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Pontiac reaches end of the line

November 26, 2009

Pontiac reaches end of the line

Special  to The Detroit News

Orion Township — The ride is over for the brand that put rolling excitement on the road for generations of Americans.

General Motors Co. built the last Pontiac for the U.S. market Wednesday: a white, G6 sedan that rolled off the assembly line in Orion Township around 12:45 p.m.

There was no cake or commemorative banner or senior GM official on hand, and no media were allowed: just a group of "final process" workers to oversee the last 100 G6 models assembled.

"We’re focused on a quality build-out for the customer," said GM spokesman Kevin Nadrowski.

Many workers stopped to pose for photos with the last cars as they moved down the assembly line.

It was a subdued goodbye for an 82-year-old brand that debuted under the bright lights of the New York Auto Show in 1926.

GM announced in April that it would phase out Pontiac as part of a bailout orchestrated by the U.S. government.

Unlike the last Oldsmobile, an Alero signed by hundreds of plant workers and donated to the R.E. Olds Transportation Museum in Lansing, the final G6 models will be sold as part of a fleet order.

For some Pontiac enthusiasts, it’s an inglorious ending for a car line that popularized Silver Streak styling in the 1930s and defined the muscle car era.

The Orion Township plant will be idled and retooled to produce a new small car in 2011.

"We want to survive the next 18 months until we start building GM’s next small car," said Pat Sweeney, president of UAW Local 5960, the union that represents workers at the factory.

Sweeney said it was a bittersweet time for the plant’s 2,400 employees.

Many of the same workers were building the Oldsmobile Aurora sedan when GM decided to discontinue Olds in December 2000.

In December, the automaker will end production of the Pontiac G3 Wave, a subcompact built in Mexico and sold only in Canada — marking the official end of production for the brand.

Launched in 1926 as a companion to GM’s Oakland division, Pontiac is the third best-selling automobile line of all time in the United States, behind Chevrolet and Ford.

Under GM’s brand hierarchy, it was slotted above Chevrolet and below Oldsmobile, and was favored for years by schoolteachers, the cast of "I Love Lucy," and other middle-class wage earners.

But it was during the 1960s that the division came into its own, capitalizing on America’s growing thirst for racing and unbridled performance with muscle cars such as the GTO and Firebird.

More than any other GM brand, Pontiac epitomized performance, speed and sex appeal.

"It was the car teenage boys lusted after and teenage girls hoped to be seen in," said Bob Casey, automotive historian and curator of transportation at The Henry Ford museum in Dearborn.

Rivals were forced to follow with similar muscle cars, giving Detroit automakers bragging rights over the cars that Japanese rivals were marketing based on fuel economy, quality and reliability.

Pontiac’s U.S. sales peaked in 1984 at almost 850,000 vehicles, roughly four times as many as it sold last year. Over 83 years, Pontiac sold some 41 million cars and trucks, Automotive News estimates.

For some Pontiac fans, the beginning of the end came during the 1970s, when fuel economy concerns forced GM and other automakers to downsize cars.

Foreign competition and a lack of differentiation from other GM models steadily eroded Pontiac’s customer base.

As its U.S. market share steadily dropped from around 50 percent in the 1960s, analysts repeatedly called for GM to trim its bloated lineup and focus on two or three divisions.

As it did with Oldsmobile in the 1990s, GM tried to resurrect Pontiac in recent years with new rear-wheel drive performance models such as the G8 sports sedan and the Solstice roadster.

Venerable names and models like Bonneville, Grand Prix, Firebird and Grand Am were retired.

But it also continued to market vehicles such as the G3, G5 and Torrent that were not much different than Chevy models. And it relied too heavily on fleet customers and struggled to become profitable again.

"Most Pontiacs haven’t been hot in years," Casey said. "The consumption ladder that GM used for years — a car for every purse and purpose — no longer worked in the U.S. market."

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