The heyday of Pontiac neatly coincides with the 1960-1967 period most celebrated here at Auto Universum. Their glory days began with the formation of a young new team of executives who were granted control of the division in the late fifties.
Semon “Bunkie” Knudsen was named General Manager in July of 1956 and brought John Z. DeLorean from a slowly dying Packard as his assistant, then tapped Pete Estes of Oldsmobile as his Chief Engineer.
When Knudsen and his team first took the reins, Pontiac sales were languishing in sixth place, behind Buick, Oldsmobile and even lower-priced Plymouth. Knudsen tasked his new team with energizing the brand by developing a more youthful and sporting image for the division. One of Bunkie’s first directives to department heads was to flesh out their staffs with “people who like cars.”
The first move was the introduction of the new top-line Bonneville; an expensive, lavishly equipped version of the Star Chief Convertible with a 310 hp fuel injected V8, the only non-Chevrolet to utilize GM’s Rochester fuel injection. The Bonneville was introduced in Florida with great fanfare during Daytona Speed Week in 1957. It became a full-range series for 1958, promising sport car action with town car luxury, boasting the first bucket seats available in a full-size postwar U.S. car.
Next up was the introduction of Wide-Track in 1959. Wide-Track moved each wheel outward 1-1/4” (31mm) in relation to the body, bestowing improved handling stability and a more muscular, athletic appearance.
To highlight and emphasize the new direction for Pontiac, a new stylized vertical Arrowhead logo replaced the classic Indian Head for ‘59.
Equally important was the introduction of a new entry level short-wheelbase model; the Catalina, named for an island off the coast of California. The name had previously been reserved for pillarless hardtop Pontiacs.
Santa Catalina, the island of romance, romance, romance, romance – The Four Preps, 1958
A highlight of ’59 models was the stylishly coordinated tri-tone Bonneville interiors, a feature that would become a trademark of early sixties Pontiacs. Other manufacturers offered tri-colour interiors, but no one executed them as adroitly as Pontiac at their best. Market share began steadily rising.
Coincident with the introduction of the Wide-Track ‘59s, was the decision to use illustrations of Pontiacs by the esteemed team of Art Fitzpatrick and Van Kaufman, who he hired away from Buick. For over a decade, Pontiac would be associated with their enchanting and evocative illustrations in print advertising and brochures, helping amplify and reinforce the glamorous image of sixties Pontiacs.
By the end of 1959, sales increased 76%, pulling Pontiac ahead of Buick and Oldsmobile.
For 1960 Pontiac launched a premium version of the Catalina, the Ventura. Once again, the new model was christened with a name evoking the burgeoning car, film, television and surf culture emerging on the Southern California coast.
You’d catch ’em surfin’ at Del Mar, Ventura County line – The Beach Boys, 1963
Previous cars featuring American geographical nomenclature tended to borrow the names of storied east coast locales like Biscayne, Del Ray and Newport. The cultural centre of the nation was drifting westward and Pontiac wasn’t going to be left behind.
Meanwhile, the division created an end-run around GMs 1957 corporate racing ban by establishing the in-house Super Duty Group in 1960. This department designed special competition parts for dealer or owner installation for customers engaged in stock car and drag racing. Super Duty components were sold primarily to dealers who had connections to competitive teams and drivers.
1960 also saw the introduction of an optional Borg Warner four-speed gearbox and the debut of Pontiac’s revered Eight-Lug Wheel with integrated brake drum; both features available to any customer who strolled into a Pontiac showroom.
Efforts of the Super Duty Group paid dividends quickly as Catalinas won Top Stock Eliminator at the NHRA Nationals in 1960 and the Daytona 500 in 1961.
Knudsen’s plan was working admirably. Between their stylish exterior and interior designs, the allure bestowed by Fitz and Van’s artwork, and the aura conferred by proven performance prowess, Pontiac’s sales chart began assuming a nearly relentless upward trajectory from 1960-1967.
By 1961 the SD group was offering heavy-duty 389 cubic inch block castings with four-bolt main bearing caps, forged crankshafts and pistons, free-breathing heads and specially-ground camshafts; all of which qualified as “stock” parts for competition purposes. Later in the year, 421 cubic inch blocks would be introduced. All were available over the parts counter or as dealer-installed options.
Super Duty powered Pontiacs claimed the Super Stock crown at the ’61 NHRA Nationals, the A/FX trophy in ’62 at both the ’62 Winternationals and ’62 Nationals. These victories continued to expose the new world of Pontiac performance to thousands of young drag racing fans who began seeing Pontiac as an aspirational brand. An aspiration that hey would be able to act on in a couple of years when Pontiac would introduce a lower priced intermediate-size performance car just for them.
The big news of ’62 was the debut of the Grand Prix. When GM management chose Buick over Pontiac to market the Riviera, Knudsen’s team decided they would build their own “Riviera” and actual beat Buick to market by a full model year. The new Grand Prix was a lavishly appointed slightly-lowered Catalina with standard front bucket seats and console. The exterior was cleaned up and de-chromed. Motive power was via a 303 hp Bonneville V8 with standard dual exhausts and a lowered rear axle ratio for better acceleration. The Grand Prix helped Pontiac achieve third in sales for ’62, behind only Chevrolet and Ford; a position it would hold for the rest of the decade.
Shortly after green-lighting development of the Grand Prix, GM promoted Bunkie to head up Chevrolet, their largest division. Nonetheless, Estes and DeLorean were now seasoned veterans, and together would continue leading Pontiac to new heights.
While their engineers were enhancing Pontiac’s reputation on the track, the styling department improved its presence on the street with designs of taught, gently sculpted lines, often the best of the GM divisions. Two hallmarks emerged that would come to define Pontiac styling during the period; the two-piece split grill introduced in 1959; and resurrected in 1961 after a one-year hiatus, and the vertically stacked headlamps that debuted for 1963.
One rung higher on the status ladder than Chevrolet or Ford, Pontiac was quickly becoming a dream car of the masses. One could move up to a Pontiac and comfortably park it in front of the billiard parlour or union hall and not be seen as an outsider; it was upscale without being too upscale. Jimmy Hoffa himself drove a Bonneville Brougham.
And Pontiac was rapidly gaining a cool factor. Your 409 Impala or 427 Galaxie might be faster, but it would never be as swank as a Grand Prix or quite as suave as a Catalina.
1964 was a big year for Pontiac with the introduction of two performance-oriented models, the mid-size GTO and full-size 2+2, both names borrowed from Ferrari’s then-current 250 Series.
The GTO was the first car targeted specifically to the emerging youth market. It was conceived by DeLorean during development of the second-generation Tempest. Like its predecessor, the new intermediate-size Pontiac was built to accommodate the 326 V8, and if the 326 would fit… so would the 389 (Pontiac only had a single V8 engine family.)
Little GTO, you’re really lookin’ fine. Three deuces and a four-speed, and a 389 – Ronnie and the Daytonas, 1964
Marketing and promotions man Jim Wangers of Pontiac ad agency McManus, John and Adams was a part-time drag racer and knew what racers and would-be racers wanted; it was Wangers who drove the Royal Pontiac Hot Chief Catalina to Top Stock Eliminator in the NHRA Nationals in 1960. Jim made sure DeLorean included Hurst shift linkage on all manual transmission GTOs, a big factor in lending the car the necessary street credibility. Meanwhile, Pontiac worked with the U.S. Rubber Company to develop a special GTO-specific performance tire, the red-striped U.S. Royal SS-800.
A major plus Pontiac had up its sleeve was their legendary Tri-Power, which they had been offering since 1957. At one time several U.S. manufacturers offered triple carburation, but Pontiac stuck with it and by 1964, they were the sole U.S. company to offer an engine topped with three dual-throat carburettors. The appeal of three-deuces had entranced American enthusiasts since the early days of hot-rodding when racers would add an aluminium intake manifold topped with three Stromberg carburettors to Ford Flatheads.
For the first time the optional Tri-Power carburation wasn’t hidden beneath a massive silenced air cleaner assembly. Rather, in true hot rod fashion they were on full display installed in the GTO; each one topped with its own tiny unsilenced chrome-plated filter. Outside of Pontiac, triple carburettors in 1964 were only found on the Alfa Romeo 2600, Aston Martin DB5, E-Type and Mark X Jaguars and Lancia Flaminia. Exotic company indeed.
Adding to the European allure of the borrowed GTO nameplate, front fender badges declared the engine displacement as 6.5 Litres.
The new 2+2 was marketed as the GTOs big brother for those who preferred full-size performance. A modified Catalina with bucket seats, centre console, and special trim, the 2+2 inherited the sporting mantle among big Pontiacs as the role of the Grand Prix became increasingly focused toward the personal luxury market. From ’65 through ’67, 2+2s were equipped with Pontiacs largest and most powerful standard-spec engines.
The division received another boost to their pop culture bona fides when Carl Wilson bought a new Yorktown Blue 1964 Grand Prix, whereupon it landed on the cover of the Beach Boys Shut Down Volume 2, sharing honors with Dennis Wilson’s 1963 Sting Ray.
Despite the overwhelming success of the Grand Prix and GTO, and the continuing popularity of Catalina and Bonneville, clouds started gathering over Pontiac headquarters as GM once again looked to the thriving division as a talent farm to be harvested. Pete Estes was tapped to run Chevrolet in 1965 as Knudsen was transferred to a GM Group Vice-Presidency. Leadership passed to John DeLorean, the last of the top management whose leadership had brought accolades, excitement and success to the brand.
A mere four years later, after overseeing the introduction of the OHC Six and Firebird, DeLorean would also be sent to Chevrolet, leaving the division completely devoid of the trio responsible for its meteoric rise.
1967 saw the death of the storied 389 V8, the renowned Tri-Power carburation, and the final year of Pontiac’s signature stacked headlights. Quite possibly not coincidentally, Pontiac market share peaked that year at nearly 10% of the U.S. market.
By 1971 it would be down in the 5% range, back where it was in 1957. A brief but illustrious and memorable run, now but a memory.