Friday, February 20, 2009

Bye, Bye, Pontiac

The New York Times ran an article yesterday chronicling the fading fortunes of GM's Pontiac division, which will now shrink to a "niche" product maker, no longer a separate division. The news inspired several memories.

The first was of my late Uncle Mike, who died on his 92nd birthday in February 2006. Mike was a Pontiac man -- one of those many brand-loyal customers that the domestic auto makers had for so long. I have an old photograph of him posed jauntily with one foot on the front bumper of his Pontiac. The photo's undated, but it appears to be an early 1950s vintage. He would never consider another car make; his last car was a maroon 1992 Bonneville.

One of the biggest regrets of his last years was that several strokes had rendered him unable to drive. He still had the mental wherewithal for it; his mind was sharp (and highly opinionated) virtually up to the day he died.

I found in Mike's effects a receipt for a new 1950 Pontiac coupe from a local dealer. Complete with undercoating, it cost just under $2,000. (According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, that amount translates to about $17,500 in 2009 dollars.)

He favored the Bonneville, a wide-track "heavy" design. In a brochure for its 1970 models (also among Mike's possessions), Pontiac claimed that its decision to name the car "after a gruesome stretch of salt" came from the "brand-new, 455-cubic-inch, 360-hp V-8." Mike did a lot of driving to work on construction sites and he wanted power and comfort; it would be just a few years before gas mileage would become a concern. He had a Pontiac Parisienne at one time. The Parisienne was the model name of the Bonneville in Canada, but was also sold in the U.S. for a short time in the 1980s. I thought that the Parisienne name was a bit too elegant for Mike's tough-guy pipefitter image; he went back to the Salt Car.

Pontiac also built its fame on "muscle cars," like the GTO, which brought back a more personal memory. It's one of the two cars I've been in (as a passenger) that was going 100 miles an hour. The other was a Road Runner. Gee, I'm glad I'm still here!

My final impression of Pontiac is emblematic of the brand's downfall. A few years ago, I was waiting at a stoplight near a local Pontiac dealership when I glanced over at the lot. I saw what I first thought was one of those "gag" cars -- it reminded me of Chevy Chase's Family Truckster wagon in Vacation -- right down to the pea-green color. It wasn't until I saw another of these grotesque creations on the street that I realized it was a Pontiac Aztek -- an ill-fated attempt at an SUV-crossover-whatever that earned it a place on many "ugliest car" lists. It had the honor, according to the Times article, of earning the top spot in an ugly car listing by the Daily Telegraph of Britain. It's a long way from Pontiac's 1980s marketing slogan: We Build Excitement.

So Pontiac fades to insignificance. I can hear Uncle Mike sighing.


Deb said...

No mention of the Grand Prix? Those are fairly popular around here. Males my sons' ages seem to still be attracted to the sporty design but I am also seeing a substantial number driven by women my age. Personally, while it is fun to ride in occasionally, I can't see over the dash and hood to figure out where the road is; so it's not an option for me.

7sky said...

There are a number of great models Pontiac made, including the Grand Prix, TransAm and the Firebird. My experience is limited to just the Bonneville and GTO. Pontiac's downfall began when GM shifted to making essentially the same car at multiple divisions: the Pontiac Sunbird was hardly any different from the Chevy or Olds versions.

Odyssey said...

This is the great dilemma we are facing - the conflict between cars with personality and cars that are economical/efficient. It's strange that the two are so mutually exclusive. Granted, the classic American cars tend to be too big, too heavy, and over powered. But that doesn't mean that every new car has to be as shapeless and boring as a Honda Civic. If only the manufacturers would get their act together and starting making economical/eco-friendly cars that still had character.

Anonymous said...

Hey, Odyssey, I happen to like my old Honda Civic & think it's a great car!

- From "My Quill Pen's" other/better half