O TRACE the present success of Pontiac, you have to go back to one bright, sunny July day in 1956 — the day Semon (Bunky) Knudsen took over the reins of Pontiac Motor Division.
At the time, Pontiac was known as an old maid's car. It was floundering in sixth place in overall U.S. car sales. And the future, it seemed, held no great miracles in store, Pontiac management seemed slow to catch up with the changes of the car-buying public.
But the energetic Knudsen, 43 years old at the time, moved in with a strong notion of making a success of the ailing division. His father, Bill Knudsen, a former president of General Motors, had once told him: " . . . in this business, competition is so tough that if you keep running, they'll still bite you. But if you stand still, they'll swallow you."
Young Knudsen didn't want to be swallowed. So in his battle to make a going concern out of Pontiac, one of his first moves was to look for another runner. He'd heard of a brilliant young engineer who'd helped develop a high-compression engine at Oldsmobile in 1949. So he put in a call to Lansing to E. M. (Pete) Estes. "Pete," he said, "I want you to come over here and help steer us on the right course."
Estes was a little hesitant at first about leaving so successful a division as Oldsmobile. "After all," he figured, "Olds was a fast stepper, while Pontiac was certainly not." But after a bit of prodding by both Knudsen and Harley Earl, then GM's styling vice president, Estes agreed to the challenge, and Pontiac has been sailing and selling on the right course ever since.
There was naturally quite a transition ahead for the genial Estes. After all, he'd been working at Oldsmobile for 10 years as an engine development engineer and later as assistant chief engineer. It's not easy to switch allegiances overnight. But for Estes, a very flexible man in his ways, the changeover caused few problems. "I just had all my Oldsmobile blood drained out one night," he recalls smilingly, "and had Pontiac blood pumped in the next morning. That's all there was to it." That morning was September 1, 1956 — the day he started work as Pontiac's chief engineer. It marked the beginning of a success era unequaled in recent automotive history.
It wasn't long before the effects of the Knudsen-Estes one-two punch were being felt at 895 Joslyn Avenue, the divisional engineering headquarters. The two held around-the-clock conferences with their engineering staff. They quickly learned that Pontiac was in trouble — bad trouble. The car was dull and unimaginative. Things weren't too hot with the manufacturing people either. Morale at the plant was at an all-time low. Same story out in the field. Pontiac dealers were in a state of deep depression.
But with Knudsen and Estes at the helm, things would soon pick up. They pledged an all-out, no-holds-barred effort to everyone. Pontiac would rise again.
The year they joined Pontiac, the division's sales slogan was "Pontiac the 100,000-mile car." Did this mean Pontiac would run for 100,000 miles? Or did it mean its performance was like that of a car that had already run 100,000 miles? Estes likes to tell the story of a Pontiac executive standing on the sidelines at Daytona Beach in the late '50s watching a stock-car race. When a Pontiac put on a sudden burst of speed, a young spectator yelled: "Hey, look at that grandma go!"
At the time, there was a new accent on youth in this country, and both Knudsen and Estes figured Pontiac's best chance was to appeal to the 20-to-30-year-old group. "You can sell older people a young car, but you can't sell young people an older car," Knudsen and Estes argued as they set about changing Pontiac's grandma image.
The day after he took over, Knudsen headed for the division's styling studio to get his first look at the proposed 1957 Pontiac. It was then only a month from pilot production and two months from volume production. Around the fiberglass pilot model stood a clutch of proud stylists. Knudsen walked around their pride and joy a couple of times, stopped, backed off a bit, and took another hard look. He moved around to the front, quietly stroking his nose in a manner others at Pontiac later came to recognize with foreboding. Finally, as though he couldn't stand it any longer, Knudsen said, "Let's take the silver streaks off. That's the biggest change we can make in the shortest time. And I don't ever want to see them again."
This stunned the group. "But your father put them on in 1935," stammered a courageous stylist. "They're Pontiac's trademark!" Others said, "We're 30 days away from pilot production. We can't change now." Tooling engineers wailed that it was impossible to get new tooling done in time. But Knudsen's decision stuck. The streaks were off.
Knudsen then went out to the assembly plant to get a first-hand look. There was a problem. On the same production line, one team was trying to build the last of the 1956 cars, while engineers were trying to run through the first '57 pilot cars. Down the line came '57 suspension, drive line, transmission, and engine. Then the line stopped. Somebody had installed '56 brackets, and the '57 fenders wouldn't fit. Four miles of intricately timed conveyors backed up like a stopped sink. As the entire assembly plant ground to a halt and thousands of workers stood idly around, Knudsen made his second major management decision: "Build the '57s on a separate line. That's where they should've been in the first place."
Before long, Knudsen had the authorization to create, each year before regular production starts, a separate assembly line specifically for working out the bugs of new cars. To the men on the line, it was obvious that revolutionary things were happening at Pontiac.
In his office, Knudsen tacked up a saying once uttered by the late Harlow Curtice, then GM's president. "The Inquiring Mind is never satisfied with things as they are. It is always seeking ways to make things better. It assumes that everything and anything can be improved." Taking this slogan as his watchword, Knudsen soon overhauled his organization to produce a new Pontiac image.
The quickest way to make the younger generation sit up and take notice was to transform grandma into a performance car. Teen-agers were primarily interested in performance, and it was impossible to fool them. The power had to be there. That meant building outstanding acceleration into a stock car.