Pontiac closing stirs muscle car memories

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PONTIAC, Mich. | Mayor Clarence Phillips was just getting out of high school when his parents made the down payment on his first car, a Pontiac Super Chief.

“I used to call it the blue bug,” said as he recalled his first set of wheels. “It was just an old beater, but it was a sweet car. My parents made the first payment and said go for it, so I maintained it. Since then, I have been driving a Pontiac at one time or another for the past 30 years.”

Mr. Phillips’ wave of nostalgia was prompted by the announcement Monday that General Motors Corp. will end the brand that since 1927 has shared his city’s name as part of a sweeping restructuring that will close 13 plants and half of its dealerships and eliminate 21,000 factory jobs.

“It’s a sad day for Pontiac, just a major disappointment,” said the mayor, whose city, a suburb of Detroit, is facing its own set of economic difficulties on par with the Big Three automakers. “It’s almost like we are watching our history just slip away in front of our eyes. It’s a world-famous brand and some beautiful cars have come out of those models.”

Across the nation, many Pontiac enthusiasts grieved the loss of Pontiac and reminisced over its historic stable of muscle cars. The fabled GTO spawned a 1964 song by Ronnie and the Daytonas and is often credited with giving birth to the “muscle car” era.

The Trans Am debuted in 1969 as the ultimate Firebird and really took flight in the ‘70s with its iconic eagle logo on the hood. A black model with a gold eagle was immortalized in the 1977 film “Smokey and the Bandit,” solidifying its image of rebellion and freedom.

“This is my baby and I love her,” said Stephen Jahner of Lansing, Mich., who has put more than 200,000 miles on his dark green 1997 Pontiac Firebird. “I was planning on driving her until she dies and I may yet buy another engine just to keep around for when I need it.

“Ever since I was a kid, I always loved the styling that the Firebird has, with the scoop on the back and the shark’s nose on the front,” Mr. Jahner, a comic and collectibles store owner, said of his Pontiac’s sleek lines. “I love my car so much that even though I’ve driven it for 10 years, every time I walk out and look at it I go, ‘Oooh, how did I get so lucky to drive such a cool car?’ I was seriously dismayed that they are going to cancel the Pontiac line.”

The company’s history goes back to 1893 with the Pontiac Buggy Co. in Pontiac, Mich. The division made only horse-drawn carriages, but when founder Edward Murphy took note of rising automobile sales in 1907, he saw the future and started the Oakland Motor Car Co.

In 1927, with economic pressures hitting automobile companies, GM created the Pontiac line under the auspices of Oakland. The brand surpassed the 500,000 sales mark in 1929. By 1936, 1 million Pontiacs had been sold.

Production stagnated in 1942, when the auto brand ceased production during World War II, but came back in 1946. Debuts of memorable models included the Bonneville in 1957, the Grand Prix and LeMans in 1962, the GTO in 1964, the Firebird in 1967, the Grand Am in 1973 and the Sunfire in 1995.

Oprah Winfrey gave the brand a boost in 2004, when she gave away Pontiac’s new G6 models to all guests who attended the taping of her season opening show. Pontiac, which long had a successful partnership with NASCAR racing, carried the advertising slogan “We Build Excitement,” but at least one auto enthusiast said that GM missed the mark in recent years on its new models that were crafted to catch the eye of a younger demographic.

“It didn’t have a focus,” said Bill Sowerby, a retired GM manager from Rochester Hills, Mich., who runs about 40 automotive groups on the LinkedIn Web site.

“Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the brand had its heyday. It had a kind of gold chains, bell-bottoms and leisure suits image of its era,” he said. “But then it began to lose its brand equity.”

Even as it struggled to remake itself with the smaller and sportier G5, G6 and G8 models as well as the curvaceous Solstice convertible coupe, the automaker was behind the curve, he added, and losing its market share.

“I think GM as a whole has lost its brand acuity,” Mr. Sowerby said. “Maybe a lot of that if you talk to the troops in the trenches, is that the marketing budgets were lost so badly and they couldn’t reinforce that image.”

Jason Scott, editor of Pontiac Enthusiast magazine in Sidney, Ohio, said his readers were mostly philosophical about GM’s announcement that Pontiac was effectively dead.

“They say it’s sad that GM can’t continue the brand, but they feel a strong connection that its been a part of the past,” he said of reaction.

“The cars that were known for the performance glory days mostly haven’t been made in a very long time. Pontiac’s glory days are mainly past, and you have a lot of die-hards who will tell you that Pontiac hasn’t made a true Pontiac for a decade.”

Mr. Sowerby, who retired from GM after 35 years in management, said that like many in the automotive community, he has been dismayed by the Obama administration’s interjecting its influence on U.S. automakers.

“I am disturbed by government’s involvement in industry and business,” he said. “I don’t think that our government has done a very good job at protecting anything that says manufacturing in our industry - from steel to textiles, it goes on and on with any industry that we invented and then squandered. Government simply has no business in business.”

About the Author
Andrea Billups

Andrea Billups

Andrea Billups is a Midwest-based national correspondent for The Washington Times. She is a native of West Virginia and received her undergraduate degree from Marshall University and her master’s degree from the University of Florida in Gainesville. Her news career spans more than 20 years. She has reported for several newspapers, has edited two magazines and before joining the Times, ...

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