Saying Goodbye to an American Classic

Facing economic troubles and pressure from Capitol Hill, General Motors parks Pontiac for good

An artist’s rendering of what was to be the next generation Pontiac Trans-Am.

A friend of mine once joked that I change cars more often than most people change underwear. And, certainly, in the fourteen years since I was given that little card of freedom and the roads became slightly less safe for everyone, I have owned my fair share.

By far my favorite, however, was a jet black 1984 Recaro-edition Pontiac Trans-Am I purchased for $5,000 in 1997. It had been garage-kept, and had staggeringly low mileage for a vehicle of its age. With the exception of the long throws on the five-speed Borg-Warner transmission (a rare treat for the Trans-Am, limited I think to the Recaro model), there was nothing about that car I didn’t like — it was blindingly fast, ear-splittingly loud (thanks to some exhaust work friends had done from headers to tailpipe), and the leather Recaro racing seats wrapped driver and passenger in a warm, appreciative hug through even the most ambitious of corners.

I still, in fact, have dreams that I’m driving that car. Going nowhere in particular, just feeling the way its long front-end seemed to guide the rest of the car through the turns, the way it pushed me back into the seat and the way the tires barked when I downshifted from fourth to third in order to pass someone on a rural eastern Alabama road. Its later years were difficult to bear — on some days it ran smoothly, but on others it did not, and every day it was leaking something new, like an SR-71 Blackbird just sitting in a hanger, begging to be taken around the world at three times the speed of sound.

Saying goodbye to that car was difficult, but I always knew some day down the line I would once again settle in behind the wheel of a newer incarnation of that glorious vehicle. But it was not to be — in 2002, General Motors shelved the Chevrolet Camaro and its more refined and spirited cousin, the Pontiac Trans-Am; and this past weekend, General Motors announced that it would be shelving the Pontiac brand for good.

Despite being third-in-line in terms of GM vehicle sales, behind only Chevrolet and GMC, this particular bright light in the company’s lineup was extinguished for good. Pontiac, the brand which had been marketed as the “Excitement Division” of the venerable Detroit automaker, the brand which had introduced the wide-body American muscle car to the automotive world, has been abandoned in favor of the generic Oldsmobuicks being vomited forth by factories in Canada, Mexico, Germany and the far east.

I’m no economic expert, but I am an American consumer who is happiest when behind a steering wheel, and the way I look at it, the key to General Motors’ success is two-fold: First, the fat-cats at the UAW need to be brought under control, as GM will never compete with foreign automakers like Hyundai, who pay approximately $30 less per hour for each American, non-union worker. Second, the lots must be filled with vehicles that set the automaker apart, that bring about double-takes from passersby, that bring people into the showroom and behind the wheel.

That’s not to say that General Motors, as of late, has not been building reliable cars; certainly, quality has become exponentially better in recent years. And that’s not to say that GM has not been producing attractive vehicles, either, as the new Chevrolet Malibu, Saturn Skyy roadster, and just about every full-size truck really are fantastic. But GM needs a mantlepiece, something to hang its hat upon.

A little less than two years ago, my wife and I drove from Philadelphia up to Boston for a friend’s wedding. Since we had left our daughter with the in-laws, we used a NRA member benefit upgrade and rented what turned out to be a brand new Ford Mustang. As a lover of GM’s F-body, I had my doubts — but, my goodness, that car was an absolute blast to drive. Even with the stock V-6, it was quick and smooth. As a direct result of my experience driving that Mustang, when we traded in my gas-guzzling Volvo last year, I looked long and hard at Ford’s other vehicles.

Ford hit it out of the park with its Mustang, just as Dodge has done with its Charger and Challenger. However, when GM and Pontiac attempted to remake its hallmark old classic, the GTO, it sneezed out something that in no way resembled its long-ago predecessor.

I firmly believe that, had General Motors redesigned the GTO in the same way its competitors remade their old stalwarts, with an eye on the past rather than a worry about the future, perhaps more people would be looking long and hard at the company’s other offerings.

General Motors is doomed. While flooding the company with taxpayer money might alleviate temporary legacy pressure, no amount of currency can stand up to the unions, no amount of cash can encourage the automaker to take a risk on a legend rather than disappoint with what’s perceived to be safe.

Eventually, I hope to be making what my wife calls “lawyer money.” With the loans I have, it would certainly be nice. After that, I’d like to possibly look into what could be called “Congress money,” but who knows? What I do know, sadly, is that when we are at last financially sound enough to bring a fun vehicle into our garage, I’ll have to find my next Pontiac Trans-Am in the “classic car” section.

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Comments

  1. tm says:

    I have been a ford guy my entire life. When my son went into high school – I graduated to lincoln and I have not looked back – My 76 mustang is still in the garage. GM would have been better off if they would have better managed their divisions. It made them easy prey for the government takeover. My son and I joke that if old man ford saw all this about GM he would be rolling in his grave. I agree about the GTO though – they blew it.

  2. Anonymous says:

    The new camaro is sweet, but I heard the gov’t axed the V8. I am an design engineer and work in the auto industry. I have been a big GM fan all my life, but the gov’t bailout of GM is bad news. GM will never be the same under the Obama admin or future presidents.
    So much for buying that nice TA with a big V8 when I can afford it.
    Bryan
    LETS GO PENS

  3. MY BONNEVILLE says:

    I am saddened. I drive my 1996 Pontiac Bonneville SE with pride. It has 250,000 miles on it and still looks and drives ‘show room’. I wish it would last forever I love it so much. I wish people had bought AMERICAN these past 30 years.

  4. NISSAN SMISSAN says:

    Jeff, I’d love you to post a picture of my 14 year old Bonneville. MY Pontiac has been good to me.

  5. Gail B says:

    Well, I found a live poll about whether to yank “In God We Trust” and saw that Jeff added a new one for us. I’ll read it and come back, but here’s the link for the live poll:

    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/10103521/

    (And AKA Obama said that America is not a Christian nation!)

  6. Gail B says:

    Oh, those were the good old days!

    I used to be able to identify a car by the sound of its engine. Someone told me it could be done, and I began listening–and then identifying. Those days are gone, now, though. They all sound alike for the most part, except to Buckshot, who knows my car’s engine.

    And, remember the excitement of finding out what the next new car would be, how it would be designed? The winged rear quarter-panels, the headlight and taillight design, even how the doors opened, whether it would have personality or would be “just another car” (as they developed into later)–these were the things to look for.

    I drive a Chevy Impala–reliable and not sluggish at all. But, my gosh, how many of them are there out there?!

    Wouldn’t it be great if the automakers would look back and produce something that was at least reminiscent of those great-looking muscles? I mean, why pay a lot of money for something that looks like everybody else’s?

    Is that like saying that a car is to a guy as a dress is to a woman? Sorta, but a lot of women feel the same way about a car, too. I do.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Just wanted to say thanks for your hard work on keeping up your site, I enjoy it everyday at work. Now knowing your a car guy makes it even that much better. It is not politically correct to talk about slamming down to third to pass these days. The noise, the speed people just can’t handle talk like that these days.
    Enjoy your memories of that car because much like how every year I lose places to go race my “worked to the balls” miata, the idea of ever getting a new car like that in the future is gone. Although now might be a good time for a deal on a Z06.

    Thanks for your time, best wishes in life.
    Keith

  8. Ian Thorpe says:

    Don’t give up Jeff, there’s always a chance that as with the iconic british MG marque someone will buy the badge and one day relaunch the brand.

    There are rumours that current MG owners the Ying Tong Yiddli-i-po Automobile Co. (or something like that have engineers working on a new low emissions version of the 1960s classic MGB (picture 1971 MGB GT like the one I had but mine was ochre) Though I traded mine for a Triumph TR6 because a weekend car should really be a rag top the ‘B’ is still considered the quintessential English sports car.

  9. Bodenzee says:

    I listened to Barry’s speech to the National Academy of Sciences. In it he said “The days of science taking a backseat to ideology are over.”

    Does this mean that he has muzzled Al Gore, or is Barry so poorly educated that he believes that what Gore is spouting resembles science?

  10. BEEP BEEP says:

    My dream car is still the 1969 Road Runner (383)! The mighty days of Mopar. Richard Petty, Sox & Martin, I could go on and on. Man we grew up in a great time. The poor kids today with these cars and these presidents.

  11. Bodenzee says:

    Specter just admitted to being a Democrat. Sounds to me like he knows he’d be voted out in a Republican primary. Like my two turncoat senators he’s in it for himself, not for the nation.

    We desperately need term limits in the congress.

  12. ARLEN SPECTACLE says:

    Why can’t sickly old men just retire instead of swapping parties?

  13. Gail B says:

    TOOT TOOT! Turn Right! Turn Right!

    (I’m in an email diatribe with a liberal school mate and Girl Scout troop mate. Oh, Jesus! YOU guys are so much easier to talk to!)

    waveli = wave as you go by!

  14. Gail B says:

    Bodenzee-

    I think you have it backwards.

    Although I didn’t (and wouldn’t) watch the speech, Obama needs all the “proof positive” he can muster, i.e., science, for his ideology.

    Otherwise, his cap-and-trade, healthcare, energy programs are just simply expensive. Besides, he must have some buds who are scientists, who have not yet paid their taxes, and who need to be put on a government payroll to support his agenda.

  15. GATOR-1 says:

    What a wonderfully refreshing discussion!

    Americana…

    Cars and underwear??…Being the resident hipie I could say “Whats Underware”…..However….

    If I have recalled correctly I owned a total of six Ford Mavericks, 2 of which were the Grabber version

    I could bust into one on a fri eve and have a motor replaced or even rebuilt in time to drive to work on Monday.

    Favorite Ford was a 1964 Galaxy 500 390 cu in with three on the column. A friend put her into a tree, thankfully he was fine the car however wasnt.

    I am also a Ford guy graduated to Lincolns. However I must admit my Favorite ever was my 1986 IROC Z-28 Bright Yellow with T-tops and dark smoked glass…She was a beauty and had she been a woman I would have married her ( I know that may be legal soon anyway) She being the IROC had the 350 Tuned port injection system and racing suspension.

    I can also close my eyes and be driving or rather feeling that car to this day…..70 MPH I-95….Tromp it and you could feel that baby squat as the racing suspension kicked in….it would squat and it would bark when it did. It was NOW ready for action! What a ride!

    Now I must confess after graduating to Lincolns economics and little critters changed my thinking. All three did fit just fine across the back of the Lincolns when they were smaller but they kept growing.

    So it was time and now I drive (choking as I say this) What is also one of my very favorites,

    A 2001 Town and Country Mini Van…It has about 115K on it and looks and drives like it was made yesterday.

    The reason I nearly choke is because I REALLY LOVE this van and I know it just isnt right for a man my age to be so in love with such a vehicle but I am.

    It amazes me to hear folks speak of inferior quality in American made vehicles, and another near choke because my van was made in Canada.

    Oh well it is still a refreshing distraction from today’s realities.

    The one I always wanted but never have had?… The Satelite Super Bea…maybe one day?

    BLESSINGS PATRIOTS

  16. CAL says:

    I heard today on Rush that there is a proposal for the federal government and the UAW to takeover percentages of GM and Chrysler. This news has put the final nail into the coffin of this once great American industry. I will not buy another car from these two companies until they are turned back over to their rightful owners, the bond and shareholders. The takeover is the real story here, not the loss of a car line, but the loss of capitalism and the rule of law as it applies to the financial contracts that make our economy work. The takeover of these companies by the government and the UAW has repercussions beyond the auto industry. People are going to be warry about investing money in corporations if the corporations can be taken over like this and the risktakers’ investments just wiped away. I feel for the bond and shareholders of these companies. If these companies would go into bankruptcy as they should, the bondholders would be made whole and the UAW would be made to renegotiate their contracts to make their companies competitive again.

  17. tm says:

    Hi jeff,
    wanted to tell you that one of the anonymous’s around here is my son (but he’s a good conservative airforce guy) anyway he called me to give me an edit of my comment. (me bad and was tired working late ) I have a 1967 mustang.
    oh and PS to Gator My dad taught me to drive on a Maverick Grabber version (memories!!) dad had it till it fell apart. What a car!

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