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April 2009

Car Lust Classic--Pontiac GTO Judge

Originally posted by Chris Hafner on Oct. 13, 2008.

Gtojudge1 Has there ever been a badder, more intimidating, more colorful name for a car than "Judge?" With apologies to Boss Mustangs and Plymouth Road Runners, I think "GTO Judge" is the unquestioned champion in this category.

Pontiac's dead-serious GTO had kick-started the muscle car revolution in 1964. Big, fast cars were around before the GTO--the Chrysler 300 letter-series cars were among the most famous--but the combination of the 389-cubic-inch Pontiac V-8 with the attractive intermediate-size Tempest body proved irresistible. The Ford Mustang sparked the pony car class later that year, and suddenly performance cars were hot. Nearly every carmaker had a muscle car in its lineup--even AMC got into the game with the S/CRambler--but in a sea of Cyclones, Chevelles, and Chargers, the GTO stood out as the first, the most famous, and one of the best-selling.

When Pontiac revamped the Tempest and Le Mans intermediates for 1968, the GTO received the new body--and it was a knockout. The original GTO was perhaps a bit more distinctive, with its knife-edged creases and vertically stacked headlights, but the 1968 GTO grew some overtly muscular curves, an Endura body-color bumper, and natty hidden headlights. Improvements came under the hood, as well, in the form of 350 horsepower from the stock 400-cubic-inch engine and a freer-flowing Ram Air II package.

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Tin Indian

I've seen this green 1960 Pontiac Star Chief at several different car shows and cruise-ins in the Cleveland area. It's one of 5,797 two-door Star Chief Sport Sedans built in that model year.

Star Chief Front

The Star Chief was distinguished by a row of four-pointed chrome stars on the rear quarter panel.

Star Chief Rear

The Star Chief was Pontiac's top-of-the-line model from 1954 to 1957. The 1957 Star Chief Custom Bonneville was Pontiac's first true high-performance V-8 model, part of division general manager Semon "Bunkie" Knudsen's initiative to transform the Pontiac brand from a sensible-shoes family car to GM's fire-breathing musclecar division.

Beginning in 1958, the "Bonneville" name was used for the top trim level of Pontiac. By the 1960 model year, the Star Chief was the second-rank model in the lineup, better appointed than the Ventura and Catalina, but with a less-powerful engine than the Bonneville. It has the low, wide, relatively clean look that had come into favor after the chrome-and-tail-fins frenzy of the late fifties had run its course.

This particular Star Chief has been given the "lowrider" treatment, with modern alloy wheels, a lowered suspension, a suitably rumbly exhaust system, and a bit of pinstriping.

Tin Indian 

Pontiac stopped making Star Chiefs in 1967, and GM will soon stop making Pontiacs. I expect that the "Tin Indian" will still roll into the Medina Dairy Queen on Wednesday nights, bringing a measure of joy to its owner and those who stop to admire it, and reminding us all of a time when Pontiac really did build "excitement."

May it ever be so.

--Cookie the Dog's Owner

Car Lust Classic--2004-2006 Pontiac GTO

Originally posted by Chris Hafner on Feb. 8, 2008.

Gto1 When Pontiac announced its plans to release a brand new GTO to the motoring public after a nearly 30-year hiatus, excitement ran high. Pontiac had used the long-neglected GTO nameplate to kick off the whole muscle car craze back in the early 1960s, and the revival of the GTO represented not only a potentially exciting new car, but a chance to cleanse the palatte from the sour taste left by the last GTO, the tape-and-sticker Ventura-based 1974 GTO.

When the new GTO debuted, however, it was to sighs of disappointment. The anticlimax had nothing to do with the performance. With a 350-horsepower LS1 small-block V-8, replaced the following year with the 400-horsepower LS2, acceleration was certainly potent. Car & Driver clocked the 2005 GTO at less than 5 seconds from 0-60 and the 13-second range in the quarter-mile.

But, to some, the GTO lacked the visual chutzpah of its predecessors--and in an age of overtly demonstrative cars, that seemed a fatal flaw. The GTO's feeble sales compared to the brisk movement of the new, retro-styled Mustang just drove home the point. After only three years of production, the GTO was quietly canceled.

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Car Lust Classic--Pontiac Fiero

Originally posted by Chris Hafner on Jan. 23, 2008.

When GM announced in the early 1980s that it would be introducing a two-seat, mid-engined sports car under the Pontiac nameplate, the automotive world rejoiced. Trim two-seat, mid-engined cars have superior weight distribution for the best possible handling; a mid-engined layout is the configuration used in most serious race cars and supercars.

The consensus was that GM was going to build a younger brother for the Corvette; in fact, possibly a Corvette updated for the 1980s - light, trim, agile, and efficient. The name--Fiero--also implied a car with some of the performance pedigree of Pontiac's Firebird.

Danger signs first began to appear when GM insisted on calling the upcoming Fiero a "commuter car"--a laughable designation for a two-seat, mid-engined sports car. Red flags also popped up when GM revealed the Fiero would be based on an economy car front-wheel-drive chassis and would be initially available only with GM's antiquated, wheezing Iron Duke four-cylinder engine--a heavy hunk of low-horsepower boredom.

The Fiero debuted in 1984 to initial gasps of delight at the sexy, daring styling and comfortable interior, only for that delight to lapse into sobs of disappointment. The Fiero offered all the space, comfort, and practicality of a dedicated high-performance sports car--with the fun-to-drive quotient of a clunky Citation.

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Car Lust Classic--1982 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am

Originally posted by Chris Hafner on Dec. 1, 2008.

When I saw the new Pontiac Firebird and Trans-Am for the first time back in 1982, I was instantly in love--but not a joyous love. Instead, mine was a lust tinged with threat and awe.

You see, the previous-generation Firebird was incredibly cheesy, if still deeply cool, with its reputation as Detroit's best-handling car and status as the true star, with apologies to Burt Reynolds, of Smokey & the Bandit.

There wasn't a cheesy bone in the new Firebird's body--at least not yet. Pontiac would eventually tart up the Firebird with screaming chicken decals and goofy scoops, but when the new Firebird debuted in 1982, it was deadly serious and a bit evil. Its European-inspired low wedge design evoked threat; its hidden headlights and serious "face" imparted a sinister aspect, and its front turn-signal "eyes" glittered evilly. Imagine glancing up in your rearview mirror and seeing that Firebird--it was a look designed to inspire damp-palmed terror.

The Knight Rider TV show, of course, quickly took advantage of the new Firebird's star power, setting it up as the K.I.T.T. character--an utterly believable artificially intelligent supercar. Well, at least it was believable in the context of a show that portrayed David Hasselhoff as an action star.

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1986-1991 Pontiac Grand Am SE

GrandAm1 It may sound odd today, in a world in which the Pontiac Grand Am is considered dull rental-car fodder, but there was a time in the mid-1980s when the Grand Am was a stylish, desirable car--even, in fact, a semi-credible American response to European sports sedans like the BMW 3-series and Mercedes-Benz 190E. I'll pause for a moment to allow the cognitive dissonance to clear. Still with me? Good.

When the Grand Am debuted in 1985, its clean good looks, rorty V-6, and sprightly personality overshadowed both its Grand Am ancestor (an incredibly ungainly clone of the lovely 1973 Oldsmobile Cutlass) and its Buick Somerset and Oldsmobile Calais stablemates. The motoring press sat up and took notice; the attention turned to outright praise when the sporty SE trim arrived in 1986, followed by a turbo in 1987 and the 16-valve Quad 4 engine in 1989.

The Grand Am may not look like much today, but in the mid-1980s, it was sensation. Most American automakers had begun to downsize their cars by 1985, but compared to the sleek, smooth, and aerodynamic Europeans, many American cars of the time were bulky, over-styled, uninspired, square-edged dinosaurs. Many had proportions and baroque styling right out of the 1970s and were slathered with intricate filigree and acres of chrome, imitation wood, and vinyl. With the exception of the Ford Taurus and Thunderbird, contemporary domestic cars just didn't capture the purpose or purity of line of the European cars.

Continue reading "1986-1991 Pontiac Grand Am SE" »

Car Lust Classic--1977 Pontiac Trans Am SE

Originally posted by Chris Hafner on Dec. 1, 2008.

77transam1 Sally Field: "Does this thing move?"
Burt Reynolds: "Oh, yeah."


Like Smokey and the Bandit, the movie that made it famous, the 1977 Pontiac Trans Am is easy to dismiss as a buffoonish, overblown mockery of a once-great art form. Certainly both the movie and the muscle car are obvious, gauche, and deeply imbued with the cheesiness characteristic of the 1970s. Personally, I think that is at the root of their appeal.

Last year I wrote a series of posts on Poseur Muscle Cars, honoring such punchless extroverts as the Ford Mustang II, Chevy Monte Carlo SS, Dodge Magnum XE, Ford Gran Torino, and Spirit-based AMC AMX. The '77 Trans Am would seem like an obvious candidate for Poseur Muscle Car (dis)honor--after all, as the Trans Am's horsepower ratings sagged in the mid-1970s, the body kits and graphics kept getting flashier and gaudier to compensate.

The difference? The Trans Am was the real thing--the car most of those poseur muscle cars wanted to be when they grew up. Compared to its contemporaries, the Trans Am was still a potent car. Relatively speaking, it still brought the thunder.

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Car Lust Classic--Pontiac Firebird Trans-Am SD-455

Originally posted by Chris Hafner on Dec. 11, 2007.

What had once been a bright automotive sky full of muscle car stars in the 1960s had dimmed in the early 1970s. Many of the brightest stars had been blotted out, one by one, by the dark clouds of federal emissions regulation and skyrocketing gas prices. Even the greatest giants of automotive performance had eventually succumbed, sliding into the mediocrity of paint-and-sticker performance packages.

This all made the 1973 debut of the Pontiac Firebird Trans-Am SD-455 all the more surprising. Far from another cosmetic performance model saddled with a limp, lifeless V-8, the SD-455 was the last hero of the muscle car age, fortified with 455 cubic inches of high-compression goodness. Weary, depressed performance car fans of the time searched the SD-455 for inevitable compromises, only to wax ecstatic when they found none.

The SD-455 wasn't just an echo of past glory; it was the real thing, complete with low 5-second 0-60 times and sternum-splitting throttle response. In an age of sad, faded heroes, left to wither away and die, the SD-455 was one last immortal.

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Pontiac Aztek

1315936601_370fd6ae6b_o When GM's panopoly of brands was in full swing during the 1950s, the goal was to create a natural progression for customers to climb through to preserve brand loyalty. The theory, so it went, was that a young buyer would start with an inexpensive Chevrolet, then work up to a slightly sportier Pontiac, migrate to a more reserved Oldsmobile, follow that with a more luxurious Buick, then retire to a nice Cadillac. Owing to its early postwar success for GM, this model was adopted by both Ford and Chrysler--for Ford, it was supposed to be Ford to Mercury to Edsel to Lincoln, while Chrysler pushed a Plymouth to Dodge to DeSoto to Chrysler to Imperial progression.

As both Ford and Chrysler learned the hard way, maintaining a fine-grained approach to the market, with separate brands, bodies, engines, vehicles and dealers for each conceivable market segment, only makes sense when you're selling enough volume to make it worthwhile. For Ford, it didn't take long for Edsel to disappear. Chrysler's DeSoto, meanwhile, disintegrated by 1961, having been killed off by the same market economics that led to sales declines for Buick and Oldsmobile while rendering Ford's poorly executed efforts at establishing the Edsel brand moot. By 1970, GM, which controlled nearly 50 percent of the market by itself, appeared to be the only car company large enough to pull off such a strategy profitably.

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Car Lust Classic--Pontiac T1000

Originally posted by Chuck Lynch on Feb. 3, 2009.

Chevette 01 26 09 003 As you all very well know, General Motors and other car companies use an alphabet letter to denote a body style, usually used by two or more divisions. When the unreliability of the "H"-body Vega became obvious, GM went looking globally to replace the Vega by rebadging a "T"-body from elsewhere in the world. First built in Brazil in 1974, the "T" car was eventually made as the Vauxhall Chevette, Opel Kadett, Isuzu Gemini, and Holden Gemini. It was also called the Pontiac Acadian in Canada. Briefy, it was even made as a pickup truck, the Chevy 500.

Launched by the Chevrolet Division in 1976 as the Chevette and in 1981 as Pontiac's T1000, this is a truly "love-it-or-hate-it" car. I bought this then-new 1978 model for reliable transportation and easy campus parking, as well as something to remember my 21st birthday by. Originally available in America only as a 2-door, "Rally" and "Woody" packages were also offered. A 4-door came along in 1978, and those two trim packages were dropped. All were hatchbacks. There was a station wagon that was never available here, but I think it would have been a hit at that time. In 1978, the Pinto and Monza wagons were still available and selling strong--though their days were ultimately numbered.

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Pictured above: This is a forlorn Chevy Vega photographed by reader Gary Sinar. (Share yours)

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