No. 968
October 17, 2018

About The UjianNasional

Peter M. DeLorenzo has been immersed in all things automotive since childhood. Privileged to be an up-close-and-personal witness to the glory days of the U.S. auto industry, DeLorenzo combines that historical legacy with his own 22-year career in automotive marketing and advertising to bring unmatched industry perspectives to the Internet with, which was founded on June 1, 1999. DeLorenzo is known for his incendiary commentaries and laser-accurate analysis of the automobile business, as well as racing and the business of motorsports. Author. Commentator. Influencer. The Consigliere. Minister of the High-Octane Truth. DeLorenzo is considered to be one of the most influential voices commenting on the business today.

DeLorenzo's latest book is Witch Hunt (Octane Press  ). It is available on Amazon in both hardcover and Kindle formats, as well as on iBookstore. DeLorenzo is also the author of The United States of Toyota.

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February 25, 2009


Reports of Pontiac’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

By Peter M. De Lorenzo

Detroit. The news that GM was going to demote Pontiac to a niche brand within its rapidly contracting corporate empire – even though it had been common knowledge for months – buried us in a flurry of blatantly premature “death of Pontiac” stories in the media, some of which were clearly served up with unabashed glee as one more punch to the legacy of Detroit.

I won’t bother to single out the most offending journalist, because that would be like beating up on the chronically infirmed, but suffice to say most of the stories offered little substance, and most of them ignored the rest of the story, which is that Pontiac could actually play a very prominent role in GM’s revival.

Of all the GM divisions, Pontiac has always held a special place in my heart, because I basically grew up with hot Pontiacs in our driveway. Though my dad was a Buick man, and we always had a Buick in the garage – he worked in Public Relations for that division, which ultimately led him to become a GM corporate vice president and the head of GM PR from 1957-1979 – we were always blessed with the latest and greatest Pontiac models, thanks to Semon E. “Bunkie” Knudsen. Bunkie was the tremendously talented GM executive who was sent over to run the Pontiac division in the summer of ‘56 in the hopes of transforming it from the dowdy, dependable brand it was, to something more.

And boy did he ever.

Bunkie set Pontiac on a new path of building cars that bristled with exuberant style and big horsepower - exciting machines that oozed with “marching to a different drummer” attitude and personality - and Pontiac became the talk of the industry and eventually the No. 3 brand behind Chevrolet and Ford.

And since my dad and Bunkie had a great relationship, Bunkie saw to it that the hottest Pontiac models graced our driveway at all times. The first one I remember well was a loaded fire red ’59 “Wide track” Bonneville convertible with bright red bucket seats and the “Tri-Power” V8. It was a magnificent looking car, and it quickly became my mom’s driver for the summer, with the top staying down except for only rare instances. We also had Bonneville convertibles in '60 and '61, always red and loaded with options, and always with the hottest V8 that could be stuffed in them at the time.

After Bunkie moved on to Chevrolet and John Z. DeLorean took over Pontiac, we continued to get hot Pontiacs to drive. But my involvement with Pontiac didn’t stop with the hot rods in our driveway or because my three initials matched the division’s moniker. There was more to it than that.

I had a job one summer at Pontiac headquarters delivering mail to John Z. and the other Pontiac executives, which was good for some eye-opening stories and provided me the opportunity to see the inner workings of the division at the peak of its heyday. And of course my ad career took me to Pontiac’s ad agency during the years 1980-85, where I helped craft Pontiac’s rejuvenated “excitement” image alongside some of the most gifted pros in the business at the time.

Pontiac has always been more than just another division of GM to me, and to see it being marginalized now is painful, but I truly believe that it might just be the best thing that happened to the brand in years too.

I wrote a column back on March 1, 2006 (AE No. 336) entitled Soul Survivor or just Dust in the Wind? which resonated with a lot of Pontiac enthusiasts at the time. In that column I reiterated what Pontiac once was and what it could be again. Here are a few excerpts:

The legendary Pontiac names alone could power a rollcall from Detroit's golden era - Bonneville, Catalina, Tempest, Le Mans, GTO, "The Judge," Grand Prix, Firebird and Trans-Am. The rich additions to the automotive lexicon were legendary too - "389," "421," "455SD," "Tri-Power," "eight-lug" aluminum wheels, Royal Bobcats, "Endura" front bumpers, hood-mounted tachs, and on and on. And the marketing and advertising hooks were equally memorable - with the famous "Wide Track" campaign still resonating to this day. But Pontiac has suffered from neglect and abuse for years, and now GM's maverick division is on the edge of oblivion.

Pontiac has suffered mightily from the bureaucratic gravitational force field that has churned and stirred the traditional GM divisional structure over the years. While GM marketers scrambled to prop up seven other brands, Pontiac always seemed to be left out on the fringe with product initiatives that often fell woefully short of what the brand deserved.

Where did GM go wrong with Pontiac? I could fill a dozen issues of delineating the division's downfall, but as someone who was intimately familiar with Pontiac's last brief fling with positive notoriety during its "Excitement" years (I was a writer at Pontiac's ad agency for five-and-one-half years in the early '80s), it pains me to see the downward spiral of one of America's most compelling automotive brand names.

It's clear to me that GM's struggle to apportion product and marketing attention to all of its divisions is killing the company - and unfortunately, Pontiac finds itself closest to the door at this point. Until GM's "too many models, too many divisions" situation is somehow mitigated (which I doubt will ever happen unless GM blows itself up and starts over), I fear for the long-term viability of Pontiac.

To understand the travesty of Pontiac's current state you have to go back and understand the impact Pontiac once had on the U.S. market. It's hard to believe this now but at one point during its glory days in the '60s Pontiac was the hottest car company in the country, breathing down Ford's neck in third place in sales. If ever a car company defined "swagger" - Pontiac was it. Pontiac was GM's "pirate" division, and if they could have raised a "skull and crossbones" flag over its headquarters in its heyday, they would have. On any given day, Pontiac was always pissing off someone down at GM headquarters because they just couldn't help themselves from bitch-slapping Chevrolet and sending Chevy executives whining to the 14th floor like little school girls over some perceived transgression.

Starting with Bunkie Knudsen, Pontiac pushed the envelope and marched to a different drummer. Pontiac tweaked their cars to the point that they didn't even seem like they were part of the GM family. More than any other American car company, Pontiac delivered cars to the market bristling with a maverick, rebel attitude, edgy appeal and genuine soul - a commodity so far removed from most of Detroit's products today it's appalling. The street "buzz" around Pontiac was undeniable - and it was fueled by some of the most memorable advertising ever done for an automobile. For one fleeting moment in time, product and advertising came together in such a way that it created an American sensation. If you drove a Pontiac, it definitely said something about you. You were different from the crowd and you went your own way. And the aura that was created around the brand translated into gold in the marketplace, sending Pontiac sales soaring.

Now, Pontiac is a mere shadow of its once-glorious self.

GM can go two ways with Pontiac at this critical juncture. They can keep starving it to death with brand engineering and clone cars, or they can start over with an all-new mission that adheres to the core essence of what a Pontiac was - and should be.

It shouldn't be hard. All it would take is a total commitment from GM and the right people in place to make it all happen. But then again, those two key ingredients are the two things necessary in bringing focused, desirable products to the street no matter which company we're talking about.

Back in '81, I did a print ad for the Firebird Trans-Am that had the headline, "Soul Survivor." That ad set the tone for the "excitement" era that followed and started Pontiac on its way back. But Pontiac has unfortunately careened in and out of relevance ever since.

The time is now for Pontiac. The division deserves better. Much better. GM needs to get in touch with the essence and soul of Pontiac and put it on a plan not only for survival - but for revival. If done exactly right, Pontiac's marching to a different drummer persona could have tremendous appeal today in this market of vanilla Asian transportation appliances and German techno-wonders. And if GM can't muster the will to do the right thing with one of America's most famous automotive nameplates, then they might as well just take it out back and put it out of its misery.

I'd rather see that than watch it fade away like dust in the wind.

Now that Pontiac will survive - at least for now - as a niche brand in the dimming GM solar system, can that quintessential Pontiac attitude translate to an automotive world that is so dramatically different, one where GM controls less than half the market that it used to while preparing to focus its product and marketing efforts on Chevrolet, Cadillac, Buick and GMC? One where Pontiac has become a bit player because of long-term neglect, missteps and woeful product miscues? And one, arguably, where Pontiac's raison d'etre is rapidly fading?

I contend that it can.

Becoming a niche brand could be just the elixir that Pontiac needs. In its heyday Pontiac was never even remotely about being all things to all people - like most car companies are so obsessed with being today - rather, the division’s greatest moment in the sun came about as the result of designing, engineering and building quintessentially American machines that actually had a point of view, inside and out. A point of view that admittedly wasn’t for everyone - thank goodness - but one that resulted in machines that bristled with distinctiveness and drove like nothing else on the road. And remarkably enough that Pontiac swagger resonated perfectly with consumers looking for something different and out of the ordinary, and they gravitated to Pontiac in droves.

On the surface, that Pontiac attitude would never resonate today, at least that’s what certain marketers will tell you. Today it’s allegedly all different, with consumers shying away from blatant design statements and instead focusing on “inner-directed” qualities in their transportation. Listen to enough of these so-called marketing “experts” and maybe they’ll start to convince you that the automotive era is dead and buried and that the industry will never recover. That the future of transportation will be made up of blandtastic huggable smiley cars with no point of view whatsoever, perfectly in keeping with the doom-and-gloom mindset that’s permeating every facet of our society these days.

Well, I’m not buying it in the least. I happen to believe that this country’s general malaise and “sky is falling” hand-wringing about the economy are not going to last forever. And when we bust out of this mope-a-dope mentality, people are not only going to be looking for something different, they’re going to be hungry for some attitude and more than a little irreverence to go with it too. Design point of view and sheer style will play a crucial role as the ultimate “initial product differentiator” – the ingredient that will most determine fundamental consumer interest - and the companies that are ready to meet these renewed expectations will be rewarded handsomely. And that’s why a newly reinvigorated niche brand like Pontiac could be perfectly positioned to take advantage of a suddenly exuberant consumer mindset.

The reality about the car business is that if you design vehicles for the prevailing mood at the time, you’re dead. But if you can anticipate what’s coming just around the corner instead, you’re going to be perfectly positioned to succeed when the market turns around.

With Pontiac only having two and at the most three models in the years to come, it can become GM’s boutique performance brand. And no, I’m not strictly speaking about “nostalgia rods” here (although if GM doesn’t allow Pontiac to do a new Firebird Trans-Am it would be criminal), but contemporary machines that can fit in with the newly “green” real world (featuring hybrid drivetrains and other obligatory “green” technologies), while injecting a dose of swagger and an unmistakable rebel attitude into an industry that so desperately needs it.

As a matter of fact, if GM can survive this mess, and when we finally pull out of this downward spiral and people start looking for something different, something that bristles with “marching to a different drummer” attitude, personality and a singular style to boot, a rejuvenated Pontiac could provide just what the doctor ordered.

Thanks for listening.