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The History of Pontiac
By: John Gunnell
Automotive Author and Pontiac Historian
It would be impossible to consider the history of the Pontiac automobile without first discussing the origins of Pontiac: the Oakland.
The Oakland was the idea of two men: Edward M. Murphy, who was anxious to move his Pontiac Buggy Co. into the automotive age, and Alanson P. Brush, who had been responsible for the design of early Cadillacs. They met around 1906, by which time Brush had set himself up in business as an engineering consultant in Detroit.
Brush showed Murphy his design for a small two-cylinder car that Cadillac had rejected. Its vertical engine rotated counterclockwise and its planetary transmission was unusual for a lack of braking bands. Brush used clutches running in oil instead. Murphy bought this automotive idea, which he decided should carry the same name “Oakland” as his horse-drawn vehicles. During the summer of 1907, Murphy organized the Oakland Motor Car Co.
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1908 - 1919
The first Oakland was ready by auto-show time in January 1908, although Brush was no longer involved. Having found another automotive pioneer named Frank Briscoe with available funds, Brush was back in Detroit building his single-cylinder Brush runabout.
Lackluster sales of less than 300 Oaklands in 1908 must have convinced Murphy that Cadillac had been right in rejecting the Brush-designed two-cylinder engine. For 1909, a line of 40-hp four-cylinder cars with sliding-gear transmissions was introduced. Tragically, at the age of 44, Edward M. Murphy died suddenly in September 1908. Five months prior to his passing, Murphy had met with another former buggy man named William C. Durant. Soon afterwards, Oakland became part of Durant’s General Motors Empire.
Oakland manufactured four-cylinder cars exclusively in 1910 and sales of 3,000 to 5,000 cars a year became the norm. Oakland’s first six-cylinder model– a big 334-cid 60-hp car on a 130-in. wheelbase– arrived in 1913, together with self-starter, electric lights and an eye-catching rounded V-shaped radiator for all Oaklands. Almost 9,000 cars were sold that year. Production increased to nearly 12,000 in 1915 and more than doubled the following year, when the Oakland range included fours, sixes and a new V-8.
In 1918, because of World War I needs, the V-8 was discontinued. The company’s efforts then were focused on its six-cylinder model, which would be produced without noticeable change into the 1920s. It was during this period that Billy Durant was undergoing his second and last departure from General Motors. With the arrival of Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., all divisions of the corporation were given a fresh look.
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1920 - 1929
An examination of Oakland’s affairs revealed a haphazard production schedule (maybe 50 cars built one day, only 10 the next) and a loss of quality (some cars had to be repaired even before leaving the factory). Fred W. Warner– a Durant man– resigned as Oakland’s general manager in 1921. George W. Hannum, who had begun his career at Autocar in 1907, succeeded Warner. Hannum had worked in various GM-related companies before arriving in the city of Pontiac. An official statement from General Motors indicated that Oakland would continue its present line “with gradual improvements.”
The big news for Oakland arrived in a 1924 model with a new L-head engine, four-wheel brakes, centralized controls, automatic spark advance and Duco nitro-cellulose lacquer. Oakland’s choice of color in pioneering the new finish was a shade of blue that allowed the company to promote its car as the “True Blue Oakland Six.” It could be had for as little as $995.
Unfortunately, insofar as being “true blue” as a GM man, George Hannum wasn’t. The GM-decreed slot for the Oakland among the corporation cars was between the top-of-the-line Chevrolet and the bread-and-butter Buick. In spite of a healthy annual production of over 35,000 cars in both 1923 and 1924, Hannum was eased out of Oakland.
By early 1925, Hannum’s place had been taken by Alfred R. Glancy, a likable fellow who had joined Oakland the year previous as assistant general manager. It was Al Glancy who would introduce the Pontiac, in 1926, as a quality six designed to sell for the price of a four. This new “companion car” to Oakland was a runaway success and, undoubtedly, an impetus to the later marketing of the Marquette by Buick and the Viking by Oldsmobile. Pontiac became one of the few companion cars to survive the rigors of competition. For years– until Saturn came along– it held the distinction of being the only line introduced by General Motors after formation of the corporation to survive into modern times. Oaklands and Pontiacs would be produced together beginning in 1926. Pontiac had been born!
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1930 - 1939
In 1930, there was an 85-hp V-8 under the hood of the Oakland, but calendar year production was just 24,443 cars. In October 1930, Buick’s Irving J. Reuter moved into Al Glancy’s job at Oakland. For 1931, the cars featured a new synchromesh transmission with silent second gear, but production had dropped greatly. With the effects of the Great Depression now weighing heavy, Irving Reuter announced the demise of the Oakland name. Its V-8 series would be revamped into a 1932 Pontiac model. During 1932, the name Oakland Motor Car Co. was changed to Pontiac Motor Company. Pontiac Motor had been born!
Soon after the introduction of Pontiac, it was evident that the original factory site near the center of the city of Pontiac was too small, so 246 acres were acquired on the northern edge of the city for a new plant. The new facility was known as the “Daylight Plant” because the extensive use of glass skylights provided natural illumination. It was considered a miracle in the construction industry that within 90 days after ground was broken, cars were being produced in the new plant. A new Fisher Body Division plant was built nearby and connected to the Daylight Plant by an overhead closed bridge. This was a convenience not available to many manufacturers, who had to truck in their bodies.
In 1933, Harry J. Klinger was named general manager of Pontiac. It was decided to put a “six” back in the line, but retain an eight as well. The new engine was not a V-8, like Oaklands and 1932 Pontiacs had, but an L-head in-line eight. The 1935 Pontiacs became the first to bear “Silver Streak” identification, a Pontiac feature that was to last through 1956. Sales then doubled, requiring further factory expansion. Pontiac’s selling of the “big car” image had proven successful in 1935 and no drastic changes were made in the 1936 line. Both the sixes and the eights grew larger for 1937 as Pontiac switched from the small Chevrolet “A” body to the “B” body shared with Buicks, Oldsmobiles and LaSalles. All-steel construction was another important advance. In 1938, a young designer named Virgil Exner crafted a handsome new front end for the 1937 bodies, but a sagging economy held sales to 103,314 cars. Three all-new cars were offered for 1939, with a new smaller model called the Quality Six returning to using the Chevrolet body on a 115-in. wheelbase. A column-mounted gearshift was another new feature.
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1940 - 1949
Pontiac continued with the A-bodied Quality Six and B-bodied Deluxe Six and Deluxe Eight in 1940, but also added a Torpedo Eight series that shared its GM C-body with large Buicks, Oldsmobiles and Cadillacs. Sales hit an impressive 239,477 for the calendar year, more than doubling those of just three years earlier. To follow up the rising trend, Pontiac produced 330,061 units of its 1941 models, thus becoming the largest producer in its price class and the fifth largest in the nation. As with all auto manufacturers, production ceased in February of 1942 with the outbreak of World War II. After an outstanding World War II production record, Pontiac returned to passenger car production in 1945. For the next three years it produced warmed-over 1942 models with bolted-on front fender extensions to provide a big-car look. Then, in 1949, an all-new postwar design evolved with slab sides and lower lines.
To satisfy growing demands, a vast expansion program was launched to increase productivity and capacity by 50 percent. Pontiac’s iron foundry was greatly enlarged. The layout of the engine plant was altered to provide for more machines and heavier production. A new building was erected for increased production of rear axles and for heat-treating of steel forgings to make them tougher and more durable. Pontiac’s electroplating system– one of the largest automatic setups in the new warehouse for handling past-model parts– was put into service.
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1950 - 1959
Pontiac’s 1950 models had minor updates to the new postwar body, but a two-door hardtop called the Catalina generated the most excitement. The in-line eight was increased to 268 cu. in. and 108 hp to try to keep up with the ohv V-8s that other automakers were releasing. Late in 1951, Harry J. Klinger became vice-president in charge of vehicle production for GM and Arnold Lenz was appointed general manager of Pontiac. Lenz served as general manager until his tragic death in a car-train crash during 1952. R.M. Critchfield then succeeded Lenz as general manager. Under his guidance Pontiac embarked on its most extensive enlargement and modernization program since 1927. A new car-finish building was completed and the engine plant was completely modernized to produce 1955 V-8 engines in record volumes. Production for 1955 established a new high of 581,860 cars.
A new era started for Pontiac in 1956 when Semon E. (Bunkie) Knudsen took over the reins as general manager. Knudsen was the son of William S. Knudsen, a former GM president. At the time, Knudsen, 43, was the youngest GM general manager. He proceeded without fanfare to make over the Pontiac image. Innovative models included a fuel-injected 1957 Bonneville convertible and the 1957 Transcontinental Station Wagon which combined sportiness with four-door utility value. With a revamped engineering group headed by E.M. “Pete” Estes, new Pontiacs were methodically developed. Starting with the 1959 models, an image of a youthful car with appeal across the broad spectrum of new car buyers emerged.
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1960 - 1969
In the fall of 1960, following intensive research, development and testing, Pontiac introduced the completely new Tempest series. Unique in conception and fresh in styling, the Tempest became an immediate success and was recognized as the outstanding engineering achievement of the year. When Knudsen moved to Chevrolet as general manager in 1961, Estes took over at Pontiac. Under his direction the division continued to grow in sales volume and facilities.
With the addition of the Tempest, Pontiac Motor Division moved into third place in sales in 1961. Long regarded as the hot spot in automobile sales, third place has a reputation of being hard to keep. Several car manufacturers have occupied the position over the years only to lose out to another make. Pontiac continued its dominance of third place all during the 1960s, as sales records were shattered.
The division also moved ahead in plant construction and in 1964 three new projects were announced. All were completed the following year and added some 1-1/2million square feet to Pontiac’s home production facilities. These included a 180,000-sq.-ft. addition to the foundry for new core-making machines, water-cooled cupolas and a new finishing room to make Pontiac’s foundry the most modern in the industry. Also added was a service parts warehouse containing 1,070,000 sq. ft. under one roof to consolidate storage of service parts. A one-story storage and shipping building, 800 feet long and 330 feet wide, to expedite shipments to other Pontiac assembly plants was completed in 1964.
Estes followed Knudsen’s footsteps to Chevrolet as general manager in 1965 and John Z. DeLorean was named to Pontiac’s top position, moving up from chief engineer of the division. Before the introduction of its 1966 models, Pontiac announced a completely new overhead camshaft engine as standard equipment on all 1966 Tempest models. This was the first time such an engine had been used in an American passenger car.
In January 1967, Pontiac unveiled the Firebird. Aimed at the youthful sports car market, it was offered with the OHC-6 and with a 400 cubic inch V-8 engine. 1968 was another milestone year for Pontiac. Production and sales records were shattered as 943,253 cars were produced for an all-time high. Pontiac’s GTO was chosen “Car of the Year” by Motor Trend magazine for “being so successful in confirming the correlations between safety, styling and performance.” The presentation of the Golden Calipers trophy marked the fourth time Pontiac had won the trophy, more than any other manufacturer. Contributing to the GTO’s success was the innovative energy-absorbing Endura front bumper developed by Pontiac engineering and introduced on the restyled 1968 model. Hailed as an industry first and projected as a pacesetter for others to copy, the car and bumper attracted nationwide publicity. Sales boomed in 1968 and, for the first time, the specialty cars like the Tempest, Grand Prix and Firebird, brought in more customers than the traditional line. When the final tallies were in, 910,977 Pontiacs had been sold.
The 1969 Grand Prix, with its completely new styling, was a phenomenal success as its sales more than tripled over the previous model year to 105,000. Car Life magazine awarded the Grand Prix its “Car of the Year” award. In February 1969, F. James McDonald returned to Pontiac as general manager, replacing DeLorean who moved up to Chevrolet in the same capacity. McDonald had served as Pontiac’s works manager from 1965–1968 and returned after spending one year to the day at Chevrolet, as its director of manufacturing operations.
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1970 - 1975
The division’s new 300,000-sq.-ft. ultra-modern administration building opened in early 1970. The five-level structure headquartered the general manager and the sales, accounting, data processing, purchasing and public relations departments.
In March 1971, Pontiac entered the compact car market with the low-priced, stylish Ventura II. Built on a 111-inch wheelbase, the Ventura II was offered in two- and four-door models. In April 1971, Pontiac dedicated a new multi-million dollar vehicle emissions control and carburetor testing facility. The two-story, 43,000-sq.-ft. building was being used by Pontiac engineers working on the development of vehicle emissions controls of components in the power train and the fuel system. The 1971 calendar year saw Pontiac take firm hold on third place in the auto industry’s sales race. Pontiac dealers sold 710,352 cars to capture the hotly contested third spot in sales for the 10th time in the last 11 years.
For 1972, Pontiac featured a new energy-absorbing bumper on all full-size cars. The system consisted of two telescoping steel boxes that contained urethane positioned between the bumper and the frame of the car. Since the urethane blocks were not damaged by an impact, the bumper could be struck numerous times during the life of the car and continue to absorb energy. On Oct. 1, 1972, Martin J. Caserio became general manager of Pontiac replacing McDonald, who was named Chevrolet general manager. Caserio had been general manager of the GMC Truck & Coach Division since 1966.
The 1973 Pontiac lineup was highlighted by a totally redesigned intermediate series, topped by a stunning-looking Grand Am. This fine road touring car featured a “soft nose” front end made of flexible rubber-like urethane for protection. Pontiac sales of 854,343 for the 1973 model year were the second-best in history.
The 1974 Pontiac lineup featured significant engineering improvements in energy absorbing bumpers and a new Radial Tuned Suspension package. By 1974 the major construction was completed on a multi-million dollar program to clean up smoke emissions from the Pontiac Casting Plant. Five modern arc-melt furnaces and four electric induction-molding furnaces with the latest dust collecting units were installed. Two remaining coke-fired cupolas had modern emission control equipment installed making them as clean as the electric furnaces.
Introduction of the sub-compact Astre, bold restyling of the compact Ventura and extensive use of Radial Tuned Suspension with steel-belted radial tires highlighted introduction of the 1975 Pontiacs. Rectangular headlamps were utilized on the Bonneville and Grand Ville Brougham for the first time. On Oct. 1, 1975, Alex C. Mair was appointed general manager of Pontiac, succeeding Caserio, who became General Motors’ vice-president and group executive in charge of the automotive components– electrical group. Mair had been general manager of the GMC Truck & Coach Division since 1972 and previously had been director of engineering for the Chevrolet Motor Division.
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1976 - 1979
Pontiac’s Golden Anniversary model lineup for 1976 included a new sporty car– the Sunbird– and a new top-of-the-line entry called the Bonneville Brougham. Use of rectangular headlamps was expanded to include the intermediate LeMans, the Grand Prix and the new Sunbird. The new Pontiacs showed the positive results of Pontiac engineers’ continuing efforts to improve fuel economy.
Pontiac’s 1977 model lineup was headlined by the introduction of the completely redesigned full-size cars, plus two new engines. Catalina, Bonneville, Bonneville Brougham, Catalina Safari and Grand Safari models all were redesigned to be shorter and lighter than their predecessors. They continued to offer as much or more interior and luggage compartment space as earlier models. The new engines– a 2.5-liter (151-cid) cast-iron L-4 and a 4.9-liter (301-cid) V-8– were designed from the outset to provide improved durability and reliability as well as outstanding fuel economy.
Pontiac introduced a new car mid-year in 1977. The Phoenix was added to the Pontiac lineup as the top-of-the-line compact car. It joined the Pontiac Ventura as the only American compact cars to offer a four-cylinder engine. Among other features, the Phoenix offered the first U.S. headlamps completely designed under the metric measurement system.
Complete redesign of the mid-size LeMans and Grand LeMans and of the personal luxury Grand Prix, the return of the Grand Am and continuing engineering and fuel economy improvements were the highlights of Pontiac’s 1978 model lineup. The LeMans, Grand LeMans and Grand Prix were all shorter and lighter than their predecessors, providing significant increases in fuel economy while retaining traditional levels of roominess and comfort. New front and rear design treatments and several new interior trims were offered in the 1978 full-size Pontiacs. The Grand Am was reintroduced with distinctive features that included a soft, flexible rubber front-end panel. The Phoenix replaced the Ventura and the Sunbird replaced the Astre as Pontiac’s compact and subcompact cars, respectively, for the 1978 model year. In April 1978, the completely modernized manufacturing office building was dedicated. Occupying the new building were Industrial Engineering, Manufacturing Staff, Reliability Staff, Plant Engineering and Production Engineering.
Pontiac Motor Division sold more new cars– 871,391– during the 1978 model year than in any previous model year in its history. Firebirds, led by the performance-oriented Trans Am, continued to be among the most popular cars in the auto industry, setting an all-time model year sales record of 175,607. Pontiac’s sporty little Sunbird also set a sales record.
On Nov. 6, 1978, Robert C. Stempel became Pontiac general manager. He succeeded Alex Mair, who was named vice president and group executive in charge of the Technical Staffs Group at the GM Technical Center in Warren, Michigan. Stempel had formerly been Director of Engineering for Chevrolet Motor Division.
The 1979 Pontiac lineup was highlighted by new Firebird styling and, for the Sunbird, a new four-cylinder engine with a “crossflow” cylinder head that improved performance. The 1979 model year was the first full year since the 1930s that Pontiac offered genuine wire wheels on certain models. Four-wheel power disc brakes were introduced as an option for Firebird Formula and Trans Am models. The Grand Safari wagon was renamed the Bonneville Safari to more closely identify it with the Pontiac family of cars. Pontiac’s 400-cid V-8 was discontinued for all Catalina and Bonneville models in an effort to increase average fuel economy and help General Motors meet stringent federal fuel economy standards.
Pontiac introduced its first front-wheel-drive car in April 1979, with a totally redesigned “efficiency-sized” Phoenix. Available as a two-door coupe and five-door hatchback sedan, the Phoenix came in base, luxury LJ and sporty SJ editions. A transverse 2.5-liter (151-cid) four-cylinder L-4 “crossflow” engine was standard in Phoenix with an optional 2.8-liter (173-cid) 60-degree transverse V-6 engine available. The 1980 Phoenix was smaller and more tightly packaged on the outside, but larger in many respects on the inside, compared to the 1979 Phoenix.
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1980 - 1984
The remainder of Pontiac’s 1980 model lineup– introduced in October 1979– included major styling changes to full-size Pontiacs and a revised engine lineup that promised more fuel efficiency while maintaining good performance. A GM 4.9-liter (301-cid) four-barrel turbocharged engine, produced by Pontiac Motor Division, was introduced as a federal option for Firebird Trans Am and Formula models. A GM 4.3-liter (265-cid) V-8 engine– also produced by Pontiac– was introduced. It was essentially a downsized version of the Pontiac-produced 4.9-liter (301-cid) V-8. A white Limited Edition Pontiac Turbo Trans Am was chosen as the official pace car for the 64th running of the Indianapolis 500 race, May 25, 1980.
In August 1980, William E. Hoglund, who had been comptroller of General Motors, returned to Pontiac as general manager. He replaced Robert Stempel who was appointed managing director for Adam Opel AG in Germany. A major design change for Grand Prix and a new General Motors Computer Command Control system for all Pontiac carlines (except with diesel) highlighted Pontiac’s 1981 product lineup. The 1980 Sunbird was carried over through the end of the 1980 calendar year.
The 1981-1/2 Pontiac T1000 made its debut at the Chicago Auto Show in February. Targeted at the price-conscious family buyer in need of inexpensive entry-level transportation, the T1000 was available as a three- or five-door hatchback. In May, Pontiac’s J2000 was introduced as a totally new, efficient and functional front-wheel-drive subcompact. Built on a 101.2-in. wheelbase, the J2000 was available as a two-door coupe, four-door sedan, three-door hatchback or four-door station wagon. Its standard power train was a 1.8-liter (112-cid) L-4 engine with a two-barrel carburetor linked to a four-speed manual transaxle. Pontiac J2000s were promoted as appealing to both traditional and “new value” buyers as a car that combined functionality with a blend of flair and excitement.
Pontiac Motor Division produced over 700,000 four-cylinder engines during the 1981 model year. During the summer of 1981, the division opened a new engine facility in Plant 55, where it produced additional GM 2.5-liter four-cylinder engines. Pontiac was one of the first in the industry to use microwave measurement for accurately timing these engines. Other technological innovations used in the 712,000-sq.-ft., $200 million plant included a functional check that performed several tests, a signature analysis torque rate system and a computer Management Information System.
The world-famous Bonneville nameplate adorned a more fuel-efficient luxury car in Pontiac’s 1982 fall product introductions. The Pontiac-produced 1982 GM 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine underwent major technological improvements, including elimination of the conventional carburetor. It also offered improved drivability and fuel economy through advanced technology including electronic fuel injection. All-new ultra-aerodynamic Firebirds and contemporary five-passenger front-wheel-drive Pontiac 6000 models joined the 1982 Pontiac lineup in January.
Available in three distinct models– the sporty base coupe, the performance-oriented Trans Am and the new sophisticated luxury S/E– each Firebird had its own specific identity. The base engine was a 2.5-liter EFI engine, while the S/E had a 2.8-liter V-6 and the Trans Am was powered by a 5.0-liter four-barrel V-8. All models had a standard four-speed manual transmission. Extensive wind tunnel testing on the Firebird resulted in an excellent drag coefficient that made the car one of the most aerodynamic cars ever produced.
Although the Pontiac 6000 was based on the General Motors X-car platform and power train, it was a completely different car inside, outside and underneath with ride and handling characteristics that made it internationally competitive. Available in first level and LE series as a spacious four-door sedan or contemporary two-door coupe, the Pontiac 6000 was powered by a fuel-injected 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine with three-speed automatic transmission as standard equipment. The dramatic wedge shape of the 6000 was the result of many hours of aerodynamic tuning of the surface, body contours and details, making the 6000 one of the most aerodynamic sedans available in America.
In April 1982, Pontiac offered a new overhead cam, fuel-injected four-cylinder engine for its sub-compact J2000 models with an automatic transmission. The OHC-fuel injection engine provided exceptional smoothness with a responsive, fuel-efficient performance.
The 1983 model lineup saw the introduction of the new Pontiac STE as a high-styled world-class performance sedan. The STE was designed to compete head-on with the best import sedans in the special touring market. The standard engine was a 130-hp high-output 2.8-liter two-barrel V-6. Also in 1983, Pontiac re-introduced the full-sized Parisienne to its model lineup after a two-year absence.
1984 was a banner year for Pontiac as the division took a major step as the expressive performance division of General Motors with the introduction of the revolutionary two-seat sports car called the Fiero. It was the first production car in the world to utilize a “space-frame chassis” with separate reinforced “Enduraflex” plastic body panels. Pontiac’s first two-seater was built on a 93.4-in. wheelbase and powered by a 92-hp 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine. The Fiero was a tremendous success during its first year in the market with sales of nearly 100,000 units– which nearly doubled the sales of the previous best selling two-seater in the U.S. Pontiac also announced, in 1984, that it was adding an exciting turbocharged 1.8 liter-engine to its 2000/Sunbird lineup. The impressive turbo churned out 150 hp at 5600 rpm.
In January of 1984, GM announced the formation of two new car groups: the C-P-C Group (Chevrolet, Pontiac, GM Canada) and the B-O-C Group (Buick, Oldsmobile, Cadillac). As a part of the C-P-C group, Pontiac was charged with developing a product line for the late-1980s that would appeal to the entry-level youth market with exciting, fun-to-drive, performance-oriented sporty vehicles. In July, GM announced that the idle Pontiac Motor Home Plant 8, which had built Pontiacs since the 1920s, would be re-activated to build several models of GM rear-wheel-drive mid-size passenger cars.
Also in July, Pontiac General Manager William E. Hoglund was promoted to group executive in charge of the GM Operating Staffs Group. He was later named president of Saturn Corporation. J. Michael Losh became the 14th general manager of Pontiac replacing Hoglund. Losh had been managing director of General Motors de Mexico. Calendar year 1984 was Pontiac’s best sales year in the previous five as dealers sold 704,684 new cars. The number one nameplate in the Pontiac lineup for 1984 was the Sunbird, which had sales of 126,916 units.
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1985 - 1989
In 1985, hot in the tracks of the successful Fiero, STE and Sunbird Turbo, Pontiac introduced the newest in a series of bold image cars, the driver-oriented Grand Am. Available only as a two-door coupe, the Grand Am was designed to compete head-to-head with the upscale imports and to appeal to the “new values” consumer of the 1980s. Engines offered were the new electronic fuel-injected 2.5-liter four-cylinder or the performance-oriented 125-hp multi-port-fuel-injected 3.0-liter-V-6. The 1985 model year saw Pontiac dealers sell 785,617 cars, the best performance since 1979. The 6000 was the division’s top seller with deliveries of 156,995 units.
The 1986 Pontiac product lineup was highlighted by the addition of several new expressive “Drivers Cars” such as the Grand Am SE, the Sunbird GT and, in early 1986, the bold new Fiero GT. These new models helped Pontiac to achieve the biggest market share gain of any GM division in 1986. Sales reached 840,137, with the Grand Am almost doubling its sales to 190,994 units, from 98,567 the previous year.
Early in the model year for Pontiac’s 1987 lineup, the Bonneville was converted to GM’s front-wheel-drive H-body platform at the Willow Run, Michigan plant. Also, with the spring 1987 arrival of the new South Korean import the LeMans (as a 1988 model) Pontiac was able to offer a much-needed entry-level subcompact and revive a proven name. Pontiac sales totaled 715,536 units in 1987. They were led by the Grand Am, which had 216,065 sales.
In October 1987, production began on the 1988 Grand Prix, which was built at the new GM assembly plant in Fairfax, Kansas. The new front-drive Grand Prix, based on the W-platform, reached sales of 76,723 units and helped Pontiac to a record of 740,928 units sold in 1988. The Grand Am was again Pontiac’s top seller with 221,438 sales. Bonneville’s new SSE model came with the new 3.8-liter V-6 as its standard power plant. The Fiero line had a new Formula model. It featured fully independent suspension, which was offered on all Fieros for 1988, the final year the car was produced.
In calendar year 1989, Pontiac offered GM’s first all-wheel-drive car, the 6000 STE. Also new were limited editions of the Trans Am 20th Anniversary model and the McLaren Turbo Grand Prix. Only 1,500 of the 20th Anniversary Trans Ams were built. A 3.8-liter turbocharged engine rated at 250 hp powered them. A limited edition of 2,000 McLaren Turbo Grand Prixs was also assembled. Domestic sales hit 675,422, again led by the Grand Am. John G. Middlebrook replaced J. Michael Losh and became the 15th general manager of Pontiac Motor Division.
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1990 - 1994
Pontiac launched the 1990s with its foray into the minivan market via the Trans Sport. This APV (all-purpose vehicle) was constructed of composite materials on a space frame substructure. It could be ordered with seating for five, six, or seven passengers. The popular Firebird– offered in the spring of 1990– also took on a new look for 1991. It received an exterior overhaul to improve aerodynamics and also got more muscle under its hood. The popular 1991 Grand Am’s sales hit 170,622 in 1991! In Lordstown, Ohio, autoworkers stayed busy building Pontiac’s second best-selling model, the Sunbird. The 1991 Sunbird’s new features included a 3.1-liter V-6. Production of Sunbird LE convertibles rose to 18,611, up from 13,197 in 1990. The Grand Prix had some of the most exciting changes in 1991. A GTP model replaced the Turbo Coupe. It looked like the turbocharged model, but had an all-new 210-hp Twin Dual Cam V-6. New features for 6000s were few. Bonneville innovations for 1991 included a new brake-transmission interlock; London/Empress cloth trims for SEs (optional on LEs); 15-inch bolt-on LE wheel covers and P215/65R-15 tires for LEs. New features for 1991 Trans Sports included stainless-steel exhaust, a roof luggage carrier, larger outside mirrors and a self-aligning steering wheel. The SE also offered a new 2+3+2 seating option. PMD made 18,319 Trans Sports in a factory in Tarrytown, New York.
Priced from $7,899–$9,810, the 1992 LeMans had a new sport-tuned exhaust system, amber section taillights, revised engine calibration, and new Bright Yellow paint for the coupe. The base LE was re-badged as the SE. Sunbird features included multi-point fuel injection, more horsepower for the four and standard anti-lock brakes. Sunbird GTs added dual-exhausts, 15-inch machine-faced aluminum wheels, tinted glass and a spoiler. Pontiac’s popular Grand Am offered SE and GT coupes and sedans with new aerodynamic exteriors. Functional changes included a 2.3-liter Quad 4 and 3.3-liter V-6. The 1992 Firebirds had what Pontiac called “structural enhancements,” plus new non-asbestos brake pads and new colors were added. AM/FM cassette radio graphics were redesigned and a new Beige interior bowed. This was the Firebird’s 25th anniversary, but no special commemorative model was released. Antilock brakes became standard on the Grand Prix GT, GTP and STE. The Bonneville turned 35. It had major interior and exterior changes, plus a Sport Package. The 1992 Trans Sport featured a new antilock braking system.
An acoustics package made 1993 Sunbirds quieter. A Sport Appearance Package for SE coupes, a glass convertible rear window, a low-oil-level sensor on 2.0-liter fours, several colors and a trunk cargo net were new. The fourth-generation Firebird arrived in 1993 with Firebird, Firebird Formula and Trans Am coupes. All had a 68-degree windshield, new aluminum wheels and tires, composite body panels, new instruments, new suspensions and a standard 3.4-liter V-6. A new 5.7-liter V-8 was standard in Formula and Trans Am models, which also got a six-speed manual transmission. Advanced four-wheel anti-lock brakes were standard with four-wheel disc brakes on Formulas and Trans Ams. New Grand Prix features included an optional “second-gear start” transmission with 3.1-liter V-6s, a Ruby Red interior, a Sport Appearance Package for the LE sedan, a four-speed electronic automatic transmission option (with 3.1-liter V-6s), standard automatic door locks and provisions for installation of a cell phone. Pontiac dropped the Trans Sport GT. With John Middlebrook continuing on as general manager, Pontiac Motor Division generated 6.39 percent of U.S. sales.
Despite bitterly cold weather across the country sales of new Pontiacs for calendar year 1994 rose nearly eight percent. Pontiac dropped three Sunbirds (SE sedan, SE convertible and GT coupe), three Grand Prixs (LE sedan, STE sedan and GT coupe) and the Bonneville SSEi sedan. Added was a Sunbird LE ragtop. The Grand Am remained Pontiac’s sales leader. The 1994 Firebirds didn’t change much. A convertible returned in each series– Firebird, Formula and Trans Am. The Trans Am ragtop came as a GT. New features included a Dark Aqua Metallic color, floodlit interiors, visor straps, Delco 2001 series radios, CD players and a 5.7-liter SFI V-8. Grand Prix changes included a “Special Edition Coupe” Package, a GTP Performance Package for the coupe and a GT Performance Package for the sedan. Pontiac replaced the Bonneville SSEi with an SSEi Supercharger Package. The Trans Sport got a standard driver’s side air bag and integral child seats as a new option.
On January 27, 1994, Pontiac announced a special model to honor the silver anniversary of the Trans Am. This 25th Anniversary Edition Trans Am included Bright White exterior finish, a bright blue centerline stripe, anniversary logos and door badges, lightweight 16-inch aluminum wheels painted Bright White and white Prado leather seats with blue 25th Anniversary embroidery. Buyers received a special 25th Anniversary portfolio when they picked up a car. As a special nod to Trans Am history, PMD headquarters announced that it would build a very limited number of 25th Anniversary Trans Am GT convertibles to honor the eight famous T/A ragtops made when the sports-performance model was first released in mid-1969.
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1995 - 1999
The Sunfire subcompact replaced the Sunbird in 1995. It had new styling, engineering and technology. Standard engines were a 2.2-liter OHV four for SEs and a 2.3-liter DOHC 16-valve Quad 4 for GTs. A GT coupe entered production in May 1995, along with a convertible. Pontiac’s lone rear-wheel-drive model was offered as a coupe or convertible in three series: Firebird, Formula and Trans Am. The Canadian-built F-cars had several changes like traction control with V-8s and either manual or automatic transmission, three new exterior colors and two new leather interiors. Also new were 16-in. five-spoke aluminum wheels, speed-rated tires, a power antenna, a four-spoke Sport steering wheel and a remote CD changer. New-for-1995 Grand Prix features included variable-effort steering with the GT or GTP packages, a standard brake/transmission interlock, a new floor console and a modified suspension. A new Sports Luxury Edition (SLE) package was available to upgrade the 1995 Bonneville SE. Traction control and a brake/transmission shift interlock were standard on 1995 Trans Sports. Calendar-year sales were 566,826 cars, plus 32,297 Trans Sports.
A 1996 sales brochure described the Grand Prix as “the sports car for grown ups.” Nearly 20 percent of all GM cars being built were Pontiacs and the Grand Am was among the top 10 selling American cars. The smooth-lined Sunfire returned and its Quad 4 performance engine was replaced by a new 2.4-liter 150-hp Twin-Cam power plant. Traction control was included with four-speed automatics, which were now available with the base 2.2-liter engine. Daytime running lights were now standard. A 3800 Series II 200-hp V-6 was the new standard engine for 1996 Firebirds. An optional WS6 Ram Air Performance and Handling Package was available on Formula and Trans Am coupes with the 5.7-liter V-8. The Grand Am was the ninth best-selling car in America. Its exterior was revamped with new fascias, headlamps and tail lamps. The Bonneville got an optional 240-hp supercharged 3800 Series II V-6 with 240 hp. The 1996 Trans Sport offered standard front air conditioning. This was the final year of its production in Tarrytown. Roy S. Roberts became general manager of Pontiac-GMC Division.
The Grand Prix had an all-new Wide Track-stance and revised model lineup for 1997. There was an SE sedan, GT coupe and sedan and GTP Performance Package with a supercharged 240-hp V-6. Sunfire coupes were now being made at an assembly plant in Ramos Arizpe, Mexico. Grand Am SE and GT coupes and sedans returned with minimal changes. Firebird models and engines carried over from 1996, but new options were added. A Ram Air Performance and Handling Package was offered for convertibles. The mid-1996 Sport and Appearance Package for V-6 Firebirds included ground effects, fog lamps and dual exhausts with cast aluminum extensions. New for the Bonneville was an ETC four-speed automatic transmission with the supercharged engine, an adjustable “heads-up” display, a Delco/Bose premium sound system, Magnasteer variable effort power steering, remote keyless entry and electronic load leveling. An all-new steel-bodied eight-passenger Trans Sport MPV, made in Doraville, Georgia replaced the plastic-bodied 1996 model. PMD also offered a Montana package with SUV styling cues, extra-traction tires and a traction-control system.
For 1998, the Pontiac Sunfire’s 2.2-liter engine was enhanced with roller rocker arms, a new intake manifold, combustion chamber improvements and a new cylinder head design. The 1998 Grand Am was largely unchanged. The hot Firebird offered five models since the Formula convertible was dropped. Formulas and Trans Ams got a new, all-aluminum 5.7-liter 305-hp V-8 with a six-speed manual transmission. A Ram Air package provided 320 hp. Styling was freshened with a front fascia that incorporated a new headlamp design. There were updated taillights, too. V-8s with four-speed automatic transmissions had a larger torque converter and all Firebirds got standard four-wheel disc brakes. A mid-year Formula option was an AutoCross package with a beefed-up suspension. The all-new-for-’97 “Wide-Track” Grand Prix was slightly refined for 1998. The Bonneville SE and SSE sedans mirrored the previous models, except that the optional supercharged 3.8-liter V-6 was no longer available on SE sedans. The 1998 Trans Sport MPV got standard side-impact air bags for front passengers as standard. In late 1997 and early 1998, Pontiac-GMC Division moved its offices into GM’s new World Headquarters building in Detroit’s Renaissance Center.
Pontiac made sweeping changes in four of its six series for 1999. The Bonneville was the only Pontiac line that cloned last year’s offerings. A new Sunfire GT convertible was introduced. New Grand Am SE coupe and sedan models came out in the spring of 1998 as 1999 Pontiacs. The Firebird section of the 1999 Pontiac sales catalog was the same as in the 1998 catalog, but a new 30th Anniversary Limited Edition Trans Am added a little distinction to the year’s offerings. The 1999 Grand Prix SE and GT models got a standard Enhanced Traction System. The non-turbo 3.8-liter V-6 went up to 200 hp. An all-new 2000 Bonneville was already being promoted in 1999, so the series that returned was essentially a carry-over from the previous year. Promoted as “A new state of excitement,” the Trans Sport became the Montana in 1999. New options included a Sport Performance Group and a Vision Package with a drop-down rear seat with an LCD color monitor, video cassette player and CD player. During 1999, Lynn Myers took over as general manager of Pontiac-GMC Division.
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2000 - 2002
When 2000 arrived, Pontiac Motor Division was poised to lead GM into the New Millennium. The Aztek, which began as a concept car that represented a cross between a car and a SUV, didn’t wait long after the Y2K threat evaporated to become a reality. With controversial styling, the Aztek was very much aimed at the youth market that Pontiac harvested so successfully in the 1950s. Standard equipment included a “Versatrak” on-demand all-wheel-drive system, a rear cargo sliding tray with pop-up storage compartments, a removable front console/cooler, a Pioneer premium 10-speaker sound system with rear-cargo-area controls and lightweight, removable second-row flip/fold modular bench seats.
The 2000 Bonneville debuted in the fall with SE, SLE and SSEi sedans. The SSEi’s 240-hp supercharged engine was good for under-seven-second 0-to-60 times.
The New Millennium Bonneville’s “attitude” was showcased at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah during the 2000 Speedweek event there. A factory-backed “assault on the Salt” racing promotion was designed to show that the Bonneville nameplate was in touch with its 1957 high-performance roots. It included a Bonneville racer with a supercharged 3.8-liter V-6 that put out more than twice the production SSEi’s 240 hp. It was said to have “well over 500 hp.” During the six days of racing, Bonneville veteran Mike Cook drove the car to a 150-mph preliminary run, followed by an easy 189-mph pass, before engine and computer problems set in. The Bonneville was repaired and managed a top run of 195 mph before time ran out.
In the little-changed Firebird line, Formula and Trans Am models were available with new 17-in. wheels as part of a Ram Air Package. A five-speed manual transmission was standard on all 2000 Grand Am SEs in combination with a 2.4-liter DOHC four. The Grand Prix’s Millennium restyling included a new front air deflector designed to help reduce aerodynamic drag and further improve performance. A limited edition Grand Prix paced the Daytona 500 for the 11th time. Only 2,000 Grand Prix GTP Daytona 500 Pace Car replicas were made. The Y2K Montana featured an upgraded electrical system and instrument cluster and improved anti-lock braking system. Sunfire SE and GT coupes feature restyled front and rear fascias, while GT models add sporty dual-exhaust outlets and unique front-end styling.
For 2001, Pontiac continued to offer Aztek, Grand Am, Firebird, Grand Prix, Bonneville and Montana car lines. The big changes for the year were in the Aztek, Montana and Grand Prix series. The Aztek– billed as the “World’s First Sport Recreation Vehicle– came in base and GT models that combined riveting design, exciting performance, athletic handling and outstanding versatility and flexibility. An All-wheel-drive version was new and started appearing in showrooms late in 2000 or very early in 2001. The Montana received a fresh new look for 2001 with a redesigned front grille and fascia and a new rear fascia. A factory-installed luggage rack was standard equipment and allowed owners to carry more cargo or luggage. Black body finish was also new for the Pontiac minivan. Extended wheelbase Montanas now offered a Rear Parking Aid System with four ultrasonic sensors and an optional fully integrated rear-seat entertainment system called MontanaVision. The wider-is-better Grand Prix was refined with a freshened SE exterior and the introduction of Special Edition GT and GTP option packages based on the 2000 Daytona Pace Car.
For 2002, Pontiac marketed Aztek, Bonneville, Firebird, Grand Am, Grand Prix, Montana and Sunfire models and planned to bring the all-new Vibe to market. It also kicked off a new marketing campaign themed, “Pontiac Excitement. Pass It On” based on real people experiencing real excitement in a Pontiac Grand Am or Grand Prix. It debuted during the Emmy Awards on Oct. 7, 2001. “Think of it as Reality TV meets marketing,” said general manager Lynn Myers. “These are real people and we’ll give them the keys to a Pontiac for a week so we can film what happens and share their experience with Pontiac Excitement before they pass on the keys to someone else.” The drivers’ adventures were quickly documented in TV commercials or on the Web.
The controversial Pontiac Aztek entered 2002 with a new look, more standard features and lower prices of $19,995 for the front-drive version and $22,995 for the Versatrak all-wheel drive model. “We have given Aztek a fresh new look for 2002, while keeping up with the competitive marketplace and giving consumers a better value and more for their money,” Aztek brand manager Jim Vurpillat told the press. On Sept. 25, 2001, General Motors announced that it would stop selling the Firebird (along with the Chevrolet Camaro) after 2002 due to slow sales. Firebird sales were down 28 percent through August 2001. The plant that builds both cars, in Ste. Therese, Quebec, Canada, was slated to close in the fall of 2002. GM added that it would issue a Collector Edition Firebird Trans Am and 35th Anniversary Edition Camaro as special 2002 models.
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2003 - 2006
The end of an era dawned with no more Firebird/Trans Am for 2003. Hopes were riding high on the newly redesigned Grand Prix released in 2003 as a 2004. But the biggest news on the horizon was the rumor of a new GTO which was coming from the Holden plant “down under” in Australia. This would be a Pontiac version of the Holden Monaro. Promises of a 350 horsepower rear wheel drive V-8 from Pontiac wearing the returning GTO badge had excitement high. Sales for the 2004 GTO and subsequent sales of the, now 400 horsepower, 2005 GTO were not as hoped as expected buyers asked “Where’s the GTO”? While not disputed as a tremendous performing, handling, and quality built automobile, it was the retro-look that GTO lovers were looking for. Announcements were made that there would not be a 2006 GTO, with questions looming of any more at all.
A much anticipated offering in 2005 of the all new G6, replacing the sales-leading Grand Am, was generating new excitement. Unfortunately the G6 has not garnered the sales of the Grand Am it replaced. A hardtop version has captured some more attention, while production difficulties held up introduction of the retractable hardtop convertible. The rest of the line stayed largely unchanged from 2003–2006. However. A grand old Pontiac name was “retired” when it was announced that the Bonneville would be dropped for the 2006 lineup. The controversially styled Aztek did not survive into 2006 either, being replaced in the SUV family by the new Torrent. But there was other excitement coming.
The 2006 model year was anxiously waiting the much publicized Solstice, Pontiac’s second foray into the two-seater market. Unlike the Fiero, the Solstice was not a mid-engine, but rather a very high performance front engine 4-cylinder. Sales hypes and much advance advertising generated high levels of anticipation and excitement– sales rushes confirmed that the public was ready for an exciting Pontiac again.
As the entire auto industry faced extreme setbacks in sales for 2005 and 2006, discounts and incentives helped boost many sales through a slow market. Pontiac, as well as all other U.S. auto manufactures, have been forced to rethink their products as buyers cry for performance¬ and styling, as the government mandates higher milage requirements, and as the gas prices keep soaring at the pumps. The first few years of the new Millennium have proven to be both exciting and difficult for all.
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2007 - 2010
Reading the above, it is obvious that Pontiac was “on the ropes.” Models were being dropped, and any forecast for the future was dubious at best. Obviously hanging any hopes to entice Pontiac performance lovers to the showroom with a 4-cylinder sports car was absurd… but, well in line with all the other engineering and marketing fiascoes PMD had been making for many years. These were very sad years for Pontiac lovers was we watched what was actually a slow, painful death.
Fortunately, if Pontiac hobbyists are looking for a silver lining on this black cloud, we have the hobbyplace to continue recording and telling the story of this once great automaker, and that is what we are doing here at PontiacRegistry.com. We invite everyone to join and share their Pontiac information, photos, data, stories, etc. so we can assure that our favorite car, while gone, will definitely never be forgotten.
Here at PontiacRegistry.com you will find more Pontiac information in one place than anywhere else, including its long, and rich, history. Check our Free Trial “Test Drive” Membership, and then join to help support this effort.
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