If you were around in the sixties, names like Grand Prix, Firebird, LeMans, and Bonneville are going to mean something to you. If you were born anytime from the 1980s onwards, they’re probably not. Neither is the name ‘Pontiac’. You might have a dim and distant memory, a faint recollection that Pontiac had something to do with cars, but that’s about it. But believe it or not, those storied names were once enough to make pistonheads go a little weak at the knees – as indeed, were any of Pontiac’s other legendary cars. For a brief time in history, Pontiac’s flame burned bright. It outranked Chevrolet in terms of luxury and outsold Cadillac and Oldsmobile by a clean mile.
But by the 2000s, Pontiac had suffered a cataclysmic fall from grace. Despite various attempts by General Motors to inject some life into the brand, decades of mediocrity had taken their toll. No one had any interest in Pontiac anymore, and no one had any interest in buying its budget-priced cars either. In 2008, GM declared that Pontiac would be following the same path as Oldsmobile had done four years previously. The age of Pontiac was over. Over the next two years, all manufacturing and marking of vehicles were phased out, with the last ever Pontiac-badged cars rolling off the production line in December 2009. Free of the deadweight around its neck, GM was now free to focus its attention on its few remaining US brands. But while Pontiac may be gone, its emblem remains. While that doesn’t matter to most of us, it’s still enough to send older enthusiasts into a tailspin of nostalgia. But what exactly is the Pontiac logo? More importantly, what’s the story behind it?
The Birth of Pontiac
When an emblem is as intrinsically linked to a brand’s identity as the Pontiac emblem is, you need to understand the brand if you’re going to have any hope of understanding the emblem. As Wiki explains, Pontiac was introduced to the General Motors lineup in 1926. Originally intended to serve as the companion marque to GM’s Oakland division, Pontiac would very quickly overtake Oakland in popularity and become the first companion marque to outlive its parent when Oakland was discontinued in 1931.
From the time of its inception to the mid-1950s, Pontiac’s cars were known to be quiet, dependable workhorses that offered reliability in spades but power in teaspoons. All that changed in 1956, when Semon “Bunkie” Knudsen took over as general manager of Pontiac and E. M. Estes and John DeLorean took over as head engineers. Together, the trio set about reworking Pontiac’s image from the ground up. The following year, they released the Bonneville, a limited-edition Star Chief convertible that boasted Pontiac’s first fuel-injected engine and the title of “America’s No. 1 Road Car”. Over the next few years, ever more powerful and ever more stylish cars followed. By the 1960s, Pontiac was known as the performance division of General Motors, producing fast, powerful cars that tied perfectly into the demands of the market. And people loved them. In 1965, Motor Trend’s Car of the Year honored the entire Pontiac lineup, marking the third year that Pontiac had received such an accolade. In terms of marketing, styling, engineering, and performance, Pontiac had it made.
The Long Death
And then the 1970s happened. Suddenly, people started to do the math in a way they hadn’t before. Big, powerful cars equaled higher fuel costs and bigger insurance payouts. Couple that with the looming threat of Federal emissions and safety regulations and in very little time, Pontiac’s ‘bigger is better’ philosophy to car making was old hat. People wanted economy, they wanted safety, and they wanted luxury. In an attempt to recover lost ground, Pontiac tried to give it to them. But GM’s luxury division was already filled. Why would people want a luxurious Pontiac when they could have a far more luxurious Cadillac for not much more? Over the next few decades, GM tried various methods to generate some enthusiasm for the brand. Some of them worked (for a brief time in the late 1980s, Pontiac was the number three domestic car maker in America) but Pontiac’s cards were marked. The revamps and the resurrections were enough to earn Pontiac a reputation as the ‘Zombie’ brand, but weren’t enough to save it. By the early 2000s, GM had got bored of giving it the kiss of life. By 2010, it was all over.
Pontiac might be dead, but its name lives on its instantly recognizable emblem, an emblem that comes with a history just as fascinating as the brands. Pontiac was named after Pontiac, the Grand Chief of the Ottawa Native Americans who made his name after leading an uprising against the British at Fort Detroit in 1763. In a tribute to its namesake, Pontiac relied heavily on Native American imagery in its early days, even using it as the basis of its logo.
As listcarbrands.com explains, the brand’s first logo utilized the same shield as the Oakland emblem and featured a Native American headdress atop an image of Chief Pontiac. In the 1930s, it dropped the shield but kept the image. 1956 spelled the arrival of a new chief at Pontiac HQ in the form of Semon “Bunkie” Knudsen. The old chief was promptly dropped from the logo and replaced with a very new, very pointed arrowhead. Known as the ‘Dart’, the downward pointed arrowhead was filled in red and outlined in black. At its top sat an attractive white star. Sleek, stylish, and offering a new take on the Native American imagery the brand had relied on for nearly 3 decades, it was an instant hit… so much so, it managed to survive unchanged all the way up to 2002.
By the turn of the millennium, Pontiac was already a dead man walking. In a final push to encourage new interest in the brand, GM introduced a new logo in 2002. Or rather, it made the old one three-dimensional. The arrowhead remained, but now it featured a thick, silver outline. The logo stayed the same for a further two years. In 2004, it went through one final revision. As 1000logos.net outlines, the last ever logo to bear the Pontiac name was a refined, stylish take on the classic arrowhead, featuring a new wordmark and a more balanced, glossy aesthetic.
The explanation for the arrowhead doesn’t take much working out. Pontiac was named after a Native American chieftain and spent most of its early years flaunting various Native American iconography in its marketing. The arrowhead was simply an extension of that. As to why Pontiac decided on the colors it did (red and silver) … well, no one knows for sure. Maybe GM just liked red. Maybe there’s a deeper meaning. At this stage, it’s unlikely we’ll ever know for sure. GM has drawn a firm line under the Pontiac name, and it’s doubtful anyone there wants to revisit the history of one of its biggest failures. But that doesn’t stop us from guessing in the meanwhile.