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Death of the Dart

Pontiac Officially Goes to the Great Car Lot in the Sky 

Nobody likes to see it, especially to such a historic brand. Remember this is a brand that introduced the GTO, Firebird, Trans AM, Chief, Grand AM, Grand Prix, and the Bonneville. Nameplates that for many years fueled GM and helped propel new car market share for Detroit as the country bought into the American Performance Sedan.

The ad campaign that people still remember – “we are driving excitement… Pontiac.”

Vehicles that customers repetitiously bought and passed down to children like Grand Am and Grand Prix.

Muscle cars like the GTO and Trans AM that teenagers dreamed about and those kids who were like me got a lot of speeding tickets in.

Pontiac was a stoic brand with over 80 years and at one time probably the most powerful dealer body in the industry.

So what happened?

There will be speculation and talking heads pontificating what happened for many years and some people think my view may fall into this category but here is a perspective, and a pretty close perspective to what happened since my automotive advertising career started in Pontiac Dealer Association Advertising.

There are three things that I believe lead to the “Death of the Dart.”

1.  Product – as the times changed through the 60’s, 70’s and into the 80’s the quality of the Pontiac brand deteriorated. The phrase “come on baby let the good times roll” comes to mind, as business was so good some thought it would probably never end. The core products were neglected, the factory focused on volume rather than quality and this opened the door for the Asian markets to enter America with a new promise and a desire to create a product superior to what was put on the road by Detroit. The product suffered as GM was busy inventing brands like Saturn and Geo in the late 80’s and populating dealers in the early 90’s and Pontiac got put on the “back burner” as new centers of profit rose for GM. The final nail in the coffin did not come this weak, but I believe it came in 2003 when they announced the renaming of the products moving away from Grand AM and Grand Prix and making shifts to the “G Series.” Now really, what 37-year-old hairdressers that had been driving Grand AMs would really know what a G6 was. The name alone sounds like some kind of star ship. GM had good intentions but poor planning.  Changing a Name and Logo for something you have invested Billions of Marketing dollars in is a rookie mistake.

2.  People – many dealers became millionaires from Pontiac and built great family businesses and fortunes from this brand, its suppliers and its vendors. The problem with the second and third generations is they didn’t have ton earn it. A lot of dealers will ship their sons and daughters to other dealerships for entry level training and let them cut their teeth under people who are respected as good operators. Several very large import dealers I know started out as Pontiac salespeople and ultimately left because the grass was greener and there was greater opportunity with new franchises where they could get away from working under the generational gap. Many dealers handed their successful and profitable businesses down to generations who were not progressive thinkers and didn’t have to work their way up the ranks and that has ultimately weakened the Pontiac dealer body. A report said there were only 40 stand alone Pontiac dealers left in the country, who would have ever thought this.

3.  Focus – GM took their eye off the ball and brought in lesser people to try to fix what could have remained their most dominant brand. They were too busy for the last 30 years worrying about how to fight the imports that they forget to use their most trusted weapon.

It is a sad day, but a lesson learned to all who live to fight another day… 

John Paul Strong

John Paul Strong combines his two decades of automotive marketing experience with a team of more than 150 professionals as owner and CEO of Strong Automotive.

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