Pontiac reaches end of road as pop culture icon

The only thing a Pontiac automobile couldn’t do anymore was persuade enough people to keep buying it.

It could crash through burning buildings, make a fool of any number of small-town Southern sheriffs, help save the world from giant robots, even take criminals off to jail while engaging in witty repartee with its driver.

In the end, about the only thing a Pontiac automobile couldn’t do anymore was persuade enough people to keep buying it.

So General Motors announced last week that it is killing off the Pontiac brand, maker of muscular, noisy, gas-guzzling V-8-powered vehicles immortalized in song and movies for the way they seemed to shout to every other car on the block: “Out of the way, pipsqueak!”

When Burt Reynolds needed to outrun Jackie Gleason’s bumbling Sheriff Buford Justice across the South in the 1977 movie Smokey and the Bandit, he chose a black Pontiac Trans Am. When he needed a car to crash through burning buildings in Hooper, it was a red Trans Am.

On TV, the star of the hit 1980s series Knight Rider wasn’t really David Hasselhoff, it was his talking Pontiac. When Jim Garner’s private eye Jim Rockford needed to hit the road to solve a crime, he didn’t get behind the wheel of a Ford Mustang or a Chevrolet Camaro. He chose a Pontiac Firebird. For a time, the Monkees rode around in a tricked-out GTO.

Sometime in the ’80s, however, the love affair began to fade.

Car enthusiasts speculated this week whether it was changing tastes, the move toward more environmentally sensitive cars or perhaps Pontiac’s inability to keep coming up with new signature muscle cars that was to blame.

Pontiac’s more recent contributions to America’s automotive efforts included the very uncool Aztek, a chunky vehicle that looked like an SUV that tried to squeeze under a low-clearance bridge.

Jim Mattison, whose Pontiac Historic Services provides information on the model to collectors, noted that for whatever reason the company hadn’t produced anything to capture the public’s imagination in a long time.

“In 1963, they came out with this wonderful car called the GTO, then the Firebird in 1967, and then that evolved into the Trans Am,” Mattison said. “The momentum kept on building until more recent years.”

Pontiac, however, will live on, at least in museums (there’s a 1939 Woody on display at the Petersen), in private collections (Mattison owns more than a few himself).

 
 
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