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Feature Story

HISTORY OF PONTIAC & GMC

by Bob Hagin

March 29, 1996

It came as something of a surprise to American autophiles last month when it was announced that the Pontiac and GM Truck (GMC) divisions of General Motors would merge. Immediately there were jokes about the possibility of a GMC Firebird or a Pontiac Suburban and that Pontiac dealers would become GMC truck franchises overnight.

So far, the merger seems to be simply a typical General Motors reshuffling of the administration of both companies in an effort to "streamline" (read that as "cut costs") the operations of both, so the idea of corporate vehicular cross-overs now seems far-fetched.

But the possibility of a Pontiac line of commercial vehicles or GMC passenger cars shouldn't be dismissed lightly, and indeed, the two organizations have had their corporate entities intertwined several times during the last six decades.

It might be of interest at this point to mention that the Pontiac nameplate is exactly 60 years old this year, having been christened in January of 1926 at the New York Auto Show. It had been designed and built by General Motors to fill the price gap between its inexpensive Chevrolet and its next-most expensive make, the Oldsmobile. But in reality it was to become a "companion" make for GM's Oakland dealers. The Oakland was a mid-priced GM passenger car that had been losing ground financially for several years in the early '20s, apparently due to a well-deserved reputation for being powered by a troublesome and unreliable six cylinder engine.

But "sixes" were hot stuff in the late 'teens and early '20s, an era when four-bangers were the order of the day, except in expensive passenger cars. Those that appeared in low-priced vehicles were traditionally weak, underpowered and generally inferior to the fours of the day. It was into this atmosphere that the first Pontiac, the 6-27 model coupe, came on the scene. Its engine had been studiously thought out by an assembled team of General Motors engineers to avoid the pitfalls into which others of its ilk had fallen. The final product was a relatively small (185 cubic-inch) six-cylinder powerplant that had technologically advanced niceties such as a short stroke and full pressure lubrication, the latter a feature that its corporate stablemate, the Chevrolet, didn't acquire until several decades later.

But it was Chevrolet that assembled that first Pontiac and the car was, in effect, a Chevrolet chassis with a Pontiac engine. This was the beginning of the GM corporate "commonality" concept of utilizing the parts from one make (in this case doors, fenders, etc. of the Chevrolet) in the production of another.

It was at this very early stage in the development of the Pontiac that its shirt-tail relationship with the General Motors Truck Company (GMC) began to take place. In that first production year, the semi-fancy Pontiac Six De-Luxe Delivery truck was introduced but quickly dropped, only to resurface in the 1928 GMC catalog as that company's T-11 Deluxe Delivery Truck. The reliable Pontiac engine was also used in GMC trucks up to the two-ton range, and over 40,000 of them made their way under GMC hoods until 1932, when Pontiac switched to a straight-eight.

Another interesting Pontiac/GMC relationship occurred from 1933 to 1935 when GMC taxis were, in reality, Pontiac sedans with GMC radiator shells and Oldsmobile six-cylinder engines. It may have been that the Fisher Body Company (by then a wholly-owned subsidiary of General Motors and the producer of almost all bodies found on its cars) simply had a surplus of Pontiac body parts to dispose of, but the GMC O-14 cab was definitely a Pontiac with a meter.

As a foot-note to automotive history, the Oakland went to that Big Wrecking Yard in the Sky in 1932. It wasn't alone in its leave-taking, however, as other GM "companion cars" went as well. Oldsmobile lost its low-end Viking and Buick likewise had to do without its Marquette, both makes biting the dust in 1931. The Depression caused a lot of automotive fatalities 60 some-odd years ago but in the unique case of the Oakland, it was the premiere marque that lost out to the "little brother."

After World War II, Pontiac engines again powered many of the light-duty GMC trucks, and the two almost formed a joint venture with two El Camino-like sedan/pickups in the late '70. This non-Chevy (Chevrolet and GMC already shared the El Camino and Caballero) "personal pickup" was to be a revamped Pontiac Le Mans with an El Camino bed. Unfortunately, the idea was given the thumbs-down by those executives higher up the General Motors ladder.

But the auto business is filled with sudden changes and off-the-wall restructuring, so maybe a GMC Sunfire or a Pontiac city bus may not be so far-fetched after all.