History of Pontiac

Pontiac imageThe Pontiac brand was introduced by General Motors in 1926 as the 'companion' marque to GM's Oakland Motor Car line. The Pontiac name was first used in 1906 by the Pontiac Spring & Wagon Works and linked to Chief Pontiac who led an unsuccessful uprising against the British shortly after the French and Indian War. The Oakland Motor Company and Pontiac Spring & Wagon Works Company merged in November 1908 under the name of the Oakland Motor Car Company. The operations of both companies were joined together in Pontiac, Michigan (in Oakland County) to build the Cartercar. Oakland was purchased by General Motors in 1909. The first General Motors Pontiac was conceived as an affordable six cylinder that was intended to compete with more inexpensive four cylinder models. Within months of its introduction, Pontiac outsold Oakland. As Pontiac's sales rose and Oakland's sales began to decline, Pontiac became the only 'companion' marque to survive its 'parent', when Oakland ceased production in 1932.

Pontiac began selling cars with straight 6-cylinder engines with the 40 hp (30 kW) 186 ci (3.1 liter) (3.25x3.75 in, 82.5x95mm) L-head six in the Pontiac Chief of 1927; its stroke was the shortest in the American car 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 within twelve months. The next year, it becoming the top-selling six in the U.S., ranking seventh in overall sales.[1] In 1933, it moved up to producing the cheapest cars with straight eight-cylinder (inline eight) engines. This was done by using many components from the 6-cylinder Chevrolet, 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 as well. This body brought some attention to the marque.

For an extended period of time, prewar through the early 1950s, the Pontiac was a quiet and solid car, but not especially powerful. With a flathead (side-valve) straight eight. These combinations proved attractive to the vehicle's target market - a reserved lower middle class not especially interested in performance or handling but seeking good value and a roomy vehicle in a step up from the entry-level Chevrolet. This fit well within parent GM's strategy of passing an increasingly prosperous customer up through the various divisions. Straight 8s are slightly less expensive to produce than the increasingly popular V8s, but they were also heavier and longer. Also, the long crankshaft suffered from excessive flex, which restricted straight 8s to relatively low compression and modest revs. In this application, inexpensive (but poor-breathing) flatheads were not a liability.

Foundations of performance: 1955-1960

Although completely new bodies and chassis were introduced for 1955, the big news was the introduction of a new 173-horsepower (129 kW) overhead valve V-8 engine (see Engines section below). Pontiac took a big leap ahead in the public's eye and sales jumped accordingly. 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.

The next step in Pontiac's transformation came in 1956 when Semon "Bunkie" Knudsen became general manager of Pontiac. With the aid of his new heads of engineering, E. M. Estes and John Z. De Lorean, he immediately began reworking the brand's image. One of the first steps involved the removal of the famous "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 in the 1957 models, became its own line. These were built on the 122-inch (3,100mm) wheelbase of the A-body platform. An early sign of the successful changes being undertaken was seen in the selection of a 1958 Tri-Power Pontiac Bonneville the pace car for that year's Indianapolis 500. 1958 was also the last year Pontiac Motor Division would bear the "Indian and motif all throughout the vehicle.

In the 1959 model year, Pontiac came out with its now famous "V" emblem, with the star design in the middle. The "V" 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, longer and 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 the Bonneville was now the top of the line, with a fuel-injection system. The Star Chief's four-door "Vista" hardtop was also shared by the Bonneville. 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 were also blessed with a five-inch (127 mm) wider track, because Knudsen noticed the new, wider bodies looked awkward on the carried-over 1958 frames. The new Wide-Track Pontiacs not only looked better, but also handled better--a bonus that tied in to Pontiac's resurgence in the marketplace.

The 1960 models saw a complete reskinning, which removed the tailfins and the distinctive split grille (which Ford copied on the final Edsel models for 1960!). More big news was the introduction of the Ventura, a more-luxurious hardtop coupe and Vista 4-door hardtop built on the shorter 122-inch (3,100mm) wheelbase platform and falling between the Catalina and Star Chief models. The Ventura featured the luxury of the Bonneville in the shorter, lighter Catalina body, and started the Pontiac trend of increasing luxury in even its least expensive models.

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