Page last updated at 22:39 GMT, Friday, 1 May 2009 23:39 UK

Pontiac RIP

By Nick Holland
Business reporter, BBC News

Pontiac GTO
The GTO transformed Pontiac into a muscle car brand.

Pontiac has become the highest-profile victim of the crisis in the American car industry.

The decision this week by General Motors to discontinue the brand shocked a generation of petrol heads who fell in love with the all American muscle cars the company developed in the 1960 and 70s.

Pontiac Chieftain
It is a great shame that one of America's iconic brands is having to be removed from the automotive scene
Anthony Cohen from American Car Imports in London

We are talking about cars like the Pontiac Firebird, The Grand Am and the GTO.

Like Route 66, roadside diners and baseball all of these vehicles have become genuine artefacts of U.S. culture.

"If ever a car company defined swagger - Pontiac was it," says Peter DeLorenzo who runs the Autoextremist.com blog.

"Pontiac delivered cars to the market bristling with a maverick, edgy appeal and genuine soul - a commodity so far removed from most of Detroit's products then that it was striking," he says.

The company started out in 1907 as the Oakland Motor Company in Pontiac, Michigan before being bought in 1909 by General Motors.

General Motors first began branding the cars under the Pontiac name in 1926.

Originally the Pontiac brand was used to fill the gap for motorists who could afford better than a Chevrolet but who could not quite stretch to an Oldsmobile.

At this stage there was nothing remarkable to single the cars out from others on the market.

Things began to change when the company employed John De Lorean, who later founded the ill-fated De Lorean Motor Company, as its new head of engineering in 1956.

The GTO is born

Pontiac started test driving a saloon car fitted with powerful V8 engines.

Pontiac cars
In recent years, Pontiac wasn't the performance brand it was in the past
Aaron Bragman, automotive analyst at IHS Global Insight

However, the vehicle did not meet General Motors' corporate guidelines because they were considered too fast and breached an agreement with other manufacturers within the GM group to avoid building performance cars.

Regardless of that a handful of the cars were built and Pontiac salesman drove them around to test public reaction.

They got 5,000 orders.

Once the board at General Motors found out the GTO was born.

"At the time Pontiac were doing things almost intentionally against the rules," says Jim Hopson communication manager for Pontiac.

"Someone once told me they would have run a pirate flag up a pole at Pontiac HQ if they could. But they were successful therefore the board could not stop them," he says.

The popularity of the car encouraged the company to transform itself into a performance brand.

Something different

In 1964, Pontiac inspired Ronnie and the Daytonas to write a song called "Little GTO" - a track that reached number four in the American charts.

Alongside the GTO the company developed the Grand Prix and the Firebird during the 1960s, all of them muscle cars.

Little kids who are five years old don't know what it is, but they know it is something different
Steve Martin, owner of a Pontiac Firebird

The company's profile went global in the 1970s when Burt Reynolds drove a black and gold Firebird in the hit film Smokey and the Bandit.

The car still has an enduring appeal today.

Steve Martin from Birmingham owns an exact replica of the one seen in the movie.

After seeing the film as a boy he fell in love with the vehicle and vowed to own it one day.

He managed to buy one four years ago and says he will never sell it.

"Even if you drive it around now little kids who are five years old don't know what it is, but they know it is something different," he says.

One brand too many

Pontiac had more success in the 1970s with the Firebird Grand Am and the Trans Am.

But in the late 1990s General Motors began to cut back on its performance image and mechanical problems with some of the later models damaged the company's reputation with people who bought sports cars.

"In recent years Pontiac wasn't the performance brand it was in the past," says Aaron Bragman, automotive analyst at IHS Global Insight.

"It had lost its way and lost its following."

Despite the company's latest model, the G8, getting excellent reviews, on Monday General Motors announced it would ditch the marque in 2010.

"It is a great shame that one of America's iconic brands is having to be removed from the automotive scene," says Anthony Cohen from American Car Imports in London.

"At the same time you can understand how GM executives have been forced to take this decision when they have. During these hard economic times, this was one product brand too many."

In years to come it is clear people will remember the brand for what it once was rather than what it has become.



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