If you haven't heard, Pontiac is no more. In an exclusive story for PM, Jay Leno looks back at the 83-year-old brand, focusing on Pontiac’s historic muscle cars and surprisingly innovative technology.
I was always a fan of those "Wide Track" Pontiacs of the '60s. When I was a little kid there was no sexier wheel—either in the aftermarket or in regular production—than the 8-lug Pontiac wheel. I remember first seeing them around 1962 on some of the big Bonnevilles. My mom’s Falcon had four lug nuts, the bigger cars on the road had five lug nuts—these Pontiacs had 8.
And the wheels fit onto those beautiful finned brake drums. I thought—that’s just the coolest wheel I’ve ever seen. So I really liked those big Pontiacs. And, of course, what kid didn’t go crazy for the GTO—the car that started the whole muscle car craze. The first few years of the GTO were great. Pontiac went from being the old salesman’s car in the 1940s to the hip cool car of the 1960s. And John DeLorean was a hero of mine when I was a kid. Then he was the center of scandal in the '80s—and I lost interest in everything he did.
My favorite period for GM was when each division had its own V8s. Oldsmobile had its own engine for the 442, Pontiac had its 389 and 421 and Chevrolet had the 396 and 427. Then of course in the late '70s and early '80s, they all switched to the same 350 cubic-inch Chevy V8. That was okay, but I liked the brands when they all competed against one-another. Sometimes Olds would be up, and Pontiac would be down. Then Pontiac would win and Buick would come back strong too. It was a much more competitive time between the divisions.
Pontiac had some very innovative technology back then, like the overhead cam six cylinder engine. At the time, overhead cams were unheard of on American cars. The early Tempest used a 195 cid four-cylinder that was basically one half of the 389 cubic-inch V8 block. It had a "rope drive" transaxle—essentially it was a flexible driveshaft. That was pretty cool. Of course there were the Firebird and Trans Am—those were great cars. To me the '69 Firebird with the 400 was the one. Obviously the Firebird was based on the Camaro body. But still, it was unique enough in its own right. I was never a big fan of the Smokey and the Bandit, big-chicken-on-the-hood Trans Am. I understood why they were popular but I liked the more technically innovative cars, like that early Tempest.
Pontiac was a great brand.
I think GM brought back some performance in the last couple years with the Pontiac G8—its a real sport sedan. I liked the last re-incarnation of the GTO too. I thought it was smart, powerful and a grownup driver's car. Unfortunately it didn’t have a lot of the hood scoops and racing stripes some might have wanted. It didn't look enough like a GTO and it was probably priced a little too high. They let me borrow one when it first came out—it was a terrific car.
But I guess if a brand had to go, it probably had to be Pontiac. I understand why they have to do it. You take your biggest divisions and you keep those. These days there are just too many car companies chasing too few customers and not enough to differentiate between the marques. GM already has a very exciting car—the Chevrolet Corvette. And if you need another one, you've got the Camaro. So really, GM was just competing against itself. I’m not an accountant or an automotive executive, but I’d guess if GM built another Firebird they’d only take sales away from the Camaro. Its just redundancy.
But I’d like to see the Pontiac Solstice get saved and brought back as a Chevy. It's fast, comfortable, fun and affordable. I think GM is taking the right steps now so I think they’ll come out of this in good shape. Cadillac is making world-class cars and Buick has become the number one brand in the 2009 JD Power Dependability Study. I think GM has the quality product. It’s just a matter of getting the word out.
By Jay Leno
Via Popular Mechanics