News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett Opinion

December 5, 2009

Mark Bennett: Automotive era passes with end of Pontiac

(Continued)

TERRE HAUTE —

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.”

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