DAWN OF THE PONTIAC

DAWN OF THE PONTIAC

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.

SOARING GAS PRICES CRIMP AMERICAS LOVE AFFAIR WITH THE AUTOMOBILE

SOARING GAS PRICES CRIMP AMERICAS LOVE AFFAIR WITH THE AUTOMOBILE

In 1896, the Barnum & Bailey Circus gave top billing over the albino and fat lady to the Duryea Motor Wagon. A few months later Montgomery Ward noted that children should see this wonder before the fad passed. One driver, a blacksmith, in a fifty-mile Chicago automobile race quit within half that distance because of exhaustion.
Less than a decade later, the American automobile industry was a multi million dollar business, automobiles were being driven coast to coast, and steam powered vehicles were pushing the speed record limits to near one hundred fifty miles per hour. Within one generation this country became a nation on the move and for the first time the horse played no role. Within two generations America had become a car culture nation with the throttle replacing the stirrup and has never looked back.
By 1920, every aspect of American society had been touched or transformed. More homes had automobiles than indoor plumbing. Family vacations and Sunday drives no longer were relegated to the rich and famous and tourism related businesses flourished as never before.
In a seemingly blink of an eye the American landscape was transformed. In 1919, the world’s first tricolor traffic signal to regulate traffic appeared on the streets of Detroit. By end of the following decade, the first cloverleaf interchange had opened and the federal government was annually paving 10,000 miles of roads.
Before 1924 motorists had but two time honored choices for lodging; sleeping under the stars or at a local inn or hotel. Then in 1925 Los Angeles architect Arthur Heineman introduced lodging designed with the motorist in mind.
The unique layout of the property featured two room bungalows that included a small kitchen and private adjoining garage all facing towards a central courtyard. Other amenities included a swimming pool and picnic tables. The property was billed as a motor hotel but the owner soon shortened this to motel.
As Americans took to the road in record numbers enterprising individuals transformed the roadsides into a never-ending sideshow. In Oklahoma, there were albino buffaloes and in California, there was the mysterious “Thing.” You could stop to see live rattlesnakes and Indians in Arizona and hillbillies in the Ozarks.
Before 1920 today’s automotive essentials – heaters, air conditioners and even doors and windows – were often unimaginable luxuries and concepts. Nevertheless, with each passing year the luxuries of the past become the standard features of the next.
In 1912, Cadillac introduced the electric starter as standard equipment. Within ten years, most every major automaker with the exception of Ford had followed suit. Windshield wipers, and heaters, turn signals and automatic transmissions all began as expensive options.
The very thought of buying a new automobile without a gas gauge prominently displayed in the instrument cluster is as foreign to the modern consumer as buying a good surrey for daily transportation. Surprisingly the in dash gas gauge is a relatively recent phenomena.
Initially gas level measurements were sight glasses or a measuring stick. Ford would utilize the later as standard equipment through 1927 when production of the Model T was suspended. Even luxury carmakers such as Franklin were using tank-mounted gauges on the exterior of the car as late as 1928.
In 1904 a coast-to-coast drive of just over one month was worthy of headlines throughout the world. As late as 1919, a military convoy required sixty days for a drive from Washington D.C. to San Francisco. It would be 1936 before the entire length of Route 66 was paved and the early 1950’s before Route 6 was in a similar state.
By 1960, automotive slogans and jingles were better known than the Star Spangled Banner. Most everyone was familiar with “See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet” or “Ask the man who owns one.”
In retrospect, the automobile can be seen as a time capsule documenting the dramatic changes of the past century. The curved dash Olds of 1902 epitomizes the pioneering automotive spirit. The Model T encapsulates the rise of the middle class. The stylish Cord 810 reflects the American spirit during times of trial. The optimism of the 1950’s can be found in the rakish fins and garish chrome of Detroit produced land yachts.
The 1960’s were a time of confusion and turmoil. This too is reflected in the popular automobiles of that era – the GTO and VW microbus, the Corvair and Olds Vista Cruiser. Likewise with the 1970’s and its distinctive Gremlin and Pacer, and powerful Trans Am and the 1980’s with the Plymouth Voyager.
With the exception of the computer, the automobile was the driving force behind the largest societal change in history. Even with the rising price of gasoline there seems to be no indication America is ready to give up its love affair with the automobile. Therefore, only one question remains unanswered, what form will the next generation of American car culture time capsules take in the years to come?
CORVETTE PULLED FROM THE PRECIPICE

CORVETTE PULLED FROM THE PRECIPICE

Careful evaluation of automotive trends in the late 1940s indicated there was a small but growing niche market that no American manufacturer had a vehicle for; the sports car. Fueled by returning GI’s love for lithe, spirited, open European roadsters within five years registration for imported sports roadsters had leapt from a mere 100 to more than 11,000. From this and the desire of General Motors Design Chief Harley Earl’s desire to build a reasonable, go to college roadster for his kids an American legend was born.
Earl was acutely aware that roadsters had fallen from favor during the Great Depression and that Chevrolet had not built one since 1935. More than likely, he was also aware that since the days of the hoary Stutz Bearcat, America had not really had a sports car of its own. At a meeting with his styling staff in early 1952, all of this culminated with the issuance of an order to come up with an inexpensive, sporty roadster.
The resultant sketches so impressed Earl he gave the green light to the actual building of the car for display at the 1953 Motorama. To head the project he selected Bob McClean, a man well versed in the burgeoning sports car fever having received his degrees in engineering and industrial design at Cal Tech.
Initially the sporty roadster, dubbed Corvair, was to be built of steel and aluminum. However, a revolutionary new product known as GRP, glass reinforced plastic, commonly known today as fiberglass, was in the early stages of transforming the boat building industry. More importantly to Earl were several prototype and low production automobiles that used the material successfully for lightweight composite body construction.
One was the Alembic 1 roadster built by U.S. Rubber in late 1951 that was on display in the lobby of the General Motors Building at the time. This car would evolve into the Woodill Wildfire, a fiberglass kit car sold to go with the chassis of the buyers’ choice.
The second was the Kaiser Darrin, a limited production vehicle built by Kaiser in Jackson, Michigan during 1952. Legendary designer Howard “Dutch” Darrin had created the low silhouette, two-seat sports roadster with curvaceous lines. As if the car was not distinctive enough it was given a grill that was derisively described as a Buick sucking a lemon.
Literally, at the last minute the prototype for the Waldorf Astoria Motorama received two changes. The name was changed from Corvair to Corvette and the hood emblem of crossed checker and American flag was switched to a checkered flag and a red Chevrolet flag.
The management of General Motors and Harley Earl expected the prototype to draw a great deal of attention. However, the response, beyond all expectation, was so intense and so impassioned the order was given to commence production as soon as possible.
Incredibly, in little more than six months the first “production” model rolled from an impromptu assembly line in the old Customer Delivery Building in Flint. By mid-December of 1953, production had hit the three hundred mark; a production facility designed for a projected 10,000 units annually was complete and fifteen 1954 models were built.
Excitement over the Corvette at General Motors as well as with the public quickly waned. Sealing issues resulted in floors that filled with water during hard rains. Even though the cars used many mechanical components from the standard passenger car line, such as the Blue Flame Six and two-speed Powerglide transmission, they required costly production methods. As a result, the original idea of building an inexpensive sports car fell by the wayside and the sales price for a Corvette, $3490, placed it in direct competition with upper end European sports cars such as the Jaguar.
That in turn led to another major problem. The Corvette, especially in comparison to the Jaguar, was a sports car in name only.
By the final weeks of 1954, after almost two years of production, less than 4,000 Corvettes had been built, a far cry form the projected annual production of 10,000 units. Even worse 1,076 of these were sitting on loading docks and at dealerships. For obvious reasons the decision was made to pull the plug on what had once been a promising project. Salvation came from two very unexpected directions, Russia and Ford Motor Company.
In late 1954, the Ford Motor Company introduced its stylish, sporty two seat Thunderbird. General Motors had but one option if it was to compete, revamp the Corvette.
Enter Zora Duntov, Russian immigrant, engineer for Allard, designer of the Ardun racing conversion for Ford flat head V8 engines, and race driver. With a free hand, almost unlimited resources, a talented staff and the support of Ed Cole, in late 1955, the Corvette made its debut with the all-new, revolutionary small block 265-c.i.d. V8 engine and an American legend was pulled from the precipice.
Today the Chevrolet Corvette is an American icon that is inseparable from America’s love of speed. That the Corvette should rise to such heights despite initial shortcomings and its near demise is but another astounding chapter in the history of the American auto industry.