Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Whither Pontiac?

In 1763 the Native American Chief Pontiac led 300 men in an attack on Britain's Fort Detroit. Circumstances intervened (an Anglo-French peace treaty was signed) and he never carried out the attack. Many years later, he was paid homage by an automobile company that took his name, and for a time used a profile of him as its logo.

Now with America's Detroit under attack and no sure treaty in sight, General Motors suggests it may shut down the line of cars bearing the great chief's name. As a going concern, Pontiac will be no more.

This should come as no surprise. Pontiac as a brand lost its purpose long ago and we should perhaps not be sorry to see it rest peacefully alongside the Oldsmobile, the Jordan and the Stanley Steamer.

At the peak of its fearsome might, General Motors had five distinct brands, each built to satisfy a slice of the American consumer public. In order of social ascendancy, they were as follows:

Doughty Chevrolet was for the working stiff, the young couple, the thrifty, and was often a family's first second-car. The cars had a rugged flair that made them almost ridiculously popular.

Second from the bottom was Pontiac. When you got that promotion and wanted a little lift, you traded up--to Pontiac. It was, most of the time, a Chevy with a few extra gadgets and chrome. In the 1960s it was "wide-track" and developed a taste for speed: it was gutty (think GTO).

Oldsmobile was for the man who'd made it to the solid-to-upper-middle: clearly luxurious, the Olds had a sobriety and solidity appealing to those who were as close to the bottom as to the top. It also had a reputation for technical advancement--first with power-steering; first with (a disastrously poor) front-wheel drive in the Toronado.

Buick was a sumptuous, heavy ride, the natural choice of the professional who wanted all the luxury of the best a motorist could have, but without the extra dollars associated with a very fancy nameplate. But make no mistake--this was a fancy car: for the doctor, the lawyer, the self-made man.

Cadillac was the paragon of motoring. If you had to ask the price, you couldn't afford it. Truth to tell, the least expensive Caddies were less expensive than the most expensive Buicks (but don't tell anyone). This was the car for both the arriviste and old money; it spoke plainly of wealth, of opulence, of raw power. The cars were extravagant, often stunning and immensely powerful. Few would have refused one had they been given a chance to own one. The hurtling behemoths enjoyed extraordinary popularity.

Now the culture is more fractious. For whom is the Mazda Protege? The Saturn Astra? The Aztec? We know who drives the Hummer, but their type are going the way of the Great Auk.

Several years ago, GM retired Oldsmobile. Could anyone have saved a brand that had the name "Old" in it? I used to love the Olds--but that was then.

Now GM must sacrifice its weakest offspring and today that is Pontiac. The reason it's such a weak brand, I believe, is because it has no public. It's not thrifty, brawny, wide-track, sporty or even interesting in any way shape or form. As a brand, it lost touch with its buyers--and must go.

GM will still have Saturn, Hummer and Saab (!) kicking around. They will probably end up with just Cadillac, Buick and Chevy. It makes sense: fancy, mid-price, and cheap. These are not elegant slices of the pie, but in GM's chastened state, it needs to keep it simple.

Good-bye Pontiac--we hardly knew ye.