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.
On most American OHV V8s of that era, the pushrods actuated the valves via stamped-steel rocker arms, which were usually pivoted on a rocker shaft in each cylinder head. That arrangement worked well enough, but the rocker shafts added cost, weight, and bulk (even more so on engines like Chrysler’s FirePower V8, whose hemispherical combustion chambers and widely splayed valves required two rocker shafts for each head). In the late forties, Pontiac engineer Clayton Leach developed a much simpler alternative: carrying each rocker arm not on a shaft, but rather on a simple ball pivot, mounted on a pressed-in steel stud incorporating an integral oil passage for lubrication and using the rocker’s contact with the valve stem to locate the rocker arm laterally. Development testing soon demonstrated that this approach was just as durable as a rocker shaft and substantially cheaper to build.
The ball-pivot layout will be immediately familiar to anyone who’s ever worked on a small-block Chevrolet engine, which was not coincidental. When Chevrolet chief engineer Ed Cole learned of Leach’s valvegear design, he asked for and received permission to incorporate it on Chevrolet’s own V8. Ordinarily, contemporary GM policy allowed each division a year of exclusivity on such inventions, but Cole got his way, perhaps because the potential cost savings were too substantial to ignore. Unfortunately for Pontiac, the Chevrolet engine, also launched in 1955, overshadowed the new Pontiac V8 and not many people were aware that the valvegear design was actually Pontiac’s, not Chevrolet’s. (As a side note for those more accustomed to GM’s modern “corporate” engines, we should emphasize that other than the rocker studs, the Pontiac and Chevrolet V8s had very little in common; they were not the same engine!)
In its initial form, the new Pontiac engine displaced 287 cu. in. (4,706 cc). It was rated at 173 gross horsepower (129 kW) with stick shift, 180 hp (134 kW) with automatic; an optional four-barrel carburetor and dual exhausts raised that output to 200 hp (149 kW). All these figures were healthy increases against the outgoing, 268 cu. in. (4,398 cc) straight eight, which made no more than 127 hp (95 kW), and somewhat better than the output of the new Chevrolet V8.
The V8 was now Pontiac’s only engine. Critchfield originally planned to retain the old flathead six for base models, but sales of six-cylinder Pontiacs had been slow for the past few years and the V8 seemed the way of the future, so the six was dropped shortly before launch. If nothing else, making the V8 standard gave Pontiac another modest advantage over Chevrolet.
The V8 was accompanied by completely new styling, initiated by Pontiac chief stylist Raoul Pepin in 1951 and completed under the supervision of Paul Gillan, who replaced Pepin in early 1953. The new body, again shared with Chevrolet, abandoned its predecessor’s bulbous hood, making the 1955 look both longer and wider. To reinforce its position in GM’s brand hierarchy, it had the obligatory slathering of brightwork, including Pontiac’s customary Silver Streaks, now separated into two parallel chrome strips across the hood and decklid. Some wags compared it to a fat man wearing suspenders, but in all, the 1955 Pontiac looked much more modern than before.
THE OLD MAN’S CAR
The 1955 model year set new records for the American auto industry. Thanks to a combination of appealing new designs, overproduction, and aggressive salesmanship, Detroit sold 7.2 million cars in 1955, writing so many long-term auto loans that the Federal Reserve Board moved to raise interest rates. Pontiac had its best year ever, with sales that were nearly double those of 1954. Its market share reached a new high, almost 7.5%.
Unfortunately for Bob Critchfield, the boom couldn’t last. With an oversaturated market and tighter consumer credit, auto sales plummeted. Pontiac’s volume and market share promptly sank by almost 25%. Most automakers were down, but Pontiac’s sales dropped off more than either Oldsmobile or Buick, which now outsold Pontiac by more than 220,000 units despite higher prices.
General sales manager Howard Crawford concluded that Pontiac’s main problem was a lack of image. In the public’s mind, the archetypal Pontiac buyer was a middle-aged high school principal or the night manager of a local bank — highly respectable, to be sure, not exactly aspirational figures for younger buyers. Like its traditional rival, Dodge, Pontiac had become thoroughly stodgy.
Critchfield made tentative moves to redress that image problem, running two Pontiacs at the Daytona Speed Week in February 1956 and authorizing the development of more powerful engines. However, the division’s sales erosion showed no signs of improving and its return on investment was much lower than Buick’s or Oldsmobile’s. For a while, there was talk of shuttering Pontiac as a separate division and demoting it to a cheaper companion model for Oldsmobile.
As the 1956 model year wound down, GM management decided it was time for new blood. In May, Critchfield was promoted to run the corporation’s Process Development Section. On June 1, Bunkie Knudsen replaced him as vice president and general manager of Pontiac.
BUNKIE KNUDSEN COMETH
Semon Knudsen — better known as “Bunkie,” a boyhood nickname — was 43 years old when he took over Pontiac, the youngest general manager in GM’s history to that point. His father, William “Big Bill” Knudsen, had left Ford in 1921 to run Chevrolet and by 1937 had risen to become president of General Motors.
Inevitably, Bunkie’s interest in cars started early. When he was 14, his father gave him a disassembled new Chevrolet, challenging the boy to put it together before he could drive it. Bunkie received his engineering degree from MIT in 1936 and joined Pontiac as a tool engineer in 1939. He went on to work at various GM divisions, including Process Development, Allison, and finally Detroit Diesel, of which he became general manager in early 1955. If Bunkie Knudsen was not quite Detroit aristocracy in the manner of Henry Ford II, he was as close to it as GM’s corporate culture would permit.
Around the time Knudsen became head of Pontiac, chief engineer George Delaney applied for early retirement. To replace him, Knudsen recruited Elliot M. (Pete) Estes, assistant chief motor engineer of Oldsmobile. Estes was reluctant — Oldsmobile was doing very well and it was common knowledge throughout GM that Pontiac was not — but Knudsen convinced him to look at it as a challenge. Knudsen made a similar pitch to Packard engineer John Z. DeLorean, who joined Pontiac in the new position of director of advanced engineering. Estes and DeLorean were even younger than Knudsen; Estes was 40 in 1956, DeLorean 31.
When Knudsen arrived, the 1957 Pontiacs were only a month away from pilot production, but he wanted to make a visible statement that the division was under new management. The day after he arrived, he ordered the removal of the 1957 cars’ “Silver Streak” trim, which required last-minute tooling changes to both the hood and decklid. It was a minor change, but it had a tremendous impact on Pontiac staff, if not the public. The Silver Streaks had been a Pontiac trademark for more than 20 years and removing them was akin to taking the twin kidney grilles off a BMW.
Unlike Critchfield, Bunkie Knudsen loved cars and was eager to improve the product. He would often wander through Pontiac’s offices and studios, usually with Estes and DeLorean in tow, taking a keen interest in new design studies and engineering concepts. Knudsen didn’t waste a lot of time in study groups or committees; if he liked something he saw, he would tell his staff to run with it. Many Pontiac executives considered him a breath of fresh air and his presence provided a considerable boost to the general morale.
DARKEST BEFORE THE DAWN
That improved morale was fortunate because 1957 and 1958 were terrible years for Pontiac sales. Despite new gimmicks like Tri-Power carburetion (an idea Pete Estes brought with him from Oldsmobile) and the limited-production Bonneville convertible, Pontiac’s 1957 volume was down more than 80,000 units from its already-discouraging 1956 total. Its market share tumbled alarmingly to 5.3%. The following year was even worse, with market share falling under 5% for the first time since the Depression.
The primary culprit was a recession that savaged most of the mid-priced brands, but even discounting the economic downturn, the 1958 Pontiac was not a particularly inspiring car. It was powerful — the V8, now up to 370 cu. in. (6,054 cc), had as much as 330 gross horsepower (246 kW) with Tri-Power — but it had dreadful brakes, its new cruciform frame allowed a disconcerting level of body flex, and the newly optional Ever-Level air suspension proved grievously unreliable. As for its styling, if it was not quite as glitzy as the contemporary Oldsmobile or Buick, it certainly wasn’t for lack of trying. To make matters worse, Knudsen had decided to hike prices by around $100 across the board in hopes of shoring up Pontiac’s flagging profit margins. As a result, quite a few buyers opted for the Chevrolet Bel Air or the new Chevrolet Impala, which offered similar style and power for less money.
Admittedly, there was little Knudsen could do about the 1958 car, whose design and engineering was mostly locked by the time he arrived. Nonetheless, he worked diligently to improve the Pontiac organization, establishing new procedures to debug pilot production and recruiting a new general sales manager from Buick, Frank Bridge, to reinvigorate Pontiac’s sales organization.
Resuscitating Pontiac’s image was a more complicated problem. The first challenge was to differentiate Pontiac from its GM siblings. Knudsen knew Pontiac could not compete directly with Chevrolet on price, was no match for Buick in prestige, and probably couldn’t rival Oldsmobile’s appeal to middle-of-the-road sedan buyers; Pontiac needed a unique hook. The second challenge was that that hook needed to appeal to the younger buyers who were dismissing Pontiac as old-fashioned.
Knudsen’s answer to both problems was performance. At the time, GM did not have a performance brand as such, although V8 Chevrolets were popular with amateur hot rodders and Buick’s big-engined Century was a sort of businessman’s express. Oldsmobile could have claimed that role following the success of the original Rocket Eighty-Eight, but Olds general manager Jack Wolfram was even more conservative than Bob Critchfield and the Eighty-Eight’s hot-rod heyday had largely passed. There was plenty of room for Pontiac to carve out a space for itself in the performance field.
Knudsen’s strategy was twofold: First, Pete Estes set about improving the performance of Pontiac’s production cars; the displacement and compression ratios of Pontiac’s V8 increased every year and engineer Mac McKellar was developing a series of ever-hotter camshafts. Second, Knudsen arranged for Pontiac to participate in both stock car and drag racing. When GM signed the Automobile Manufacturers Association racing “ban” in 1957, Knudsen continued to support private builders like Henry “Smokey” Yunick under the table, occasionally using his own funds.
Knudsen’s efforts soon began to pay off. In early 1958, Pontiacs won the first six places in their class at the Daytona Speed Week with one-mile (1.6-km) average speeds of over 145 mph (235 km/h). 1958 Pontiacs also claimed three NASCAR victories. Pontiac was still far from all-conquering, but it was a promising start.
About two months after Bunkie Knudsen arrived at Pontiac, GM stylists got their first glimpse of Chrysler’s all-new 1957 line. The 1957 Chryslers, developed under the auspices of Chrysler styling chief Virgil Exner, Sr., were sleek, low-slung, and dramatically finned, making GM’s 1957 offerings seem bulbous and somewhat dated. The new Chrysler sent shock waves through the GM Design Staff, who had been accustomed to setting the standards for the entire industry.
By that time, there was nothing to be done about the ’57s or ’58s, but design director Bill Mitchell organized a crash program to redesign the 1959s, discarding the designs previously approved by his boss and mentor, styling VP Harley Earl. Inevitably, this volte-face went a little too far, leading to some of GM’s gaudiest designs, but it was a fortuitous moment for Pontiac, giving the division an all-new design for 1959 rather than an evolution of the unpopular ’58 car.
The Pontiac studio explored a variety of design concepts for the 1959 model, some of them quite grotesque. Fortunately, the completed design was the most restrained and tasteful of GM’s 1959 cars. Like the 1959 Chevrolet, the 1959 Pontiac now shared the larger B-body used by Buick and Oldsmobile, which was longer and nearly 5 inches (127 mm) wider than the 1958 A-body. Despite that similarity, the Pontiac looked distinctly different, sporting a new split grille treatment and an unusually wide tread width.
The wider track emerged from the designers’ recognition that while the ’59 B-body was noticeably wider than its predecessors, the tread width of GM’s chassis had remained more or less constant since the end of the war. In late 1956 or early 1957, Chuck Jordan’s advanced styling studio had experimentally moved the wheels farther apart without altering the wheelhouses themselves. Knudsen, Estes, and DeLorean saw Jordan’s model on one of their periodic visits and Knudsen took a fancy to it, feeling it gave the car a more athletic stance.
Pontiac’s ad agency, MacManus, John & Adams, latched onto that feature as an advertising hook and copywriter Milt Colson coined the term “Wide Track.” Although Knudsen didn’t particularly like it, considering it hokey, the slogan became very successful. It was not entirely hyperbole; the 1959 Pontiac did indeed have a greater tread width with than any contemporary GM car, fully 3 inches (76 mm) wider than that of the 1959 Cadillac. The wider track did provide some handling benefits, although it was not as miraculous as the ads implied. Lateral weight transfer in turns is a function of tread width and the height of the center of gravity, so the wider track provided more level cornering without stiffer springs or anti-roll bars.
Despite the sporting pretensions of its advertising, the 1959 Pontiac’s suspension was rather soft, albeit somewhat less soggy than a contemporary Oldsmobile or Buick, and its steering was slow even with power assist. The Pontiac’s straight-line performance, however, left little to be desired. The V8 was now up to 389 cu. in. (6,372 cc) and even the two-barrel, 280 hp (209 kW) version could do 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in less than 9 seconds. With the 345 hp (257 kW) Tri-Power engine, the big Pontiac could go from 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in around 8 seconds flat and reach a top speed of more than 120 mph (193 km/h) — quite formidable for what was still basically a family car.
The ’59 was the first Pontiac developed completely under Knudsen’s management and it did wonders for the division’s image. Not only was it was arguably the cleanest and most tasteful of GM’s 1959 models, it was an obvious departure from the underwhelming Pontiacs of the past few years. Even Pontiac’s model names had changed. Knudsen wanted to retire the division’s hoary Chief Pontiac emblems, so for 1959 he abandoned the Chieftain and Super Chief nameplates, although the Star Chief name survived through 1966.
The new Pontiac went over quite well with both the press and the public. Motor Trend gave Pontiac its 1959 Car of the Year award and sales rose by more than 75%. Given the division’s disheartening 1958 performance, that was not as spectacular as you might think; Pontiac’s 1959 sales were still below even its sub-par 1956 numbers. Nonetheless, per-dealership sales were up considerably and the new cars were in high demand throughout the model year. Pontiac’s market share was up markedly, an encouraging sign that Knudsen was on the right track.
PONTIAC’S 1960 ENCORE
One of the great challenges of making cars is that you have to make key decisions about future models without knowing how well the current models are going to do in the marketplace. Had Knudsen and Bill Mitchell, who succeeded Harley Earl as VP of Styling in December 1958, known how well the 1959 Pontiac would be received, they probably would have carried over more of its design themes into 1960. However, design of the 1960 cars was mostly complete by the time the ’59s went on sale.
All of GM’s 1960 cars were toned down considerably from their dizzy 1959 heights. The basic B-body shell, all-new for 1959, was carried over, but with far less glitz. The 1960 Pontiac lost its fins, substituting comparatively subdued “rocket exhaust” taillights, and had a completely new front-end theme, abandoning the 1959 Pontiac’s twin grille. The styling staff was generally unhappy about that change, feeling the twin grille gave Pontiac immediate visual identification, but Bill Mitchell was enamored of the new design and his word was law.
Mechanically, the 1960 Pontiacs were changed mostly in detail. The V8 abandoned its reverse-flow cooling system, which had created problems with excessive oil temperatures in high-performance use, while the Hydra-Matic transmission got a redesigned case that enabled a lower driveline. A Borg-Warner T-10 four-speed manual transmission was now optional, although only 722 were sold. The 1960 model year also saw the debut of the first high-performance Super-Duty engines, initially as a dealer-installed option.
Pontiac did well in competition in 1960, scoring seven NASCAR victories. Even when Pontiacs didn’t win, they were frequently the fastest cars on the track, with lap speeds of more than 150 mph (241 km/h). In September, Pontiac ad man Jim Wangers also won the NHRA’s Top Stock Eliminator title driving a heavily modified Catalina prepared by Royal Pontiac. Racer Mickey Thompson, meanwhile, tried for a new land-speed record at Bonneville with the Pontiac-powered Challenger.
Pontiac sales were up slightly for the 1960 model year, but market share slipped a bit, although it remained above 6%. Even though the economy was on the mend, many buyers remained wary of the bulk and ostentation of Big Three cars. AMC’s compact Rambler line outpaced Pontiac by around 25,000 units, claiming fourth place in total overall sales.
GM’S FIRST DOWNSIZING
GM’s corporate management had recognized that trend during the recession, and dictated a new, slightly smaller B-body for the 1961 model year. As a result, the 1961 Pontiacs were about 4 inches (101 mm) shorter and 2.5 inches (64 mm) narrower than the 1960s while the wheelbase of the low-line models was trimmed from 122 to 119 inches (3,099 to 3,023 mm), shedding up to 165 lb (75 kg) in the process. Their track width also shrank by 1.5 inches (38 mm), to 62.5 inches (1,588 mm), although Pontiac continued to use the “Wide Track” slogan in its advertising.
Joe Schemansky and Jack Humbert, who replaced Schemansky as chief Pontiac stylist in March 1959, wasted little time in reviving the split-grille theme, which Pontiac would use in various forms until the division’s demise in 2009. Except for the rocket-like side spears, exterior trim was considerably more subdued than before. During Harley Earl’s tenure, stylists had often had to add extra brightwork to satisfy the tastes of their boss, but Bill Mitchell favored cleaner, crisper shapes. Another welcome change was the abandonment of the exaggerated wraparound windshields that Earl had favored, with their obtrusive dogleg A-pillars.
In retrospect, the 1961 full-size Pontiacs look like a tasteful, well-considered refinement of Pontiac’s successful 1959 themes. At the time, Bunkie Knudsen was not thrilled with them or with the smaller body, which put the Catalina and Ventura on the same wheelbase as the 1961 Chevrolet. That move also didn’t sit well with the sales staff, who understood all too well how tenuous and ephemeral the line between Pontiac and Chevrolet could be. Knudsen got permission to stretch the Catalina and Ventura to a 120-inch (3,048mm) wheelbase for 1962, restoring Pontiac’s slight psychological edge, but he was very uneasy about 1961.
As Knudsen feared, Pontiac sales were down more than 55,000 units for the 1961 model year. The entire industry was down almost 20%, however, so Pontiac actually gained a bit of market share despite the underwhelming debut of the new “rope-drive” Tempest compact. The Tempest sold just under 101,000 units in 1961, less than Knudsen had hoped, but it kept the year from becoming a rout. Pontiac did better in NASCAR competition. Although Chevrolet claimed the 1961 Manufacturers’ Championship on points, Pontiac won 30 races to Chevrolet’s 11, including an impressive 1-2-3 finish at the Daytona 500.
The market rebounded encouragingly in 1962, as did Pontiac sales. Thanks in part to a deft facelift by Jack Humbert, the 1962 Pontiacs sold exceptionally well. Market share swelled to more than 7.5% and the division claimed the coveted number-three spot in overall sales. It would retain that position until the 1970 model year.
PONTIAC AFTER BUNKIE
On November 6, 1961, shortly after the 1962 models went on sale, Bunkie Knudsen was named general manager of Chevrolet, succeeding Ed Cole. Although Chevrolet was at least nominally a step down from Pontiac in price and prestige, it was GM’s largest and most powerful division. The promotion brought Knudsen a step closer to following in his father’s footsteps as president of the corporation.
With his departure, Pete Estes was promoted to general manager of Pontiac and John DeLorean became chief engineer. Since Estes and DeLorean had been heavily involved in many of Knudsen’s strategic decisions, the transition was less dramatic than when Knudsen had arrived in 1956.
Estes shared Knudsen’s enthusiasm for cars, but had a noticeably different management style. Where Knudsen would make a decision and trust his staff to carry it out, Estes was more hands-on, not always in a positive way. He was no martinet — former employees describe him as charismatic and highly approachable — but he was prone to micromanagement, a tendency that would later cause him considerable difficulty at Chevrolet, which operated on a much larger scale than did Pontiac.
Nonetheless, it would be fair to say that Estes and DeLorean did an exceptional job of cultivating the seeds Knudsen had planted. Knudsen’s tenure at Pontiac was not marked by extraordinary sales success — his best sales year was still below the peaks of Critchfield’s regime — but he had given the division a new direction, setting the stage for Pontiac’s extraordinary success in the 1960s. In 1963, the division sold nearly 600,000 cars. By 1967, it was selling more than 800,000 units a year and its market share approached 10%. Pontiac commanded a sizeable portion of the booming youth market and Pontiac styling led the American industry. Despite the success of the A-body Tempest/Le Mans/GTO and Firebird, most of its sales were the full-sized cars, the lineage of the Wide Tracks.
KNUDSEN AT FORD
In July 1965, Bunkie Knudsen was promoted to group vice president, earning him a seat on the board, and two years after that became executive vice president. He had every hope of making it to GM’s top seat, but when GM president Jim Roche became chairman of the board in October 1967, it was Ed Cole, not Knudsen, who was tapped to take his place.
Recognizing that his chances of succeeding Cole were slim — GM then enforced a mandatory retirement age of 65 and Knudsen was only three years younger than Cole — Knudsen departed GM to become president of Ford Motor Company in February 1968. His appointment was hailed as an industry coup, but his tenure would be short-lived. Knudsen found a bitter rival in Lee Iacocca, who also coveted the presidency, and found himself at odds with Henry Ford II, who was not prepared to allow Knudsen the kind of autonomy the Pontiac veteran had come to expect. Knudsen was fired in September 1969, barely 18 months after his arrival. Afterward, he briefly considered going into business for himself, but in 1971, he accepted the post of chairman and CEO of the White Motor, a Cleveland truck manufacturer. He retired about nine years later at the age of 68 and died in 1998 at the age of 85.
Pete Estes took Knudsen’s place at Chevrolet in July 1965 and in 1974 succeeded Ed Cole as president of General Motors. Estes retired on February 1, 1981, three weeks after his 65th birthday. He died in 1988 at the age of 72.
John DeLorean followed in Knudsen’s and Estes’ footsteps, becoming general manager of Pontiac in 1965 and general manager of Chevrolet in 1969. He became a group vice president in 1972, but he became increasingly frustrated with GM bureaucracy and resigned on April 1, 1973. He went on to start his own ill-fated car company, which collapsed in the eighties amid financial problems and scandal following DeLorean’s well-publicized arrest on cocaine charges (of which he was eventually acquitted). He died in March 2005 at the age of 80.
After the departure of Estes and DeLorean, Pontiac’s momentum seemed to fade. Sales of the 1970 models — approved, we must point out, by DeLorean — were down almost 30% and the division’s fortunes in the seventies and eighties were mixed. Pontiac enjoyed several renaissances, but the old challenge of maintaining its distinction from Chevrolet became harder and harder. By the nineties, there was little to differentiate a Pontiac from an Oldsmobile or a Chevrolet except for plastic body cladding and “sporty” detailing.
Jim Wangers, the MacManus, John & Adams advertising exec who led Pontiac’s promotional efforts in the sixties, told us in 2009, “Pontiac, of all the cars on the market, was a promotion, a concept. The real truth was that there was no excuse for a car called a Pontiac. The only reason for its existence was that it was beating the guys at Chevrolet and out-styling and out-imaging the guys at Oldsmobile and Buick.”
By the end, it was no longer doing even that. GM announced the death of the Pontiac brand on April 27, 2009, and the final car rolled off the line on November 25. Depending on how you figure it, Pontiac was either 83, 100, or 102 years old. It’s worth noting that the final Pontiac, a G6 convertible, bore the marque’s familiar twin grilles, first seen on the Wide Tracks five decades earlier — the last remnant of Bunkie Knudsen’s legacy.
# # #
NOTES ON SOURCES
Our sources for this article included Arthur St. Antoine, “Art Fitzpatrick Illustrations,” Motor Trend October 2005, www.motortrend. com, accessed 13 May 2010; “AUTOS: The Biggest Switch,” TIME 16 February 1968, www.time. com, accessed 13 May 2010; “AUTOS: Why Knudsen Was Fired,” TIME 19 September 1969, www.time. com, accessed 13 May 2010; Ray Bohacz, “Mechanical Marvels: Living in the Shadow: the 1955 Pontiac 287-cubic-inch V-8,” Special Interest Autos #181 (January-February 2001), reprinted in The Hemmings Motor News Book of Pontiacs: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, eds. Terry Ehrich and Richard Lentinello (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2001), pp. 136-138; Arch Brown, “A New Image for Pontiac: 1955 Star Chief,” Special Interest Autos #101 (September-October 1987), reprinted in ibid, pp. 44-52, “1958 Pontiac Bonneville: Like Riding on Air,” Special Interest Autos #90 (November-December 1985), reprinted in ibid, pp. 60-66, “1962 Pontiac Catalina Super Duty: Factory Hotrod,” Special Interest Autos #124 (July-August 1991), reprinted in ibid, pp. 88-95, and “SIA comparisonReport: Improbable Competitors: 1960 Chrysler 300F vs. Pontiac Tri-Power,” Special Interest Autos #127 (January-February 1992), reprinted in The Hemmings Motor News Book of Chrysler Performance Cars: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, eds. Terry Ehrich and Richard Lentinello (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2000), pp. 54-63; John DeLorean and J. Patrick Wright, On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors: John Z. DeLorean’s Look Inside the Automotive Giant (Chicago, IL: Avon Books, 1979); Jeff Denison, “Behind the Mastermind of Pontiac’s Chief Designer Jack Humbert, The Unsung Hero of Pontiac Design,” High Performance Pontiac October 2009, www.highperformancepontiac. com, accessed 8 May 2010; Jim and Cheryl Farrell, “Continental Style: A Contest of Wills: Lincoln’s Mark IV,” Special Interest Autos #199 (February 2004), pp. 44-47; Michael Guathier, “Final U.S. market Pontiac Rolls off Production Line,” motor1.com, 26 November 2009, www.worldcarfans. com, accessed 8 May 2010; John Gunnell, ed., Standard Catalog of American Cars 1946-1975 Revised 4th Edition (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2002); David Halberstam, The Reckoning (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1986); Dave Holls and Michael Lamm, A Century of Automotive Style: 100 Years of American Car Design (Stockton, CA: Lamm-Morada Publishing Co. Inc., 1997); John Holusha, “Semon Knudsen, 85, Dies; Was Prominent Auto Executive,” New York Times 9 July 1998, www.nytimes. com, accessed 8 May 2010; John F. Katz, “1960 Pontiac Bonneville Vista,” Special Interest Autos #172 (July-August 1999), reprinted in The Hemmings Motor News Book of Pontiacs, pp. 68-77; “Knudsen, Semon E.,” Generations of GM Heritage, GM Heritage Center, n.d., history.gmheritagecenter. com/wiki/ index.php/ Knudsen,_Semon_E., accessed 8 May 2010; Richard M. Langworth, “1957 Pontiac Bonneville: Look What’s Happened to Grandma!” Special Interest Autos #48 (November-December 1978), reprinted in ibid, pp. 54-59; Pete Lyons, “1958 Pontiac Bonneville,” Car and Driver Vol. 32, No. 1 (July 1986), pp. 71–78; “Motor Trend Award to the 1965 Pontiacs,” Motor Trend Vol. 17, No. 2 (February 1965), pp. 26-79; Edward Niedermeyer, “Pontiac Is Still Dead,” The Truth About Cars, 25 November 2009, www.thetruthaboutcars. com, accessed 8 May 2010; Jan P. Norbye and Jim Dunne, Pontiac 1946-1978: The Classic Postwar Years (Osceola, WI: Motorbooks International, 1979); Joe Oldham, “Archival Ponchos: The Complete History of Pontiac Performance,” Cars April 1973, pp. 24–30, 94, 112; Chris Paukert, “Officially Official: GM kills Pontiac,” [based on and incorporating GM’s press release of that date, “GM Accelerates its Reinvention as a Leaner, More Viable Company”] AutoBlog, www.autoblog. com, accessed 8 May 2010; “Pontiac’s Chiefs,” Motor Trend Vol. 17, No. 2 (February 1965), pp. 76–79; Richard Rauch, Rich’s Classic Pontiac Server, 1997–2001, www.pontiacserver. com, accessed 12 May 2010; Daniel Strohl, “Semon ‘Bunkie’ Knudsen,” Hemmings Muscle Machines #46 (July 2007); and Anthony Young and Mike Mueller, Classic Chevy Hot Ones: 1955–1957 2nd ed. (Ann Arbor, MI: Lowe & B. Hould Publishers, 2002). Some additional details came from the author’s telephone conversations with Jim Wangers on 8 September and 17 September 2009.
We also consulted the following period road tests: “Pontiac Road Test,” Motor Life January 1955; “Pontiac Star Chief,” Road Test 1956; Otto Zipper, “Road Test: Two Pontiacs,” Motor Trend March 1957; “Pontiac Road Test,” Motor Life March 1957; Jim Whipple, “Car Life Consumer Analysis: 1958 Pontiac,” Car Life March 1958; “Pontiac Road Test,” Motor Life April 1958; William Carroll, “I road tested a STOCK 146-MPH PONTIAC!” Motor Life June 1958; Ray Brock, “Pontiac – 3000 Mile Road Test,” Hot Rod December 1958; “Pontiac Road Test,” Motor Life January 1959; Duncan Maxwell, “318-HP Pontiac,” Cars December 1959; and Ray Brock, “1960 Pontiac Tempest,” Hot Rod May 1960, all of which are reprinted in Pontiac Limited Edition: 1949-1960, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1999).
- Cammer: Pontiac’s OHC Six
- The Infamous 1980–1981 Pontiac Trans Am Turbo
- More from Less: The Pontiac Grand Prix and the Politics of Downsizing
- Rocket Bomb: The Oldsmobile Rocket 88 and the Dawn of the American Horsepower Race
- Room at the Top: The 1954 Pontiac Star Chief and Class Consciousness in America
- Disco-Era Darling: The Chevrolet Monte Carlo
- The Summer of John Z: John DeLorean and the Pontiac Firebird
- Three Deuces, Four Speeds: The Rise and Fall of the Pontiac GTO