The Rise of Pontiac Performance
Long before Detroit had ever thought of a car like the Pontiac GTO, the movement toward high-performance automobiles was already under way. In the years preceding World War II, the birthplace of speed was in southern California. Young men whose names have become pillars of today's performance aftermarket industry—such as Edelbrock and Iskendarian—were modifying flat-head Fords and building "rods" that exceeded the performance of even the most expensive production automobiles.
After the war, as Detroit produced cars to quench the thirst of a war-weary public, the word performance began creeping into the car maker's advertisements. The introduction of the high-compression Oldsmobile and Cadillac V-8 engines were the first shots fired in the horsepower wars that would esca-late for more than two decades. In the early 1950s, Chrysler countered with the Hemi engine. Although displacing less than 350 ci at the time, the new Hemi was a boon to hot rodders and drag racers, who soon learned how to coax more power from it. Back in Detroit, product planners looked to the high-perfor-mance engines as a selling tool to attract buyers of large, luxurious models. The lower-priced models like Chevrolet, Plymouth and Pontiac had no V-8s. These cars were offered only with straight-sixes or straight-eight engines. They were sensible cars, and Detroit's perception was that sensible buyers wanted reliability and economy, not performance.
All of that changed in the fall of 1954 with the introduction of the 1955 models. The 1955 model year stands as a milestone for several reasons. A considerable number of car lines were restyled in 1955, marking more contemporary styling that appealed to the huge num-bers of World War II veterans who were now in their mid- to late-thirties and growing more affluent. They could afford new cars, and they flooded dealer showrooms in droves. The industry set new sales records in 1955 thanks in part to the exciting new styling that appeared on Ford, GM and Chrysler products.
There was another, more significant revolution going on in 1955—the emergence of performance in the low-priced field. For the first time, Chevrolet and Pontiac offered V-8 engines. The small-block Chevrolet engine went on to become the cornerstone of street performance, and those southern California hot rodders who had built their passion for speed into profitable aftermarket parts businesses recognized the small-block Chevy as a gold mine of opportunity. Within a few years, a plethora of parts was offered to modify the Chevy Mouse Motor. New performance com-ponents are still being introduced today, nearly four decades after the 1955 model year.
While Pontiac's new V-8 didn't draw attention like Chevrolet's, it was a significant break from the past for a company that possessed a staid image of reliable yet boring transportation. In fact, sales had been so soft for so long that General Motors management had at one time considered slowly killing off the product by merging Pontiac with Oldsmobile, allowing the dealer body to either switch to Olds franchises when possible or simply closing them down.
Instead, a commitment was made to resuscitate Pontiac, and a changing of the guard was made in 1956. Semon "Bunkie" Knudsen, whose father had been with Pontiac two decades before, was moved into the office of general manager on July 1,1956, and told to turn things around or possibly go down as the last general manager the Pontiac Division would ever have. Knudsen went right to work. His first step was to evaluate Pontiac's product line-up and the perceived image of those products by the buying public. To increase sales and improve market penetration, Knudsen knew he had to turn his back on thirty years of image and build a new look. Younger customers were the target, and if Knudsen could win these buyers, the future belonged to Pontiac.
Within the first ninety days of his reign, Knudsen had stripped the chrome "suspenders" from the hood of the 1957 models, which were about to go into production. These chrome stripes were
a throwback to the Silver Streaks that his father had been involved with at Pontiac in the early 1930s. Removing the chrome was more than a styling ploy; it broke the bond with tradition and paved the way for new interpretations of what Pontiac signified as a car maker.
Knudsen also hired a group of young engineers to fulfill his vision for a new Pontiac. He had determined that for Pontiac to succeed, it had to cash in on the success the industry had enjoyed in 1955. The excitement of performance, of youthful styling that was a departure from the heavy, bulbous lines of the past, couldn't be understood by men who clung to high collars and French-tip shoes. In September 1956, Knudsen hired Elliot "Pete" Estes as chief engineer. Estes had been involved in the design of the high-compression Olds V-8 and favored high performance. Knudsen also brought aboard a bright young engineer from Packard, John Z.DeLorean, to become director of Advanced Engineering.
Soon the word was out that things were happening at Pontiac, and that attracted more young engineers, product planners and designers. It also attracted a young man named Jim Wangers who had some unique ideas about how to image and sell cars. Wangers had been at Campbell-EwaId, Chevrolet's advertising agency, and was instrumental in the campaign to change Chevy's image in 1955 by emphasizing performance. After a short stint at Chrysler, Wangers was recruited by McManus, John and Adams, Pontiac's advertising agency.
Within eighteen months of Knudsen's arrival, a barrage of high-performance packages and programs began to hit the automotive world. Thanks to Estes, who brought the concept of multiple carburetion with him from Oldsmobile, Pontiac introduced in 1957 the now-legendary Tri-Power carburetion setup of three two-barrel carburetors. It also pumped up the horsepower and displacement of its engines and cleaned house at Daytona's 1957 Speed Week and NASCAR events. Knudsen personally directed the stock-car and drag-racing programs at Pontiac, searching out the best builders and tuners. Pontiac's blitzkrieg paid off, dominating stock-car racing and gathering the attention of the automotive press, which reported to enthusiasts that "Grandma's car" was now the hottest ticket going.
The successes enjoyed by Pontiac on the racetrack were paying dividends in the showroom as well. The introduction of the Wide Track Pontiacs in 1959 set the cars apart from the rest of the industry. These Hot Chiefs with their new engines were developing a reputation for performance that rubbed off on even the most mundane members of the
Pontiac product line-up. By 1959, Pontiac had moved into the number-four spot behind Chevrolet, Ford and Plymouth, up from sixth place just four years before.
Knudsen had also influenced the styling of Pontiac. The first models under his direction debuted in 1959, and by 1963,
Pontiac styling had broken new ground by using clean lines, an absence of excessive chrome trim and flaring the rear quarter panels. These styling cues would be picked up by every other manufacturer during the 1960s.
For his efforts, Knudsen was rewarded the top post at Chevrolet in 1961, and
Estes moved into the general manager's chair. DeLorean was appointed chief engineer. The agenda for Pontiac set by
Knudsen was accelerated by his successors. By 1962, Pontiac and its new line-up of Super Duty engines were literally ruling the racetracks and drag strips of
America. Out of the ivy-covered walls of the Pontiac Engineering building emerged radical camshafts, aluminum exhaust headers, special lightweight aluminum body components, and lightened frames and wheels. Many of these parts were also offered for street applications, and the major performance magazines were now featuring articles and covers on the hot Pontiacs.
By this time, Wangers, DeLorean, Estes and others within Pontiac were riding the crest of a successful wave that had carried the division to the number-three sales position. Wangers was finely at-tuned to the street scene, and he reported to DeLorean what the emerging generation of gearheads was doing and how he thought Pontiac could be a part of it. Wangers met George Hurst and introduced him to the engineers at Pontiac. Soon Pontiac became the first car maker to use Hurst's new floorshifter. Virtually everyone on the street was converting to Hursts, and Pontiac's adaptation of the stout stick was an indi-cation of just how much in touch Pontiac—and Wangers—was with the high-performance scene.
Pontiac was on an incredible roll, with huge successes on the tracks, a Motor Trend Car of the Year Award under its belt and a hot performance image that staked its booming showroom sales to continued dominance on the tracks. They were the envy of the industry, and just when it appeared nothing could go wrong, Pontiac was dealt a blow that threatened to crumble the dynasty Knudsen and his successors had so carefully built.