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Pontiac: A Corporate Murder

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In its heyday, Pontiac didn’t just outrun the other cars – it ran them into the ground. In 1970s America, young men used to happily go to jail for drag racing it. Burt Reynolds became a cult figure in the car’s wake. But now, a half century after its glory days, Pontiac has driven into a ditch.

You have to shake your head a few times for the reality to sink in: the brand that graced the hoods of such amazing driving machines as the Trans Am and the Grand Prix won’t be around anymore, won’t be setting the tracks on fire, won’t be around to help dating-challenged men become players overnight.

GM’s Pontiac division hit a peak of 850,000 cars in 1984, but since then sales have skidded off the road. Last year it sold just over 210,000 cars. While that seems like a respectable figure for a strong niche brand, for the bean counters at GM, it clearly was not.

The obituary was couched in sickening doublespeak. "In the future, Pontiac will become a smaller, more focused brand within a tightly integrated Buick-Pontiac-GMC retail channel," said Jim Hopson, manager of communications for Pontiac. "There will be fewer than the seven nameplates it currently offers.” Translation: We're throwing Pontiac off a cliff.

Pontiac’s demise is not a result of corporate Darwinism, a term that pro-market mavens are so fond of. Yes, the streets are ruthless and only the best cars deserve to survive, but Pontiac was done in by a GM autocracy that is stupid, callous, and out of sync with the mind of the car buyer. As they say these days in Motown, “You can’t cure stupid!” Especially Detroit-stupid.

Jim Wangers, the man who gave America the legendary Pontiac GTO writes in ‘Glory Days: When Horsepower and Passion Ruled Detroit’ – “Any carmaker's greatest asset is their perceived image in the marketplace."

Undoubtedly. Pontiac had an uncanny sense of young America's relationship with cars and exploited that relationship to the fullest. In the era of muscle cars, when horsepower numbers went up as quickly as the quarter-mile times came down, the company marketed horsepower unashamedly; it created mad desire in the consumer’s heart.

Even as cars were becoming commoditized, Pontiac offered drivers individuality, style and passion. Here’s what a blogger writes on the GM Forum: “If I wanted a full sized Bonneville with bucket seat and the largest available 400 Pontiac built V8 I could do it. If I wanted a base stripper Lemans but wanted the largest engine and no AC I could easily do it. If I wanted a 2 seat plastic bodied light weight commuter with a fuel efficient 4 cylinder I could buy it in the form of the Fiero which no other division offered. Pontiac used to be very special and had tons of repeat customers.”

But when style-challenged marketing buffoons take over the car business from the engineers, racers and professionals on the shop floor, what happens is the motoring equivalent of sudden death.

When a division that used to make strikingly handsome hot rods like the 6.6 litre Trans Am is foisted with the heart and body of the singularly soulless and utterly unreliable Australian Holdens, then all you can do is brace for a consumer backlash. Pontiac fans took their hands off the wheel just long enough to tear their hair off.

While the 1970s Pontiacs bestowed bragging rights to their owners, the 1990s ones were Holden clones. The world car concept – one chassis, one engine, many models – was all right for peddling shuttles like the Saturns and Opels, but it just didn’t work for a quintessentially American hot rod. Ford did that with the legendary Jaguar and nearly killed it.

GM’s crime was tampering with Pontiac’s genetic code – the new jelly bean shaped cars were a world removed from the gravity-defying Firebirds. Where the Firebirds thundered, the new Holden-under-the-hood Pontiacs merely purred. The GM brass rooted for mass at the expense of class.

Also, bundling the Pontiac with Buick made those car dealerships as attractive to younger buyers as the Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library, if such a thing exists.

Blame it also on corporate sloth. Harley Davidson was rescued from the scrap heap when everyone thought the Hondas and Kawasakis had steamrolled the iconic motorcycle maker. There’s no reason to doubt why a similar rescue package won’t resuscitate Pontiac, especially when it has such a huge cult following. But in today’s corporate America, that’s more like a pipedream.

Perhaps the greatest irony is that Pontiac, named after an American Indian chief who led the Ottawa tribe against the English in the mid-1700s, is simply not being allowed to fight back.

 

Rakesh Krishnan Simha is a New Zealand-based writer.

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