It is coming up on the eleventh anniversary of the death of Pontiac, a fatality not so much of the 2007-2008 financial collapse – which delivered the coupe de grace – but rather attributable to slow-poisoning by the parent company, General Motors, a process that began decades before the flat-line made its sorrowful progress across the screen in October of 2010.
Pontiac was once GM’s stylish performance division. Other GM divisions, notably Chevrolet and even Buick and Oldsmobile, also had stylish cars that offered performance. But Pontiac’s way of serving both together was unsurpassed by either.
There was nothing in either the Olds or the Chevy inventory for that matter to stand equally tall with a classic ’60s GTO – just one piece of evidence in support of Pontiac’s rightful claim to have been (sigh) the premier stylish performance division of General Motors.
Car people will argue eternally about whether the 1964 GTO was the first muscle car but it is inarguable that it was the first hugely successful one, inspiring a panoply of imitators that all had their merits but none of which could lay honest claim to being the first mass market muscle car.
And the GTO, of course, was more than a hot-seller and a hot performer. It led the way in styling, too. Pontiac, under the leadership of John DeLorean, worked on this car (and others, like the Catalina 2-plus-2 and of course, the Grand Prix SSJ, the latter initials in honor of John Z) like Leonardo worked on the sculpture of Duke Francesco Sforza’s horse back in 1482.
A Pontiac’s lines were always sleeker; there was always more attention to detail. And always, special details not found on other cars – like the gorgeous eight-lug wheels on the Catalina and – later – the unique Honeycomb wheels and machine-turned dash facings that graced the early Trans-Ams (as well as GTOs and other Pontiacs, too)
Who else had the audacity to mount a tachometer on the hood? Or an enormous decal of a bird on the hood?
This was also the last GM division to defy Uncle for the sake of its customers – who wanted the performance (and style) that the government was systematically outlawing without actually passing any laws.
Just regulations, that had the same effect.
There was, for instance, the federal “drive by noise” regulation, which served to effectively outlaw hood scoops that actually scooped air. In those days, when cars still had carburetors, a scoop that worked opened the mechanical maw of the engine to the air, which was literally sucked down through the carburetor, to accompaniment of a moan or roar that gave you goosebumps and a hiss at idle that conveyed menace. All regulated out of existence by life-sucking ninnies who lacked any sense of the beauty of sound, themselves – and who were determined to make sure no one else enjoyed it, either.
But Pontiac did a sly – and wonderful – thing. While the famous “shaker” scoop that was one of the defining elements of a ’70s Trans-Am was rendered non-functional after the 1972 model year, Pontiac left it such that it could be made easily functional again. A simple block-off plates was installed. Not with glue or some other permanent or at least, hard to “defeat” impediment – but with three bolts that could be removed in less than five minutes.
And the Quadrajet moan returned!
But it was in 1973 that Pontiac really put a dead shrimp behind Uncle’s drywall. It wasn’t just scoops that were rendered nonfunctional by that year. Performance engines – or rather, engines with any real performance relative to the performance available the previous year, had also been regulated out of existence. GM management had ordered a lineup-wide reduction in compression ratios, which put the kibosh on performance in the same way that pulling two of a V8’s spark plug wires would – only this was worse because it is a lot easier to reconnect spark plug wires than restore lost compression.
But Pontiac found a way, even in the face of GM management’s fatwa. The engineers – Pontiac still had them, then – designed a whole new engine, the Super Duty (or SD) 455 and got it past the regs by letting the Feds think it was just another 455, which Pontiac had already been making.
But this 455 had almost nothing in common with other 455s – not even its block, which was unique (and heavily made, with special webbing, four bolt mains and provisions for dry-sump oiling, intended for racing). It got special high-flow heads and an intake not used on other Pontiac V8s, along with a high-flow and specially tuned Rochester Quadrajet four barrel and – of course – an even more special camshaft with extremely impolitic lift and duration.
Initially, this engine made 310 horsepower – a huge number for 1973 – and the engineers got it past the EPA smog police, too.
Of course, not even Pontiac could get past catalytic converters – which were force-grafted onto every car made, beginning with the ’75 models. This killed off the SD-455, which was last offered in ’74. But it didn’t kill Pontiac.
It took GM to do that.
Pontiac managed to thrive in the mid-late ’70s, being almost solely responsible for carrying the performance with style flag during those dark years. It didn’t stop making Trans-Ams, the performance version of the Firebird, when catalytic converters plugged up performance beginning in ’75 – though Chevy did stop selling the Z28 version of the Camaro and everyone else pretty much gave up, too.
The ’75 Trans-Ams weren’t SD-455 Trans-Ams, but they were still Trans-Ams and you could buy them brand new with 400 or 455 V8s that had the potential for SD performance and all of the rest was already there. The flares and scoop (easily made into a working scoop again). The excellent suspension, unaffected by emissions regs and made even better by Pontiac engineers such that the Trans-Ams of the ’70s were the best-handling cars of the time.
Pontiac continuously made the best of it in bad times.
Real performance returned in ’77 when the Trans-Am became available with a high-output version of the 400 V8 that made even more power than the Corvette’s smaller 350 V8. Aluminum wheels – a big deal in ’77 – were on the docket as well, expanded to 15×8 inches the next year. Four wheel disc brakes (another big deal in an era when literally almost every car on the road except Corvette still had drum rear brakes) came after that.
Pontiac thrived like dandelions after a spring downpour. But it wasn’t just on the strength of Trans-Am sales – though the sales of that car are boggling in retrospect. During those years, Pontiac sold more Trans-Ams, a specialty model, than GM sells all Camaro models and Corvettes combined today. As an example, total Firebird production reached 187,284 in 1978. In 2019 – the last pre-‘Rona sales year – Chevy sold a total of 48,265 Camaros – encompassing all versions, the base four cylinder model all the way up to the SS.
In 1979, Pontiac sold 117,108 Trans-Ams alone. Total Firebird sales crested 200,000.
GM hasn’t sold that many cars, period – never mind specialty sport coupes – in one year in many years. Other monster-wave successes for the arrowhead division included the Grand Prix and Grand Am, LeMans and Bonneville.
So, why isn’t Pontiac selling anything today?
Because GM made Pontiac stop selling Pontiacs after the 1981 model year. GM “corporatized” engineering – a bland-sounding term, like “fixing” a cat. What it meant was the same as far as Pontiac’s ability to propagate.
The division, which had been an engineering division of GM – with its own engine shop that designed Pontiac engines like the GTO’s 389 (which became the 400) and the various iterations of the 455 (including the legendary SD-455) – was transformed by upper management fiat into a marketing division of GM. It would no longer design cars.
It would resell cars.
Pontiacs became so in name and looks only, mechanically indistinct from other GM models – with only the style remaining. A 1982 Trans-Am had the exact same Chevy-designed engine as its Camaro Z28 counterpoint. It was a nice-looking car but there wasn’t enough under the hood to give enough buyers a reason to spend more on it than on its Chevy-badged (and lower-priced fraternal twin).
It explains why there is no Trans-Am today.
Pontiac tried, desperately, to keep the flame alive. It was allowed by GM management to sell the plastic-paneled, mid-engined Fiero – which no other GM division sold. But cost-cutting rendered what had been a splendid idea into a good-looking car with too many Chevette underthings and not enough quality control into an image-beating from which Pontiac – already weakened by the loss of its V8 engine program – never really recovered.
Other than that, Pontiac was only permitted to re-sell other divisions’ models, after some perfunctory “Pontiac” styling (usually in the form of too much body cladding) was added.
By the mid-2000s Pontiac was a hollowed out throw-away of its former self, like a watermelon rind the day after a 4th of July party. The Great Collapse of 2007-2008 sealed its doom, though its death was as predictable – and inevitable – as that of the United States itself.
In both cases, it took a long time to undermine the strength of what had been something mighty and seemingly impervious.
But, as the slave behind Caesar during his Triumphs said, sic gloria mundi . . . all glory is fleeting. Whether cars or countries. Pontiac is gone more than ten years now. But car people will always remember what was, once.
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