Farewell to the Chief


The Easter weekend draws close once again, and for me that means the New York International Auto Show. We are fortunate enough to have family and friends in the northeast that we visit annually, and this affords me ready access to the show on our way back home.

The very first time I attended the show I was like a kid in the biggest toy store known to man. I ran about the place while I gawked and drooled over dozens of cars, and before I was finished, I had been there almost eight hours. My wife was amazed, and to be honest so was I.

Nowadays I spend much less time there since I am more accustomed to the size and grandeur of the show and my focus is more on the cars themselves.

This year will be different for me, since one of my beloved marques will be noticeably absent. As one of the casualties of General Motors downsizing, alas, Pontiac is no more.

Pontiac was a Ottawa Chief who fought during the French and Indian War. He later led a rebellion to capture Fort Detroit, in an attempt to drive the British from the Great Lakes region. Pontiac boldly led three hundred warriors against the Fort, and was subsequently joined by almost nine hundred other warriors from various tribes. His siege on Fort Detroit ultimately failed, but his bravery and audacity made his legend larger than life.

It should come as no surprise that three towns now bear his name; one in Michigan, one in Illinois, and another in Quebec. In my world however, the name of the bold Chief has graced the fender panels of a division of General Motors cars since before I was born.

All through my childhood I can recall staring with longing at the sleek and brash cars that wore the Pontiac badge. Names like Bonneville, Catalina, Grand Prix and of course, Firebird, were cars that I never forgot. As a matter of fact, my very first car was almost a Catalina, but my father saw fit not to put me in the driver seat of a car with a 400 cubic inch engine.

Fast forward to my early twenties (very early) and after the film “Smokey and the Bandit” stormed through theaters, the black and gold trimmed Firebird Trans Am became immortal. In late 1979, I became the proud owner of one of these cars. The experience left a lasting imprint on me as the relationship was cut short by my getting laid off my job. A scant few months later, the car of my dreams was sold and gone, and part of me has never recovered from the loss.

The legendary Trans Am has now become a collector item, and hence is out of my budget, but I still overflow with the same old feelings every time I see one at a car show.

The bulging wheel flares, the arrogant spoilers, the shaker hood scoop, and last but not least, the “screaming chicken” sprawled out across the hood were trademarks that set the Trans Am apart from everything else. Two more generations of the proud musclecar would follow until its demise in 2002, but even its final rendition, the Trans Am could not be mistaken for anything else. This was Pontiac’s flagship car, and its raptor-on-the-hunt attitude spilled over into every other car in their lineup.

Back in 1965, Pontiac gave birth to the whole musclecar movement when it installed a large V8 engine in its Tempest body style. This was the gift of Pontiac to the hot rod faithful called the GTO.

The GTO went through several changes of its own, but remained a stout performance machine. Despite its heritage, the GTO was ultimately overshadowed by the Firebird as Pontiac’s halo car.

Enter Bob Lutz.

Let me begin by saying that I do hold a great deal of respect for Mr. Lutz, except  for this series of decisions he made at GM. Bob Lutz is a consummate car-guy, and his career has been one of distinction for the most part. During his tenure at Chrysler, he provided the kind of inspiration required to build better and better cars, with a good deal of emphasis on performance. Lutz was instrumental in the creation of the Viper, and that feat alone is as much as some people do in a whole career.

Shortly after his arrival at GM he helped proclaim an end to the Camaro/ Firebird F-body cars. This came as no big shock since the rumor had been afoot for some time. Sales of F-bodies had been slumping for the past few years and America was in the throes of its love affair with the SUV. The F-body had been in production for over thirty years, which is a proud accomplishment since many other nameplates do well to last a decade.

As it turned out, this played right into the Lutz game plan, which was to transform Pontiac into the “American BMW.” While that idea might sound like it has merit on the surface, it was fraught with a clash of ideas and opinions. His first step towards this goal was to strip any and all Pontiac of any kind of plastic body add-ons in a quest for a cleaner appearance. More subtle, more understated, more refined, and ultimately more BMW-esque. This move was highly applauded by the automotive press, which has always carried a certain disdain for the Pontiac style of over-the-top. Despite these opinions by automotive editors, the so-called bawdy, street racer cars still sold.

Many such automotive writers have become enamored with German performance sedans and use them as the yardstick by which all others are judged. I don’t deny that BMW and Mercedes build a fine quality machine with all of the appropriate performance hardware, but for my tastes, they have all the appeal of a toney shoebox. I have no doubt that virtually all of them could eat most Pontiacs for lunch, especially on a curving mountain road, but then again, getting your butt kicked by an ugly woman doesn’t make her pretty, it simply means she won.

Winning may be everything in sports, especially in racing, but not so with life on the street and in the world of plunking down your hard-earned bucks. Lets face the fact that there are far more racing fans than racing drivers, and while not all of them let racing influence the purchase of their personal cars, there is no denying that it does hold sway for many others. Automakers have tapped those desires for years with pace car replicas and other similar special edition models with great success.

Mr. Lutz attempted a double whammy when he scoured around the worldwide GM inventory and found the performance coupe was alive and well in the Land Down Under. General Motors Aussie division, known as Holden, built a V8 powered, rear wheel drive coupe called the Manaro. The gleam in Bobs’ eye flickered wildly as he made the necessary changes to give the Holden machine a subtle Pontiac facelift. The Holden was imported to the USA and bestowed the legacy of wearing the historic GTO badge.

The newly minted GTO was very BMW-like, as it packed all of the go-fast hardware you could ask for, all wrapped up in body package that came off looking like a Chevy Cavalier on steroids. The car was so understated that it bordered on just plain dull. The last generation Trans Am by comparison, looked as though it could devour both opponent and pedestrian alike by simply sitting still. The GTO may well have been a great performance car, but as far as Pontiac audacity was concerned, it had none.

One has to give Mr. Lutz points for effort, as the very next year the GTO was outfitted with hood scoops, a larger rear spoiler and proper set of dual outlet exhausts. These were welcome changes but the car was still in search of a following, which Bob tried to provide through racing.

The GTO-R competed in the Rolex Grand Am Series and soundly made its presence felt with a stout 19 podium finishes. Lutz had succeeded in trouncing BMW on its own turf, but the victories never translated to the showroom.

Ford complicated this issue by setting the world on fire with its retro-styled Mustang. The GTO might have carried a proud old nameplate, but there was nothing retro about the Aussie import to connect it with those storied Pontiacs from the musclecar era.

Mr. Lutz gave one more valiant effort as he helped bring the Solstice to the showroom. The concept Solstice wowed and wooed enthusiasts at auto shows across the country as it held the promise of a domestic sports car that wasn’t a bank-breaker like the Corvette. The Solstice looked poised to take solid bite out of the pricey BMW Z-roadster, as well a providing some competition for the perennial Mazda Miata. The little Mazda two-seater has owned this market segment for more than a decade, as it has struck the tender balance of affordability, economy and open air fun, all the while proving itself to be a capable weekend racer toy.

General Motors reasoned that the price of the Solstice was in the neighborhood of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, so they deemed the car to be a potential his-n-hers toy set. As such, they traded off much of the cars’ real world practicality, most notably was the lack of any kind of trunk or storage space. In this authors opinion, when you make a car un-useful, you give it the kiss of death. When one can’t even throw a small duffel bag in the back and scamper off for a top-down weekend at the beach, then what good is the car to me? Even the most lowly motorcycle can be had with some kind of saddlebag for the sake of carry space.

By this time I believe the public perception of Pontiac was one of a division that had lost its way. It certainly was nothing like it used to be, and it wasn’t following the retro trend like so many other carmakers were seeking to capitalize on. Many in the automotive press praised Lutz for his efforts and gave his transformed Pontiacs mid-level marks as compared to BMW, but the reality was that no one in the market for a BMW was ever going to shop a Pontiac showroom.

Last year a struggling General Motors finally brought its retro Camaro to the Chevy showrooms after two years of showing concept models. Throngs of F-body faithful and new converts alike have flocked to dealers for this blast from the past. Even in a slumping economy where dealers are begging for customers, the new Camaro is flying out of the doors in record numbers without incentives of any kind.

The return of this automotive legend has spurred several aftermarket specialty houses to produce Firebird/Trans Am conversions of the new car. This is glaring evidence that the market for a Firebird resurrection was ripe for the picking and it was squandered for an ill-fated ideal.

The final blow came when GM brought the sedan version of the GTO to our shores under the moniker of G8. This solid performance sedan took the place of both the Grand Prix and the Bonneville (which in my view was one of the sexiest sedans ever built by any manufacturer.) The G8 suffered from the same identity crisis as the GTO, but at least it wasn’t bucking the nameplate of a Detroit legend. The lack of advertising and downward spiral of the market doomed this car before it ever had a chance. Too little, too late for the powerful Aussie machine.

Evidently the staff at Pontiac division either rebelled or begged and pleaded for one last gasp of attitude before their impending demise. The Grand Prix GXP packed V8 power under its front wheel drive hood, and borrowed numerous styling cues from the fated Trans Am. The swan song of the G6 was also a GXP version that offered a “Street Edition” package that boasted a scooped hood, and a dramatic “hammerhead” rear spoiler.  These additions mirrored the GXP-R racing machine that followed the GTO-R in the Rolex series.

Now with Pontiac dead and buried, General Motors has announced that it is free to add performance oriented vehicles to the Buick lineup. The first of these new sedans is a Opel transplant from Europe which will carry the Regal Grand Sport nameplate; another import to replace a domestic automotive standard. I wish them the best of luck.

Mr. Bob Lutz has had a tremendous career in the automotive world, and it is one that still continues today, but for being so instrumental in killing off a car division that has been so near to my heart for so much of my life, is a sin that I will find very hard to forgive.

Farewell Chief Pontiac, and all of your bold warriors as well, for your kind shall be sorely missed.

-T. August Green


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