How Pontiac Works

By: the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide

Of the four "companion" makes introduced by General Motors in the 1920s, Pontiac was the only one to survive past 1940. Yet its future was far from certain in the early Depression years. The first Pontiac, the 1926 Six, quickly boosted the popularity of its Oakland parent, pushing combined sales beyond 250,000 units within three years. But sales plummeted with the Great Crash, as elsewhere in Detroit, and Oakland was ditched after 1931 and just 13,408 cars. Pontiac bottomed out in 1932 at a bit over 45,000.

What saved Pontiac were the calm, confident policies of GM president Alfred P. Sloan, who combined Pontiac's manufacturing with Chevrolet's in early 1932, thus saving vast sums in tooling costs through increased sharing of bodies, chassis, and other major components. At the same time he merged Buick, Oldsmobile, and Pontiac sales operations, requiring dealers for each make to sell the other two as well -- albeit often unwillingly. These belt-tightening measures continued through mid-1933, effectively reducing GM to three divisions: Cadillac, Chevrolet, and B-O-P.


The well-styled 1933 Eight completely turned Pontiac fortunes around, and production for that model year recovered to more than 90,000. By 1937, the division was back above 200,000, and would go on to rank among the top five or six Detroit nameplates well into the '50s.

A group of highly competent people contributed mightily to this resurgence. Among the most notable: former Ford executive William S. "Big Bill" Knudsen, division general manager in 1932-33 and GM president in 1937-40; chief engineer Benjamin H. Anibal, father of the Pontiac eight; and division design chief Franklin Q. Hershey, creator of the handsome 1933 and subsequent models.