The Top Ten Reasons Why Pontiac Failed; Part 1

One of the most iconic Pontiacs: The 1968 Pontiac G-T-O
This is a sad time for those of us who love automobiles. The bankruptcy of General Motors and Chrysler happened; For GM, it meant the shedding of key brands including Saab, Hummer, Saturn, and Pontiac. Of the four, it’s possible that Pontiac’s death may have been most avoidable. For more than a decade, Pontiac has stumbled from one product and marketing misfire to another. Yes, we all know Pontiac is dead so it’s time to look back at the top 10 reasons why Pontiac failed. It’s not a pretty sight; much of it is slathered in gray-colored body cladding. 10–Badge Engineering
A 2002 Pontiac Grand Am GT Coupe
The Excitement Division of General Motors was doing quite well throughout the eighties, even with an uninspired product line. Advertising of the period showcased the Firebird and Trans Am, the hot little Fiero, the Sunbird convertible, and Pontiac’s best seller, the Grand Am. With the exception of the Fiero, each of them was styled just a bit differently than their corporate siblings, with brand-specific engines, wheels, trim, and interior furnishings. The Grand Am was virtually a clone of the Buick and Oldsmobile versions, with just a little more visual eye candy on the outside and blazing-red instrumentation on the inside. The same could be said for the Sunbird (Cavalier) and the Firebird (Camaro). However, beginning with the dawn of the nineties and well into the new millennium even these unique Pontiac styling elements started to fade. The difference between a Pontiac Torrent and a Chevy Equinox is basically the head- and tail-lamp fixtures and a grille. There is very little difference between a Cobalt and a G5 coupe. The only unique Pontiacs available today include the Australian import, the G8 sedan and the G6 which is offered in a two-door coupe and convertible not shared with any other division. Ultimately none of these would help Pontiac survive. 9–The Fiero and Solstice
the 1984 Indy Fiero
The Fiero was never supposed to be a sports car; it was sold to GM management as a two-seat commuter car. The parts borrowed to make this mid-engined commuter car were decidedly bottom of the barrel, Chevette steering and suspension components and a wheezing 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine. It was innovative only in its plastic body panels on a space frame chassis which over the years have made it a favorite for kit car builders. There were engineering shortcuts taken to get this car into production, but it was starting to become a true performance bargain with the introduction of a V6 in 1985, the fastback body style in mid-1986, and new chassis componentry for its last year in production for 1988. It was discontinued after a short five-year run just as GM got everything in sync.
The 2008 Pontiac Solstice
The Solstice picked up the two-seat Pontiac sports car banner in 2006. This was a unique chassis (Kappa) designed just for this car, with the excellent EcoTec 4-cylinder engine in either normally aspirated or turbocharged versions. Unfortunately, General Motors decided that the Solstice could not survive on its own, so a “badge engineered” version (see point 10) was quickly created for the struggling Saturn brand called the Saturn Sky. There is also a version created for GM’s European brands, Opel & Vauxhall. All this did was dilute any distinguishing characteristics that the model generated for the Pontiac brand. Although it’s all water under the bridge at this point, wouldn’t it been a smarter move to offer the Solstice as a Roadster and the Sky–calling it something different–as a coupe? 8–Body Side Cladding
a 2002 Pontiac Bonneville SSE
Pontiac styling was taken into a new direction with the introduction of the 1985 Pontiac Grand Am. GM stylists wanted a bold look for the Grand Am; this usually clashed with accounting and to a degree engineering, who wanted to save as much money as they could by sharing as many body panels and components with sister divisions. Therefore, to have the distinctive character the stylists were looking for while managing wherever they could to cut costs, plastic body cladding was used to achieve a distinctive look. This wasn’t the first time that body cladding was used, but Pontiac was the division that used it the most, and on almost every model. It was used on just about every Grand Am from 1985 right up to 2004, and heavily on Pontiac’s Bonneville from 1987 until it was discontinued in 2005. The Pontiac minivans and the unloved Pontiac Aztek were not immune. Plastic body cladding became a styling cliché, and while the latest G6, Grand Prix, and G8 have almost no plastic cladding whatsoever, this styling exercise will be permanently associated with Pontiac for years to come.
A 1959 Pontiac Bonneville Convertible
7–Bonneville and Grand Prix “Updates” Pontiac’s roster of great nameplates is the stuff of legend, including cars with memorable names like Firebird, GTO, Catalina, Tempest, Grand Prix, and one of the most successful names of all, Bonneville. The name was chosen in 1957 for Pontiac’s premiere performance edition of a full-sized convertible with one of the industry’s first fuel injection systems in honor of the Bonneville Salt Flats, the location where many high speed records were set. The 1959 version shown here is credited with establishing the legend of the “Wide Track Pontiacs” and helped it reach the number three position in sales that year.
The 2000 Pontiac Bonneville
Throughout the years, Pontiac affixed the name Bonneville to their top-of-the line models. There was a period from 1971 to 1975 in which Pontiac’s upper models were named Grand Ville, whatever that meant, and there was a time, from 1982 to 1986 during which the Bonneville name was attached to a forgettable midsized car while the full-sized one had the name Parisienne attached, but I digress. The Bonneville re-emerged in 1987 on the GM front-wheel-drive platform with distinctive styling and a new top-shelf offering, the SSE. The car was a solid sales success and was re-designed in 1992 with a greater emphasis on safety and performance, including a supercharged V6. The last model in this generation, the 1999 version, is shown here.
The 1999 Pontiac Bonneville SSEi
Unfortunately, the Bonneville was once again re-designed for the 2000 model year, and–you guessed it–the designers tacked on a lot of body cladding with different surface textures depending on the trim level. The look of the car changed considerably and sales tumbled, with the final year tally in 2005 of only 12,000 units sold. There were significant upgrades in this generation, but nothing could distract from the appearance. The GXP model, in which Pontiac re-introduced a V8-equipped Bonneville, had most of the body-side cladding removed, but it was priced out of the budget of what Pontiac buyers were willing to pay.
A 1962 Pontiac Grand Prix Coupe
The Grand Prix has a very similar story to the Bonneville. The storied nameplate goes back to 1962, attached to a luxuriously appointed Pontiac Catalina two-door hardtop. The Grand Prix name was used for another 45 years, mostly as a personal Luxury two-door coupe, but eventually placed on a four-door, front-wheel-drive sedan in 1988, diluting the brand but increasing the sales. The 1997-2003 Grand Prix models logged record-setting sales numbers with clean styling and a new supercharged V6 installed in the GTP version. The coupe began to be outsold by the sedan and was eventually retired in the 2002 model year.
The 2003 Pontiac Grand Prix
Pontiac saw fit to re-design the Grand Prix for 2004; it was actually nothing but a new body on an existing chassis. The styling was cartoonish, with larger headlamps, smaller grill, and coupe-like styling on a four-door sedan.
2007 Pontiac Grand Prix GXP
Visibility suffered, interior furnishings were substandard, and it was one of those cars in which the re-design was actually worse than the car it replaced. The Grand Prix was replaced with the G8. Coming up in Part 2, Killing Names with Equity, the Australian Connection, Pontiacs Best Seller, and a huge miscalculation. Read this article in more detail at Automotive Traveler.

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