Orion plant where I retired.

The year 2000 brought more changes and in 2006 we started building the G6.  Pontiac also brought back the GTO nameplate at that time.  In my opinion, they should have stuck with the new G series and named the GTO the G10.  While it was an awesome ride, it couldn’t live up to the nameplate in a retro market that had distintive upgraded designs to the former nameplates.  The Camaro as an example. The end of the line for Pontiac was announced in 2009.

Maybe the saddest part of this is that Pontiac was on the edge of a rebirth.  Bob Lutz’ Solstice was making new ground with an attractive coupe version that had just been recently introduced.  The G8 is a highly respected performance sedan, and a utility coupe version.  The G8 had almost reached the showrooms but time was not on Pontiac’s side.  Again a case of too little, too late…  If history had repeated itself, Pontiac would have sold a version of the upcoming Chevy Cruze and other small front-wheel-drive cars.

Full List of Pontiac Vehicles:
Pontiac 2+2 (1964-1970)
Pontiac 2000 Sunbird (1983-1984)
Pontiac 6000 (1982-1991)
Pontiac Acadian (1976-1987, Canada)
Pontiac Astre (1975-1977; 1973-1977 Canada)
Pontiac Aztek (2001-2005)
Pontiac Bonneville (1957-2005)
Pontiac Catalina (1959-1981)
Pontiac Chieftain (1950-1958)
Pontiac Custom S (1969)
Pontiac De-Lux (1937)
Pontiac Executive (1967-1970)
Pontiac Fiero (1984-1988)
Pontiac Firebird (1967-2002)
Pontiac Firefly (1985-2001, rebadged Suzuki Swift, Canada)
Pontiac G3 (2006-present, rebadged Daewoo Gentra, Mexico)
Pontiac G4 (2005-present, rebadged Chevrolet Cobalt, Mexico)
Pontiac G5 (2007-present, rebadged Chevrolet Cobalt)
Pontiac G6 (2004-present)
Pontiac G8 (August 2007)
Pontiac Grand Am (1973-1975, 1978-1980, 1985-2006)
Pontiac Grand Prix (1962-present)
Pontiac Grand Safari (1971-1977)
Pontiac Grand Ville (1971-1975)
Pontiac Grande Parisienne (1966-1969, Canada)
Pontiac GTO (1964-1974, 2004-2006)
Pontiac J2000 (1982)
Pontiac Laurentian (1955-1981, Canada)
Pontiac LeMans (1962-1981, 1989-1994)
Pontiac Matiz (1998-2005, rebadged Daewoo Matiz, Mexico)
Pontiac Matiz G2 (2006-present, rebadged Daewoo Matiz, Mexico)
Pontiac Montana (1999-2005)
Pontiac Montana SV6 (2005-2006, continues in production for Canada)
Pontiac Parisienne (1983-1986; 1958-1986, Canada)
Pontiac Pathfinder (1955-1958, Canada)
Pontiac Phoenix (1977-1984)
Pontiac Pursuit (2005-2006, Canada)
Pontiac Safari (1955-1989)
Pontiac Silver Streak
Pontiac Solstice (2006-present)
Pontiac Star Chief (1954-1966)
Pontiac Star Chief Executive (1966)
Pontiac Strato-Chief (1955-1970, Canada)
Pontiac Streamliner
Pontiac Sunbird (1975-1980, 1985-1994)
Pontiac Sunburst (1985-1989, rebadged Isuzu Gemini, Canada)
Pontiac Sunfire (1995-2005)
Pontiac Sunrunner (1994-1997, rebadged Geo Tracker, Canada)
Pontiac Super Chief (1957-1958)
Pontiac T1000 (1981-1987)
Pontiac Tempest (1961-1970, 1987-1991, Canada)
Pontiac Torpedo
Pontiac Torrent (2006-present)
Pontiac Trans Am (1969-2002)
Pontiac Trans Sport (1990-1998)
Pontiac Ventura (1960-1970 full-size, 1973-1977 compact)
Pontiac Ventura II (1971-1972)
Pontiac Vibe (2003-present)
Pontiac Wave (2004-present, rebadged Daewoo Kalos, Canada)

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One comment

  1. GM (at the direction of Chevy) killed Oldsmobile’s performance cars (too much competition) turning them into “wheels for old-folks,” now they’ve done it to Pontiac (killing off competition again). Next will come Buick and the GMC Brand of Pickup will become nothing more than a option package on Chevy P/Us. I believe they caused Hummer to be sold to China (very bad move!), obsorbed Geo and killed off Saturn. Eventually, Chevy will only have Caddy as “competition” at GM…but by then all their cars and trucks will be “made in China!” We bailed GM out just to watch them flee to China?

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