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Long Live the Pontiac Chief

July 12th, 2010 · 17 Comments

By Bart Young

Pontiac Hood Ornament

LAGUNA BEACH, Calif. – I recently attended the NHRA Winter Nationals and noticed that the most popular body for those outrageous funny cars seemed to be Pontiac. So when I asked another spectator why, he simply said “they have the best aero-dynamics.” My horse sense told me this was likely to be true. Wow! I thought to myself.

GM phased out Pontiac last year and someone is going to transform it into an awesome performance brand unencumbered by the bureaucracy, labor issues and debt burden that GM imposed for all these years.  Just take a look at what BMW has done with the Mini. Or what Audi has done with the Bentley. Of course, for a brand to be worthy of a revival it must have cachet and a history. The brand needs to stand for something. People need to care about what it stands for. It needs to have a market. What does Pontiac have now that GM has dumped it?Although I have never owned a Pontiac, my dad owned several Pontiac convertibles and always told me he could afford a Cadillac, but he preferred the “sporty” image of a Pontiac. So now that the sun has set on Pontiac I ask myself what is its DNA? What is its history? What assets does Pontiac posses that would make it worthy of a brand revival? Could the brand be relevant again?

Well, its history dates back to 1893, when Edward M. Murphy established the Pontiac Buggy Company in Pontiac, Michigan. A city named for a famous Indian Chief of the Ottawa tribe. The company produced horse-drawn carriages. As it became clear that motor car sales were going to eclipse carriages, Murphy wisely started the Oakland Motor Car Company, an offshoot of the buggy company, in 1907. Two years later, General Motors acquired half of Oakland in an exchange of stock. But it wasn’t until 1926 when GM introduced the Pontiac brand at the New York auto show.

Dubbed the “Chief of the Sixes,” the car was powered by a six-cylinder engine. In 1941 Pontiac was the first auto company to offer the option of engine upgrades at which time its sales were a spectacular 330,000 vehicles. And although the Bonneville was a hit in the 1950s, Pontiac made its biggest impact on the auto world with the creation of the GTO option for the Tempest. By equipping the compact car with the powerful 389-cubic-inch V8 from the full-size car line, Pontiac created the first “muscle car.” The car became a cult classic when Ronny & the Daytonas topped the music charts with their tune “Little GTO.”

So a quick review of Pontiac’s legacy confirms a very sporty brand with high-performance DNA and a legendary list of model names like Streamliner, Catalina, Bonneville, Lemans, GTO, Gran Prix, Grand Am, Firebird, Trans Am, Fiero, SunBird and Solstice that each take on a personality all of their own.

So now what? GM has “shut it down.” Dealer stores stand empty. So it’s over, right?

No, I don’t think so. Why? Because the Pontiac brand lives in the minds and hearts of so many Americans that it will simply take the right team of entrepreneurs and auto enthusiasts to bring the Pontiac brand back into our lives. Roger Penske was considering the purchase of Saturn, but backed out. That’s good thing, because if he thinks about it, which I am hoping he will as a result of this article, Pontiac has way more potential to become America’s sporty performance brand and the new symbol of American “Engine-unity” and economic strength.

I would just love to see Art Center’s auto design students create Pontiac concept cars of the future. Of course the brand needs to incorporate new technology to comply with the ecological and economic realities of tomorrow. But this is true of any auto maker today.

Unlike a clean sheet of paper, Pontiac is a brand that is rich in heritage and deeply interwoven into American culture. It is a brand that has the potential of becoming the beacon of the 21st Century American industry revival as a global technology leader and a symbol of “Happy Days.”

Pontiac Funny Car

About the Author: Bart Young is a professional marketer and strategist and has guided a number of significant clients in attaining category leadership. His agency Young Company has been recognized as one of the top 25 business-to-business agencies in the United States. As the agency’s executive creative director, Bart has led his staff in winning over 100 awards of excellence in advertising, public relations and internet marketing. Major clients have included a number of Fortune 500 brands, including ARAMARK, Fluor Corporation, HP, Hughes, IBM, Northrop Grumman, TDK and Texas Instruments, as well as a number of major software, semiconductor and internet companies. www.youngcompany.com

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More branding stories of interest:

Buick and the Invicta Concept Car
Buick and Tiger Divorce Exposes Legacy Cost Issue
GM’s Dead Brands: One in Six Sales
Shutting Auto Dealers Caused Job Loss
The Bandit Trans Am, a G.M. Chevrolet
GM Auctioning off the Historic Estate With Opel and Vauxhall

Tags: Cars

17 responses so far ↓

  • 1 John // Jul 12, 2010 at 7:45 am

    I am a Pontiac owner and would love to see the brand revived. However, I don’t think GM will sell it. Throughout GM’s bankruptcy, Pontiac was the only brand getting axed that was not for sale. Leads me to believe that GM wants to hang on to Pontiac for the chance they might revive it years down the road or just keep it for licensing purposes. BTW, “Little GTO” was by Ronny & the Daytonas, not the Beach Boys.

  • 2 Bob // Aug 12, 2010 at 8:00 pm

    It may be that Pontiac is gone and erased from the accounting books of GM, and it may be that the heritage of Pontiac lives in the memoirs of Americana – but the fact of the matter remains that Pontiac outsold Lincoln, Mercury, Dodge, Chrysler, and the majority of imports, save Honda and Toyota. They say that past history as a crystal ball to the future boils down to black-and-white numbers; these numbers say that Pontiac was a success for many years for GM. The truth of the matter is that Pontiac was placed between the premium GM brands and the standard GM brands – much like Saab, Oldsmobile, Plymouth, and so many other “middle brands” that have been eliminated over the years. The fact of the matter is that the consumers in this country see two types of cars and trucks available from domestic manufacturers: premium brands and standard brands. Nevertheless, neither premium brands nor standard brands can service that one small part of the buying market that demands median branding that offers distinct style: Cadillac could never do this (remember the Cimmaron?), and Chevrolet could never do this. Too bad. Pontiac was a great brand with great heritage that was just getting grounded in that middle market. It seems that there is no market between the big siblings, which leaves the consumers in this market with no choice but to settle for inferior branding, pay for premium branding, or switch to a foreign manufacturer. Maybe this is why the Germans, the Japanese, and the Pacific Rim entrants are growing at unprecedented rates. In the end, all the elimination of these middle brands does is limit choice, force marginal consumers to weigh patriotism against reality, and reduce the ability to individualize one’s choice of ride.

  • 3 DOUGLAS A. POTEAT // Nov 18, 2010 at 3:44 pm

    I HAVE DRIVEN PONTIAC CARS FOR OVER 50 YEARS AND WOULD LOVE TO SEE THEM MAKE A RETURN TO HISTORY. YES CHIEF OF THE SIXES ROLL ON.

  • 4 Bart Young // Nov 19, 2010 at 2:45 pm

    Douglas,
    I appreciate your interest and agree with your sentiment.
    I was never sure why Penske was interested in buying the Saturn brand and not Pontiac.
    My hope is that with GM going public again and with high hopes of new prosperity that they will relaunch Pontiac as a Silver Bullet Brand raising the perceived value of all GM products. This would work if they focused on fuel-efficient performance model taking on the Porsche 918 hybrid. Hopefully for less than $100,000.

  • 5 Moanalua // Nov 20, 2010 at 11:25 pm

    I’m holding out hope that GM might be convinced to bring Pontiac back. I resent that they killed Pontiac instead of Buick. Pontiac was outselling Buick two-to-one. Pontiac had a larger following than Buick. It’s my understanding that GM has already lost about 60-65% of Pontiac’s customers. I’ve owned nothing but Pontiacs all my life, and still own one. Unless Pontiac is brought back, I’m 99% sure that my next new car will not be a GM vehicle. I simply wouldn’t, I’m sure, be able to purchase a new car from a company that killed my favorite make.

  • 6 SteveS // Jan 27, 2011 at 3:57 pm

    A group of investors lead by Jim Waldron, a owner of a Pontiac dealership in Genesee County, made GM an offer to purchase Pontiac. GM turned them down.

  • 7 Moanalua // Jan 29, 2011 at 10:23 pm

    It seems that GM is healthy again, about to reclaim the #1 spot from Toyota. GM, it’s time to bring Pontiac back! Win back the 65% of Pontiac buyers who have left GM, before they get too firmly enamored of the brands they’ve defected to!

  • 8 Terry // Aug 21, 2011 at 5:47 pm

    Pontiac has been a mainstay in my family since I was a kid. My first car was a 1955 Cheiftain. She was my first true love. I worked evenings, weekends, summer school breaks for a few years without any actual pay in my Dad’s Auto Shop. Then one day my parents surprised me by giving me that old car. We gave it a paint job, engine overhaul, transmission rebuild and tires, brakes etc. I rolled the odometer over the second time, while I was on lunch break, during my Senior year of HS. Man I loved that car. I parked it when Uncle Sam called me up for service. My parents moved away to another state and left her behind. Man it really broke my heart. GMC broke my heart again when they discontinued the Pontiac line. I love those older Pontiacs.

  • 9 Moanalua // Sep 23, 2011 at 8:02 pm

    Each and every car I’ve ever owned has been a Pontiac. My first was a ’66 LeMans, and now I own an ’84 Trans Am. We need to lobby GM to bring Pontiac back. Pontiac had a large following; if that following would get on GM’s case…

  • 10 12 Funniest Car Hood Ornaments // Sep 30, 2011 at 1:57 am

    […] Pontiac Chief. (Link) […]

  • 11 Paula McCallum // Feb 14, 2012 at 9:33 am

    Does anyone know the year of the Pontiac Chief head ornament (40s?) at the top of this page? I took this same exact picture at a cruise night but didn’t think to look at what year/model the car was?

  • 12 Jingle // Mar 8, 2012 at 11:13 pm

    I do hope Pontiac will be brought back. If Pontiac is back, I am 100% sure that I will buy a new Pontiac and still keep the current one. This brand is my favorite, I love her.

  • 13 Moanalua // Jun 1, 2012 at 8:11 pm

    Jingle, I’m with you on that. Pontiac has a very large fanbase. If we want our brand back, we who are members of this Pontiac fanbase need to keep the heat on GM to bring the brand back. We need to continue flexing our collective market muscle. We need to DEMAND that GM revive Pontiac.

  • 14 hank webb // Feb 8, 2014 at 3:19 pm

    We need Pontiac and gm needs Pontiac why should we put up with foreign brands invading this country Lets have the guts by bringing back our brands and let Pontiac be the first one to be back

  • 15 Bart Young // Feb 9, 2014 at 10:17 pm

    The hood ornament in this article is from a 1951. We owned a beautiful 1951 convertible that was cream white with red interior. I have photos if you like to contact me.

  • 16 Moanalua // Jun 25, 2014 at 8:58 pm

    @hank webb: Thank-you for your post. We WOULD think that GM needs Pontiac, as Pontiac was #3 at GM, and possibly the #1 vehicle brand in Canada. All my life, I’ve NEVER owned a foreign make of vehicle. In fact, not only have all my vehicles been American; they’ve ALL been PONTIACS. GM as yet hasn’t had the guts to bring Pontiac back, even though lots of guys are asking for the brand back. Google “Bring Back Pontiac”, to get an idea of just how many. GM needs to acknowledge all those sites/threads, and bring Pontiac back.

  • 17 mark // Feb 26, 2017 at 2:30 am

    I owned a Pontiac Grand Prix J and it was my favorite car ever! I heard that they were going to bring back the GTO Judge? Has anyone heard that?

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