What brand is more synonymous with muscle cars than Pontiac? Before Peter Estes, John DeLorean, and Bunkie Knudsen took over the make, it has been said that General Motors wanted to discontinue the marque. It goes without saying these men definitely turned things around and transformed Pontiac into one heck of a performance powerhouse. Cars from the 1960s like the Grand Prix, Firebird, and GTO will forever be known for speed and performance. Even in the Malaise Era of the 1970s, Pontiac continued to produce exciting cars such as the Trans Am and LeMans Can Am. For most of us, seeing Burt Reynolds drive that black Trans Am out of the back of the Snowman’s semi still gives us chills. Even in our crazy economy, Pontiacs can command six and seven figures at auctions and classified listings.
Pontiac dabbled with the idea of producing a truck on a few occasions. In 1959, a prototype dubbed the El Catalina was built and shown to Pontiac management. Due to a recession plagued economy and sagging sales of the Chevrolet El Camino and Ford Ranchero, plans to build the El Catalina were nixed. The good news is that a prototype still exists in the hands of a collector and has been featured in numerous online and magazine articles. Almost 50 years later, Pontiac unveiled the G8 ST to the masses in early 2008. Based on the Pontiac G8, the G8 ST featured a 361 horsepower V8 that could go from 0-60 in 5.4 seconds. Unfortunately, due to Pontiac getting the ax in 2009, the G8 ST never saw the light of day.
Remember the March 1964 issue of Car and Driver featuring the infamous shootout between the Pontiac GTO and the Ferrari GTO? As it turns out, the article was all smoke and mirrors. Pontiac supplied the magazine with a GTO that was equipped with a 370 horsepower Super Duty 421 engine tuned by Royal Pontiac. Royal was well known dealer in the Detroit area who specialized in tuning Pontiac engines. This engine had 45 more horses under the hood than the standard 389 cubic inch powerplant normally found in the GTO. On inspection, both engines looked identical to each other. Pontiac and Car and Driver also did not disclose that the test car turned a bearing during testing and was unable to be driven any further. That did not stop Car and Driver editor, David E. Davis, Jr. from writing the cover story. He, along with Pontiac marketing executive Jim Wangers, crafted the article using exaggerated performance numbers just so the article could be written. They also did not come clean that they were not able to acquire a Ferrari 250 GTO to test against the Pontiac GTO. It would be years later before the truth was actually revealed.
In 1967, the GTO was so popular that shoe maker Thom McAn designed a shoe and named it after the Great One. The heel and sole of the shoe were designed to grip the clutch and accelerator and had a raised bottom for extra traction. In order to promote the shoe, Thom McAn held a sweepstakes and awarded winners a gold 1967 GTO. All you had to do was put on your walking shoes (no pun intended), go to your local Thom McAn store, fill out an entry blank, and drop it off at the store. In all, 72 cars were given away in the promotion and only 2 are still known to exist. One was auctioned by Mecum in January 2008 with a winning bid of $105,000. GTO shoes not included.
What do you get when you cross a Chevrolet with a Pontiac? If you live in the Great White North, you get a car brand known as Beaumont. Produced from 1966 – 1969, the Beaumont had a body similar to a Chevrolet Chevelle and instrument panel and steering wheel resembling those from the Pontiac LeMans and GTO. Even the brand’s emblem was similar to Pontiac’s. It featured two maples leafs in a crest atop the Pontiac-like emblem. Drivers wanting high performance opted for the Super Deluxe which featured a 396 V8 with 350 horsepower. Not many of these were produced so finding one could be quite a choir. When trade restrictions were lifted in 1970, this paved the way for Pontiacs to be sold in Canada and the Beaumont nameplate was retired.
Pontiac became notorious for discretely promoting street racing in its advertising. A print ad for the 1968 GTO was published in several magazines. It depicts a new GTO turning onto infamous Woodward Avenue in Detroit. Those in Detroit know that Woodward was the place to go in its day if you wanted to challenge a Charger or a Mustang to a street dual. Also, during the 1970 Super Bowl, a television ad shows a 1970 GTO cruising through a drive-in restaurant. As the car rumbles through the parking lot, the driver reaches under the dash and pulls the “Tiger Switch” which activates baffles in the exhaust. Suddenly, the car rumbles to life and drivers of other cars cowl as the GTO drives by. Needless to say, no one accepts the challenge to a race. This was the first and only time this ad was shown on television. Due to rising insurance costs and noise restrictions being placed on cars, Pontiac brass felt the ad was too over the top.
Most of us know that second generation Trans Ams from 1970 to 1972 were only available in Lucerne Blue or Cameo White. Or were they? Back in 1971, Berdie Martin, chief steward of the Trans Am racing league, wanted a Trans Am painted in red. He was told that color was not available for the Trans Am but was available for the Formula Firebird. However, due to his position in the Trans Am racing league, he wanted to drive a Trans Am. After being put in contact with some Pontiac brass, Berdie was able to finally order his 1972 Trans Am in Cardinal Red. Berdie sold the car a few years later and it eventually wound up in the hands of a Pontiac collector. In its 41 years of existence, the car has only racked up around 6,000 miles on the odometer.
Anyone familiar with the second generation Trans Am is familiar with the huge Firebird decal that adorns the hood. When the “screaming chicken” was originally pitched to Bill Mitchell, vice president of design at GM, he hated it. Mitchell claimed the car looked like it had an Indian blanket on the hood and would not approve the concept. When the idea was pitched a second time, a little more scheming was used. Mitchell had a thing for the black and gold colors of the John Player Special race car. This time around, a black pre-production 1973 Trans Am was painted black, pin striped in gold, and a gold foil bird graphic was applied on the hood. This time around, Mitchell warmed to the idea and gave the go-ahead for an icon that will forever be synonymous with the 1970s.
If you had to have the baddest Trans Am on the block in 1973, you got the Super Duty 455. Rated at a conservative 310 horsepower, it was one of the most powerful cars produced that year. Part of the reason the car made that amount of horsepower was due to a little underhandedness by Pontiac. Pontiac engineers discovered that EPA emissions testing lasted 50 seconds. Since the EGR system robbed power from the engine, it was designed to shut off after 53 seconds. Somehow, the feds got wind of this dirty deed and took action. For one thing, they required Pontiac swap to a compliant EGR system. They also required Pontiac to repaint the engines a different color so the EPA could easily recognize the compliant engines. With the new EGR system in place, the horsepower rating for the engine dropped to 290. However, the SD-455 was still one of the meanest cars on the road in 1973.
By 1973, the GTO was due a makeover. With a body style that had been around since 1968, the current styling was getting a little long in the tooth and new Federal rollover standards were looming in the future. Pontiac designers crafted the car’s front with an Endura nose and integrated bumper, pillarless profile, and sloping rear deck. Love it or hate it, this new Colonnade styling was definitely radical and looked like nothing else GM had ever produced. Even Bill Mitchell loved the new design. As a bonus, this new GTO could also be ordered with the SD-455 V8 engine. Things were really shaping up for the new GTO. However, at the last minute, Pontiac management decided to use the new GTO’s design for the Grand Am. To add insult to injury, the GTO was given mediocre styling and the SD-455 option was pulled from the option list. With these factors in mind, it’s no surprise that the Grand Am outsold the GTO in 1973.
In the mid-1980s, Pontiac wasn’t exactly a dominating force on the NASCAR circuit. It seemed like the majority of wins and accolades went to the Ford drivers. The Grand Prix’s problem seemed to be rear end lift at speeds of 200 mph or more. This made cornering the car quite a chore. To remedy this situation, Pontiac created the Grand Prix 2+2. With a large sloping rear window that reduced the drag coefficient, rear end lift on the 2+2 decreased significantly. Finally, it seemed like Pontiac finally had an upper hand on the track. However, as quickly as the 2+2 arrived on the scene, it was gone in a flash. Produced exclusively for the 1986 model year, only 1,225 were built which makes them quite a rare find these days. They also weren’t cheap. With a sticker price just over $18,000, these cars flew around the track faster than they flew out of dealer showrooms.
Chances are you’ve gazed at several Pontiacs over the years. It could have been sitting in the dealer’s showroom or at a local cruise-in or car show. You’ve probably been online reading road tests and articles from the brand’s glory years or searched the internet for information on one you’ve considered buying. It’s a brand that is missed and will continue to be missed for many years to come. Maybe one day the brand will rise from the ashes like the phoenix and come back to rule the streets once again. Stranger things have happened.