Obits are rare in this business, thankfully, but as October bowed out an American icon quietly breathed its last gasp, aged 84. Considering the fanfare the automotive industry often whips up over colour-coding the door handles on an otherwise old and lacklustre model, when a deadset veteran bows out for good you’re moved to ask why there wasn’t at least some sort of half high-profile wake.
Pontiac was delivered the kiss of death in a GM boardroom during the company’s recent transition through bankruptcy. This puts it in the same boat, essentially, as the likes of Hummer, Saturn and Big Fritz. The brand’s life support was officially withdrawn while the world was gripped by the dreaded GFC, but the priest didn’t deliver the Last Rites officially until the end of October. They then turned off the machine that goes ‘beep’, and the brand officially disappeared.
…or maybe it didn’t. As I sit here writing this, a week into the Pontiac post-mortem, www.pontiac.com is still up and running, faithfully spruiking the nonexistent brand online and trying to get potential buyers into Buicks and GMCs. “We still have plenty to offer Pontiac owners and enthusiasts…” pontiac.com enthuses. Except things like dealerships and new models, of course. Although vestigially the lights are still on, there is certainly nobody home.
The end-game for Pontiac will always have a special significance for Australia, where Holden’s VE Commodore business case was handed a big-time corporate hospital pass when the export of its LHD Pontiac equivalent, the G8, evaporated. Ironically, the G8 was a popular car in the US and its sales there exceeded expectations. It wasn’t enough, however, to pump up Pontiac’s tyres – Pontiac’s sales were less than one per cent of GM’s total towards the very end.
Things were not always especially grim for Pontiac. After all, the car Burt Reynolds and Sally Field drove gloriously on the wrong side of the law in the badly aged Hollywood blockbuster Smokey and the Bandit was a Pontiac Firebird TransAm – undoubtedly the toughest car ever to promote itself with a fire-breathing chook.
This was the Seventies, remember, when disco and flares were the new black, where drugs were ok and unprotected sex wasn’t potentially deadly (unless of course her husband came home early that day) and before Mr Reynolds and Ms Fields required a car with a boot big enough for two Zimmer frames.
Pontiac’s real heyday, however, occurred a few years even before that. In 1968 – in the middle of the Space Age, before Neil Armstrong left his footprints all over Tranquility Base, before digital devices and back when colour TV was still a novelty, when the Americans still thought the war in Vietnam was still winnable – back then Pontiac sold almost one million vehicles in the US. Unfortunately this epic performance was never to be repeated.
Nor is the 21st Century the first time Pontiac diced with death. It nearly expired in the Fifties thanks to flagging sales. Proper car enthusiasts will remember Pontiac for building a series of tough, ready-to-race, V8-powered muscle cars wearing the GTO badge. The heroic GTO was produced between 1964 and 1974 and probably would have kept going even longer were it not for the inconvenience that was the 1970s oil shock, which gave Americans a fleeting impression that the amount of petrol a car tipped down its venturis actually mattered.
After that: downhill slide, basically. The brand aged ungracefully (Holden-supplied G8 excepted). By the 1980s the brand’s capacity for excitement was on the ropes and yet it still managed to soldier on for the better part of three decades, albeit with a self-image perception problem, until the notorious jet-pooling CEO ‘congress begging’ incident (and flow-on effects) made is disposable.
Proving that everything in life is a ‘good news/bad news’ story, the end of the road for Pontiac is a brilliant development for collectors. There’s a bloke named Tim Dye from Broken Arrow in the USA who has spent the better part of three decades amassing a mammoth collection of Pontiac vehicles and memorabilia. Mr Dye owns about 20 Pontiacs – plus more Pontiac promo kit than a lifelong motoring journo. We’re talking everything from pens and matchbooks to service manuals and model cars.
Used car dealers in the USA might be hard-pressed to shift second-hand Pontiacs right now, but for collectors like Tim Dye and hundreds like him dotted across the States, the demise of Pontiac could well be – ker-ching! – an event they can retire comfortably on.