The 1970s was Pontiac's most difficult decade yet. A decision to outproduce and "out-price" Chevrolet (generally ascribed to division head DeLorean) while simultaneously reaching into Buick/Oldsmobile territory contributed to a startling slip in workmanship. These policies also contributed to a confusing succession of models that left many buyers wondering just what a Pontiac was.
Not surprisingly, sales sagged. After falling to fourth in the '71 rankings, Pontiac finished fourth or fifth, usually behind Olds, most every year through 1986. Even Buick was often a threat, closing to within 27,000 units for 1972. By 1980, Pontiac trailed both: Buick by nearly 84,000 units and Oldsmobile by more than 140,000.
But not all was gloom. Given the ponycar market's rapid decline after 1969, Firebird was a surprising bright spot, the Trans Am in particular. The brilliant second-generation design of mid-1970 was good enough to last all the way through 1981 with just three styling updates -- for 1974, '77, and '79. Through it all, the Trans Am kept Pontiac's "hot car" image simmering -- to the point where, as the division later ruefully admitted, Trans Am had higher name recognition than Pontiac itself.
Like Camaro, Firebird almost died after 1972 due to GM's doubts about the future of performance cars, aggravated by a factory strike that severely cut that year's production. But Pontiac kept the faith and reaped the rewards. While Chevy dropped its hottest Camaro, the Z28, for 1975-76, Pontiac retained the T/A as the most-serious model in the line. As a result, the T/A soon moved from peripheral seller (only 1286 for '72) to become the most-popular Firebird of all (more than 117,000 for '79).
Pontiac also helped Firebird's cause by fielding the same four models each year: base coupe, luxury Esprit, roadworthy Formula, and T/A. (Chevy fiddled with the Camaro lineup in this period.)
Formula and T/A lost horsepower for 1978 to help Pontiac meet that year's new corporate average fuel economy mandates (CAFE), but they never relinquished their V-8s and never failed to deliver lively motoring. An optional turbocharged 301, issued for 1980, had a bit less go than the big-blocks of old, but was somewhat easier on gas.
Higher-than-ever fuel prices were but one legacy of the 1973-74 Middle East oil embargo, though gas was becoming costlier well before that. Renewed buyer interest in thrifty compacts -- and Pontiac's lack of same -- prompted the division to put a different nose on Chevrolet's 111-inch-wheelbase Nova to create the Ventura II. Launched in March 1971, it evolved parallel with Nova through 1979 (minus the Roman numeral after '72), but always saw lower volume.
One interesting difference is that the hallowed GTO became a Ventura variation for 1974 -- actually a $195 option package for the workaday pillared two-door comprising hood scoop, a different grille, chassis enhancements, and standard 350 V-8. Purists moaned, but Pontiac moved 7058 of these pretenders before bringing the curtain down on a great tradition -- a year too late, many said at the time.
In line with sister X-body compacts, Ventura adopted a more European look for 1975 -- and promptly withered on the sales vine. Inept marketing and mediocre build quality were as much to blame as competition from within the Pontiac line and elsewhere. An upmarket version called Phoenix arrived for mid-1977, with plusher interiors and a busier front end; the Ventura name vanished the following year. Unhappily, Phoenix was just as much an also-ran, and remained so even after it switched to GM's front-drive X-body for 1980.
Another "lend-lease" deal with Chevrolet produced the subcompact Astre, arriving in the U.S. for 1975 after being marketed in Canada from mid-1973. This was little more than a modestly restyled twin of Chevy's ill-starred Vega, and thus inherited most of its faults.
Pontiac varied the model program a bit with base and semi-sporty SJ hatchback coupes and two-door wagons. (A budget S series, which also included a two-door notchback sedan, was added during '75.) There was also a GT package option combining the low-line interior with the SJ's performance and handling features.
Astres were confined to a single series for 1976. So were the last-of-the-line '77s, but they were treated to Pontiac's new 151-cid (2.5-liter) "Iron Duke" four, a nickname chosen partly to counter the horrendous durability reputation of the all-aluminum Vega engine it replaced.
Chevy had introduced its sporty Vega-based Monza coupe for 1975, and Pontiac got into this act a year later with the Sunbird. But unlike other editions of this corporate H-Special design, the Pontiac bowed only as a notchback two-door akin to Chevy's Monza Towne Coupe. The 2+2 fastback body style was added for 1977 as the Sunbird Sport Hatch, followed for '78 by the little two-door wagon from the deceased Astre line.
Bolstered by various option groups, including a sporty Formula package, Sunbird eventually became Pontiac's top seller, though it was looking old by then. It hung on with no further change of note through 1981; the final cars sold were actually 1980 leftovers.
For more on the amazing Pontiac, old and new, see:
For more on the amazing Pontiac, old and new, see:
- Pontiac New Car Reviews and Prices
- Pontiac Used Car Reviews and Prices