Pontiac, R.I.P.
November 1st, 2010

Today marks the end of an era, the demise of Pontiac as an American brand. According to the New York Times, Pontiac passed away at the age of 84, of causes incident to “indifference.”

I’ve never owned a Pontiac, but of over the years I’ve been overtaken by quite a few of them—especially in the late Sixties and early Seventies, when the marque was synonymous with horsepower. If you were Burt Reynolds wannabe, you pretty much had to drive a Trans Am or a GTO. Fast forward to the 21st Century and the only character who still drives a Pontiac is mild-mannered chemistry teacher turned drug kingpin Walter White. And not just any Pontiac but a Pontiac Aztek, widely regarded as the ugliest automobile of all time.

When I was growing up in the Fifties, the Pontiac marque attracted neither movie stars nor suburban drug kingpins. It was what you drove if you felt you were just a wee bit better off than your neighbor who drove a Chevy, but not as well off as the neighbor who drove an Oldsmobile—nor as old and stodgy as your other neighbor who drove a Buick. As for Cadillacs and Lincolns, well, such cars were not to be seen in my neighborhood.

My father favored Mercuries, if only to show that he considered himself middle class. Fords were for migrant pickers like the Joads, but a Mercury was suitable for family vacations—such as the time we ventured to Seattle in 1951 in order to visit Dad’s older and somewhat stodgy sister Belva, who of course owned a Buick. Along the way we stopped to tour the Weyerhauser lumber mill, which is where this photo was taken. That’s me in the checkered shirt.Seattle_1951

The beautiful thing about that ’50 Merc was that after it had done its duty as a family sedan, it could be turned into a great hotrod. Which is exactly what I did with it after it came into my possession in 1961. Indeed, so many erstwhile family sedans were being converted into hotrods that by the mid-Sixties Detroit began to manufacture muscle cars in order to satisfy the growing demand. Thus were born the Chevrolet 409, the Dodge Charger, the Pontiac GTO, the Oldsmobile 442. Meantime, Mercury devolved. My affection for the brand gradually waned and eventually vanished completely—thanks to the Sable, without a doubt the worst car I ever owned.

Back when I was being chauffeured to Disneyland in the backseat of a 1956 Mercury, my future wife was making the same trip in the backseat of a 1956 Pontiac. At some point, our cars may very well have run alongside one another on a Los Angeles freeway. However, it wasn’t until 1969 that we two finally got together. Most everyone thought ours was a social mismatch, since at the time Anne was the owner of a ’67 Olds Cutlass and I was a mere pedestrian.

Eventually I scraped up enough dough to buy a Volkswagen microbus, and ever since horsepower hasn’t been something I ever think about. Offhand, I can’t remember ever passing anyone in my Volkswagen bus. Does that put me at the bottom of the social order? Could be, but I don’t care. Because I know now that however fast they may go, however many fancy features they may have, all cars will eventually end up in the same place. Outside in the cold, battery dead, out of gas, up on blocks, awaiting arrival of the inevitable tow truck.

-Richard Menzies