It’s all over but the hand-wringing for Pontiac By Peter M. De Lorenzo May 7, 2008 Detroit. It was nice to have the opportunity to drive the Pontiac G8 (as we mentioned in last week’s “On the Table”), but it was sad, too, because despite the exclamation point-drenched car magazine covers of-the-moment touting how great the G8 is - and it is a damn good car, by the way - it won’t be enough to save Pontiac from its inevitable demise. GM’s ongoing circus juggling act - which revolves around propping up its divisional marketing and product aspirations on an as-needed basis - is finally unraveling in the worst automobile market the U.S. auto industry has seen in decades. GM is finding out the hard way that no matter how many excellent new products they’re able to bring to market, unless they can back those products with enough marketing and advertising horsepower it ultimately doesn’t matter. What good is a reinvigorated product offensive when the market is crumbling and you have too many divisional mouths to feed - and that’s before you even begin to address the competitive environment? Not much. Besides the too many models-too many divisions-too many dealers thing, I don't think it's possible within GM's sanitized and homogenized organizational structure for anyone to come along and fix Pontiac, let alone understand it. GM has demonstrated convincingly in its latest product renaissance that they only actually believe in product when their backs are pressed against the wall, which doesn’t say much for the corporation culturally. But then again the words “culture” and “GM” have never blended well. It’s clear that the network of True Believers within GM responsible for its hotter products right now has succeeded in spite of the corporation, not because there has been a sea change at the top. Yes, Bob Lutz has done wonders since he came on board, as I’ve documented, but it has been compartmentalized and restricted to the product development side of their business. There’s no fundamental shift in how GM – as a company – views the automotive world, especially right here in the U.S. I get the feeling that if Lutz were to leave tomorrow – besides the fact there are maybe only two people in the entire corporation who could take over his role (I’ll name them in a future column) – GM would revert right back to its standard operating procedure of having the finance guys call the shots, and that would turn out to be especially nasty without the commanding presence of a Bob Lutz to balance things out when it comes to making the right product decisions. And that’s a pathetic commentary on GM’s “culture” as much as anything. In the new global scenario that defines the auto business today, cross-continent cost efficiencies are the GM financial brains’ raison d’etre, but that's still no guarantee of success and it’s still no substitute for the ability to deliver great products to market. You can’t cut your way efficiently to prosperity, and I’m not so sure the financial suits at the top of GM understand or believe that – even after all of the turmoil that has befallen that corporation over the last 20 years. And here, trying to survive and thrive in this culturally bereft environment, is Pontiac, struggling and scavenging for marketing dollars - and for relevant products - and it’s not going well. Not going well at all, as a matter of fact. Back when Bunkie Knudsen took the division over in the late 50s, Pontiac was a rickety organization churning out bland products to the point that it was beginning to have trouble justifying its existence within the GM divisional structure. But Knudsen changed all that. He fired-up his engineers and the designers over at GM Styling assigned to his division and made them work to a new mission, a simple formula that distilled down to its essence went something like this: Flashy cars + Horsepower + Marketing Attitude x Swagger = Sizzling Sales. And it worked like gangbusters. Pontiac became GM’s go-go division literally overnight, as each fall the new Pontiac lineup would set the market on its ear with innovative styling flourishes and big-time performance attributes. Pontiac in its heyday was the GM “maverick” division that flew its pirate flag proudly from high atop its old-school administration building in downtown Pontiac. Pontiac specialized in rattling other GM divisional General Managers to no end (especially at Chevrolet), tweaking and taunting the corporate suits downtown at the old General Motors building, and giving the competition fits in every segment it competed in. And Pontiac advertising from that era was some of the best ever done in automotive history. Both memorable and emotionally compelling, it not only stood apart from everything else, it created a “buzz” on the street for the brand that was simply irresistible. But that, as they say, was then. The “maverick” Pontiac couldn’t exist in today’s General Motors, because there’s no champion for the division or anyone left there who even remotely understands what Pontiac is all about. The one thing that Lutz has misjudged since he began his tenure at GM is that he never did "get" Pontiac. His idea that Pontiac should be the "affordable BMW" is flat-out wrong. Sometimes Bob’s Euro-sensibilities get the best of him, and his view of Pontiac is one of these times. Pontiac isn't an "affordable" BMW because it was never cut out to play that role. Pontiacs should be raucous, distinctly American cars with real attitude, appealing to people who enjoy marching to a different drummer and who like to go their own way. Though I applauded Lutz at the time for trying to jump-start the division with the modern GTO, rushing that car to market glossed-over the real issue facing Pontiac, and that was that the division didn't stand for anything on the street anymore. And that was compounded by the fact that the modern day GTO was a mistake for a number of reasons. Not that it wasn't a good car and a terrific value by the end (when it was heavily discounted), but GM had allowed Pontiac's image to dry up in the marketplace, and by the time the "new" GTO came out, there was no legacy left. It didn't mean anything to younger enthusiasts, and for the older enthusiasts who remembered the great GTOs from the past, it didn't qualify as a "real" GTO (not that they knew necessarily what a "real" GTO should look like, they just knew that the Australian-sourced car wasn't it). It also didn't help that the "modern" GTO was a lackluster, totally uninspired design that was already showing its age by the time it made its debut. Instead of doing their homework and coming up with a real plan to get Pontiac going again, GM squandered the opportunity to give the division a new lease on life. And now, even though the G8 is an excellent car, Pontiac still doesn't stand for anything in the U.S. market. And they don't have the fundamental marketing power at their disposal to turn things around, either. If I had a clean sheet of paper for Pontiac I would create a smaller, rear-wheel-drive GTO as a coupe with a hot but small (2.5-liters) all-aluminum V8 that would sticker for $19,999 and weigh no more that 2800 pounds (with minimal options). But I wouldn't do it without a commitment from GM marketing that Pontiac would go back to its roots and that it would be properly supported - both financially and with new product. And I would broom all the vehicles that didn't meet Pontiac’s "marching to the different drummer" persona too. That means no Vibe, no crossovers, no SUVs, no trucks and no bullshit nomenclature. I would do the GTO, a Trans-Am, a Grand Prix and a Bonneville, four vehicles that would bristle with innovation, performance and swagger. Everything else would go away - including the Solstice - because as long as Saturn has the Sky, the Solstice isn’t radical enough for the Pontiac product portfolio. (As for the G6? If GM can’t figure out how to make up the volume between the Chevy Malibu and Saturn Aura, then they’re in worse straits than anyone thought.) And then I'd market the shit out of the new Pontiac lineup – with emphasis on the performance-per-dollar equation - and do it with an unflinching rebel attitude to boot. But as we well know by now, Pontiac won’t get the proper support within GM because Chevy is the lead dog, and they have Malibu and Camaro to worry about, not to mention Silverado, the new Traverse and the rest of it. And Cadillac has the CTS, which needs constant reinforcement in the market. And then there’s Saturn, which has a burgeoning product lineup filling up with German Opel-based entries, and not enough marketing and ad money to get out of its own way. Oh, and don’t forget about GMC. And Hummer. And Saab. And even Buick too. So the idea that GM can properly nurture Pontiac back to health in this market - with its cumbersome divisional lineup and with no one on the premises who “gets” what Pontiac is and what it could be again - is simply out of the question. A few years ago Bob Lutz called Pontiac a “damaged brand.” He was right, of course, even though his idea of resuscitation lacked the strategic fundamentals that the brand so desperately needed. Given the corporation’s swooning performance of late in the U.S. market, and the fact that it has way too many irons in the fire, GM doesn’t have what it takes in terms of the talent, the passion or the funding to get its once-glorious “maverick” division off of life support. And short of major reconstructive surgery, Pontiac cannot and will not survive. It’s too bad, too, because Pontiac deserves better. A lot better. Thanks for listening, see you next Wednesday.