Pontiac: The Death of a Brand

The news that Pontiac is to be the latest American auto icon to be retired next year may be sad, but it’s hardly surprising.

Not only is GM patently unable to support any brands beyond those it’s decided comprise its core marques – Chevy, Caddy, Buick and GMC – Pontiac has been showing distress signs for years. Brands nearing the end are generally identifiable by a set of death throes that make it look increasingly unbalanced and devalued.

Perhaps none are so apparent as MG Rover’s final days under the Phoenix Consortium from 2000–2005. Although left with the impressive Rover 75 and MG TF sports car as hangover from BMW’s ownership, the company’s line-up was not especially notable.

Worse still was the lack of a real volume business. So, ditching 50 years of up-market Rover and white-heat sporty MG heritage, Phoenix struck a deal with Tata to badge engineer the utterly terrible Indica supermini.

The move – akin to Jaguar launching a new model based on the Perodua Kelisa – was an unmitigated disaster that may not have been the final nail in the coffin, but tarnished the company’s reputation badly. It’s debatable whether the habit of manufacturers striking out in bizarre new directions is a cause or effect of their downward spiral though.

It’s tempting to argue that brands are the catalyst for their own downfall by moving outside of their traditional remit, but it’s also a symptom of their own approaching obsolescence. In all honesty badge-engineering tends to extend the lifespan of marques that simply aren’t relevant as volume businesses any more, particularly within the same group, or else it distorts them so badly that they cease to relevant.

Badge-engineering robs marques of their individuality, and Pontiac certainly seemed to lose touch with everything that had made it popular towards the end, despite some flickers of life that the recession put paid to.

Alongside the Chevy reskins, bizarre models like the Aztec SUV and SV6 MPV were just a confusing irrelevance to the kind of people traditionally interested in buying Pontiacs, as was the CityRover to Rover customers, though the latter’s early sales success can probably be traced to some sort of residual brand loyalty.

One of the last models that Pontiac was genuinely considering was the extraordinary G8 sports pick-up truck. Bizarre though it is, in the end the only models that really made any sense as Pontiacs were Holden-manufacturered G8s and their derivatives, thanks to Bob Lutz’s influence.

If Pontiac had a British counterpart I suppose MG is the obvious choice. Rather than focus on the genuine hot hatches, performance saloons and roadsters that MG customers, the company produced a series of what were – at best – Q cars that, at face value, were virtually indistinguishable from their Rover counterparts, in themselves reworked Hondas.

So, all that was left of Pontiac in the end was a badge with some cars from other manufacturers attached. Unlike Dodge, which has nevertheless flirted with badge-engineering, it seemed to lose its sheen as an exciting, sporty marque.

It should be easy to fit a performance brand alongside GM’s new ‘core’ brands, so long as you don’t pretend there are half a million sales a year in it, but GM hasn’t seemed to know what do with Pontiac for 30 years besides the Fieros and Trans Ams of this world.

Pontiac may labour on for another year or so, but it was badge-engineered out of any meaningful existence years ago.

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