How Pontiac Works

By: the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide

Pontiac Strategy in the 1990s

In the 1990s, Pontiacs kept evolving more or less in step with related Chevrolets, Oldsmobiles, and Buicks, but contrived to seem sportier, even if driving reality didn't always match the division's new "We Build Excitement" ad slogan.

Sales tactics shifted greatly, as Pontiac added a minivan for 1990, then merged with the GMC truck division to create a "full-line" franchise like Chevrolet. The latter move was announced in February 1996 by Ronald Zarrella, recruited four years earlier from optics maker Bausch & Lomb to be GM's group executive for North American vehicle sales, service, and marketing.


In a press release, Zarrella touted the new Pontiac-GMC Division as part of a "continuing effort…to configure our organization to achieve the most effective, efficient results for our customers, dealers, and stockholders. Both Pontiac and GMC have long recognized the complimentary [sic] nature of their businesses …and the advantages inherent in a dual franchise."

Indeed, some 55 percent of Pontiac dealers already handled GMC at the time. The combined division began with 3736 outlets and total calendar-year sales of over a million units. Of course, the goal for this wedding was plain: fewer but more profitable dealers.

Zarrella, named president of GM North America in 1999, espoused "brand management," long a staple at consumer-products companies like Proctor & Gamble. GM chairman John Smale, who once headed P&G, and president John F. "Jack" Smith were believers, too. Smale and Smith came to power earlier in 1992 in a board-instigated "palace coup" that ignominiously removed chairman Bob Stempel and president Lloyd Reuss, veteran GMers who were blamed for continuing losses in company market share and earnings.

Zarrella's mission was to turn things around. Under brand management, that meant sharpening the image of each GM make for more customer appeal and less intramural rivalry, plus weeding out similar and/or underperforming models throughout the corporate fleet.

But Zarrella's efforts, however well-intentioned, produced mixed results. Though recovery was evident by middecade, it stemmed more from a booming tech-driven national economy and fast-growing demand for high-margin trucks than fancy ads and design dictated increasingly by consumer focus groups.

Pontiac was less affected by brand-management antics than other GM makes save Saturn, which was in its own orbit anyway. In fact, Pontiac had been pretty well-managed before Zarrella came in. All it needed to do in the '90s was more of the same -- which it did to good effect, sales running at a half-million units or better each calendar year save 1998. Even so, an ominous downtrend set in as the new century neared.

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