Monday, November 01, 2010

Pontiac Dies at 84. October 31, 2010

Sunday, October 31 (Halloween) was the day all remaining Pontiac dealers’ GM franchises expired. Pontiac built their last car about one year ago. Most of you think of me as a Toyota dealer, but I got into this crazy business 42 years ago when I joined my father’s Pontiac dealership in West Palm Beach. My father got into the car business in 1926, but not as a car dealer. He worked for the factory, Oakland, in Pontiac, Michigan. That’s where and when Pontiac was born and was originally named the Oakland.

Dad decided he wanted to give retail a try and started the first Pontiac dealership in Palm Beach County in 1937. He borrowed $10,000 from my mother and she ran the accounting department (I guess she wanted to keep an eye on her investment). His sales department was a man named Harper Clark who went on to become the first Oldsmobile dealer in Palm Beach County. Dad’s service department was a guy named “Slim” Angevine. The first car my father sold was a 1937 Chieftain and the buyer was Annie Swann. She paid $936 for the car plus tax, tag, and a 50 cent “dealer fee”. My father bought this car back from Annie in the late sixties (for exactly what she paid for it new). We had the car restored to absolutely new condition (all original parts) and it sits in the place of honor on my Toyota showroom floor today.

A lot of people think I’m a typical foreign car dealer when I criticize General Motors and Chrysler for what I say led to their demise. But what many don’t know is that I have real soft spot in my heart for GM and especially Pontiac. I feel like I have a special insight into what happened with GM and Pontiac because I was “along for the ride”. I remember when Pontiac was one of the most exciting and sought after cars in the USA. When I joined Pontiac in 1968, we were number three in sales, behind Chevrolet and Ford. GM had over half of the US car market and feared an antitrust suit for running a monopoly.

Back then it was about styling and power. The Pontiac Trans Am and GTO were the kings of the road. Gas was cheap and nobody complained about quality because everything is relative. Nobody else was building a car that was any better, so who was going to complain. I remember finding an empty vodka bottle inside the door panel of a Pontiac Bonneville after the customer complained of a rattle. I remember a customer bringing a Le Mans convertible back after he bought it because he couldn’t find the switch to lower the top. After a careful inspection, we discovered the problem…Pontiac had forgotten to put the switch on the car.

Then, as you know, things changed. Do you remember the Arab oil embargo of the seventies? All of a sudden Americans were waiting in line for gas and many gas stations just didn’t have any gas at all. That GTO with dual 4-barrel carburetors and a supercharger that got 10 mpg (if you were lucky), suddenly was a problem. About the same time, Americans began noticing these strange little cars with funny names…Honda, Datsun, Toyota, and Mazda. This didn’t seem to worry Detroit because everybody knew that this “gas thing” was only temporary and there was an unlimited supply of oil under the ground. Also, these funny little cars really weren’t built all that much better but they sure did get a lot better gas mileage.

It was in 1970 that I first decided I better “hedge my bet” and I took on the Mazda franchise. I was the first Mazda dealer east of the Mississippi. We were building our Mazda dealership (actually renovating an old gas station) so I temporarily displayed a Mazda on my Pontiac showroom floor. One day, the Pontiac zone manager dropped in and walked up to me while I was standing in the Pontiac showroom. His words to me are indelibly engraved in my brain…”Get that goddamned ‘Jap car’ off my showroom”. The Pontiac manager’s name was Murphy (Murph) Martin and he personified GM’s arrogance and blindness toward the Japanese competition. I bought the Toyota franchise in North Palm Beach (Lake Park) in 1975 as a further hedge.

In the late nineties, the “handwriting on the wall” was transferred to my Pontiac financial statement. As fast as my Toyota dealership and Mazda dealerships made money, my Pontiac was losing it. We simply couldn’t compete with the Japanese cars fuel economy, quality, and price. I had a personal dilemma too. Often friends of mine would look me in the eye and say, “Would you recommend that I buy a Toyota or a Pontiac”. If I told my friend the truth, I was being disloyal to all of my employees at the Pontiac dealership. Pontiac and GM’s quality gap was huge with the Japanese imports. At my Toyota dealership we did practically no warranty work but at the Pontiac dealership we did a huge amount. Chuck Schumacher, the Buick dealer then and now, had been calling me every few months for a while asking if I would sell him the Pontiac franchise. He also had Oldsmobile and GMC truck and wanted to add Pontiac to the “family”. I turned him down for as long as I did for purely sentimental reasons. He finally “made me an offer I couldn’t refuse” and I sold him Pontiac.

The rest is history. The Japanese cars continued to improve (kaizen) their quality, their fuel economy (which was already far superior), and their styling and they even priced their cars lower than Detroit’s. GM, Ford, and Chrysler just never “got it’. They had their head in the sand and when they pulled their heads out it was too late.

My three sons (Stu, Jason, Josh) and my wife (Nancy) all work with me in my Toyota dealership and I try to remind them often that we must never underestimate our competition like Detroit did the Japanese car makers. You can bet we have our eyes on Hyundai. Toyota began to get a little arrogant and complacent not too long ago, but snapped back into reality recently with the “cold shower” of media and governmental attacks over the recalls. Looking back on that experience, I’m actually glad it happened. I’m not saying NHTSA, the media, and the politicians dealt fairly with Toyota…far from it. But what happened, humbled and frightened Toyota and made them realize that they could lose everything they had worked so hard for if they ever again became over confident and underestimated the competition.


  1. Earl,

    I remember buying my 1969 GTO convertible back in 1973. It was owned by a college kid who left everything stock, and could not afford the gas when prices went up. I paid 800 bucks for it. Aside from a tear where the top folded, the car was mint with 41,000 miles. For years, all my brother and his friends talked about was owning a GTO. It was me, the casual car guy, who got the great deal.

    Along with ownership of that car came a bonus deal never expected. Girls. They loved the car, and loved being seen in it. I babied that car for a year, and sold it for 1200 a year later. I felt I had done well. Shortly after, the guy blew the motor up and sold the car back to me for 100 dollars. It cost 300 to fix the engine, and I drove it for another year. I traded it even swap for a six month old 1975 Ford Galaxy, feeling I had once again done well. Six months later I sold the Galaxy for 2500. Today, it would be like trading a 2004 car even for a 2010.

    Despite the great deals, I miss that car. Of all the cars I owned, that GTO was my favorite. Yes, it got 10 miles per gallon. No, it wasn't rattle free. And on a cold winter morning up north it could take a little persuasion to get it running and keep the interior warm. But I can not forget the joys of winding my way through hilly country roads with the summer breeze in my hair, and watching the effects of the top down on the long blonde hair of my female passenger.

    Rick Bennette

  2. Thanks for sharing those wonderful memories, Rick.

    Yes, cars back then had a whole different dimension than today. I suppose it was only possible because it was a different world. We didn't worry about gas prices, global warming, air bags, and cars like the GTO were half transportation and half just plain fun.

    Do you remember the GTO "Judge" that came in day-glo orange with 3 2-bbl carburetors and 4 on the floor? about lots of fun!

  3. Yes, my friend in Ridgefield CT had a 1968 Judge. I liked my "plain" '69 GTO better because it was a rag top, but his sure demanded more attention. I'm sure his had more performance. Mine was fast enough for my taste. Even at age 18, I wasn't as much into the speed as I was into cruising the countryside roads and the beaches with the top down. Sure wish I had it today!


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