The Pontiac Motor Division of General Motors traces its origins back to two Pontiac, Michigan-based companies. The first is the Pontiac Buggy Company established in 1893, by Edward M. Murphy to produce horse drawn carriages. The other is the Pontiac Spring and Wagon Works incorporated in 1899, by Albert G. North and Harry G. Hamilton.
In 1905, the Pontiac Spring and Wagon Works took over manufacturing the Rapid Truck from the Rapid Motor Vehicle Company. This truck would eventually become the genesis of GMC trucks. From the experience and expertise it gained producing Rapid Trucks, the Pontiac Spring and Wagon Works produced its first automobile in 1907. That same year, the Oakland Motor Company was formed when Murphy decided to build cars and changed the name of the Pontiac Buggy Company.
The two enterprises merged to become the Oakland Motor Car Company in 1908. The organization set up shop in Michigan’s Oakland County, in the town of Pontiac, which had been named to honor a chief of the Ottawa tribe who became famous for his role in a Native American struggle against the British military's occupation of the Great Lakes region. General Motors purchased a 50 percent share of the Oakland Motor Car Company from North and Hamilton in 1909. GM bought the other half of the company after Edward M. Murphy died later that same year.
It is important to note, the brand General Motors bought was Oakland. The Pontiac brand did not formally exist, it was just the name the Pontiac Spring and Wagon Works had applied to its first car. So technically, while that car is indeed the first “Pontiac” automobile per se, the first true Pontiac branded car was introduced in 1926, some 18 years after General Motors bought the Oakland Motor Car Company.
Before we continue, we should define the concept of companion makes, which was introduced by General Motors in the 1920s. GM’s big idea was that if you could get someone started buying your cars at a young age, they would continue to buy your successively more expensive products as they grew older and more affluent. For General Motors, this meant Chevrolet was positioned as the low-priced (or gateway) brand. Moving up, one would encounter Oakland, Oldsmobile, Buick, and then Cadillac.
After a while, sizable gaps in price emerged between Chevrolet and Oakland, as well as between Oldsmobile and Buick, and Buick and Cadillac. To remedy this, Pontiac was established between Chevrolet and Oakland as a companion make to Oakland; Viking and Marquette were introduced to fill the space between Oldsmobile and Buick; and LaSalle was created to cover the spread between Buick and Cadillac. The first Pontiac model was offered in 1926. Much to the surprise of GM's management team, the Pontiac brand quickly began to outsell the Oakland marque. When GM gave up on the program, Pontiac was the only companion make to outlive its parent nameplate when Oakland was killed in 1932.
From the beginning, the Pontiac brand made a name for itself based on offering more engine than the competition. Pontiac automobiles were offered with six-cylinder engines when everything else in their price range ran fours. By 1927, Pontiac ranked sixth in overall sales among every brand then offered in the United States. By 1933, in keeping with this strategy, Pontiac was offering the most reasonably priced (read cheapest) eight-cylinder cars available. The brand did exceptionally well for GM. In fact, the last civilian automobile produced before auto factories converted to wartime materiel production was a Pontiac.
After the war, Pontiac faltered a bit because its models were styled essentially the same as before the war. Fitting the Hydra-matic automatic transmission helped sales a bit, but things didn’t really take off for the company again until the 1949 models appeared with all-new styling. The following year, in 1950, the marque introduced its iconic Catalina model name. Configured with all of the appointments of the high-end convertible models, but with a pillarless hardtop, the Catalina name was originally used on all hardtop Pontiacs before becoming a separate model unto itself in 1959.
Full-size Pontiacs became an eight-cylinder only proposition in 1955, with the introduction of its 173-horsepower overhead valve V8. Moving forward, all full-size Pontiac models would use V8 power until 1977. Pontiac’s first fuel injected model came in 1957. Priced like a Cadillac, the 1957 Pontiac Bonneville was a limited edition model of only 630 units. Also on the engine front, Pontiac was the first American manufacturer to use overhead-cam six-cylinder engines. The first Pontiacs to get them were the 1966 Tempest and the 1966 Firebird.
High performance would become more and more of an issue throughout the 1960s and leading into the 1970s. Pontiac had already blazed the trail with the Bonneville, a model as equally luxurious as it was powerful. But the Pontiac performance car everyone remembers is the 1964 Pontiac GTO. Created by stuffing Pontiac’s 389 cubic inch V8 from its full-size cars into the (relatively) lightweight Tempest body, Pontiac launched what ultimately came to be known as the “muscle car”. The Firebird and the Firebird Trans Am models that followed (particularly the 1973 and 1974 Trans Am SD455 models), added even more luster to the performance halo crowning the marque.
However, any student of automotive history can tell you what happened next.
The energy crisis of 1973 sucked all of the starch out of the brand. Pontiac struggled to adapt to the new reality of high gas prices, and the concomitant consumer demand for less fuel thirsty automobiles. The resulting Pontiacs were singularly boring automobiles. The Firebird in particular, after having been such an icon of high performance for so long, became something of a caricature of itself.
There were few real highlights in the post fuel crisis Pontiac portfolio. The two-seat Pontiac Fiero of the late 1980s, with its unique plastic skin over a steel monococque started life as a relatively limp (but interesting looking) commuter car—before evolving into a rather desirable sports car before it was killed. Similarly, after a couple of decades of toothless Firebird models, the Trans Am came back with a vengeance toward the end of its lifecycle with the ultimate WS-6 iteration of that car delivering some serious power and handling.
Ironically, just as the blade was descending toward the marque’s neck, it released two of the most interesting Pontiac models in years. The two-seat, rear-drive Pontiac Solstice sports car—though rushed into production and offered somewhat underdeveloped as a result—was an interesting concept. With a bit more time in the oven, the Solstice could have been a really exceptional offering. The last interesting rear-wheel drive Pontiac sedan to offer V8 power was the Pontiac G8. Essentially a rebadged Holden from GM’s Australian brand, the G8 was noted for its excellent power, handling, and good looks.
But that was it; GM pulled the plug on Pontiac in 2010.