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Farewell, Red Arrowhead

Farewell Pontiac

In the misty morning, on the edge of time
We’ve lost the rising sun, a final sign
As the misty morning rolls away to die
Reaching for the stars, we blind the sky

Oh they say that it’s over
And it just had to be
Ooh they say that it’s over
We’re lost children of the sea

Black Sabbath, “Children of the Sea” (1980)

On Monday, April 27th, 2009, General Motors announced the discontinuation of Pontiac Motor Division. CEO Fritz Henderson made the move to scrap Pontiac and eliminate 21,000 jobs as part of a desperate last-ditch attempt to keep GM from bankruptcy. Reportedly, it was a decision made under tremendous pressure from the U.S. government — which itself stands to become the majority stakeholder in General Motors if Henderson’s final turnaround plan is carried out.

For me, a lifelong fan of Pontiac and someone whose very existence is spiritually tied to that storied brand, it was a sad, disappointing day. Sad because, for all of our pie-in-the-sky hopes that Pontiac might again live up to its history of interesting and exciting cars — perhaps with a new Firebird or Trans Am — we now know with certainty that those dreams will never come true. Disappointing because GM let Pontiac wither away and die when the clock ran out, at a time when they have neither the money nor manpower to give it the dignity of a celebrated sendoff. There will be no pomp and circumstance when Pontiac fades away in 2010, because GM can’t afford any.

Long ago, on a website far, far away, I lamented the death of my favorite Pontiac, the Firebird, when that model met its end in 2002. Back then, I could never have imagined that the entire Pontiac brand would disappear before my eyes less than a decade later. (Ironically, Chevy fans have since regained their Camaro, the Firebird’s one-time platform-sharing sister.) But now here we are, and the jig really is up.

Pontiac was a brand with an identity, one that said you went your own way, marched to a different drummer, refused to settle for the mundane. In the 1960s and ’70s, that identity lived in almost every product Pontiac sold — and they sold a lot of them. Its products were at the heart of pop culture sensations like Smokey and the Bandit and Knight Rider. Unfortunately, since the 1980s, Pontiac’s identity has mostly lacked the corporate support and product portfolio needed to make its storied image work. The once-proud brand’s slide into obscurity was, as a result, inevitable.

The Fallout

The carnage doesn’t end with the collapse of Pontiac itself. The Australian brand Holden, which designed and manufactured the last-generation GTO and current-generation Pontiac G8, will be dealt a crippling financial blow with the loss of the 30,000 annual export units it planned to badge as Pontiacs, which some have estimated could cost Holden upwards of $1 billion per year. It’s not known if Holden can absorb that kind of loss.

There has also been sizable up-front investment by aftermarket parts manufacturers in support of the Pontiac G8, which was expected to be a model with a long lineage. While the Holden Commodore-based G8 is already sold in other parts of the world (the Middle East, for example) as the Chevy Lumina, GM’s Henderson said that the company does not have the money to transplant the G8 into Chevy’s North American lineup, so that investment now looks like wasted money.

The same goes for the Solstice — it will not live on as a Chevrolet, or as anything. With the loss of Saturn and Pontiac, the only two GM divisions producing these little Kappa-based roadsters, the model will come to an end. Reports have it that that the cars’ cutting-edge hydroformed body panels cost GM a fortune to produce, so I suppose we should not be surprised. (If you have a Solstice, my advice to you is: Don’t dent it.)

So, all-in-all, it’s a sad day for Pontiac fans, possibly Holden fans, and certainly fans of General Motors — which may still be plunged into bankruptcy with no guarantee of survival, despite all of the aforementioned cuts.

The Reaction

The Pontiac meltdown got people talking. Even people who had no idea what Pontiac’s historical significance is, or could even identify one (except for the Aztek, which everyone knows and hates). The word “Pontiac” was the number-three trending topic on Twitter an hour after GM’s Monday morning press conference. One thing I have noticed, though, in reading all of the various comments on blogs and in the news, is that a whole swath of people — mostly the younger generation, even people my age — have no clue that Pontiac ever meant anything to anyone, or produced anything but rental-fleet fodder. That’s depressing.

One commenter — on a Pontiac-oriented message board, no less — even took issue with how seriously I (and a few others like me) were taking the news. To him, this was nothing more than “little stuff.” Oh, is it? Tell that to the 21,000 people who are now out of a job. But he’d probably have just laughed at them. What disgusted me the most about the myriad public reaction was one commenter who actually did laugh at the jettisoned workers, finding great mirth in the fact that 50-year-old UAW members are going to have to find new jobs and completely reeducate themselves. Wow, sadistic much? I understand that there’s not a lot of love for unions, and I’m certainly no fan of Ron “my way or the highway” Gettlefinger or the rest of latter-day union management. But when a man who has worked hard his whole life suddenly finds that not only his job, but his entire industry is gone, how is that ever funny?

But in the end, I have to recognize that I’m a special case. I was born and raised Pontiac, and grew up just outside of Detroit in the midst of the American car epicenter. My birthday is the anniversary of the date the Firebird was introduced in 1967. The classic Trans Am in our garage right now has been there since the week I was born. In high school I always loved the start of the warm spring season so that I could wear my black Trans Am jacket with the gold embroidered “screaming eagle” on the back, and my obsession with the brand was legendary among those who knew me. My first car was a Pontiac, and my second and my third; I’ve never owned anything else. I’ve cherished them all and kept them each for years and years, while other people were flipping cars every 18 months. Many of my favorite memories — from my childhood all the way up till now — involve one Pontiac or another.

Your average guy will say “too bad,” shrug and move on — maybe to Chevrolet, maybe to Toyota or Nissan. And while I’ll move on too, just like everyone, I’m not going to forget.

Time Marches On

With the exception of the “zombie Pontiac” that will exist between now and its official closing day next year, Pontiac lives on now only in the hearts and minds of those who, like me, really felt a connection with the brand. The most fitting tribute I can pay to the auto company that gave me so many happy memories (and a few unhappy ones, but those mostly just add color) is to proudly maintain and enjoy the Pontiacs I have left.

Between my dad and I, we own three of the most iconic Pontiac automobiles ever produced across three decades. The crown jewel, our 1979 black-and-gold Special Edition Trans Am, has been neglected for the better part of the past decade, but this year I aim to change that, permanently — and I’m actually going to make good on that vow. The old Trans Am will roam the streets again in just a few months, making me as happy as I always was on those weekend afternoons in the 1980s when my dad and I would go for drives, drop by his office building or pick up hot dogs or White Castles for lunch. And though I love my GTO and all, it’ll be so damn nice to have a T-top again.

I’m luckier than most. I don’t have to settle for my memories of Pontiac. I can keep making more of my own!

And in some strange way, losing Pontiac is almost a relief — for now the endless death watch can finally end, the ridicule can stop, the worry over “What if Pontiac dies?” can forever leave me, because the worst has happened. Rather than look at a Pontiac product and have its appeal clouded by the lifeless entity the brand has become, now I’ll look at it and see pleasant times and great memories made. No corporate shutdown can take that away from me.

In the end, though, I hope that we’ll always have someone to fill the little niche that Pontiac attempted to carve for itself: that of exciting performance-oriented cars that don’t come attached with the price premiums of German sports cars or Japanese luxury marques. Performance will always be available, but Pontiac offered gobs of it at a price that you could actually afford. I think that as long as we have cars like the Mustang, the Camaro, the Challenger or even the Corvette — plus the STis, Evos and 370Zs of the Japanese world — that dream can still be realized.

So rest in peace, Pontiac Motor Division. Your phoenix shall rise no more, but my own black-and-gold bird will tour the American highways for countless years to come, in memory of you.

You can find additional tribute posts this week at Becca’s Byline and