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