Pontiac, Pop Culture Icon, Hits End of the Road

By: John Rogers AP
By: John Rogers AP

LOS ANGELES (AP) - 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 this past 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 T. 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.

And when a bored high school senior from Nashville, Tenn., decided to tune out his physics teacher's lecture one day and check out a copy of Car and Driver magazine, it was a picture of a hot new Pontiac he saw on the cover. By the end of class, John Wilkin had written the 1964 pop classic "GTO."

Soon after, he would become known as Ronny Wilkin, frontman for a Beach Boys-soundalike group called Ronny and the Daytonas, and he
would have the country singing: "Little GTO, you're really lookin' fine. Three deuces and a four-speed and a 389. Listen to her tachin' up now, listen to her whine. Come on and turn it on, wind it up, blow it out GTO."

For a time, the Monkees rode around in a tricked-out GTO, too.

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 Michigan-based 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, which discontinued the Firebird and Trans Am in 2002, tried bringing back the GTO in 2004. But the new model, produced in Australia, never caught on and was discontinued two years later.

"It didn't look like a Pontiac. It was still an Australian car," said Chris Brown of the Petersen Automotive Museum, where Pontiacs were on prominent display during a muscle-car exhibition a couple years ago.

Brown had praise, however, for two of Pontiac's current models, the G8 and the Solstice.

The latter even had enough muscle to be featured in the 2007 Shia LeBeouf movie "Transformers" as the good-guy robot-disguised-as-car named Jazz. But in perhaps an indication of things to come, Jazz was killed off fighting the evil Megatron and probably won't be around for the sequel.

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), and in song.

Wilkin heard "GTO" on the radio just the other day.

"It made me happy and sad at the same time," he said. "I was happy to hear the song but at the same time it was like it was being played at a funeral."

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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