Henry Ford, Horace Dodge, Louis Chevrolet, and Ransom E. Olds are just a few of the men who have obtained a dubious form of immortality because of their association with the American automobile industry. For some legendary individuals such as LaSalle, Lincoln, and DeSoto, this honor was dubious indeed, as the use of their names as tools of marketing was akin to using the name of General George Washington to sell toilet paper even though these were fine automobiles.
Sadly, crass marketing is no respecter of persons and though the cars that bore his name have become legendary, the introduction of these vehicles and much of their early promotion were truly tasteless. Perhaps an even greater tragedy is that in today’s society where being able to differentiate between Homer Simpson and Ronald Reagan or identifying the correct century in which World War II was fought constitutes a knowledge of American history the name sake for these fine automobiles is as unrecognized as the middle name of Zachary Taylor’s vice president.
Chief Pontiac of the Ottawa tribe was a brilliant tactician, politician, and strategist. His skills as an orator enabled him to form the most powerful coalition in Native American history that in turn led to Pontiac’s Rebellion; a brilliantly fought, though short lived series of skirmishes in 1763, 1764 and 1765. No homage to the man or any of these grand accomplishments was evident at the premier of the automobile that bore his name in January of 1926.
The automotive chapter of the Pontiac name begins in early 1906 with a meeting between Edward Murphy, who wanted to move his Pontiac Buggy Company, maker of Oakland carriages and wagons, into the modern era, and Alanson Brush, who had made a name for himself with his design work on early Cadillac models. A subsequent series of meetings resulted in the formation of the Oakland Motor Car Company in the summer of 1907.
The partnership was a short one and by January of 1908 when the new Oakland made its official debut, Brush had moved onto other projects. The fledgling company had just begun to rise above lackluster sales when in September of 1909 it was dealt another blow, the death of forty four year old Edward Murphy.
Shortly before his death, arrangement had been made to merge the company with one recently founded by another buggy man, William Durant. This fortuitous folding of Oakland into General Motors ensured the companies survival.
In the years that followed, sales of Oakland’s were consistent, largely the result of timely marketing built around success in a variety of motor sports and innovation such as the introduction of an optional V8 engine in 1915. However, in the recessionary years of the post war period and with the restructuring of General Motors in the early 1920’s the Oakland star began to wane.
By the mid 1920’s the hard times were rapidly becoming a fading memory and General Motors, in an effort to maximize profits, began expanding their product line by introducing companion lines for most of their vehicles, even companion models. Oldsmobile had the Viking, Buick the Marquette, Cadillac the LaSalle and Oakland the Pontiac.
General Motor envisioned great things for the Oakland/Pontiac team and as a result, all stops were pulled in the debut and initial promotion to dealers of the new Pontiac. In conjunction with the New York Auto Show where the car was first shown the Commodore Hotel was booked for an unprecedented sales meeting for dealers as well as their sales staff.
For this event, the hotel was rechristened as the “Wigwam,” promotional material referred to the main conference as the “Pow Wow” and the dinner as “Heap Big Eats.” Promotional items and sales programs that ensured dealers made plenty of “wampum” were distributed.
It might have been tasteless. It might have been a dishonor to Pontiac as well as Native Americans but it worked. First year sales, 76,696 units, shattered all industry records and by the summer of 1929 an astounding 500,000 Pontiacs had been sold.
Ironically, the success of Pontiac came at the threshold of the Great Depression, a time when automobile manufactures were tightening the belt. At General Motors, this meant a reversal of many policies initiated during the heady times of the mid 1920’s.
As a result, the Oakland was not to be found in the 1931 lineup and the assets of that division were used to revamp the Pontiac. As an historical footnote the 1932 Pontiac was truly a bargain and technological wonder with a highly advanced V8 being available in convertibles for a sales price of just $945.
In the years that followed the Pontiac enjoyed steady sales through a large base of staunch brand loyalty. Moreover, for each subsequent generation a specific Pontiac would symbolize that era – the Silver Streak, the Bonneville, the GTO, Firebird, and Trans Am. As a result Pontiac is an American legend that, perhaps, is worthy of its namesake.

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