by Peter M. DeLorenzo Issue 336, March 1, 2006 The legendary Pontiac names alone could power a rollcall from Detroit's golden era - Bonneville, Catalina, Tempest, Le Mans, GTO, "The Judge," Grand Prix, Firebird and Trans-Am. The rich additions to the automotive lexicon were legendary too - "389," "421," "455SD," "Tri-Power," "eight-lug" aluminum wheels, Royal Bobcats, "Endura" front bumpers, hood-mounted tachs, and on and on. And the marketing and advertising hooks were equally memorable - with the famous "Wide Track" campaign still resonating to this day. But Pontiac has suffered from neglect and abuse for years, and now GM's maverick division is on the edge of oblivion. With the departure by next fall of the recently returned GTO, Pontiac will be left with only one car that even remotely resembles their swashbuckling cars of the past - the Solstice two-seat roadster. The G6 is far too tame to carry Pontiac forward on its own, and everything else Pontiac has to offer - the Torrent (which is a badge-engineered Chevy Equinox) and the upcoming G5 (which will be a badge-engineered version of the Chevy Cobalt) - is too mundane to even ponder. Pontiac has suffered mightily from the bureaucratic gravitational force field that has churned and stirred the traditional GM divisional structure over the years. While GM marketers scrambled to prop up seven other brands, Pontiac always seemed to be left out on the fringe with product initiatives that often fell woefully short of what the brand deserved. After resurrecting Cadillac to the tune of $5 billion, GM marketers launched Hummer. After dumping a boatload of money in a desperate attempt to save Saturn a few years ago, GM finally got around to worrying about Chevrolet. While GM is trying to pump life into Saab and Buick, Pontiac is left to fight over crumbs for its product plans. Now, GM's launching the most aggressive new product push in Saturn's history - and Pontiac finds itself left out in the cold again. For every dollar that was thrown at Saturn, Chevrolet, Buick, Cadillac, Hummer, GMC and Saab over the years - Pontiac got short changed and got further and further removed from its core strengths. GM's maverick division has now been reduced to picking up scraps from Chevy's product lineup and wallowing in such "smoke-and-mirrors" marketing exercises like the dismally tedious "Apprentice" TV show, featuring America's poster boy for vacuous vapidity - Donald Trump. Or underwriting Jimmy Kimmel's show while it was here during the Super Bowl, which provided a real boost to the Pontiac image. Not. Where did GM go wrong with Pontiac? I could fill a dozen issues of Autoextremist.com delineating the division's downfall, but as someone who was intimately familiar with Pontiac's last brief fling with positive notoriety during its "Excitement" years (I was a writer at Pontiac's ad agency for five-and-one-half years in the early '80s), it pains me to see the downward spiral of one of America's most compelling automotive brand names. It's clear to me that GM's struggle to apportion product and marketing attention to all of its divisions is killing the company - and unfortunately, Pontiac finds itself closest to the door at this point. Until GM's "too many models, too many divisions" situation is somehow mitigated (which I doubt will ever happen unless GM blows itself up and starts over), I fear for the long-term viability of Pontiac. To understand the travesty of Pontiac's current state you have to go back and understand the impact Pontiac once had on the U.S. market. It's hard to believe this now but at one point during its glory days in the '60s Pontiac was the hottest car company in the country, breathing down Ford's neck in third place in sales. If ever a car company defined "swagger" - Pontiac was it. Pontiac was GM's "pirate" division, and if they could have raised a "skull and crossbones" flag over its headquarters in its heyday, they would have. On any given day, Pontiac was always pissing someone off down at GM headquarters because they just couldn't help themselves from bitch-slapping Chevrolet and sending Chevy executives whining to the 14th floor like little school girls over some perceived transgression. Starting with Bunkie Knudsen, Pontiac pushed the envelope and marched to a different drummer. Pontiac tweaked their cars to the point that they didn't even seem like they were part of the GM family. More than any other American car company, Pontiac delivered cars to the market bristling with a maverick, rebel attitude, edgy appeal and genuine soul - a commodity so far removed from most of Detroit's products today it's appalling. The street "buzz" around Pontiac was undeniable - and it was fueled by some of the most memorable advertising ever done for an automobile. For one fleeting moment in time, product and advertising came together in such a way that it created an American sensation. If you drove a Pontiac, it definitely said something about you. You were different from the crowd and you went your own way. And the aura that was created around the brand translated into gold in the marketplace, sending Pontiac sales soaring. Now, Pontiac is a mere shadow of its once glorious self. Except for the Solstice, it has been relegated to cribbing seconds from Chevrolet - a revolting development that must have Bunkie Knudsen and John DeLorean spinning in their graves. To top it off, even the Solstice won't exclusively be left to Pontiac, because the upcoming Saturn Sky will add to the confusion and leave Pontiac grasping for footing in the market again. The fact that Pontiac's most recent downward spiral was hastened by famed product guru Bob Lutz might be a surprise to some people, but that's exactly what happened. Maximum Bob's "read" of what Pontiac should stand for in the market was totally off base. He has always fancied Pontiac as GM's "euro" division, a cut-rate BMW for the people who couldn't afford BMWs. And that simply couldn't be further removed from what Pontiac was and should be. That might more closely describe where Saturn is going, but it certainly isn't Pontiac. If any car appealed to the all-American maverick spirit and to the wide-open American attitude, Pontiac was it - and confusing the whole thing with European driving sensibilities is a monumental waste of time. The pure essence of Pontiac was there for all to see, but the current stewards of the brand either forgot it - or never did have a clue to begin with. Pontiac is on thin ice right now. With the next-generation Firebird slated for late 2008 as a 2009 model, what the hell are they going to do in the meantime? How many different variations of the Solstice and the G6 can they do? And who's going to notice the G5? Pontiac is supposed to get a RWD car (along with Chevy, natch) that could be the new Grand Prix, but I'm looking at my watch and right now the 2008/2009 time frame sounds like an eternity in this market. GM can go two ways with Pontiac at this critical juncture. They can keep starving it to death with brand engineering and clone cars, or they can start over with an all-new mission that adheres to the core essence of what a Pontiac was - and should be. It shouldn't be hard. All it would take is a total commitment from GM and the right people in place to make it all happen. But then again, those two key ingredients are the two things necessary in bringing focused, desirable products to the street no matter which company we're talking about. Back in '81, I did a print ad for the Firebird Trans-Am that had the headline, "Soul Survivor." That ad set the tone for the "excitement" era that followed and started Pontiac on its way back. But Pontiac has unfortunately careened in and out of relevance ever since. The time is now for Pontiac. The division deserves better. Much better. GM needs to get in touch with the essence and soul of Pontiac and put it on a plan not only for survival - but for revival. If done exactly right, Pontiac's marching to a different drummer persona could have tremendous appeal today in this market of vanilla Asian transportation appliances and German techno-wonders. And if GM can't muster the will to do the right thing with one of America's most famous automotive nameplates, then they might as well just take it out back and put it out of its misery. I'd rather see that than watch it fade away like dust in the wind. Thanks for listening, see you next Wednesday.