In the study of history, there are plenty of “what ifs”. Such as – what if Archduke Franz Ferdinand had not been assassinated, would World War I been averted and 16 million lives have been saved? Even in our own life, we are constantly pondering the “what ifs”. The auto business is no different, there are plenty of situations where we the car aficionados look back with 20/20 hindsight vision dissecting past automotive related events or occurrences and wonder about the “what ifs” as they pertain to these events. For instance the question – what if AMC had beat Ford to the marketplace with a successful pony car before the Mustang was released? It may have setup a chain of events that could have led to the survival of AMC and possibly the death of Ford.
For many the death of Pontiac was a bitter pill to swallow, after-all Pontiac had been one of the formidable automakers in America. Once a stodgy division that sold boring reliable cars to fuddy-duddies and later leapt into prominence in the late-1950s by leading the trend towards youthful performance-oriented cars. By the end of the next decade Pontiac’s youthful and performance image was completely solidified. Cars like the GTO, Firebird, Grand Prix, LeMans, and even Pontiac’s stylish big boats like the Bonneville and Catalina were attracting many buyers. Pontiac even rose so high in prominence that it even managed to make it to third in U.S. sales behind Chevrolet and Ford, which was no small feat. By the 1970s – the 1973 oil crises, new emissions regulations, and the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (C.A.F.E.) standards eliminated most performance cars. Though GM’s performance division – Pontiac was stuffing as much performance and cubic inches under the hood of its Trans Am during the 1970s, it still had to change with the times. Even the performance-oriented Grand Prix in the 1970s turned into a plushy boulevard cruiser. By the end of the decade the Trans Am and the Firebird were the only performance-oriented cars Pontiac had left. By the time the 1980s rolled in, it could have been curtains for Pontiac. However Pontiac quickly bounced back with vigor and then jumped back into the forefront as GM’s performance division. By the mid-1980s most of Pontiac’s fleet had converted to front-wheel drive however these cars were all available with European inspired touring type handling packages along with European inspired styling. Also Pontiac managed to put in these cars some of the hottest V6 motors in GM’s arsenal along with a powerful turbo 4-cylinder motor. Pontiac’s new slogan was “We Build Excitement”, and they indeed did, strong sales were proof that Pontiac was on the right track. So Pontiac once again had a fleet of performance oriented cars that were the envy of other automakers yet went toe-to-toe with European sedans and coupes. One such car was the Pontiac 6000 STE, which had the acceleration and handling along with the styling to compete with the likes of the Audi 5000 which was the darling of the worldwide auto press at the time (before the “sudden acceleration” fiasco that almost killed Audi). The Pontiac 6000 even made Car and Driver magazine’s coveted “10 Best” list beating out many fine European sports sedans. Other hot performance oriented front-wheel drive Pontiacs were the Bonneville SE, 6000 SE, Grand Am SE, and 2000 (Sunbird) GT & SE. Pontiac also still had the hot selling Firebird and Trans Am along with the sporty two-seater mid-engine Fiero. By the 1990s both a two-door and four-door Grand Prix were carrying Pontiac’s performance torch. These were good times for Pontiac. However by the end of the decade Pontiac had started to slip with their cars getting a little stale. The Trans Am – Pontiac’s performance darling since the early-1970s, by the mid-1990s began encountering a sales slide which would soon be the permanent undoing of the Trans Am and other Firebird models. It was time for another rejuvenation like what occurred in the late-1950s and 1980s. Pontiac understood this and began toying with the possibility of releasing a new GTO to give Pontiac another performance shot in the arm.
Before the famous retro Ford Mustang concept car, or the modern retro Chevrolet Camaro concept car, or even the retro Dodge Challenger concept car there was the 1999 Pontiac GTO Concept car. The 1999 GTO Concept had beat all of them to the show circuit, however they all made it to production unlike the GTO. The reception of the GTO Concept was very good; there were many rave reviews and virtually no detractors. The design team that worked on this project hit with perfect precision just the type of modern retro muscle car that buyers wanted. The car was a modern interpretation of a 1968-1969 GTO. Even the Carousel Red exterior color is taken from the 1969 GTO Judge. The familiar hood tach could be found on the concept car along with a modern version of the early-to-mid-1970s Pontiac honeycomb wheels which were available on the 1971-1973 GTO. The dual hood scoops were also a modern rendition of the 1971-1972 GTO hood scoops. Overall the GTO Concept was just the perfect blend of new and retro styling like the current Camaro which has been a big sales success for Chevrolet. In fact looking at pictures of the two cars side by side, it is plain to see that the Camaro designers took most of the general styling cues from the GTO Concept. The current Camaro’s roofline and wide stance along with the long hood and short decklid are all almost dead ringers for the GTO Concept. It’s as if Camaro designers took the GTO Concept and put a new front and rear design along with a few retro Camaro styling cues like the hood bulge – and voila the new Camaro.
With this in mind it makes you wonder what if this GTO made it into production in 2001 or even in 2003 as a Trans Am replacement. It would have beat Ford’s retro Mustang to the market by at least 2 years and Dodge’s Challenger by at least 6 years. And it may have forced Chevrolet to have released a 2010 Camaro based on the GTO years ahead of when it did which certainly would have helped Chevrolet and GM. So why did Pontiac tantalize buyers with a concept and then never release the car? That’s a good question however the best answer is that Pontiac had a pattern of releasing in the 1980s and 1990s some innovative concept cars, none of which ever made it to production. Unlike Chevrolet which teased buyers in the early-1990s with a modern four-door Impala SS concept car on the car show circuit, and brought it to the marketplace when this concept car received such a strong reception. It was almost as if Pontiac after it received a strong reception of its 1999 GTO, just said “oh well that’s nice, time to work on the next concept car.” Another factor may have been a lack of funding. Back when the GTO Concept car hit the car show circuit, GM was in a drug induced love of SUVs which at the time were selling like Internet IPO stocks. SUVs were very profitable for GM, which was good for business but gave GM the false impression that SUVs were the way of the future and that there was not a need to focus on future new cars to replace their aging fleet. It was during this period a lot of GM’s car lineup was just left with only mild updates. Around this time Trans Am sales were floundering, the fourth generation Firebird/Trans Am styling was very wild and did not appeal to a wide range of buyers unlike the Mustang which seemed to be pleasing to a much broader buying audience. GM which had a policy or better stated – a bad habit of dumping a car or car platform as soon as sales took a dive. With F-body (Camaro/Firebird) sales spiraling downward, GM was not only hesitant about spending money on a fifth generation f-body, it was considering canceling the entire platform which it did a few years later at the end of the 2002 model year. What the F-body needed was new styling for 2003 and the 1999 GTO Concept was just the styling it needed. Pontiac could have dropped the Trans Am name and replaced it with the GTO label and all would still have been good. It would have been perfect timing and could have been a springboard to bring new customers into Pontiac dealerships which is what flagship cars do. One exciting car usually leads to other exciting cars. So one car for an automaker can make a big difference, as an example look at Chevrolet’s transformation since the 2010 Camaro was released – not only has the morale at Chevrolet improved but now more people have a favorable opinion of Chevrolet.
The GTO Concept turning into a production car could have indeed started a chain reaction at Pontiac which would have once again made it the “excitement” automaker. Pontiac did release a new GTO in 2004 which was a rebadged Holden Monaro (Holden is GM’s subsidiary in Australia). However the Monaro styling did not strike a chord with American buyers so the GTO had a difficult time finding buyers while Mustangs were selling well. The reason why GM went with the Monaro styling was it was the inexpensive alternative to bring a new GTO to Pontiac dealerships. This decision proved to be fatal. I guess we can chalk up the 1999 GTO Concept as another one of history’s “what ifs”.
Written contents in this article – © 2011 Pete Dunton – All Rights Reserved