Photos by Richard A. Wright
Elegantly styled 1939 Pontiac had a new streamlined
appearance centered around "Silver Streak" trim.
Headlights rested on front fenders. It could be
ordered with straight six- or eight-cylinder engine
and with conventional running boards or with "body
Pontiac was the industry's first market niche car
By Richard A. Wright
In 1906, Edwin Murphy, who owned the Pontiac Buggy Co
in Pontiac, Mich., and who wanted to get into the new
automobile business, met Alanson P. Brush, who was already
in the business, having helped Henry Leland design the
Brush seemed like the right partner for Murphy. Brush
had a two-cylinder engine of unusual design, a vertical
engine which rotated counterclockwise. It had been
rejected by Leland, but Murphy was ready to give it a try
in a new car he christened "Oakland."
The engine worked, but the car did not sell well. Brush
left when Frank Briscoe offered to finance him in building
his own single-cylinder Brush Runabout. Murphy met with
another former buggy man, William Durant, who was putting
together his General Motors empire and the Oakland became
a charter member of GM in 1909.
This 1910 Oakland Roadster, built in Pontiac,
belongs to Benjamin Jonas, of Belding, Mich.
The Oakland was upgraded to a four-cylinder car and
sold reasonably well. But at the beginning of the 1910
model run, Murphy died at 44 and an already extended
Durant managed the Oakland, which became a solid fixture
in the GM stable. By 1916, the Oakland was available with
a four, six or V-8 engine and sales topped 24,000 units.
Durant was forced out of GM in 1920 when his stock
market fortunes sagged and Oakland Motor Co. was taken
over by George W. Hannum. In 1924, Oakland got a new
L-head six-cylinder engine, four-wheel brakes and DuPont's
new Duco lacquer finish in a special blue. The car was
promoted as the "True Blue Oakland Six." Despite strong
sales, Hannum was eased out and replaced by Alfred R.
Glancy. GM CEO Alfred Sloan had plans for Oakland.
Sloan ordered that a smaller "companion car" be built
by Oakland, sharing parts with Chevrolet and filling the
market niche between Chevrolet and Buick. This car was the
first to be created to fill a particular market need. The
car was called the Pontiac, after the city in which it was
built (the city of Pontiac was named after an Indian chief
important in Michigan's history and is located in Oakland
In 1926 the Pontiac was introduced and it set a sales
record for any first year total to that time of 76,676,
eclipsing the previous maiden-year record set in 1924 by
Chrysler. Pontiac's record would stand for only one year,
falling to Graham-Paige in 1927.
The Pontiac was a milestone car because it was
ordered built by General Motors CEO Alfred P. Sloan to
fill a particular market slot and to share parts with
other car lines. In its debut year 1926, it set a
first-year sales record. This 1927 Pontiac, in the
collection of the late George Crocker in Nag's Head,
N.C., was virtually unchanged from the '26 model.
That first Pontiac had a 185-cubic-inch six-cylinder
engine and all the '26 models were closed bodies on
Sloan's orders. Sporty roadster and cabriolet were added
for 1927, four-wheel brakes for '28 and a bigger 200-inch
six for '29.
The Oakland was dropped in 1931, a response to the
stock market crash of '29 and the resulting Great
Depression. Oakland Motor Co. became Pontiac Motor Co.
In 1933, Pontiacs were equipped with straight eights
across the board and sold as "the big straight eight in
the low-price field." And in 1934, Harry Klingler,
supersalesman who had led Chevrolet to the industry's No.
1 position in sales, became general manager of Pontiac.
Pontiac adopted its trademark "Silver Streak" trim of
strips down the middle of the hood in 1935, which it
retained through 1956, and by the beginning of World War
II, Pontiac was the fifth largest selling nameplate, on
the basis of offering high-price car features on a
This 1940 Pontiac Special Six woodie station wagon
featured a longer body and headlights blended into
front fenders. The "Silver Streak" styling device is
While this approach appealed to a wide range of buyers,
it also developed a reputation for Pontiac of a
middle-of-the-road car. Pontiac had become a stodgy car
with limited market appeal, a car for conservative old men
and little old ladies. A "plumber's car," as a new
management team at Pontiac assessed it.
In 1956, GM President Harlow Curtice surprised the
industry by naming Semon E. "Bunkie" Knudsen, a young
(40), ambitious engineer and son of the legendary William
Knudsen, to head the ailing Pontiac Division. Knudsen
decided the car needed a more exciting image and that the
best way to do that was to, in fact, make the car more
To help him do this, he hired an even younger engineer
with plenty of ideas and ambition to match Bunkie's --
John Z. DeLorean. DeLorean, not yet 30, was an engineering
boy wonder, first at Chrysler Corp., then at Packard,
where he was head of research and development. Knudsen
offered him a similar post at Pontiac.
Knudsen, his chief engineer, Elliot "Pete" Estes, and
DeLorean secretly launched a stock-car racing activity --
secretly because GM had agreed in 1955 along with the rest
of the industry not to engage in factory racing efforts.
This '48 Pontiac Deluxe convertible is in a museum
in Williams, Iowa, created by Daryl Hemkin, who
collected convertibles over the years from the '40s
In 1959, the Pontiac "Wide-Track" was born, a styling
event rather than engineering. In the early '60s, a buyer
or a dealer who knew what to look for in the Pontiac
catalog of optional equipment could put together a racing
machine, a factory hot rod.
In 1963, a dealer in Royal Oak, Ace Wilson, began
marketing -- with the help of Jim Wangers, of Pontiac's ad
agency, MacManus, John & Adams -- a high-performance
"custom" car made of stock Pontiac options. He called it
the Bobcat. Part of the Bobcat package was the name, made
up of rearranged letters from Pontiac model names and
affixed to the car to let the world know that the owner
had something special.
The Bobcat was both a financial and esthetic success
and in its Tempest form it was a preview of the Pontiac
GTO, which came out in '64, just beating the Ford Mustang
to become the first "muscle car."
The GTO was the car all succeeding muscle cars would be
judged by. Ironically, the GTO administered the coup de
grace to the old-fashioned hot rod, because very few
individuals could build one as cheap or as fast as the GTO.
Only Ford and Chrysler Corp. had the resources to
challenge it. And they did.
This '51 Pontiac Catalina displays GM's new
"hardtop convertible" styling of that era. Pontiac
retains the "Silver Streak" styling feature.
Estes later became president of GM and Knudsen and
DeLorean probably would have also, if they had not become
impatient and quit GM, Knudsen to head Ford Motor Co. for
a brief tenure and DeLorean to launch his own sporty car
venture, built in Ireland, which resulted in him being
arrested by the FBI in Los Angeles in a drug sting.
When the GTO and the Mustang hit the market, gasoline
was cheap. But the muscle cars were on the way out before
the first oil crisis in the early '70s, killed not because
of the abandon with which they gulped fuel, but because
smog and the toll of highway death and destruction were
changing American attitudes toward the automobile.
In 1958, a full-size model called the Bonneville set in
motion a series of high-performance car launches by
Pontiac, including the Grand Prix in 1963, the GTO in 1964
and the Firebird in 1967. After the end of the muscle car
era, Pontiac introduced the Grand Am in 1973 and the Fiero
in 1984, a car that attracted much attention with its
plastic body panels and mid-ship engine. But a series of
problems cut its run short.
This '57 Pontiac Star Chief at a Woodward Dream
Cruise was the first Pontiac model without the
traditional "Silver Streak" stripes down the hood.
In 1990, Pontiac built its first minivan, the Trans
Sport, a radically styled van with plastic body panels. It
has been replaced by the more conventional Montana and
Pontiac’s first sport-utility vehicle, the Aztek, has
received a positive sales reception.
Pontiac continued to claim in its marketing that "We
Build Excitement," but has discontinued its muscle cars
and recently dropped the Firebird. Pontiac has been teamed
with GMC Division at GM, which strengthens the Pontiac
line as trucks take a larger share of the automotive
As GM continues to study itself, Pontiac's role becomes
less clear. Chevrolet builds GM's excitement now and its
truck offerings mirror GMC's. Oldsmobile is being dropped
because another mid-range luxury car is not required. So
Pontiac, the car that was launched for a specific market
reason, is seeking a reason for being.
The first Pontiac Firebird was introduced in 1967.
This original '68 Pontiac Firebird 350, largely
unchanged from '67, belongs to Ron Johnston of