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Pontiac’s ‘Death’ No Surprise To Enthusiasts

Given Pontiac’s role as a muscle-car pioneer and Baby Boomer icon, the reaction among enthusiasts that GM was killing the 83-year-old brand was surprisingly muted.

TORONTO (CP) -- Pontiac once boasted "We Build Excitement."

But the excitement is long gone and Pontiac soon won't be building anything at all.

General Motors announced Monday it was killing the 83-year-old brand, confirming longstanding rumors GM's performance division was on the chopping block as part of its survival strategy.

The reaction among enthusiasts was surprisingly muted, given Pontiac's role as a muscle-car pioneer and Baby Boomer icon.

"About time for a dead man walking to decompose," said one writer on an automotive forum.

At the Classical Pontiac site, someone suggested rallying in front of GM headquarters in Detroit "and let the rubber melt and the smoke billow. Give them one last remembrance of what they are killing."

There were no takers.

"Jeez, let it go. A Pontiac hasn't been a 'Pontiac' for a long time," said one response.

Todd Hanas of Coquitlam, B.C., is in the midst of restoring his 1965 Pontiac Parisienne convertible.

"It's just a great cruiser; it's got a great look," he said Monday. "There's nothing like having two-foot bumpers on the front and back."

But Hanas is not broken up by the news either. He figures his car will be worth more now.

"When an artist passes away that art goes up," he said Monday.

GM launched Pontiac in 1926 but its origins date from the 1890s to the Pontiac Buggy Co. of Pontiac, Mich., whose owner created the Oakland Motor Car Company in 1907.

GM acquired Oakland and later created Pontiac as a lower-priced Oakland to fill a gap between the entry-level Chevrolet and upscale Oldsmobile.

Pontiac sales took off but by 1932 its existence was under threat as GM reeled from the Depression. Yet it was Oakland that disappeared and Pontiac that survived by sharing components with other GM makes.

It would face another threat in the late 1950s when GM's top brass considered axing the unremarkable car line.

Instead, Pontiac headed for its finest hour under a trio of visionary executives: Semon (Bunkie) Knudsen, John DeLorean and Pete Estes.

The seeds of Pontiac's performance image were planted with the 1958 Bonneville.

Within a couple of years, Pontiac introduced its sleek "wide-track" line of full-sized sedans and coupes.

Just in time for the New Frontier ethos of the early 1960s, they rejected the inflated fenders and big fins of the day in favor of clean, flatter surfaces.

Knudsen is quoted as saying the "wide track" bodywork "looks like a football player wearing ballet slippers."

The company would create a cultural touchstone in 1964 with the LeMans GTO, considered the first real muscle car.

It defined the breed: a big motor in a smallish car -- in this case a 325-horsepower V-8 in Pontiac's Tempest compact, which normally had a four-cylinder engine.

Offered in 1963 as a $300 option on the Tempest, the GTO became a model in its own right the following year.

Immortalized in Ronnie and the Daytonas' song Little GTO, Pontiac would never again be in closer synch with the times.

The GTO sparked a North American horsepower race that didn't end until new emission standards and the 1973 oil crisis strangled the whole performance segment.

Pontiac cemented its position as GM's performance division with other models, including the Firebird coupe, which competed with its sister model the Chevy Camaro, the Ford Mustang and Dodge Charger.

Burt Reynolds made the Firebird's top-line Trans Am model -- with its over-the-top "screaming chicken" hood decal -- famous in the 1977 movie Smokey and the Bandit.

The company survived the 1970s with the help of feature-laden personal luxury cars such as the Grand Prix but struggled to recover its performance credibility.

The "We Build Excitement" slogan of the early 1980s and was more wishful thinking than reality.

It offered the radical Pontiac Fiero, a mid-engine, two-seater sports car made with dent-resistant plastic body panels on a lightweight space frame.

Although forward-thinking, the concept suffered in execution and GM dropped it by 1988 after four years of poor sales.

From 2004 to 2006, the company tried to revive the iconic GTO with the 400-horsepower G8 GXP hot-rod sedan.

In the last couple of decades, Pontiac offered some interesting models such as the 1990s supercharged Bonneville SSEi and the current Solstice roadster. But its Baby Boomer clientele had moved on.

"The Pontiac enthusiast has probably been left a little bit in the dark over the last few years," said Richard Cooper, a Toronto-based analyst with J.D. Power and Associates.

Cooper said Pontiac's products, while still selling well, were too close to their cheaper Chevy siblings.

J.D. Power's most recent customer-loyalty survey asked Pontiac owners about their commitment and respect for the brand and how they would feel if they could no longer buy one.

"Pontiac scores pretty low on most of those measures, which indicates that there's a weakness there," Cooper said.

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