DeLorenzo's rant of the week at www.autoextremist.com
Pontiac’s resurrection gets lost in translation.
By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. I’ve written about Pontiac extensively over the years in this column, partly because I actually have a passion for the brand that goes way back to the late 50s (Bunkie Knudsen use to send the latest and greatest Pontiac to our house for my mom to drive every summer, usually a Bright Red Bonneville convertible with the hottest engine they could stuff in it at the time), and partly because I had the privilege to work on Pontiac advertising during one of the division’s last real heydays (in the early 80s).
Believe it or not, Pontiac used to actually mean something in the American car market, but that was so long ago that I feel it’s my duty to remind people about it now and again. At its high point, Pontiac was pressing Ford division in sales and enjoying the No. 3 position in the U.S. market. And Pontiac did it by selling hot cars with an unmistakable rebel attitude, creating a brand presence that was unique in the marketplace.
Pontiac not only marched to a different drummer within GM, they reveled in tweaking the corporate “suits” at every opportunity, causing major blowups and out-and-out war with GM’s fair-haired division – Chevrolet – on more than one occasion. And whenever Chevrolet execs would whine about yet another incident of egregious behavior by its brother division some 25 miles north of the city, executive honchos on the famed 14th Floor of the GM building at the time would only weakly admonish Pontiac, because after looking at the latest monthly sales figures they would do a collective shrug of the shoulders and then let Pontiac execs go back to doing exactly what they were doing with a wink and a nod. The Pontiac formula flat worked, and even the GM suits were smart enough not to mess it up.
The origins of this “hands-off, look-the-other-way" policy that the GM Brass employed with Pontiac defined the very essence of the brand, and it’s a story that bears repeating.
By 1963, GM was still in the throes (sort of) of adhering to the 1957 agreement with the Automobile Manufacturers Association to not promote speed and horsepower in automobile advertising for safety reasons, and to not race their products. I say sort of because unbeknownst to the execs down at headquarters, Zora Arkus-Duntov was feverishly working away at his answer to the Shelby American Cobra – the magnificent Corvette Grand Sport – and at the same time GM “mystery” V8s were showing up in blistering fast NASCAR Chevys at Daytona. (Ford had already bailed on the agreement by the summer of 1962 in order to jump into its “Total Performance” marketing campaign with both feet.)
John Z. DeLorean, the Pontiac chief engineer who had risen to become the youngest General Manager in GM history at 39, wanted to jump start Pontiac in a big way, because he had ambitions to run GM one day, and time was a wastin’ as they say. Bill Collins, along with Russ Gee, two of Pontiac ’s engineering gurus at the time, responded to John Z’s challenge with one of the classic automotive “What if(s)?” of all time, as in, “What if we stuffed one of our 389 cu. in. engines in our ‘intermediate’ Tempest?”
Now technically, Pontiac couldn’t do it because of GM’s publicly stated adherence to the AMA ban. The marching orders given to the GM divisions from the 14th Floor were clear: They not only couldn't race, they couldn’t promote speed and horsepower in a model. Period. But in an example of the inspired genius that would propel Pontiac to great heights throughout the 60s, DeLorean and his brain trust decided to build this new performance car as an option to the 1964 Tempest - neatly avoiding the model question completely - and it would carry the designation “GTO” - borrowing a bit of magic from the Ferrari GTO at the time. Add in Jim Wangers' uncanny knack for marketing and promotion and the rest, as they say, is one rip-roaringly glorious chapter in American automotive history.
Pontiac thrived on its persona of being GM’s “pirate” division, always testing the boundaries and always doing things right up against the redline with cool cars and in-your-face marketing that no one else could touch. And American car-buying consumers flocked to the rebellious brand in droves. That’s why to this day a lot of enthusiasts have a soft spot for Pontiac, at least what Pontiac used to be anyway.
But we’re all painfully well aware of what happened to Pontiac since its glory days: 1. Bad marketing decisions due to a loss of interest (and money) from the corporation as GM propped-up every other division but Pontiac in its quest to keep its divisional balls in the air. 2. A proliferation of ugly-ass vehicles, none of which had the swagger, personality and performance that a Pontiac should have. And, 3. A total loss of the division’s focus internally, which led to a total loss of the division’s persona on the street, as the people in charge buried the brand’s essence in a dizzying array of smoke and mirrors, damn near killing Pontiac once and for all.
So when GM embarked on a project to resurrect this once-glorious brand using its latest rear-wheel-drive architecture developed by its Holden division in Australia, I was encouraged.
(No, I haven’t changed my stance in that by trying to market eight distinct brands in North America GM is slowly but surely preventing itself from ever gaining an upward trajectory again in the American market, but as I’ve said many times before if you’re not going to give Pontiac its due - and by that I mean reaffirm the brand’s essence in no uncertain terms with worthy cars - then by all means put it out of its misery once and for all.)
By all accounts, the new G8 arriving at Pontiac dealers as you read this is very much true to the Pontiac that thrived in the 60s, despite its Aussie origins: Big, powerful and fast - with enough swagger and personality to boot – and with a price that doesn’t induce headaches. GM is, in effect, finally giving Pontiac its due with this car. And Pontiac is announcing an even hotter version - the 402HP G8 GXP - at the New York Auto Show this week (see below), which will hit showrooms by the end of the year.
But the glimmer of optimism that was starting to well up in me about Pontiac came crashing down when it was also announced that Pontiac would be offering a G8 sport truck in 2010, which drew a collective gasp of “WTF?” here at AE headquarters. A popular conveyance locally marketed by Holden, this El Camino-like vehicle should stay right where it belongs – in Australia – because there’s not a shred of logic to bringing the thing here and calling it a Pontiac, I don’t care what the performance numbers are.
Not to state the obvious, but there isn’t even a remote connection to faux El Caminos in Pontiac ’s storied history. Not even close. And on top of that, a 4,000-lb. sport truck is a niche vehicle that has no business being marketed here. I understand that Pontiac marketers are trying to zig in a zagging market, but wasn’t the lesson learned from the Chevy SSR example enough for GM? How about the Subaru BRAT? Do they really want to revisit why that didn’t work - and find out why it will even work less as a Pontiac? After all, once the couple of thousand or so (at best) El Camino nostalgia hunters ante up for a G8 with two seats and a 71-inch cargo bed, then what?
They’ll be piling up like so much cord wood on dealer lots all over the country, that's what.
To make matters worse, Pontiac marketers, in their quest to attract attention to this atrocity, are pulling out all the stops by offering consumers a chance to name this beast over the next month on a website. No, it’s not clever. And no, it’s not fun, either. It’s amateur-hour marketing at its lowest.
Let me remind Pontiac marketers of two great names that need no vetting on the Internet – GTO and Trans-Am. Why the Hell GM decided not to go ahead with basing either one of these vehicles off of the upcoming Camaro architecture (I’ve seen a design exploration for a Firebird Trans-Am that looks sensational) is completely beyond me. When you have names with that kind of residual brand equity gathering dust in this oppressively congested market, why wouldn’t you use them?
This move by GM – and I hope the idea is shelved long before it becomes an on-the-street reality – would finish off this once-proud division once and for all. The G8 sport truck (I can barely even type the words) would be the quintessential definition of the wrong vehicle, at the wrong time, from the wrong car company. As a matter of fact, it would retire the title from ever being used again, because there would be no other product misstep in recent automotive history that would even come close to this looming debacle, in my estimation. Not even the Aztek. Yeah, I know – that’s cold – but it’s the High-Octane Truth in this case.
The sad thing in all of this is that I believe the Pontiac brand can still thrive, even in this harsh new Green-dominated, $4.00+ per gallon automotive world we’re living in. But Pontiac doesn't have a glimmer of hope of resurrecting itself when bad product decisions are still being made on its behalf.
GM marketers either don’t get it, or they clearly only partly get it, which is even worse.
It’s times like these that try men’s souls - or something like that. Let’s hope this “thing” is a non-starter, because a Pontiac sport truck would be a flat-out disgrace if it ever sees the light of day.
Thanks for listening, see you next Wednesday.