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The Summer of John Z: John DeLorean and the Pontiac Firebird

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The Summer of John Z: John DeLorean and the Pontiac Firebird

Written by Aaron Severson

Tuesday, 30 October 2007 13:41

Designing, building, and marketing new cars is expensive, even for the largest automakers. If they're strapped for cash (e.g., the British car industry in the seventies) or overcome by hubris (e.g., General Motors), it's tempting to share platforms between models, or even slap some new and a new badge on an existing model and passing it off as a new product for a different division -- a technique called badge engineering. As confusing and potentially alienating badge engineering can be for consumers, imagine how the people at their divisions feel when they're handed an existing product and told to make something new and different out of it. Such was the case with Pontiac's "pony car," the Pontiac Firebird.

It's the spring of 1966, and you are John Z. DeLorean, recently minted General Manager of GM's Pontiac Motor Division. You came to work for Pontiac in 1956 under Semon "Bunkie" Knudsen, helping him transform the staid Pontiac lineup into GM's performance leader. Shepherded by Bunkie and his successor, your old boss Pete Estes, Pontiac trounced upstart AMC/Rambler and stalwart Plymouth to seize the coveted number-three slot in U.S. sales, right behind Ford and Chevrolet. Now Pete Estes has moved on to become the general manager of Chevrolet, and you're running Pontiac -- the youngest man in GM history to hold such a position.

Make no mistake -- Pontiac's success is built on boldness and an aura of sporty performance. Senior management hates it, the European-oriented car magazines call it hokum, but it works. The GTO, the big-engined Tempest you and Bill Collins cooked up, has sold far better than the bean counters dreamed possible, and become the hot car for America's burgeoning youth culture. You even scored a minor coup by giving it a standard Hurst shifter, a status symbol among the hot-rodding elite. The kids are car crazy, and Pontiac is In.

You know, however, that Pontiac's position is dangerously ephemeral. You've been out of real racing for more than three years, on the direct orders of conservative GM president Frederic Donner. The GTO is doing well, but practically every time you come up with a new way to promote it, you get an angry call from chairman Jim Roche's office, telling you to tone it down. Now, the other divisions are jumping on the GTO bandwagon with their own big-engined A-bodies -- Oldsmobile's Cutlass 4-4-2, the Chevy Chevelle SS396, and even Buick's Skylark Gran Sport -- and Ford and Chrysler are getting into the act, too. Engine-wise, you know you don't have anything to compete with Chrysler's newly revived Hemi, which means that the GTO is in danger of being left behind when it comes to raw performance. You still have the Grand Prix, Pontiac's riposte to Ford's posh Thunderbird, but it's too expensive for the kids, and in spite of (or maybe because of) the usual longer-lower-wider restyling, it's started bleeding sales alarmingly.

What you figure Pontiac really needs is a sporty image leader -- not just a midsize car with a big engine, but an actual two-seat sports car. You had the styling team cook up a slick, fiberglass-bodied coupe, the XP-833, and showed it off at auto shows as the Banshee. You made a strong case for putting it into production, but the Engineering Policy Group up on the 14th Floor said no, figuring it would just compete with the Corvette Sting Ray. The Sting Ray has yet to break 30,000 sales a year, and upper management honestly doesn't understand who's buying them, or why. Why would they want to build another one?

Now you have a new problem: the Mustang. When word of the Mustang first got out, GM didn't take it seriously, figuring it was just another dressed-up Falcon, like the Falcon Sprint, which had already bombed. By the time the dust settled, the Mustang had sold more than half a million units, and it's about to top the one-million mark. Those are serious numbers, and worse, they're hitting the same youth market that you tapped with the GTO. The Mustang has already killed the Corvair, and it has the guys at Chevrolet in a panic, trying to come up with some kind of competitor.

Chevy's solution is a new sporty car called the Panther, using a modified version of the semi-unitized platform from the next-generation Chevy II/Nova. Known internally as the F-body, it's slated to debut in the fall of '66 as a 1967 model.

Now it's May 1966 and your boss, executive VP Ed Cole, is telling you to make a Pontiac out of the Camaro, which what they're now calling Chevy's F-body sporty car. At first, it had seemed like they weren't even going to give you that much, since fighting Ford was supposed to be Chevy's job. But now they've heard that Mercury is coming out with an upscale version of the Mustang called Cougar, and they want you to head it off.



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