Historic Car Brands
The Oakland Motor Car Company was founded in 1907 in Pontiac, Michigan, by Edward Murphy, a manufacturer of horse-drawn carriages. William (‘Billy’) Durant, founded General Motors in 1908 and in 1909, Oakland became part of GM. Oaklands continued and were supplemented by the first Pontiac-branded version in 1926.
1910 Oakland – Belgianpaddy
The name ‘Pontiac’ had been given to the Michigan town where Oaklands were made and was originally the name of a famous Ottawa chief.
The Pontiac Series 6-27 was introduced as a junior brand to Oakland, but the Pontiac’s three-litre, 40hp, side-valve, six-cylinder engine soon made the cheaper Pontiac more popular than the Oakland. After the 1929 market crash the Oakland name was dropped and Pontiac became its own GM division in 1931.
1928 Pontiac 6-28 Two-Door Sedan – Lars-Goran Lindgren
Body styles included a sedan with both two and four doors, Landau Coupe, with the Sport Phaeton, Sport Landau Sedan, Sport Cabriolet and Sport Roadster.
Pontiacs were also manufactured from knock-down kits at GM’s short-lived Japanese factory in Osaka, Japan, from 1927 to 1941.
In 1932 came the Pontiac Series 302 V8. This 4.1-litre, side-valve was rated at 85hp, but was replaced in the following year by a 77hp, 3.7-litre, side-valve, straight-eight that continued in production until 1954.
1932 Pontiac – Joe Ross
Cost-saving initiatives during the Great Depression included body sharing with Chevrolet, but the Pontiac ‘Silver Streak’ models were distinguished by a large chrome bonnet strip.
Some Silver Streak chassis were imported into the UK by racing driver, Kaye Don and were fitted with locally-made coupe bodywork.
In 1935, Pontiac shared the ‘torpedo’ – soft top, four-five seater body – appearance with the LaSalle and the Cadillac Series 60.
1936 Pontiac Master Six Coupe – Doug W
In 1937, Pontiac adopted GM’s all-steel B-body shared with Oldsmobile, LaSalle and small Buicks. A new stronger X-frame had a Hotchkiss drive using a two-part drive shaft, in eight-cylinder, long-wheelbase and six-cylinder, short-wheelbase chassis.
The six went up to 3.6 litres and produced 85hp, and the eight was 4.1 litres with 100hp.
1938 Pontiac Deluxe Six – Dave 7
In 1940 until 1942, the Pontiac Torpedo was the brand’s only product, built with three different bodies.
In 1941, the Pontiac Streamliner appeared with a straight-eight engine and on February 2, 1942, the last civilian pre-War Pontiac automobile was manufactured.
During World War II, Pontiac produced engines, axles and various guns, including 146,956 Oerlikon anti-aircraft guns.
From 1946 to 1948, all Pontiac models were essentially 1942 models with minor changes, but the Hydramatic automatic transmission option was introduced in 1948 and helped Pontiac sales grow.
1948 Pontiac Silver Streak – Doug W
The first all-new Pontiac models appeared in 1949 and the Chieftain replaced the Torpedo. In 1950, the Catalina pillar-less hardtop coupe was introduced.
In 1952, Pontiac discontinued the Streamliner and replaced it with additional models in the Chieftain line, built on the GM A-body platform. This single model line continued until 1954, when the Star Chief was added.
1952 Pontiac Fleetleader Four-Door Sedan
The 1953 models were the first to have one-piece windscreens and were engineered for a new V8 engine, but GM let Buick have its own V8 first and held Pontiac back until 1955.
The Pontiac straight-eight was overdue for replacement, because output was limited by its long crankshaft that suffered from excessive flex.
1955 Pontiac Star Chief – Lars-Goran Lindgren
Completely new Pontiac bodies and chassis were introduced in 1955. The 4.7-litre, 173hp, overhead-valve, Strato Streak V8 engine finally arrived. This engine was notable for its use of pressed-steel rockers that pivotted on screw-in, cup-shaped nuts and studs, with splash lubrication. This breakthrough design by Clayton Leach eliminated the need for cast rockers on a pressure-lubricated shaft.
With the introduction of the V8, six-cylinder engines were discontinued and did not return to the full-size Pontiac line until the GM corporate downsizing of 1977.
In 1956, when 42-year-old Semon (‘Bunkie’) Knudsen became general manager of Pontiac, he worked with new heads of engineering, E M Estes and John DeLorean, to rework the brand’s image. One of the first steps involved the removal of the trademark ‘silver streaks’ from the bonnets and boot lids of the 1957 models, just weeks before they were introduced.
Another step was introducing the first Bonneville limited-edition, Star Chief convertible that showcased Pontiac’s first, but short-lived, fuel-injected engine and in the following year, the Bonneville became its own line.
1956 Canadian Pontiac Pathfinder – John Lloyd (Holden anyone?)
A 1958 Tri power, triple-carburettored, Bonneville was the pace car for that year’s Indianapolis 500. Also, in 1958, the only remnant of the former-dominant ‘Indian’ motif was the high-beam indicator light. All 1958 models featured ball joint front suspension, replacing the previous kingpin design.
1959 Pontiac Bonneville – Morven
For the 1959 model year, Pontiac came out with an ‘Arrowhead’ emblem and the cars received reworked chassis with wider-track axles. Quad headlamps were featured, along with increased glass area, twin V-shaped fins and lower bonnet profiles.
The Chieftain line was renamed Catalina and Star Chiefs were downgraded. The Bonneville was now the top of the line, coming in three body styles.
All 1959 Pontiacs were equipped with a 389 6.4-litre V8 engine, with horsepower ratings from 215hp to the 345hp Tri-power version. All automatics were four-speed Super-Hydra-Matics.
The 1960 models had smaller tail fins and Ventura was introduced, with the luxury features of the Bonneville in the shorter, lighter Catalina body.
Most of Pontiac’s models built during the 1960s and 1970s were either styled like, or were siblings to, other GM makes, except for the exclusive Cadillac. However, Pontiac retained its own front- and rear-end styling, interiors and engines.
1963 Pontiac Laurentian RHD – Riley
In Australia, Holden assembled four-door sedan Parisienne and Laurentian cars during the 60s, but these were watered-down models that used Chevy 283 and 327 engines, instead of the Chief’s own 389, 400 and 455. Also, they had Chevrolet interiors that had been engineered for right hand drive.
The 1961 Pontiac models featured all-new bodies and a new perimeter-frame chassis for all its full-size models. A complete departure for Pontiac was the new Tempest – one of the three Buick-Olds-Pontiac (BOP) ‘compacts’ introduced that year. At end of 1961, an upscaled Tempest called the LeMans was introduced.
A four-cylinder, 3.2 -litre, slant-four cylinder engine, derived from the right bank of Pontiac’s 389 V8, was introduced to the Tempest model line in 1961.
1962 Pontiac Tempest Convertible – Bull Doser
Thanks to a rear transaxle the Tempest had close to 50/50 front-rear weight distribution and four-wheel independent suspension.
GM had planned a Pontiac version of the Chevrolet Corvair, but Bunkie Knudsen’s niece had been seriously injured in a Corvair crash and he successfully argued against the idea.
However, the swing-axle rear suspension of the Tempest was nearly as bad as the back end of the Corvair. As the US magazine Road Test described its experience with the Tempest: ‘the worst-riding, worst-handling car available to the American public’ (apart from the Corvair).
BOP V8 in an MG – John Lloyd
An optional, aluminium block-and-head, BOP 3.5-litre V8 proved unpopular in the USA, but went on to glory in British-designed vehicles, from Rovers and the P76 to Leyland trucks.
For 1963, Pontiac replaced the BOP engine option with a 336 5.5-litre V8 and the Tempest’s popularity helped move Pontiac into third place among American car brands in 1962.
In 1962, the Grand Prix replaced the Ventura, which now became a trim option on the Catalina.
For 1964, the Tempest and LeMans’ transaxle design was dropped and the cars had conventional front-engined and transmission, rear-wheel drive layout. The most important variant was the GTO (Gran Turismo Omologato) that could be ordered with a 389 325-348hp engine. Its popularity ensured that the GTO option on the Tempest LeMans became a separate GTO series.
In 1966 came a new overhead-camshaft, six-cylinder engine in the Tempest.
1969 Pontiac GTO – Doug W
The 1967 Pontiac Firebird pony car was the brand’s answer to the hot-selling Ford Mustang. Intermediate-sized cars – Tempest, LeMans and GTO – were mildly face-lifted and the Tri-Power engine option was replaced by a 400 cubic-inch V8.
1968 saw a flexible front bumper on the GTO and the first of a series of ‘Ram Air’ engines.
For 1969, Pontiac shrunk the Grand Prix, but with distinctive styling and long hood/short deck proportions, to create an intermediate-sized, personal-luxury car. Grand Prix sales quadrupled.
1970s Firebird – Karmann
Engine performance began declining in 1971, when GM issued a corporate edict mandating that all engines be capable of using lower-octane unleaded gasoline, which led to dramatic drops in compression ratios, along with performance and fuel economy. This, coupled with trying to build cars as plush as GM’s more luxurious Buicks and Oldsmobiles, contributed to the start of a slow decline of Pontiac from 1971.
In mid-1971 Pontiac introduced the compact, budget-priced Ventura II that was based on the third generation Chevrolet Nova and replaced the Bonneville with a higher luxury model named the Grand Ville.
1973 Pontiac GrandAm – Bull Doser
The 1972 models saw the first wave of emissions reduction and safety equipment and updates. GTO became a sub-series of the LeMans series. The Tempest was dropped, after being renamed ‘T-37’ and ‘GT-37’ for 1971. The base 1972 mid-sized Pontiac was now called LeMans.
For 1973, Pontiac restyled its personal-luxury Grand Prix, mid-sized LeMans and compact Ventura models and introduced the all-new Grand Am as part of the LeMans line.
Federal emissions and safety regulations took full effect in 1974, causing the demise of two of the three iterations of the big 455 engines after this year.
1975 Pontiac Grandville – Hyline 79
For 1975, Pontiac introduced the new sub-compact Astre, a version of the Chevrolet Vega. In 1975, Pontiac convertibles disappeared and didn’t return for 10 years.
The 1976 models were the last of the traditional American large cars powered by mostly big-block V8 engines. The 1976 Sunbird, based on the Chevrolet Vega and Monza’s equivalent, joined the line.
In mid-year 1977, Pontiac introduced the Phoenix, an upscale version of the Ventura which replaced the Ventura entirely after the end of the 1977 model year. Pontiac also introduced its 151 cubic inch ‘Iron Duke’ four-cylinder overhead-valve engine.
The remainder of the 1970s and the early 1980s saw the continued rise of luxury, safety, and economy as the key selling points in Pontiac products.
Pontiac TransAm second, third and fourth generations – J S Ciarri
The 1979 portfolio must have been a production and management nightmare: Sunbird with two four-cylinder engines, Buick’s V6 or Chevrolet’s 5.2-litre V8; Firebird coupes with engines up to 6.6 litres; Phoenix with transverse 2.5-litre four or 2.8-litre V6 engines; the LeMans range and the large-Pontiac range.
The Firebird was available with Formula and Trans Am packages, plus a Pontiac first- a turbocharged V8 – for the 1980 and 1981 model years.
In 1982 came the J2000 J-car and the T1000 mini-hatchback, based on the Chevette.
1985 Pontiac Fiero Sport Coup – Peakster
The 1984 Fiero was a major departure from anything Pontiac had produced in the past. A two-seat, mid-engined coupe, the Fiero was partially responsible for Pontiac seeing its first increase in sales in four years.
Also in 1984, a Special Touring Edition (STE) was added to the 6000 line as a competitor to European cars, such as the Mercedes 190. The STE sported digital instruments and other electronics as well as a more powerful V6 and retuned suspension.
With the exception of the Parisienne Safari, Firebird and Fiero, all post-1988 Pontiacs switched to front-wheel drive platforms. For the first time since 1970, Pontiac was the number three domestic car maker in America. The median age of Pontiac owners dropped from 46 in 1981 to 38 in 1988.
1989 Pontiac Sunbird – Omegatron
The 1990 model year saw the launch of Pontiac’s first minivan and light truck, the Trans Sport. In addition, the Grand Prix line scored a four-door model, offered in LE and STE trims.
At the end of the 1991 model year, the 6000 was discontinued in favuor of the newly expanded Grand Prix lineup and the new Trans Sport minivan, which replaced the 6000 station wagon.
In 1992, a brand-new Bonneville was introduced, with front-wheel driv, and the 3800 Series I V6 as standard equipment. The SSEi variant had a 205hp, supercharged V6.
An all-new Firebird was introduced in 1993, powered by either a 3.4-litre V6 with 160hp, or, in Trans Am guise, a 275hp 5.7-litre V8, with a T-56 six-speed manual.
1995 Pontiac Grand Prix – GTPmann
The Sunbird was replaced by the Sunfire in 1995 and the Bonneville had the 205hp, 3800 Series II V6 as standard and an updated supercharged 3800 Series II had 240 hp.
The 1997 Grand Prix debuted with ‘Wider is Better’ advertising and a design highlight was shared roof sheet metal between coupe and sedan models.
In 1998 the Firebird was updated and the TransAm received the 305hp LS-1 engine that could be optioned to 320hp. The 1999 model year saw the replacement of the Trans Sport with the larger Montana minivan.
2002 Pontiac Aztek – Ifcar
In 2000, the Bonneville was built on the G-Body, shared with the Oldsmobile Aurora and Buick LeSabre. In 2001 Pontiac introduced the hideously-polarising, proto-crossover Aztek. (Allan Whiting remembers renting one to drive from Nashville to Louisville and thanked heaven for a snowstorm that provided some anonymity.)
In 2002, the Firebird/Trans Am and Camaro were discontinued as a result of declining sales and a saturated sports market. The coupe version of the Grand Prix was also discontinued.
The 2003 Vibe was a Toyota-based compact wagon built at the NUMMI joint-venture plant. Also, 2003 was Pontiac’s final year in NASCAR, marked by one of the closest finishes in NASCAR history.
In 2004 the Pontiac GTO was reborn, being built around the Australian-developed Holden Monaro and initially powered by the 350hp LS-1 V8. Pontiac added the drive-by-wire 400hp LS2 V8 for the 2005 and 2006 model years at no additional cost.
2006 Pontiac GTO – Crossley1
The 2004 Bonneville GXP featured a 4.6-litre Northstar V8, borrowed from Cadillac to replace the Supercharged 3800 Series II. The GTP’s new 3.8-litre supercharged V6 now made 260hp.
GM canned Oldsmobile in 2004 and Pontiac went through a complete product revamp that saw the Grand Am replaced by the mid-size G6 in 2005. The Grand Prix picked up GM’s 303hp, LS4 V8 engine.
The Bonneville ended production in 2005 after nearly 50 years of production. The Solstice concept shown in 2002 was approved for production as a roadster and, for a few months, as a hard-top coupe.
The controversial and slow-selling Aztek was finally phased out and replaced by the Torrent, which was identical to the Chevrolet Equinox.
Also in 2005, the Sunfire was discontinued and replaced by the Pontiac G5.
2008 Pontiac G8 V6 – Ifcar
In 2008, the Grand Prix was replaced by the Australian-built RWD G8 that was known as ‘the poor man’s BMW M5’, due to similar performance at a much cheaper price. The G8 GXP was the most powerful production car Pontiac ever built and was widely regarded as the best driver’s car ever to wear the Pontiac badge.
The Holden Ute was scheduled to be launched as the G8 ST before it was cancelled in January 2009, because of GM’s financial situation.
On December 2, 2008, General Motors announced that it was considering eliminating numerous brands, including Pontiac, in order to appease Congress, in the hope of receiving a $25 billion loan. On April 27, 2009, GM announced that Pontiac would be dropped and that all of its remaining models would be phased out by the end of 2010.
2009 Pontiac G6 Sedan: the last Pontiac – Ifcar