Dodge and Pontiac . . .

  • January 18, 2024

Once upon a time, GM had a division called Pontiac and – for a long time – it was one of GM’s most successful divisions. There was a reason why. It was the division that offered some of GM’s most stylistically interesting and best-performing vehicles – at prices working and middle-class Americans could afford.  

Most people who know cars already know about iconic Pontiacs models such as the GTO – which was the archetype for the muscle car category it inspired – as well as the Firebird and Trans-Am, which at one time Pontiac sold as many of in a year as Toyota sold Camrys, last year.

But there were other, comparably successful and beautiful models such as the Grand Prix, which John DeLorean, Pontiac’s general manager – who was also a hands-on engineer – took a personal interest in, as he did the original 1964 GTO.

There were also Catalinas, LeManses and Bonnevilles.

Fieros, too.

And then there weren’t. Which is why there’s no longer a Pontiac. GM closed down what had been one of its most successful divisions in 2010, chiefly because Pontiac had stopped selling Pontiacs years before then. All it had by the end were body-clad Chevys and Buicks, rebadged. This included the last “Firebirds” and “Trans-Ams,” which were that in name only as they were reskinned and rebadged Camaros.

Will history repeat – with Dodge in the role of the doomed?

It seems likely.

Dodge – until just now – was in a very real way Pontiac reconstituted under different management. It sold stylistically interesting, high-performance vehicles at prices working and middle-class Americans could afford.  

Models like Charger and Challenger, which were not just performance cars, they were unique kinds of cars in that no one else made cars anything like them. Where else could a man go to find a hulking American car with a big V8 and the attitude to go with it – at a price the average man could afford?

There was just one place.

Emphasis on the past tense.

The Charger and Challenger have gone the way of the GTO and the (real) Firebird and Trans-Am, forced off the market by forces that have very clearly been disguised so as to not appear to have done exactly what they did. Which is exactly what was done to Pontiac, though almost no one understands how it was done and so has no idea that it was done.

GM didn’t scuttle Pontiac on purpose. It was pushed into doing it by the same forces that have – probably – just scuttled Dodge. When Pontiac was selling Pontiacs such as the GTO and Grand Prix and Firebird, these were not just reskinned/rebranded Chevys and Buicks (and Oldsmobiles; another GM division done in by the same forces). All of GM’s divisions had their own separate engineering divisions where brand-specific engines were . . . engineered.

When you bought a ’64 GTO, you got a Pontiac 389 V8.

Not a Chevy 327.

Not that there is anything wrong with a Chevy 327. Far from it. But it is a Chevy engine, not a Pontiac engine. The latter having its own brand-specific appeal. That is why a Trans-Am like my 1976 model is not a Chevy Camaro, reskinned and rebadged. Its beating heart is a Pontiac-designed 455 V8 that is not a Chevy 350 V8 (the latter being the engine a same-year Camaro would have had under its hood). It is why the “Firebirds” and  “Trans-Ams” made after Pontiac was forced to stop making its own V8 engines – after Pontiac  was forced to close down its engineering and became a brand-in-name-only – are not Pontiacs.

They are – they were – reskinned and rebadged Chevys and Buicks.

And that is why Pontiacs are no longer made, in name or otherwise.

But why did Pontiac stop making its own engines? Because it was forced to. Because GM could no longer afford to have multiple divisions with different engineering divisions designing different engines for different brands – all of which had to be compliant with the same federal regulations. It was too expensive for GM to have Pontiac designing and manufacturing Pontiac V8s and Chevy (and Oldsmobile) doing the same. It was less expensive to have a single corporate engineering division and corporate (Chevy-designed) engines and only have to deal with getting those engines compliant with the regs. Then one type of engine could be installed in all of those “Pontiacs” and “Oldsmobiles,” which became literally shells of their former selves.

They lived on for awhile, as patients afflicted with terminal cancer sometimes do. But their end was foreordained once their beating hearts had been cut out.

Now consider Dodge. What is left now that the Charger and Challenger are gone? Now that the beating heart – the Hemi V8 that defined these cars – has been stilled? All that’s left is the Hornet, which isn’t a bad little crossover. But it’s a “Dodge” in name only. Literally. The Hornet is a reskinned and rebadged Alfa Tonale. It is powered by a tiny four cylinder engine that is completely unrelated to any Dodge engine.

But is compliant. And that is why it’s here and the V8 isn’t.

A battery-powered device called “Charger” is apparently coming later this year. But it is a skin job only. Without the Hemi, it is like a “Trans-Am” without a 400 or 455. That is to say, something in name-only.

It is doubtful this device – along with the reskinned/rebadged Tonale – will carry what’s left of Dodge very far into the future, like a gut-shot deer that runs for another 100 yards, not realizing it’s already dead.

Ah well. All glory is fleeting.

But it’s a shame most people have no idea just why it is, in this case. Or was – in the case of Pontiac, now 14 years in the grave and dead for a lot longer than that.

. . .

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