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Room at the Top: The Pontiac Star Chief and Class Consciousness in America

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Room at the Top: The Pontiac Star Chief and Class Consciousness in America

For more than half of its 80-year history, the Pontiac Division of General Motors has tried, with varying degrees of success, to present itself as the hotshot of the GM line-up, with an advertising tagline proclaiming, "We Build Excitement." The credibility of that slogan has varied a great deal over the years, but it's hard to argue that Pontiac has been responsible for many of GM's most interesting and exciting cars, from the GTO to the Firebird Trans Am.

But Pontiac wasn't always in the business of building racy cars. It was once a stolid, sensible, rather dull family car whose claim to fame was that it was "priced just above the lowest." To see what Pontiac used to be before Bunkie Knudsen went racing and John De Lorean twisted the tail of the Tiger, let's take a look at a Pontiac of 1954 -- the last boring Pontiac.


Whoever said America was a classless society never heard of Alfred P. Sloan, and probably wouldn't have liked it much if they had. When Sloan became president of General Motors in the early 1920s, he famously decreed that GM would offer "a car for every purse and purpose."

On the face of it, one might take that as a straightforward commitment to providing a widespread product line, but what Sloan's model really served to do was to codify the emerging class system of the mass production era. Those at the bottom rungs of the socioeconomic ladder, the workers and the clerks, would buy a Chevrolet, GM's cheapest model. Those at the highest tiers, the new gentry of the industrial age, bought Cadillacs, which they might or might not drive themselves; actory limousines with divider windows to separate passengers from chauffeur were a regular part of the Cadillac line-up well into the 1980s. In the middle, GM offered a host of mid-priced makes of ascending size, price, and prestige. For the doctor, the lawyer, the bank president, there was Buick; for the senior engineer or senior manager, the college-educated, white-collar employees, there was Oldsmobile. Below that, in the gap between Olds and Chevy, was Pontiac.


Pontiac had not been part of the original plan. It was the sole survivor of an ill-fated, mid-1920s plan to divide the class/model hierarchy into even finer gradations by adding "companion makes" for each of the middle-class divisions. At the time GM's lower-middle-class division was Oakland, a formerly independent automaker in which GM had acquired a controlling interest in its early years. Oakland was based in Pontiac, Michigan, and had originally been a spin-off of the Pontiac Buggy Company, so its new companion make was called Pontiac. In size and price, it was intended to fill the gap between Oakland and the cheaper Chevrolet.

Pontiac's 268 cu. in. (4.4 L) straight-eight dated back to 1933; the six used in lesser Pontiacs was developed from it in 1935. In a Chieftain, the eight made 122 hp (91 kW) and 222 lb-ft (300 N-m) of torque. Star Chiefs got 127 hp (95 kW) and 234 lb-ft (316 N-m), thanks to a higher compression ratio. The more powerful engine wasn't necessarily the best choice -- although its 7.7:1 compression ratio was modest by the standards of the time, it was at the limit of what the flathead could support, and it tended to knock on hard throttle, even with premium gasoline. Fuel economy was a bit under 14 mpg (17 L/100 km) in mixed driving.



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>>"For more than half of its 80-year history, the Pontiac Division of General Motors has tried, with varying degrees of success, to present itself as the hotshot of the GM line-up, with an advertising tagline proclaiming, "We Build Excitement.""<<

Is there any other way to read this besides 'Pontiac used the tagline 'We Build Excitement' for over 40 years' ???

Came out in 1983, IIRC.

-- -- -- -- --

Article makes some assumptions, and repeats some automotive 'urban legends'. Pontiac was no more 'boring' than Chevrolet, who offered less, and was much slower. The context of Pontiac being 'boring' only works vs. the... yes; excitement the Division brought to the table in '55-59 and beyond.

Edited by balthazar
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