News From Terre Haute, Indiana

December 5, 2009

Mark Bennett: Automotive era passes with end of Pontiac

By Mark Bennett

TERRE HAUTE — Only Pete Townshend’s power chords ever outmuscled that ’72 Pontiac Grand Prix.

Yes, The Who’s “Live at Leeds” album blew out the factory speakers in the Grand Prix I borrowed from my folks as a teenager. (Technically, I was to blame, considering I controlled the volume.) Otherwise, that car — carrying a 400-cubic-inch displacement V8 engine with a 4-barrel carb and the aforementioned 8-track stereo system — was one sweet ride.

My dad liked Pontiacs. When I got old enough to drive one, I figured out why.

They were fun, then. They stood for something, and stuck to those values — a precious commodity these days.

“At their best, Pontiac was the American muscle car. If you wanted to go fast, with a car that said, ‘Get out of my way,’ with a big engine and smokin’ tires, you were driving a Pontiac,” said Richard Truett, engineering reporter for Automotive News.

Though that brand’s high-performance heyday was the 1960s and early 1970s, its popularity lingered beyond that time. Pontiac hit its all-time high in 1984 with sales of 850,000, according to the Detroit News. Longtime Terre Haute auto dealer Mark Fuson remembers a six-year stretch in the 1980s when Pontiacs were the No. 1 registered vehicle in Vigo County.

“We had some good times back then,” said Fuson, president of Fuson Pontiac Buick Cadillac & GMC Trucks on U.S. 41 south of the city.

The iconic Pontiac brand, once known as General Motors’ “excitement division,” has reached the end of its road.

Pressed to cut expenses to meet the federal government’s bailout plan, GM decided in April to stop producing Pontiacs. The last car rolled off the assembly line Nov. 25 at the Pontiac plant in Orion Township, Mich. The Fuson dealership sold its last new Pontiac — a nifty G5 GT — on Tuesday. GM will continue to craft parts for existing Pontiacs, Fuson pointed out, and the dealership will keep servicing that brand while focusing its new-vehicle sales on its Buicks, Cadillacs and GMC Trucks. But, sadly, an automotive era has passed.

Pontiac finished its 83-year run as the third best-selling American car ever, trailing only Chevys and Fords.

“Especially with the Pontiac Bonneville, the Grand Am and the Grand Prix, there was incredible brand loyalty for many years,” said Fuson, whose family business started in 1933.

The Great Recession forced GM to file bankruptcy, restructure and downsize. But Pontiac’s loss of individuality made the brand vulnerable when GM had to choose which division to eliminate, said Detroit auto analysts. Like Plymouth and Oldsmobile before, Pontiac’s niche in the car-buying public got “muddled” when GM began producing similar styles in its other brands, said Bob Casey, historian and curator of transportation at The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich.

That muddling dated back to the gas crisis in the mid-1970s. Pontiac’s hefty engines got scaled down for fuel efficiency. On GM’s traditional affordability ladder — which guided upwardly-bound consumers through their lives from Chevys to Pontiacs, then Oldsmobiles, Buicks and finally Cadillacs — buyers saw little difference between Chevys and the once higher-tiered Pontiacs and Oldsmobiles.

“They lost sight of what Pontiac stood for,” Truett said by telephone last week from the Automotive News’ offices in Michigan. “Even when there were gas crises and everything else, they could’ve still kept that flag in the ground.”

Instead, GM blurred Pontiac’s distinctiveness in “a classic example of managing a brand to death,” Truett added. Instead of leaving the station wagons, SUVs and mini vans to other brands, GM injected those models into the Pontiac stable. Pontiac became like Plymouth (which died in 2001) and Oldsmobile (which expired in 2004). “Their rationale, their reason for being, were not very clear,” said Casey, a 1968 graduate of Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology.

For many Pontiac purists, the embodiment of that lost distinction was the Aztek. The 4-door SUV drew heavy criticism in auto industry publications for its quirky exterior styling. “It’s one of the biggest flopperoos of automotive history,” Casey said. “It just came out ugly.”

In recent years, though, GM rediscovered Pontiac’s uniqueness. While memorable models such as the Firebird, Grand Am, Bonneville and Grand Prix were phased out, newcomers with the old performance edge stepped in. Truett called the G8 “the perfect Pontiac,” and considers the 2009 Solstice Coupe one of his all-time favorite Pontiacs.

Pontiac was getting its groove back just when the recession devastated U.S. automakers.

On Tuesday, just before closing the sale on the final new Pontiac purchase in Terre Haute, Fuson salesman Dustin Zigler checked out the lively G5 GT once more. It featured a spoiler, a leather-wrapped steering wheel holding the controls to the stereo system, alloy wheels, an OnStar assistance, and a bright, white body.

“I think the build-quality [for Pontiacs] was great,” Zigler said. “They were always fun to drive, good-looking cars. Very sporty, and affordable, with good gas mileage.”

The disappearance of that brand that once fascinated American drivers may have an upside.

“The demise of Pontiac may actually be a positive sign that General Motors is no longer willing, or able, to keep around brands that no longer have a rationale,” Casey said. Fuson is optimistic about the auto market, especially after positive sales in October and November. “We truly feel as if the market has bottomed out,” he said.

If the economic lessons stick, and U.S. automakers rebound, Truett thinks Pontiac may be revived someday. If not, the fondness for those hot Grand Prixes, GTOs and Firebirds will linger in garages and car shows.

“The brand may be going,” Truett said, “but the car will be loved by collectors for many, many years to come.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or

10 grand pontiacs

1926 6/27: Pontiac’s first car came with a 6-cylinder engine, instead of the more common 4s of the day.

1936 Silver Streak: With a straight-8 engine, the model and design evoked speed.

1957 Bonneville: Pontiac’s first fuel-injected car carried a 122-inch wheelbase and a $5,800 pricetag. It was labeled “America’s No. 1 Road Car.”

1961 Tempest: A John DeLorean-designed car, its drivetrain and flexible drive shaft eliminated “the hump” found in most auto floors.

1964 GTO: The muscle-car era is born with the ’64 Gran Turismo Omologato, a small car with a big engine — a 389 cubic-inch V8.

1968 GTO: This redesigned, 360-horsepower model could go from zero to 60 mph in 6.4 seconds. It introduced the rubber, energy-absorbing Endura bumper.

1969 Grand Prix: With it, DeLorean unveiled the sporty luxury car, with a windshield-concealed radio antenna, a rear-window defogger and side-impact beams.

1973 Trans Am: A second-generation Firebird, its hottest versions came with 455 Super Duty engines. The ’77 Trans Am appeared in “Smokey and the Bandit.”

2009 Solstice GXP: With the GM division’s last hurrah, the Solstice’s 4-cylinder, 260-horsepower engine goes zero to 60 in 5.2 seconds.

2009 G8 GXP: Another final burst of style produced this model with a 402-horsepower V8, along with Bluetooth and XM radio connections.