How Pontiac Works

By: the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide

Pontiac Recovers in the 1980s

The 1979 Pontiac Trans Am came out earlier in the year, just beforea sharp downturn in auto sales throughout the latter half of 1979.

Pontiac's troubles were far from over as the 1980s dawned. Workmanship still wasn't all it should have been, and increased model sharing with Chevrolet had only made Pontiac's confused image even fuzzier. Adding insult to these injuries were the deep national recession and accompanying sharp downturn in auto sales that began in late 1979 when the Shah of Iran was deposed, triggering a second "energy crisis."

Pontiac suffered as much as any Detroit make. In two years division output plunged by nearly a third, to around 620,500 for '81, then slipped below 500,000 two years later -- a sorry situation for a make that had averaged better than 700,000 cars a year since the mid-1960s.


But better times were at hand. Having floundered under four general managers since '69, the division got back on course under William Hoglund, who took the helm in 1980. Taking a cue from history, Hoglund and a bright young team of designers and engineers began steering Pontiac back toward the sort of driver-oriented cars that had been the foundation of its high success in the '60s.

Events played right into their hands. The economy recovered, the gas shortage became a gas glut, and the market went crazy again for performance. Proclaiming "We Build Excitement," Pontiac turned the corner, and by 1984 it was solidly back over the half-million mark.

Hoglund left in 1984 to head GM's developing Saturn Division, but Pontiac kept picking up steam under a new captain, J. Michael Losh. For 1986 it sailed past 750,000. Then, a year later, it surpassed a bumbling Olds Division to grab third place for the first time in 17 years. Pontiac repeated the performance for '87. The 1989 tally was an impressive 801,600, nearly 300,000 better than a recovering Buick.

The amazing part of Pontiac's resurgence is that it was managed mainly with compacts, intermediates, and the Firebird. Unlike Buick and Olds, big cars were never significant to Pontiac sales in the '80s. In fact, the division's 1982 lineup had no traditional full-size cars at all.

Catalina and Bonneville had been redesigned for 1977 as part of GM's first-wave downsizing program, but didn't sell as well as their B-body cousins at Buick, Olds, and Chevy. Believing buyers were ready to forsake even these smaller biggies in another fuel crunch, Pontiac canceled the line after '81 and substituted a restyled LeMans sedan and wagon called Bonneville Model G (the letter denoting a redesignated A-body platform).

But what looked like a smart idea in 1980 seemed just bad timing once big-car sales turned up again, so Pontiac decided to revive a B-body line during 1983. As there was no longer any production room stateside, U.S. dealers got a slightly modified Canadian version -- which had never been dropped -- under its north-of-the-border name, Parisienne.

If these moves recalled the great Dodge/Plymouth debacle of 20 years before, they weren't nearly so disastrous. But they weren't that successful, either. Bonneville G peaked at about 82,800 sales in '83, then tailed off to around 41,000 by its final appearance for 1986. Parisienne averaged about 83,000 yearly sales for 1985-86, after which the sedan departed (the B-body two-door coupe hadn't returned) and annual sales ran below 13,200 for the lone Safari wagon marketed through 1989.

Design, engineering, and yearly changes for both these lines virtually duplicated those for counterpart Chevys, the intermediate Malibu and full-size Caprice/Impala.

Another up-north idea was the subcompact T1000, a Chevette clone by way of Pontiac Canada's Acadian model. Announced in April 1981, it immediately attracted 70,000 buyers, then fell to an annual average of 25,000 or so after 1982, when it was called just plain 1000.

Black window frames and a prominent arrowhead grille emblem were the main design elements that set it apart from the littlest Chevy. Naturally, the 1000 evolved in parallel with Chevette through 1987, then gave way to a new front-drive LeMans (which is beyond the scope of this book, being a Korean-built sister of a German Opel Kadett). The 1000 was just a token nod to the econocar market and never a big money-spinner.

For more on the amazing Pontiac, old and new, see:

For more on the amazing Pontiac, old and new, see:

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