The cars we loved.
If you were like me you were a little disappointed (if not relieved) that the end of the world did not happen last week like that internet church said it would. Fiery sermons about the first being the last and the end of days could be interpreted many ways. Where car makers are concerned, Pontiac experienced its apocalypses in 2010. Die hard Pontiac fans could see the End Days as early as the late 70’s with the arrival of the Chevette clone of the T1000. The End Times pace really picked up when the T1000’s replacement went sofar as to use the legendary LeMans name.
Why Pontiac would drag out such a storied brand for its least expensive and attractive car is beyond me. Did they figure that a new generation raised on Atari and MTV would not know what the LeMans once was? Even casual car fans could figure out that the sporty Pontiacs that Major Nelson drove in I Dream of Jeannie or the countless pop references to GTO’s had no relation at all to the small car in the back lots of Pontiac dealerships.
In looking back, this was one of the first signs of the decline at Pontiac from a GenX perspective. What once started out as an intermediate that helped start the Baby Boomer muscle car era had devolved into a grocery cart of Euro/Asian origins more suitable for as an automotive appliance than performance machine.
The end of the world has come and gone, but unlike any good end time story, this one had no redeeming aspect for the faithful. For the LeMans, there would be no savior or miraculous rebirth.
How ironic. Pontiac was coming off an era of renewed vigor in the early half of the ’80s. The Trans-Am was relatively new, the revamped Grand-Am had become a popular 3 Series alternative and even its large sedans like the Bonneville had become vented and ribbed almost-sports sedans. The Sunbird would eventually become popular too with its feisty turbocharged engine, but Pontiac needed a smaller car to anchor the bottom end of its lineup. What Pontiac thought it needed was a car that was more affordable than the Sunbird and offered the hatchback versatility that so many small European and Japanese exports did.
Because GM made no such car in any of its North American facilities, it looked to its European Opel division to supply the basic T platform chassis. In Europe, Opel’s Kadett had created a sensation with its aerodynamic design. It won the European Car of the Year Award in 1985. When our variation arrived, it had come with a good resume and references, but lost something in the translation. In other places it was called everything from Astra to Optima. No less than six GM divisions or partners sold the car under their brand with a version of it being sold on almost every continent.
With so many variations, you’d think that we would get the sportiest to be sold as a Pontiac. After all Pontiac sold itself as GM’s excitement division. North American bound cars were actually built by Daewoo, a Korean company not known for their automotive quality (two partnerships with Toyota and Nissan may have soured for that reason). GM should have known better. European cars differed from our LeMans in other ways like the suspension and the use of advance multi-valve engines in the top versions.
In America there were two configurations: a four door sedan and two door hatchback coupe. The sedan was awkward looking with a three box silhouette reminiscent of the early VW Jetta, but not as attractive. The coupe was
the looker of the group. In sporty SE guise had monochromatic paint schemes like some European cars and had its share of spoilers and stripes befitting a proper ’80s Pontiac. It was even called the very Euro sounding name “Aerocoupe”. It seemed some of the European lineage was prevalent inside also with the logically laid out controls of the simple dash. Unfortunately, the European influences ended there. We were deprived of the convertible and GSi versions that featured a 156hp version of the 16V DOHC engine (Vauxhall Astra and Opel Kadett).
Handling was ok as small cars went with the SE’s rear beam axle suspension. For the longest time there was only one engine available regardless of the trim; a 1.5L fuel injected four-cylinder that made all of 74 hp. By 1991, a redesign produced a more rounded aerodynamic look that removed the last of whatever European lineage the LeMans had in favor of the more rounded aero look that had become the face of other Pontiacs.
The early 1990’s was also when the sporty SE model got a bump up in power and displacement with a 2.0 that produced a healthy 95hp, making the Lemans almost as quick as the Sunbird LE and SE in the 10 second dash to 60mph. Oddly, just as the car had gained enough power to offer some performance, Pontaic dropped the sporty GSE Aerocoupe model. The sedan was the big seller, but had no equivalent sport version to the hatchback coupe. Now with no compelling looking subcompact to lure first time buyers, the LeMans had become a cheap alternative the emerging Hyundai’s and Kia’s of the world.
By 1992 the sales dive was accelerating for various reasons. Like other cross-bred cars of the era, the Lemans did have its quality issues. Pontiac realized that it was probably too late to try to redeem the LeMans’ reputation as Americans were turning to small Asian cars in droves. Once canceled in 1993, there was no direct replacement until 2002 when GM’s Daewoo built Gentra was rebadged as the G3. The G3 was a better car, but was about ten years too late.