Its Muscle Car Glory Faded, Pontiac Shrivels Up
By MICHELINE MAYNARD
February 19, 2009
DETROIT — With its history of building muscle cars like the GTO and the low-slung Firebird, Pontiac had good reason to take pride in its best-known marketing slogan from the 1980s, “We Build Excitement.”
Lately it has been using “Pontiac is CAR,” a phrase more likely to catch the attention of grammarians than car buffs.
And on Tuesday, when General Motors asked the federal government for more bailout money, it also announced a reorganization plan that included demoting Pontiac to a “focused niche brand,” signaling that its lineup of vehicles would shrink and that it would no longer be a separate division.
To industry analysts and Pontiac’s longtime fans, the downgrade provides a case study of the product missteps that helped put G.M. in its precarious state, and a reminder of the dangers in straying from a successful formula.
“When you deviate too far from it, that’s when you run into trouble as a brand and a company,” said Jack R. Nerad, executive editorial director at Kelley Blue Book, whose 1968 Firebird made him feel “as cool as I could be.”
More than any other G.M. brand, Pontiac stood for performance, speed and sex appeal. Its crosstown rivals followed with similar muscle cars, giving Detroit bragging rights over the cars that Japanese automakers were selling based on quality and reliability.
Though still G.M.’s third-best-selling division, behind Chevrolet and GMC, Pontiac’s sales peaked in 1984, when it sold almost 850,000 vehicles, roughly four times as many as it sold last year.
G.M.’s chief executive, Rick Wagoner, said the company’s decision to concentrate primarily on Cadillac, Chevrolet, Buick and GMC left the company with a “comprehensive portfolio.”
By many accounts, Pontiac started to falter when G.M. pursued a cost-saving strategy of providing the same cars to different divisions.
It gave Pontiac vehicles like the TransSport minivan, and the Sunbird, Sunfire and Phoenix cars that were barely distinguishable from models sold by Chevrolet and Oldsmobile.
Pontiac also garnered unwanted publicity in 2001 with the Aztek, whose tag line declared, “Quite possibly the most versatile vehicle on the planet.” Its bulky looks landed it on lists of the world’s ugliest cars. Indeed, Aztek won top honors in that category from The Daily Telegraph of London last year.
Pontiac’s current plight is reflected in its Vibe, a well-regarded crossover vehicle that shares underpinnings with the Toyota Matrix, as part of a joint venture between Toyota and G.M.
While the Matrix holds 67 percent of its resale value after three years, according to Kelley Blue Book, the Vibe retains just 54 percent.
The Vibe, whose future is not clear but which was redesigned for 2009, is meant to appeal to the same age group that Pontiac’s muscle cars once did.
But many younger Americans, who were not around for Pontiac’s prime period, will not miss the brand as it shrinks, said Ron Pinelli, who is president of Motorintelligence.com, a company that tracks industry statistics.
To them, he said, “it doesn’t have any cachet unless they’re watching a late-night movie with Burt Reynolds,” whose film “Smokey and the Bandit” featured the Pontiac Trans Am.
But in its best years, Pontiacs were “highly styled and valued and really something,” Mr. Pinelli said.
Known before World War II primarily for its sedate sedans, Pontiac got a lift in the 1950s when G.M. used its cars on the racing circuit. Because of its “wide track” stance, Pontiacs quickly caught on with street racers, as well.
Tim Sampson, whose family owned a yellow Pontiac Grand Prix in the 1960s, remembered the Pontiacs that were used for drag races on President’s Island, in an industrial part of Memphis. “People used to get arrested,” said Mr. Sampson, a founder of the Stax Museum of American Soul.
Italian sports cars inspired another classic Pontiac in the 1960s, when the division’s new general manager, John Z. DeLorean, decided it needed a small, fast car modeled after a Ferrari. He hit on the name GTO — after a Ferrari coupe called the Gran Turismo Omologato.
The GTO returned this decade, as part of an effort to revive Pontiac. But G.M.’s Holden division in Australia built that car.
Its appearance barely echoed the original GTO, disappointing its core audience. It lasted only from 2004 to 2006, before G.M. stopped selling them.
The most recent efforts to breathe new life into Pontiac were put into motion by G.M.’s vice chairman, Robert A. Lutz, who will retire at the end of 2009. Known in the industry for his love of high-performance vehicles, Mr. Lutz had pushed the division to return to its car heritage.
On its Web site, Pontiac explains its new slogan more fully: “Pontiac is style. Pontiac is performance. Pontiac is culture. Pontiac is music. Pontiac is CAR.”
Now, G.M. will have to determine which Pontiacs will remain Pontiacs. So far, Mr. Wagoner and other executives have not given any indication of the company’s specific plans for Pontiac.
But unlike Saturn, which will be discontinued by 2012, G.M. does not have to dismantle a dealership lineup for Pontiac. Its franchises, for the most part, already have been grouped with Buick and GMC. Any future models, G.M. said this week, will be sold through this Buick-Pontiac-GMC organization.
“We’re the third generation, and we’re the last,” said Rick Zimmerman, whose family has sold Pontiacs in Pittsfield, Ill., since the brand came to life as part of its Oakland division in the 1920s. (Pontiac became a stand-alone division in 1932.)
Mr. Zimmerman, whose first car was a GTO, said hundreds of customers used to flood his showroom each fall when new Pontiacs — like the popular Bonneville, now a retired nameplate — were unveiled.
Now, despite positive reviews about the performance of some new models like the G8, he has trouble getting his customers interested in them.
“It’s been a good name, and had a lot of good cars,” Mr. Zimmerman said. “It’s tough to see it go.”
Nick Bunkley contributed reporting.
A version of this article appeared in print on February 20, 2009, on page A1 of the New York edition.