The cars we loved.

Pontiac Motor Division 1926-2010 (part 1)

Pontiac as we know it today had a  different focus than the company originally spawned from the Oakland Motor Company in 1926. Oakland cars were not anything special and did not stand out in the market aside from their use of V6 engines where other lower cost cars used fours. Oakland Motors was a GM division, so the company decided to created the Pontiac division from it, named for a half Ojibwa half Ottawan chief ( not the city in Michigan). Oakland Motors and Pontiac would sell cars in tandom. The ideal was to make a companion step up from Chevrolet, but under Oldsmobile.



1979 Trans-Am

1979 Trans-Am

This political mindset was counter to Pontiac’s plans to reinvent itself as a performance company. One option car companies used to promote performance was to mis quote or under report horsepower figures to trick government regulators and insurance companies into thinking the car was “safer to insure”.  Pontaic was an early proponent of this practice and refined it so much so that they would spawn a new category under the guidance of John Delorean. His ideal was to take one of the big block V8s normally housed in a large sedan like a Catalina or Bonneville and put it into a smaller, lighter intermediate like the Lemans. And so in 1964 muscle car was born and the rest was history. 

Pontiac had a line of successful performance cars through the 60s and early 70’s that cemented its image as the performance division of GM. Pop songs written about and films with careful placement of Pontiac products were part of the innovative marketing concepts used by the company to introduce new high profile venues to boost sales. The company was on a roll and sales were the best they had ever been in the companys history.

1978 Trans-Am

1978 Trans-Am

Even as things were going well for the company, changes loomed over the horizon as new emessions and safety standards were coming. Pontiac, like the rest of the US auto industry was not well prepaired for the changes and for a few years, power and performance would suffer. Pontiac responded to this environment with demasculated Firebirds and GTO’s. But as emissions regulations and a fuel crisis held power to a minimum, horsepower would soon go back up with large displacement Firebirds reaching 6.6 literes by the late 70s. Pontiac sales bounced back in part due to the timely placement of a Trans-Am in the blockbuster film “Smokey and the Bandit” in 1977. A string of these films featuring Trans-Ams boosted Pontiac sales all across the line and boosted the performance legend of Pontiac into pop culture during the 80’s.  

1965 Catalina

1965 Catalina

More importantly, Pontaic developed V8 engines that were much more powerful than advertised during this era. Auto manufactures had agreed to ban racing in 1957. The hope was that the general public would not be encouraged to have too much fun at the risk of their safety. Racing programs only encouraged horsepower and horsepower equaled reckless driving and possiblydeath. At least that was the thinking in the politically correct repressed 50s and pre flower power 60s. 

1964 GTO

1964 GTO

That trio, headed by Semon Knudsen worked with Pete Estes and John De Lorean to change the image of Pontiac by making it GM’s performance division. They started first by discarding with the indian image, and excessive chrome. This was about the time the red V logo was developed. From the dawn of the 60’s on, Pontiac introduced concepts, both marketing and engineering that were innovative and secured its image as a maker of performance cars. The wide body concept was the first. Pontiac’s, like all its platform mates, shared major chassis components. Pontaic was able to stretch the chassis and push the wheels out to give an enhanced illusion of wider cars. The wider track improved handling and made Pontaics line of big and intermediate cars look stunning. The popular “Wide Track” feature was born, a concept that stayed with Pontaic through the 60’s. 

1953 Pontiac Chieftain

1953 Chieftain

With the war over and production resuming, Pontiac cars became larger, like other American cars. Smooth V6 and V8 power plants insured power when needed, but sales languished as Pontiac was not capturing the huge youth market, suddenly made prominent as thousands of young GI returned home and were looking to have some fun before settling down to start a family. In this environment, Pontaics were nothing more than indistinguishable clones of Chevrolets with gaudy chrome “suspenders”, a term used to describe Pontaics that used a strip of chrome through the middle of the hood with an indian chief at the end. GM thought seriously about turning out the lights on Pontaic in the 50’s, but that was before a trio of visionaries appeared and saved the company. 

1929 Pontiac Roadster

1929 Roadster

Pontiac cars from the start conceived to have V6 engines as the principal means of carrying out the mission of being slightly upscale. The ideal worked. Sales increased steadily over the years as buyers could get a V6 for nearly the cost of a Ford 4 cylinder. Many early Pontiacs were two door coupes, but not sold as sporty transportation but  as solid affordable transportation. Pontiac soon out sold Oakland branded cars and in 1932, GM dissolved the Oakland name for Pontiac. Up to the war years, Pontiac’s gained a reputation for smooth power and comfortable rides especially when eqquiped with GM’s  Hydromatic transmission. 

1967 Pontiac Sales Brochure

1967 Pontiac sales brochure featuring the Tempest


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This entry was posted on February 23, 2010 by in 00's, 60's Cars, 70's Cars, 80's Cars, 90's cars, Holden, Pontiac.
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