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Farewell to Pontiac


I almost missed an article by Dan Barry in the NYT last Monday on GM’s announcement that it will be closing the Pontiac division, as seen through the eyes of two long-time dealerships in western Pennsylvania. In going through the week’s papers yesterday, I stumbled on it, and now I see that there is an accompanying on-line slide show.

The article is a sad one for us Pontiac lovers. I drove three Pontiacs. My first was a hand-me-down, a 1964 Le Mans that I got during spring break of my sophomore year in college and drove from March 1971 through August 1972. I didn’t actually drive it much, not while at school, but in the summer of 1972 it got a lot of use, between New York and New Brunswick, New Jersey (where I was at a summer math research program for undergraduates at Rutgers) and New London, Connecticut (where I was with the crew team). Senior year I inherited my sister’s car while she was studying art in Rome. Then, in November 1973, my first fall in graduate school, I got a beautiful red 1974 Pontiac Grand Am.

The 1974 Grand Am is a classic, one of their great cars. Mine had its problems. Electrical for instance. Like at one point it developed an odd behavior: when I stepped on the brake, the interior dome light over my head would go on. That was a tough one to track down and fix. The Grand Am went to Chicago with me for the 1980-1981 academic year. And it paid the price when I forgot one day to follow the local rules. I lived in a run-down dump of a building that the University of Chicago owned on the NE corner of E 56th Street and Drexel Avenue. It was the lone building on the block, running from 56th north to 55th and from Drexel east to Ellis. The university had razed everything else and would in due course raze the dump in order to expand its athletic fields. But thanks to pressure from the Math department, which used the building for its postdocs and visitors, the university let it stand, virtually without maintenance, so the mathematicians and roaches and mice had a place to live. And thanks to the isolation, one learned not to park one’s car up the street along the empty block, near 55th. Employees would fill the street in the daytime, so if one took one’s car out in mid-day, one had to park way north on one’s return. The rule was, move the car back when the street emptied out. But I forgot that rule in my second month in Chicago, and sure enough, the trunk was broken into, with assorted items stolen that I had never bothered to bring in when I moved there, like my squash racket. I got the trunk repaired, but it always took in water after that.

With one problem after another, from electrical to water leaks to dying alternators, I finally sold the car — which had moved to Seattle with me — and got another Pontiac. This would have been in 1984, when I got a Pontiac 6000 STE. This was the fully-equipped version of the standard mid-sized Pontiac, sibling to the Buick Century and Olds Cutlass. It served us well. In its early years, we got married, bought our first house, added Joel to the family, and moved to Princeton for a year. On our return from Princeton, it remained our only car for almost 3 years, as I rode the bus to school and Gail used it as the family car. It was reliable, comfortable. A good car. But we passed it on to Gail’s sister and our brother-in-law on February 29, 1992, when we became an exclusively Japanese car family. We had bought a Mazda MPV in March 1991, and we replaced the Pontiac 6000 with a Lexus, ending my life with Pontiacs.

As for the NYT article, it focuses on the Arnold Pontiac dealership. Here’s an excerpt:

The dealership sits exactly where the Arnold family began a car business back in 1916: on the corner of North Main and East Pike in the pit-stop Western Pennsylvania town of Houston, right next to the First Presbyterian Church, where Arnolds are baptized. Small showroom downstairs, service and parts upstairs, free Pontiac calendars everywhere.

Until a few days ago, the Arnolds had a plan. In the tradition of his father and grandfather, Bob the white-haired elder, 74, would be turning the dealership over to his son, Bob the dark-haired younger, 44. The handoff would have happened sooner if not for the embezzlement of $400,000 a couple of years ago by a longtime employee who was like family and who, it turned out, liked to gamble.

But a far deeper betrayal came last week, the Arnolds say, when another family member and poor gambler, General Motors, announced that by 2010 it would close its Pontiac division and 2,600 of its 6,200 dealerships — all to convince a doubtful Obama administration that it had a business plan strong enough to beat a bankruptcy deadline of June 1 and to deserve more government loans.

Pontiac: The Official Car of the 2009 Economic Crisis.

Categories: Automobiles
  1. gailirving
    May 11, 2009 at 8:21 AM

    We could not have passed the car along in 1952…I wasn’t even born! opps a bit of a typo. it might have been 1992?

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