The Rearview Mirror: A Brand Born of the Roaring ’20s

Alfred P. Sloan was appointed President and CEO of GM in 1923.

It is a brand born this week in 1926, one that lives on fervently in hearts of car enthusiasts: Pontiac. 

It’s the marque that gave us Grand Prixs and GTOs, Firebirds and Trans Ams before peddling such atrocities as the T1000, Astre and Aztek, vehicles that irreparably tarnished a brand whose image should have been the easiest of GM’s to manage.

A brand born for its price

It had taken General Motors until 1924 to put its house in order following the ouster of GM founder William Durant. Under GM President and Chief Executive Officer Alfred P. Sloan, who had been appointed the year before, the product line-up was whittled to a price ladder consisting of Chevrolet at $510; Olds, $750; Oakland, $945; Buick “4”, $965; Buick “6”, $1,295; and Cadillac, $2,985.

But Sloan saw gaps in the portfolio that needed plugged. “The most obvious gaps in this line were between the Cadillac and Buick “6” at the top and between the Chevrolet and Olds at the bottom,” recalled Sloan in his book, “My Years With General Motors.” 

This led to the 1927 LaSalle, priced from $2,000, a junior Cadillac that would last through 1940. But the bigger danger was the hole between Chevrolet and Oldsmobile. “If General Motors didn’t go in there someone else sooner or later would,” Sloan said, not caring if the new car stole business from Chevrolet or Oldsmobile. “It will be better that we take business from our own Divisions than have competitors do so.”

Chevrolet President William “Big Bill” Knudsen developed the first Pontiac.

So Sloan directed that the space be filled with a new car using a Chevrolet body and chassis powered by a new 6-cylinder engine. (At the time, Chevrolet only offered 4-cylinder power.) Chevrolet’s president, William “Big Bill” Knudsen, was told to develop and test it; Oakland would be bringing it to market. The new car was dubbed Pontiac, Oakland’s name when it was known as the Pontiac Buggy Company. 

(Two other sister brands debuted later, Oldsmobile’s 1929 Viking, which lasted one year, and Buick’s 1929 Marquette, which lingered for two.)

A new — if ordinary — new car

And so, the first Pontiac went on sale this week in 1926, priced from $825, halfway between the $645 Chevrolet and the $950 Oldsmobile. While the new Pontiac plugged a hole, it was unexceptional, with its 3.0-liter L-head 6-cylinder engine producing 40 horsepower at a lazy 2,400 rpm. 

The new car did little to boost the pricier Oakland’s sales. When the Great Depression hit in 1929, GM considered killing both Oakland and Pontiac. But by 1930, Pontiac was outselling Oakland seven-to-one, so the decision was made to kill Oakland. Pontiac would outlive all of its sister brands and be the only one to outlive its parent company. 

A 1926 Pontiac, basically a Chevy with a 6-cylinder engine. (Photo Credit: RM Auctions)

Pontiacs became senior Chevrolets, offering features you couldn’t get from the bowtie brand, such as an automatic transmission or an 8-cylinder engine. They were safe, solid conservative offerings that yielded decent sales, but were otherwise unexciting — not unlike an Oakland. But that would change in 1956, with the arrival of Semon “Bunkie” Knudsen, the son of Chevrolet’s 1930s president “Big Bill” Knudsen.

Pontiac gains a new leader — and a new image

Bunkie would be the youngest Division manager appointed to GM to that time. His youth would prove invaluable as he brought in new blood, including Elliot “Pete” Estes from Oldsmobile as chief engineer as well as John DeLorean who came from Packard. (Both would go on to run Pontiac and Chevrolet, with Estes becoming GM’s president, and DeLorean leaving GM to start his ill-fated car company.)

The 1957 Pontiac Bonneville would mark Pontiac’s birth as GM’s performance brand. (Photo Credit: RM Auctions)

Next, Knudsen introduced the Bonneville, a top-of-the-line model with Rochester fuel injectors, hydraulic lifters and a racing cam. Producing 300 hp, it would prove a template for what was to follow.

For 1959, Pontiac received its first split grille styling, a part of the brand it would retain for the rest of its run, as well as its famous “wide-track” chassis. Winning MotorTrend’s 1959 Car of the Year award, its sales rose nearly 57 percent.

In 1961, the compact Pontiac Tempest debuted with GM’s first postwar 4-cylinder engine, four-wheel independent suspension and a rear transaxle. 1962 saw the debut of the two-door Grand Prix, the Division’s first personal luxury coupe, followed in 1964 by the first muscle car, the V-8-powered Tempest GTO, a $300 option package that would become its own model.

Three years later, Pontiac fielded its answer to the Mustang, the 1967 Firebird, followed by its more muscular sibling, the 1969 Trans Am. It seemed in the 1960s, Pontiac could do no wrong. But that would soon change.

A new era brings new challenges

The 1964 Pontiac Tempest GTO, America’s first muscle car. (Photo Credit: RM Auctions)

As the new decade dawned, the team that fostered Pontiac’s success moved on. By 1974, the GTO would be based on a Chevrolet Nova, followed by the Pontiac Astre, a thinly-disguised Chevrolet Vega, in 1975. But Pontiac’s image remained firm, thanks to booming sales of the Firebird and Trans Am, accented with the screaming chicken hood decal. 

But by the 1980s, Pontiacs differed little from those offered by other divisions, but there was one exception, the 1984 Fiero, a two-seat, mid-engine coupe with space-frame construction. It looked like a sports car, but didn’t perform like one. Cobbled together from the GM parts bin, its engine dated from the 1961 Tempest. The Fiero died after four years. 

Poor product decisions continued, including the Montana minivan, the Aztek crossover and the Korean-built Le Mans subcompact. Even the popular Grand Am compact would have its marketing muscle eviscerated when it was renamed the G6. Even the revival of the GTO failed when its badge was slapped on the Australian-built Holden, doing little to attract Boomers who remembered the original. 

The Pontiac Aztek was hailed for its utility, reviled for its strange design.

The end comes

By the time of GM’s bankruptcy filing in 2009, the company was given a choice of keeping four divisions. That GM would keep Chevrolet, GMC and Cadillac seemed to be a foregone conclusion.

Oldsmobile was already gone, having been axed in 2004. That Saab and Saturn were closed wasn’t hard to understand. The question became whether to keep Buick or Pontiac. 

Considered solely on American market sales, the answer would have been to keep Pontiac. But GM had been selling Buicks in China for a decade — lots of them. The promise of what was forecast to become the world’s largest car market, and the country’s long-held admiration for Buick, a brand favored by the last Chinese emperor, forced GM’s hand.

After 84 years, Pontiac was dead.