Buick versus Pontiac: Why did Buick win?
Q: Hi Greg. I’d like to know your opinion of Buick versus Pontiac and the decision to keep Buick and drop Pontiac by General Motors (GM). I’ve read when you did weekly Test Drive columns, which I miss, about Buick’s popularity in China. You had mentioned that was a major reason for keeping the Buick nameplate over Pontiac. Can you give a quick answer on why Buick won out over Pontiac, overall? Stan D., Lancaster, Pa.
A: Stan, there are so many variables to this question, but I’ll try and give some input from the many news releases I received when Pontiac announced it was over to my personal experience, as I’ve owned several models of both cars in my lifetime.
Buick was the first model that GM founder William “Billy” Durant held in his portfolio of automotive holdings. In 1908, Durant formed the fledgling General Motors with just one vehicle, the Buick. Thus, if one looks at the decision solely from a historical stance, Buick is the “Godfather” of all GM brands based on longevity.
He purchased the car and rights from the inventor of the Buick, namely David Dunbar Buick, a Scottish industrialist. Dunbar started with horseless carriages in 1903 following success as one of the founders of applying porcelain to steel bathtubs. Durant bought Buick’s car, formed GM, and then purchased the Oldsmobile brand later in 1908. In 1909, Durant gained control of Cadillac, Elmore, and Oakland (Pontiac) in 1909. By 1912, the Elmore failed to survive, especially following Durant’s exit from GM in 1910 under extreme debt pressure and a depression in horseless carriage sales.
Not to be outdone and showing excellent business savvy, Durant regained control of GM in 1915 after secretly buying Chevrolet from Gaston and Louis Chevrolet and completely re-organizing GM in 1916. Then in 1920, Durant again lost control of GM via shareholder option rights, and this time was unable to regain control. Still, Durant’s efforts formed the multi-brand company we know today, and most everyone in the car industry considers him a genius for his undaunted efforts. After losing millions in the 1929 stock market crash, he filed for bankruptcy and ended up running a bowling alley in Detroit. He suffered a stroke in 1942, recovered, and then died in 1947. He lived on a $10,000 a year pension from GM during his later years.
Back to Buick and Pontiac. Along with Durant ‘s legend and Buick’s history, this is perhaps the best reason (not counting the China popularity) for Buick’s superior positioning over Pontiac, the latter an exciting brand with its own legend. Oakland was a mid-level car brand built from 1907–1909 in Pontiac, Michigan by Oakland Car Company. Its former name as horse drawn carriage was the “Pontiac Buggy.”
When GM acquired Oakland in 1909 it produced Oakland cars until 1931, when it suspended the brand. However, an Oakland “Pontiac” arrived in 1926, which was smaller and lighter than the Oakland and the official Pontiac name was first brought to market.
Here’s where things get interesting. After the Oakland discontinuation, Pontiac survived as a “companion brand” to Chevrolet, and by the late 1950s became the performance division of General Motors. Pontiacs did well in both drag racing and NASCAR thanks to oval racing people like Smokey Yunick and Bunkie Knudsen, and drag racing standouts Ace Wilson and Jim Wangers of Royal Pontiac fame.
In April of 2009, GM announced it would discontinue the Pontiac brand by the end of 2010 and focus on four core brands in North America: Chevy, Buick, Cadillac, and GMC. The last Pontiacs were built in early 2010 mostly to fulfill major rent-a-car orders. The final dealer franchises expired in October of 2010.
Unfortunately, Oldsmobile only lasted through 2004 when GM decided to kill off the brand after 106 years of Olds memories. Durant bought Oldsmobile not long after his Buick deal in 1908.
In summary, Buick has the longevity, legend, and consumer popularity to survive although Pontiac had nearly the same, as did Olds. Thanks for your question.
1967-1969 Chevrolet Corvette L88
Q: What’s with the Corvette L88 built from 1967 to 1969? Why is it so precious to serious car collectors? Benjamin Johnson, retired car lover in Rhode Island.
A: Benjamin, the L88 Corvette was yet another idea that came from the brain of Zora Arkus-Duntov. It became the ultimate race ready big block Corvette 427 engine and over its lifespan of 1967 to 1969, only 216 L88 Corvettes were delivered, mostly to race teams.
However, those who ordered an L88 for street use found quickly it needed 103-octane fuel, came with no radio or heater, and was very temperamental for street use as it fouled spark plugs when cruising the populated boulevards. The production breakdown by year was 20 in 1967, 80 in 1968 and 116 in 1969. Because of its history, rarity and race heritage, these L88s now sell for around $4 million at the Mecum and Barrett-Jackson Auctions.
The Chevy big-block V8 debuted in the Corvette line in 1965 with the L78 option 425-horse 396, followed in 1966 by a bevy of 427 and later 454 Corvettes. In my opinion, it is the big block Chevy engine that helped earn Corvette its true “Arkus-Duntov badge of honor,” which thrill seekers quickly found when they floored the gas pedal.
Chevrolet was concerned that not too many L88s would be sold to the average Corvette consumer, so they rated the engine at just 430-horsepower. So, in 1967 the L88 427 was intentionally listed at just 430-horses for an additional $947 while a 435-horse Tri-Power engine option was available for just $437. Thus, most of the Corvette consumers went for the 435-horse “Tri-Power” V8, which came with three two-barrel carbs and lower compression mechanicals.
In real numbers, the L88 produced 560 horsepower and came with a special high lift solid lifter cam, bigger valve aluminum heads and a stronger crankshaft and rods (bottom end) to handle the power. Still, if you insisted on an L88, you could run the quarter mile in 11.8 seconds at 114 mph right off the dealer showroom.
Thanks for your question.
(Greg Zyla is a syndicated auto columnist who welcomes reader interaction on collector cars, auto nostalgia and motorsports at email@example.com or at 303 Roosevelt St., Sayre, Pa. 18840.)