Pontiac was an American automobile brand established in 1926 as a companion make for General Motors‘ Oakland. Quickly overtaking its parent in popularity, it supplanted the Oakland brand entirely by 1933 and, for most of its life, became a companion make for Chevrolet. Pontiac was sold in the United States, Canada, and Mexico by General Motors (GM). Pontiac was marketed as the performance division of General Motors for many years, specializing in mainstream performance vehicles. Pontiac was relatively more popular in Canada, where for much of its history it was marketed as a low-priced vehicle.
On April 27, 2009, amid ongoing financial problems and restructuring efforts, GM announced it would discontinue the Pontiac brand by the end of 2010 and focus on four core brands in North America: Chevrolet, Buick, Cadillac and GMC. The last Pontiacs were built in December 2009.
A Predecessor firm, Pontiac Spring and Wagon Works 1907–1908
Pontiac started in 1893 as “The Pontiac Buggy Company”. The Pontiac Spring and Wagon Works was incorporated in July 1899 by Albert G. North and Harry G. Hamilton. By 1905 they had taken over the manufacturing of the Rapid Truck (from the Rapid Motor Vehicle Co.) that had been introduced two years earlier. In 1907 they decided to produce an automobile.
The first Pontiac Spring and Wagon Works automobile, simply named “The Pontiac” was introduced that fall by the Pontiac Spring & Wagon Works. It was a highwheeler weighing 1,000 pounds (450 kg) and powered by a two-cylinder water-cooled 12 hp (8.9 kW) engine. A prototype was displayed in October 1907 at an exhibition sponsored by the Carriage Dealers’ Association in New York City’s Grand Central Palace. In December of the same year several of the new Pontiacs were exhibited at the Chicago Automobile Show. Well received by the press, the car featured final drive by double chain and a friction transmission. The wheelbase was 70 inches (1,800 mm), front wheels 38, with 40s in the rear, and solid rubber tires. The first deliveries were probably made in early 1908.
On Aug. 28, 1907, Edward M. Murphy incorporated the Oakland Motor Co. Murphy is said to have chosen the Oakland name for his automobile venture because the company was located in Oakland County, Michigan. Crosstown rival Pontiac Spring & Wagon Works already was making a high-wheel motor wagon under the name.
In January 1909, General Motors President William C. Durant purchased a 50% interest in the Oakland Motor Car Company. Later that year GM bought out the other 50% after the unexpected death of Edward M. Murphy at the age of 45.
While technically the first Pontiac Spring and Wagon Works’ model was named after the city, such early use of the Pontiac name is really just a predecessor firm in the production history of the later make by General Motors.
1929 Pontiac Big Six Series 6-29 8930 4-Door Landaulette
1930 Pontiac Roadster Argentina
1930-45 postcard Troy Lambert Pontiac
1932 Pontiac series 402-six Convertible
1934 Pontiac Henney-lim-400 Hearse
1934 Pontiac Series 603 34318 Convertible Coupé
1936 Pontiac Master Six Coupe
The Pontiac brand was introduced by General Motors in 1926 as the companion marque to GM’s Oakland division. Within months of its introduction, Pontiac was outselling Oakland. As a result of Pontiac’s rising sales, versus Oakland’s declining sales, Pontiac became the only companion marque to survive its parent, with Oakland ceasing production in 1932.
1937 Pontiac De Luxe Series 26 2611 2-door Touring Coach
1938 Pontiac De Luxe Series 26 2611 2-door Touring Sedan
1938 Pontiac hearse
1939 Pontiac De Luxe Convertible Coupé
Pontiac produced cars offering 40 hp (30 kW) 186.7 ci (3.1-liter) (3.25×3.75 in, 82.5x95mm) L-head straight 6-cylinder engines in the Pontiac Chief of 1927; its stroke was the shortest of any American car in the industry at the time. The Chief sold 39,000 units within six months of its appearance at the 1926 New York Auto Salon, hitting 76,742 at twelve months. The next year, it became the top-selling six in the U.S., ranking seventh in overall sales. By 1933, it had moved up to producing the least expensive cars available with straight eight-cylinder (inline eight) engines. This was done by using many components from the 6-cylinder Chevrolet Master, such as the body. In the late 1930s, Pontiac used the so-called torpedo body of the Buick for one of its models, just prior to its being used by Chevrolet. This body style brought some attention to the marque. An unusual feature of the “torpedo” body exhibition car, was that with push of a button the front half of the car body would open showing the engine and the car’s front seat interior. In 1937, the eight-cylinder had a 122 inch wheelbase, while the six-cylinder had a 117 inch wheelbase. In 1940, Pontiac introduced a new vehicle called the Pontiac Torpedo, and two years later, on 2 February 1942 a Pontiac was the last civilian automobile manufactured in the United States during World War II, as all automobile factories converted to military production.
For an extended period of time—prewar through the early 1950s—the Pontiac was a quiet, solid car, but not especially powerful. It came with a flathead (side-valve) straight eight. Straight 8s were slightly less expensive to produce than the increasingly popular V8s, but they were also heavier and longer. Additionally, the long crankshaft suffered from excessive flex, restricting straight 8s to a relatively low compression ratio with a modest redline. However, in this application, inexpensive (yet very quiet) flatheads were not a liability.
1948 Pontiac Silver Streak Convertible Coupe
From 1946 to 1948, all Pontiac models were essentially 1942 models with minor changes. The Hydra-matic automatic transmission was introduced in 1948 and helped Pontiac sales grow even though their cars, Torpedoes and Streamliners, were quickly becoming out of date.
The first all-new Pontiac models appeared in 1949. Newly redesigned, they sported such styling cues as lower body lines and rear fenders that were integrated in the rear-end styling of the car.
Along with new styling came a new model. Continuing the Native American theme of Pontiac, the Chieftain line was introduced to replace the Torpedo. These were built on the GM B-Body platform and featured sportier styling than the more conservative Streamliner. In 1950, the Catalina pillarless hardtop coupe was introduced as a “halo” model, much like the Chevrolet Bel Air of the same year.
In 1952, Pontiac discontinued the Streamliner and replaced it with additional models in the Chieftain line built on the GM A-body platform. This single model line continued until 1954 when the Star Chief was added. The Star Chief was created by adding an 11-inch (280 mm) extension to the A-body platform creating a 124-inch (3,100 mm) wheelbase.
The 1953 models were the first to have one-piece windshields instead of the normal two-piece units. While the 1953 and 1954 models were heavily re-worked versions of the 1949-52 Chieftain models, they were engineered to accommodate the V-8 engine that would appear in the all-new 1955 models.
Pontiac Star Chief 1955
1956 Canadian Pontiac PathfinderSedan Delivery. 1383 built, not available in USA.
1959 Bonneville from the rear, showing double rear fins
Completely new bodies and chassis were introduced for 1955. A new 173-horsepower (129 kW) overhead valve V-8 engine was introduced. (see Engines section below). Sales increased. With the introduction of this V-8, the six-cylinder engines were discontinued; a six-cylinder engine would not return to the full-size Pontiac line until the GM corporate downsizing of 1977. An overhead-cam six-cylinder engine was used in the Tempest model line starting in 1966, as well as on the Firebird. It was the first mass-produced engine in America utilizing an overhead-camshaft configuration.
In 1956, when 42-year-old Semon “Bunkie” Knudsen became general manager of Pontiac, with the aid of his new heads of engineering, E. M. Estes and John DeLorean, he immediately began reworking the brand’s image. One of the first steps involved the removal of the famous trademark “silver streaks” from the hood and deck lid of the 1957 models just weeks before the ’57s were introduced. Another step was introducing the first Bonneville—a limited-edition Star Chief convertible that showcased Pontiac’s first fuel-injected engine. Some 630 Bonnevilles were built for 1957, each with a retail price of nearly $5800. While new car buyers could buy a Cadillac for that price, the Bonneville raised new interest in what Pontiac now called “America’s No. 1 Road Car.”
The Bonneville, a sub-series of the Star Chief introduced with the 1957 models, then became its own line. These were built on the 122-inch (3,100 mm) wheelbase of the A-body platform. A 1958 Tri-Power Pontiac Bonneville was the pace car for that year’s Indianapolis 500. Also, 1958 was the last year Pontiac Motor Division would bear the “Indian” motif throughout the vehicle.
With the 1959 model year, Pontiac came out with its “Arrowhead” emblem, with the star design in the middle. The “Arrowhead” design ran all the way up the hood from between the split grille, and on Starchief Models, had 8 chrome stars from the emblem design bolted to both sides of the vehicle as chrome trim. Knudsen saw to it that the car received a completely reworked chassis, body and interior styling. Quad headlamps, and a longer, lower body were some of the styling changes.
The Chieftain line was renamed Catalina; Star Chief was downgraded to replace the discontinued Super Chief series and for the first time did not have a two door hard top, only a two door sedan along with a four door hard top and four door sedan, in addition there was no Star Chief wagon. The Bonneville was now the top of the line, coming in three body styles of two door hard top, four door vista and four door wagon. The Star Chief’s four door “Vista” hardtop was also shared by the Bonneville. Catalina models included a two door hard top, two door sedan, four door sedan, four door hard top vista and wagon. Bonneville and Star Chief were built on a 124″ wheelbase with the exception of the Bonneville wagon and all Catalina models and Bonneville wagon built on 122″ wheelbase. Catalina was also seven inches shorter than Bonneville and Star Chief and weighed one hundred to two hundred pounds less than it’s long wheelbase counterparts. All 1959 Pontiac engines were equipped with a 389 cubic inch engine with horsepower ratings from 215Hp economy engine to a conservative rated 345 hp Tri-Power carbureted engine. All automatic’s were four speed Super-Hydra-Matic’s, or as Hydramatic Division who designed and built them called “Controlled coupling HydraMatic”. A special note here is that Oldsmobile used this same transmission and called it Jetaway HydraMatic and Cadillac also used this transmission and Cadillac called it 315 or P 315 Hydramatic. A three speed column mounted stick shift was standard on all Pontiacs. This coincided with major body styling changes across all models that introduced increased glass area, twin V-shaped fins and lower hood profiles. Because of these changes, Motor Trend magazine picked the entire Pontiac line as 1959 Car of the Year. The ’59s have a five-inch (127 mm) wider track, Front at 63 7/8″ front track and 64.0″ rear track because Knudsen noticed the new, wider bodies looked awkward on the carried-over 1958 frames. The new “Wide-Track” Pontiacs not only had improved styling, but also handled better—a bonus that tied into Pontiac’s resurgence in the marketplace.
The 1960 models saw a complete re-skinning with the exception of the body’s canopies which remained identical to the 59’s, but removed the tail fins and the distinctive split grille (which Ford copied on the final Edsel models for 1960). The 1960 models standard engine all had a Horsepower gain of 3 hp due to a compression bump of .25 to one over the 59 engine. The front track was now widened to the rear track at 64″. Ventura was introduced, a more luxurious hardtop coupe and the Vista 4-door hardtop now being built on the shorter 122-inch (3,100 mm) wheelbase platform, with it falling between the Catalina and Star Chief models. The Ventura featured the luxury features of the Bonneville in the shorter, lighter Catalina body.
Most of Pontiac’s models built during the 1960s and 1970s were either styled like, or were siblings to, other GM makes (except Cadillac). However, Pontiac retained its own front and rear end styling, interiors, and engines.
1964 Pontiac Bonneville Brougham
1969 Pontiac GTO Convertible
Pontiac 8-Lug Rim. Full size Pontiacs from 1960 to 1968 featured these unique, finned, 8 bolt rims, which aided in the cooling of the drum brakes.
The 1961 models were similarly reworked. The split grille returned, as well as all-new bodies and a new design of a perimeter-frame chassis for all its full-size models (something which would be adopted for all of GM’s intermediate-sized cars in 1964, and all its full-sized cars in 1965). These new chassis allowed for reduced weight and smaller body sizes. It is interesting to note that the similarly styled Chevrolet still used the radically different “X” frame in the early 1960s.
But a complete departure in 1961 was the new Tempest, one of the three BOP (Buick-Olds-Pontiac) “compacts” introduced that year, the others being the Buick Special and Skylark and Oldsmobile F-85 and Cutlass. Toward the end of the 1961 model year, a fancier version of the Tempest, called “LeMans“, was introduced. A mispronunciation of the famous 24 Hours of Le Mans auto race in France was emphasized.
All three were uni-body cars, dubbed the “Y-body” platform, combining the frame and the body into a single construction, making them comparatively lighter and smaller. All three put into production new technology that GM had been working on for several years prior, but the Tempest was by far the most radical. A seven-foot flexible steel shaft, rotating at the speed of the engine, delivered power from the front-mounted engine to a rear-mounted trans-axle through a “torque tube.” Because it was curved when installed, the so-called “propeller shaft” was dubbed “rope-shaft.” The design’s father was none other than DeLorean, and its advantage was twofold: first, the car achieved close to a 50/50 weight balance that drastically improved handling; and second, it enabled four-wheel independent suspension. This was a feature that no other American car could match save the Corvair, as well as eliminating the floor “hump” that usually came with front-engined rear-drive cars.
Though the Tempest’s transaxle was similar to the one in the Corvair, introduced the year before, it shared virtually no common parts. GM had planned to launch a Pontiac version of the Corvair (dubbed “Polaris”), but “Bunkie” Knudsen—whose niece had been seriously injured in a Corvair crash—successfully argued against the idea. The Polaris design apparently made it to full-scale clay before it was cancelled. Instead, DeLorean’s “rope-shaft” design was green-lighted.
Contemporary rumors of the rope-shaft’s demise due to reliability problems are unfounded; the rope-shaft’s durability and performance had been proven in tests in full-size Pontiacs and Cadillacs in 1959, and only adapted to a smaller car in 1960. The Tempest won the Motor Trend “Car of the Year” award in 1961—for Pontiac, the second time in three years. DeLorean’s vision has been further vindicated by the adoption of similar designs in a slew of modern high-performance cars, including the Porsche 928, 924, and 944, the Corvette C5, and the Aston Martin DB9.
Unless customers checked an option, the Tempest’s power-plant was a 194.5 Ci inline-slant-four-cylinder motor, derived from the right bank of the venerable Pontiac 389 V8, enabling it to be run down the same production line as the 389, saving costs for both the car’s customers and Pontiac. Pontiac engineers ran early tests of this motor by literally cutting off the left bank of pistons and adding counterweights to the crankshaft, and were surprised to find it easily maintained the heaviest Pontiacs at over 90 miles per hour (140 km/h). In production, the engine received a crankshaft designed for just four cylinders, but this didn’t completely solve its balance issues. The engine gained the nickname “Hay Baler” because of it tendency to kick violently, like the farm machine, when its timing was off.
The aforementioned Buick 215 V8, was ordered by less than two percent of its customers in the two years it was available, 1961 and 1962. Today, the 215 cars are among the most sought-after of all Tempests. In 1963, Pontiac replaced the 215 with a “new” 326 which was really a 336 with a bore of 3.78 and stroke of 3.75 ( same stroke as the 389 ), an iron block mill that had the same external dimensions and shared parts with the 389, but an altered, reduced bore. The car’s body and suspension was also changed to be lower, longer and wider. The response was that more than half of the 1963 Tempests and LeMans (separate lines for that one year only) were ordered with the V8, a trend that did not go unnoticed by management. The next year, the 326 would become a true 326 with a new bore size of 3.72. The Tempest’s popularity helped move Pontiac into third place among American car brands in 1962, a position Pontiac would hold through 1970. The Buick 215 V8 would remain in production for more than thirty five years, being used by Britain’s Rover Group after it had bought the rights to it. GM attempted to buy the rights back, however, Rover wished, instead, to sell the engines directly.
In November 1961, Knudsen had moved to Chevrolet. Pete Estes now became general manager of Pontiac and Delorean was promoted to Pontiac Chief engineer. Both continued Knudsen’s work of making Pontiac a performance-car brand. Pontiac capitalized on the emerging trend toward sportier bucket-seat coupes in 1962 by introducing the Grand Prix, taking the place of the ventura which now became a trim option on the Catalina. Although GM officially ended factory support for all racing activities across all of its brands in January 1963, Pontiac continued to cater to performance car enthusiasts by making larger engines with more power available across all model lines. For 1963, the Grand Prix received the same styling changes as other full-sized Pontiacs such as vertical headlights and crisper body lines, but also received its own squared-off roof-line with a concave rear window, along with less chrome. This concave rear window would be duplicated on all Tempest/LeMans four door intermediates in 1964-1965.
For 1964, the Tempest and LeMans’ trans-axle design was dropped and the cars were redesigned under GM’s new A body platform; frame cars with a conventional front-engine, rear-wheel-drive layout. The most important of these is the GTO, short for “Gran Turismo Omologato,” the Italian for “Grand Touring, Homologated” used by Ferrari as a badge to announce a car’s official qualification for racing. In spite of a GM unwritten edict against engines larger than 330 Ci in intermediate cars, DeLorean (with support from Jim Wangers from Pontiac’s ad agency), came up with the idea to offer the GTO as an option package that included a 389 Ci engine rated at 325 or 348 horsepower (260 kW).
The entire Pontiac lineup was honored as Motor Trend’s Car of the Year for 1965, the third time for Pontiac to receive such honors. The February, 1965 issue of Motor Trend was almost entirely devoted to Pontiac’s Car of the Year award and included feature stories on the division’s marketing, styling, engineering and performance efforts along with road tests of several models.
Due to the popularity of the GTO option, it was split from being an option on the Tempest LeMans series to become the separate GTO series. On the technology front, 1966 saw the introduction of a completely new overhead camshaft 6-cylinder engine in the Tempest, and in an industry first, plastic grilles were used on several models.
The 1967 model year saw the introduction for the Pontiac Firebird pony car, a variant of the Chevrolet Camaro that was the brand’s answer to the hot-selling Ford Mustang. Intermediate sized cars (Tempest, LeMans, GTO) were mildly face-lifted but all full size cars and GTO lost their Tri-Power engine option though it did get a larger 400 cubic-inch V8 that replaced the previous 389. Full-sized cars got a major facelift with rounder wasp-waisted body lines, a name change for the mid-line series from Star Chief to Executive and a one-year-only Grand Prix convertible. 1968 introduced the Endura ‘rubber’ front bumper on the GTO, the precursor to modern cars’ integrated bumpers, and the first of a series “Ram Air” engines, which featured the induction of cold air to the carburetor(s) for more power, and took away some of the sting from deleting the famous Tri-Power multiple carburetion option from the engine line up. This Tri carburetor deletion came from the 14th floor of GM banning multiple carburetion and headed by GM president Ed Cole. It’s ironic that Cole’s Beloved Corvair and Corvette were still allowed multiple carburetion. A political scheme? You make the call as most people who understand GM of that time knew that Knudsen, Estes, and Delorean always butted heads with top GM brass and Cole in particular. This line culminated in the Ram Air IV and V round port cylinder headed engines. The Ram Air V garnered much auto press publicity, but only a relative few were made available for sale. Full-sized cars and intermediates reverted from vertical to horizontal headlights while the sporty/performance 2+2 was dropped from the lineup.
For 1969, Pontiac moved the Grand Prix from the full-sized lineup into a G-body model of its own based on the A-body intermediate four door modified from 116 inches to 118 inches wheelbase chassis, but with distinctive styling and long hood/short deck proportions to create yet another niche product – the intermediate-sized personal-luxury car that offered the luxury and styling of the higher priced personal cars such as the Buick Riviera and Ford Thunderbird and the old Grand Prix and Olds Starfire but for a much lower price tag. The development of the car really has an interesting twist. Pete Estes who like Knudsen had moved to be GM of Chevrolet in 1966 and Delorean now Manager of Pontiac division needed a car to take the place of the sagging sales of the full size Grand Prix, but the development cost of the car was too much of burden for Pontiac division alone, so Delorean went to his old boss now at Chevrolet to gather support for the development cost of the new “G” body Grand Prix. Estes agreed to share in the cost and allow Pontiac to have a one year exclusivity on this new car, the next year Chevy would follow with its version which was called Monte Carlo. The new Grand Prix was such a sales success in 1969 as dealers moved 112,000 units – more than four times the number of Grand Prixs sold in 1968. Full-sized Pontiacs were also substantially restyled but retained the same basic under-body structure and chassis that debuted with the 1965 model – in fact the roof-lines for the four-door pillared sedans and Safari wagons were the same as the 1965 models, while the two-door semi-fastback design gave way to a squared-off notch-back style and four-door hardtop sedans were also more squared off than 1967-68 models. The GTOs and Firebirds received the Ram Air options, the GTO saw the addition of the “Judge” performance/appearance package, and the Firebird also got the “Trans Am” package. Although originally conceived as a 303 cubic inch model to compete directly in the Trans Am racing series, in a cost-saving move the Pontiac Trans Am debuted with the standard 400-cubic-inch performance engines. This year also saw De Lorean leaving the post of general manager to accept a similar position at GM’s Chevrolet division. His replacement was F. James McDonald.
Pontiacs built in the late 1960s conformed to new US Federal safety standards. These included energy-absorbing interior parts such as steering columns, steering wheels, knobs and handles, dual-circuit hydraulic brake systems, shoulder belts, side marker lights, and headrests.
The 1969 Firebirds received a heavy facelift but otherwise continued much the same as the original 1967 model. It was the final year for the overhead cam six-cylinder engine in Firebirds and intermediates, and the Firebird convertible (until 1991). Production of the 1969 Firebirds was extended into the first three months of the 1970 model year (all other 1970 Pontiacs debuted Sept. 18, 1969) due to a decision to delay the introduction of an all-new 1970 Firebird (and Chevrolet Camaro) until after the first of the year – Feb. 26, 1970 to be exact.
In addition in the late ’60s, GM directed their GM and Pontiac divisions to develop concept mini-cars called commuter car for urban drivers. GM developed a gasoline-electric drive hybrid the XP-833 and Pontiac the X-1 a rear wheel mid engine car that was powered by a radical X-shaped aircraft type air-cooled two-stroke radial engine where the standard crankshaft was replaced by a unit called a Scotch yoke. While the GM car was fully tested the Pontiac concept was not. Neither was placed in production.
Increasing insurance and fuel costs for owners coupled with looming Federal emissions and safety regulations would eventually put an end to the unrestricted, powerful engines of the 1960s. Safety, luxury and economy would become the new watch-words of this decade. Engine performance began declining in 1971 when GM issued a corporate edict mandating that all engines be capable of using lower-octane unleaded gasoline, which led to dramatic drops in compression ratios, along with performance and fuel economy. This, coupled with trying to build cars as plush as GM’s more luxurious Buicks and Oldsmobiles, contributed to the start of a slow decline of Pontiac in 1971.
In mid-1971 Pontiac introduced the compact, budget-priced Ventura II (based on the third generation Chevrolet Nova). This same year, Pontiac completely restyled its full-sized cars, moved the Bonneville, and replaced it with a higher luxury model named the Grand Ville, while Safari wagons got a new clamshell tailgate that lowered into the body while the rear window raised into the roof.
1971–1976 model full-size station wagons featured a ‘Clamshell’ design where the rear power-operated glass slid up into the roof as the tailgate (manually or with power assist), dropped below the load floor. The power tailgate, the first in station wagon history, ultimately supplanted the manual tailgate, which required marked effort to lift from storage.
The 1972 models saw the first wave of emissions reduction and safety equipment and updates. GTO was a now sub-series of the LeMans series. The Tempest, was dropped, after being renamed ‘T-37’ and ‘GT-37’ for 1971. The base 1972 mid-sized Pontiac was now simply called LeMans.
James MacDonald left the post of general manager to be replaced by Martin J. Caserio in late 1972. Caserio was the first manager in over a decade to be more focused on marketing and sales than on performance.