My Version of Pontiac Today
Topics: General Motors
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Ever since I went to my first Indian Uprising All-Pontiac Car Show and met the nice fellows in the Cruisin' Tigers GTO Club, I've really been a fan of Pontiac. Of course, I grew up an Oldsmobile fan, and Pontiac was a cousin who had just joined Olds in the junkyard of dead automobile marques. So now it had that orphan-car cool, I discovered the some cool little things about the identity of Pontiac including the trademark light blue engines, and I remembered that I drove a Pontiac myself (2003 Vibe) and consider it the best car I've ever owned. Plus, Pontiac history includes Arnie Beswick, one of the nicest racers I've met so far.
I'm not one of the fellows that was around at the beginning, or since the GTO was first introduced, or remembers when Richard Petty switched to Pontiac. But I am a younger automotive consumer, and I remember the Aztek (groan).
First of all, I think Pontiac suffered a bit of an identity crisis at the end. ALL General Motors brands did to some degree, as the individual dealerships demanded first minivans (Trans Sport and Montana) and then SUVs (Aztek and Torrent) to keep up with changing consumer tastes. At first, Pontiac tried to inject a little of that "Pontiac Excitement" of the 1990's into the Trans Sport, but with the Montana it went in a different, more outdoorsy direction. Pontiac kept going in that direction with the Montana and then got generic with the Torrent, the closest thing I've seen to a Chevrolet with an arrowhead emblem.
Pontiac could have stayed more true to its performance image that it had built for decades in one of two ways. The one that makes the most business sense would be in setting up the dealerships so that individual dealers can sell SUVs and minivans without having Pontiac SUVs and minivans. Better pairing with GMC, or consolidating Pontiac dealerships into Chevrolet dealerships as Chrysler has done with Jeep and Dodge recently would have allowed dealers to maintain volume while keeping Pontiac "pure" as a niche vehicle. The other direction they could have gone would have been to maintain Pontiac's performance image with performance SUVs. Before you laugh, I have two words: Porsche Cayenne.
The second wave of identity crisis had to do with the naming of the cars. At first, Pontiac had names like Chieftain that recognized the Native American history behind the name and logo. Then the second phase of Pontiac idenity saw it using names that evoked racing history, such as GTO, Bonneville, Grand Prix, and Grand Am. The third phase of the identity saw Pontiac adopt European-style meaningless letters and numbers: G3, G5, G6, G8. There was nothing in the names that could evoke an image or feeling of anything, except perhaps the G8 which saw Pontiac's first V8 in several years.
So by the end, it was a combination sporty car/extreme sports brand with a series of cars with no real names. Is it any wonder that buyers couldn't remember Pontiacs when they went car shopping?
There are, of course, exceptions. But then few volume car companies can exist on exceptions, they need large numbers of sales.
The best was the Pontiac Solstice. An awesome little car with a cool name and a great image. GM's second failure beyond killing Pontiac was to discontinue the Solstice. The Solstice was uniquely Pontiac, the closest cousin being the Saturn Sky which was, quite remarkably for GM, quite a different car inside and out.
The Solstice wasn't the only product unique to Pontiac. Buried under the ambiguous name G6 was a version of the car with a retractable hardtop. GM had done retractable hardtops in the recent past, but this wasn't a $40,000 useless truck. This was a front-drive, six-cylinder cruiser that was fantastic competition for the Chrysler convertibles.
And when Pontiac died, their unique products died with it. General Motors could have adapted the Solstice into a Chevrolet, or made a retractable hardtop Malibu. The G8 is seeing production as a Chevrolet, but only as a police car (so far).
So what would I have done if it were up to me? I would have cut the SUVs out of the lineup, the minivan already having gone before the end of Pontiac. I could get away with this because the new Pontiac would be a companion to Chevrolet and be sold out of Chevrolet dealers and not their own independent stores. That way, if you want an SUV, buy a Chevrolet, and the dealership is okay with that because he's not losing a customer to another guy down the street.
Cars would start with the Cobalt-equivalent Grand Am, which would not share nearly all its bodywork with the Chevrolet version. The former G6-based Tempest would be available in sedan, coupe, and retractable hardtop forms. The Impala would be the basis for a new Grand Prix. The former Pontiac G8, now the Chevrolet Caprice police car, would be updated and become the Pontiac Bonneville. The Holden Monaro coupe would again return as a Pontiac GTO, which despite lack of sales volume has gained a loyal following since its demise.
Some have converted model kits of the new Chevrolet Camaro into a 1978-style inspired Pontiac Trans Am, and I would do the same. The gold-striped black Trans Am with the flaming chicken would be a limited special edition, and NOT the iconic car of the Pontiac brand, which would be a more subtle Firebird. I'm not a fan of the big bird decal and would turn it into a small fender badge.
The Solstice would be updated and returned to production, featuring Firebird-inspired styling and the Sunbird name.
Special performance edition badging would be the same raised chrome lettering as on the rest of the car, but on special editions it would include a metallic light blue outline between the front of the letter and the body of the car so that it's seen in shadow from offset angles, in a color reminiscent if not identical to the engine color Pontiac used in the beginning of the muscle car era.
Of course, marketing for a performance brand would be based in motorsports. That black and gold Trans Am design made iconic in the film Smokey and the Bandit would be the basis of the paint scheme for a Rolex Sports Car Series factory race team running Trans Ams similar in construction to the Camaros they race now. With the minimum of design difference between the cars, General Motors could easily use the Chevrolet engine as the basis for a NASCAR Pontiac Grand Prix. Since Chevrolet has deeper pockets and long associations with Hendrick and Childress, they could have Stewart-Haas run Pontiacs, returning Tony Stewart to his original NASCAR marque where he became associated with the brand while giving his team some more manufacturer attention in a field already crowded with race and championship winning Impalas.
In drag racing, the iconic Pontiac is Arnie Beswick's Tameless Tiger, and that could be the basis for a name of a special edition GTO with a big supercharger, fat rear tires and no rear seat, a sort of factory-made pro street car, which is a product Pontiac could put together that no other brand offers either inside or outside General Motors. It would have to have the best quarter mile time of any car on the low side of a quarter million dollars, pass emissions and not be a complete pain in the ass to commute to work in, and it doesn't matter how few actually sell. It would be an interesting car to see at cruise nights, a sort of low-budget "halo car" for Pontiac to show its performance and history image to a new generation of buyers.
Personally, I HATE plastic engine covers, but as the public seems to expect them I would use them as an opportunity to add some of that same classic Pontiac light blue to the engine compartment since the engines themselves are now unpainted aluminum.
I think this version of Pontiac would work today. A brand with a focused style and product line that isn't trying to be all things to all people all the time. A brand whose image can stand on its own but relies on a partner to keep the dealerships from demanding too much of such a focused brand. One that is based on current engineering for cost efficiency but offers distinct products so that there's a reason to buy the Pontiac instead of the slightly less expensive Chevrolet it's made from, as well as a few products you just can't get from any other GM division.
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