Pontiac, RIP: A Love Affair Gone Sour

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Mark Thompson

Writer Mark Thompson's 1979 Sunbird

Everybody remembers his first car, and most of us remember a second coming-of-age milestone: our first new car. After years of driving around in Mom's old Chevrolet Caprice or Granddad's (may he rest in peace) Ford Torino (it too), finally came the day when you wiped your hands of automotive grease and traded in the wrenches for your first new set of wheels and breathed in its intoxicating new-car smell. Having grown up in the backseat of my father's 1957 Pontiac, I had little doubt that my first new car, too, would proudly sport the arrowhead marque.

The Pontiac brand retired on Monday by General Motors was born as the Oakland Car Co. in Pontiac, Mich., in 1907. GM acquired the company two years later. Its 1926 Pontiac model was so popular that the GM division changed the Oakland name in favor of that of the 18th century Ottawa Indian chief. And its GTOs, Firebirds and Bonnevilles were among the leaders of the pack of 1960s muscle cars. (See the 50 worst cars of all time.)

Unfortunately, my first new car — a 1979 Pontiac Sunbird — was an unfitting $5,300 homage to the old warrior. It was a lemon, a cut-rate and an ill-aimed stab at beating the Japanese competition in the growing market for smaller cars spawned by rising fuel prices. None of the Pontiac heritage had rubbed off on the Sunbird. After the car saw several years of gentle driving, mostly by my wife, an interior door handle popped off. The fan knob went kaput, and the radio played only intermittently. The final indignity was when the hood release broke, making it difficult to get to the generally well-running engine to add oil or coolant. (See the 12 most important cars of all time.)

My Pontiac, in fact, turned out to be the worst car I ever owned. And that's saying something, because it trumps my very first (used) car: a British 1960 Morris Minor 1000, complete with its rain-bedeviled Lucas electrical system that seemed to render the car immobile in the driveway whenever the weatherman forecast cloudy skies. For someone primed to love the Pontiac brand, the Sunbird was a disheartening experience. Everything from the trunk lining to the levers used to (manually) adjust the driver's seat seemed flimsy and prone to problems. Service at dealerships was mediocre at best. They didn't seem to care, and I resolved therefore that neither would I.

When the seven-year itch set in, I finally traded in my Sunbird for a 1986 Honda Accord that had earned rave reviews from a savvier journalistic colleague. In the years since — not wanting to be burned again — I've paid attention to the annual auto guide from Consumers Reports, checking to see whether Pontiacs rated better than the Honda or Toyotas I had become accustomed to buying. Didn't happen, although Pontiac had made some gains in recent years.

The real problem facing U.S. car companies is that my family's automotive path has been replicated in millions of garages across America. Unlike me, my kids didn't grow up in the backseat of a Pontiac. They grew up in the backseat of a Honda Accord, then a Toyota Camry and finally a Toyota Sienna minivan. So guess what? I suspect that when it's their turn to buy their first new cars, they'll be looking at the brands they know best, just as their father did a generation ago. Their old man wishes, in his heart, that they could buy a Pontiac. But his brain, and his wallet, dictate otherwise. Pontiac didn't give a damn when it lost me as a buyer 30 years ago, but I find myself profoundly saddened by its passing. Turns out that I may have cared more than they did.

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