In 1956, GM’s Pontiac Motor Division was close to death, its sales down, its market share declining, and its image at a low ebb. That summer, however, help arrived in the form of Bunkie Knudsen, Pete Estes, and John DeLorean. Together, they lifted Pontiac out of its mid-fifties doldrums and put it on track for its unprecedented success in the 1960s. This week, we look back at the reign of Bunkie Knudsen and the birth of the legendary Wide Track Pontiacs.
THE BIRTH OF PONTIAC
For years, if you asked Pontiac executives when the division was founded, they would tell you 1909, the year the Oakland Motor Car Company became a division of General Motors. The Pontiac brand, however, was born in the economic boom of the mid-1920s, part of GM president Alfred P. Sloan’s plan to fill the gaps between the corporation’s various makes by giving each division a complementary “companion make.” Cadillac was paired with LaSalle, Buick with Marquette, Oldsmobile with Viking, and Oakland with Pontiac, which took its name from Pontiac, Michigan (where Oakland was headquartered) and Chief Pontiac, the 18th-century Ottawa leader whose stylized likeness became the new car’s mascot.
The original Pontiac was one of GM’s first exercises in what we would now call platform sharing. It was based on the contemporary Chevrolet, sharing much of its running gear, but it was somewhat bigger and offered a distinct appearance and a new 187 cu. in. (3,059 cc) six-cylinder engine. Since the Chevrolet had only a four, the Pontiac had little difficulty justifying its $180 price premium and quickly became very successful. By the time of the Crash, Pontiac was GM’s second best-selling marque.
By 1931, with the U.S. economy in ruins, Oakland and Pontiac were moribund and GM seriously considered terminating them both. Sloan still saw a need for a mid-priced brand between Chevrolet and Oldsmobile, however, and since Pontiac was now outselling Oakland by more than five to one, it seemed to have the better future. In 1932, GM abandoned the Oakland brand and the division was officially renamed the Pontiac Motor Division.
Although the Depression was a difficult time for every automaker, Pontiac sales recovered by mid-decade thanks to increased commonality with Chevrolet, a newly optional straight eight, and attractive new styling. It was not a flashy or exciting car, but it represented good value for money and was consistently in fifth place in overall automotive sales, occasionally reaching as high as fourth.
Pontiac soon earned a reputation as GM’s most conservative division. General manager Harry Klingler, who led Pontiac for 19 years, emphasized durability and dependability over frills while chief engineer Ben Anibal had no interest in technical fillips like Buick’s Compound Carburetion or Oldsmobile’s Hydra-Matic. (Pontiac did not introduce Hydra-Matic until 1948, the year after Anibal retired.)
That conservatism served Pontiac well in the thirties and was no particular handicap in the postwar sales boom. Pontiacs were nicely styled, reasonably priced, and reliable, and they offered a lengthy list of factory and dealer accessories to fatten the profit margins.
It was not until the Korean War that Pontiac began to stumble. Wartime restrictions on production and consumer credit caused 1951 sales to fall nearly 20% and another 26% for 1952. When the restrictions were lifted, Pontiac sales recovered, but its market share remained static while GM’s other brands grew at impressive rates. By 1954, Pontiac was more than 150,000 units behind Buick and about 65,000 units behind Oldsmobile despite those rivals’ higher prices. Pontiac still enjoyed volume of which the independents could only dream, but something was clearly wrong.
THE PONTIAC V8
Pontiac’s general manager in the early fifties was Robert Critchfield, previously the general manager of the Delco-Remy division and, briefly, Allison. Critchfield was a manager of solid managerial talent and no particular interest in automobiles. By the early fifties, that was not uncommon at GM — ambitious executives vied for general manager slots because they were a stepping stone to more senior executive positions rather than because those executives had any great desire to build cars. Nonetheless, some Pontiac staffers resented the fact that Critchfield was not a “car guy.”
It’s tempting to blame Critchfield for Pontiac’s slump, but by the time he arrived in 1952, the styling for the 1955 models was well under way and many major engineering decisions had already been made. Perhaps the most critical of those was the decision to delay the launch of Pontiac’s new OHV V8 engine. The division’s engineering staff had been working on the new engine since 1946 and it would have been ready for the 1953 model year, but chief engineer George Delaney had asked for an extra two years to resolve some design and manufacturing issues.
Delaney’s concerns about reliability and production costs were commendable, but the lack of a V8 certainly hurt Pontiac in 1953 and 1954. The mid-priced market was becoming tougher and Pontiac was being squeezed both from below — by models like Chevrolet’s plush Bel Air — and from above; Buick’s entry-level Special was priced to compete with the Pontiac Eight.
Pontiac’s new V8 finally debuted for the 1955 model year. It was a fairly orthodox design with cast iron block and heads and pushrod-operated overhead valves. (It was not the division’s first V8 engine; back in 1932, Pontiac had briefly offered a 251 cu. in. (4,106 cc) V8 with a flat-plane crank, inherited from Oakland.) It had two novel features: reverse-flow cooling (pumping coolant through the heads and then the block rather than the other way around) and a then-novel “Ball-Pivot” valvegear layout.