Muscle Car Guru Jim Wangers on Pontiac's demise

Veteran auto analyst Jim Wangers was the innovative marketing force behind high-performance 1960s Pontiacs such as the legendary GTO, which kicked off the U.S. muscle car market A former champion Pontiac drag racer, Wangers worked for Chevrolet and Chrysler before joining Pontiac's advertising agency in 1958. He then conveyed the passion of performance car fans to Pontiac's managers and engineers, an effort that resulted in popular, now-collectible Pontiacs. Wangers later opened a Chevrolet dealership in Milwaukee and then returned to Detroit to become a consultant to GM, Ford and Chrysler. He established Automotive Marketing Consultants Inc. in 1981, which he headed for years, and now is an independent analyst. He travels thousands of miles annually to attend auto shows and races and adds to his collection of collectible Pontiacs..He has written, with author Paul Zazarine, the riveting book "Glory Days--When Horsepower and Passion Ruled Detroit." Dan Jedlicka interviewed Wangers about GM's announcement that it's dropping its Pontiac division and also about the troubled U.S. auto industry.

Q. You're known in the car industry for doing many innovative GTO promotions, such as helping develop the national hit record "GTO" (commonly called "Little GTO"), which is still played on "oldies" radio stations, and convincing major shoe manufacturer Thom McAn to market a shoe called "The GTO." Pontiac offered sexy high-performance cars in the 1960s and early 1970s, with the Firebird model popular for years after that era. It was featured in the movie "Smokey and the Bandit" and the popular TV shows, "The Rockford Files" and "Knight Rider." GM has announced it's dropping Pontiac because of restructuring. What happened?

A. Nothing happened overnight. The problem basically has been mismanagement. There's a long list of failures, missed opportunities and lack of respect for Pontiac's once-exciting image. Pontiac had a long series of bosses. After the good ones - Semon Knudsen, Pete Estes and John DeLorean-left, their successors weren't "car guys." They were finance-oriented people who just didn't "get it." Pontiac wasn't the only GM division with such people. Good car guys like John Rock, who headed Oldsmobile, were given no support at GM and thus left it.

Q. Why did all that happen?

A. Some top GM executives felt the best way to sell a Pontiac was to cut costs and prices and change alluring car names to obscure ones few understood. Pontiac boss Jim McDonald, who succeeded DeLorean, called a Pontiac Tempest coupe the "T-37." The "T" stood for "Tempest" and "37" was just an in-house code for a hardtop coupe. Compare that with the Pontiac name "Grand Prix." The current high-performance Pontiac is called the "G8." What's that supposed to mean to a potential Pontiac buyer?

Q. What went wrong with the slick little, mid-engine 1980s Pontiac two-seat Fiero?

A. Pontiac boss Bill Hoglund hurt Fiero development by giving it, for instance, cheap Chevy Chevette suspension parts. The last Fiero V-6 was pretty good, but GM had hoped to sell 100,000 Fieros annually--and that was totally unrealistic. Two-seaters in America always have sold 35,000 to 40,000 cars a year, and that's it. When the Fiero didn't hit its sales target, it was killed. Hoglund never understood Fiero's importance to Pontiac's image, which continued to deteriorate.

Q. What about the 1980s Pontiac 6000 STE? It was pretty nifty, much like a European sports sedan.

A. The 6000 STE.was way ahead of its time, with outstanding styling and handling. But it was given an anemic V-6 with little power.

Q. Any other factors causing Pontiac's decline?

A. Roger Smith didn't help. He was GM's chairman for a long time, but was a finance guy. His philosophy was saving money, not developing exciting cars with individuality. He ran GM like a business selling colorless products. He was followed by a long line of finance guys.

Q. Anything else?

A. Under Smith and others, there was ongoing GM restructuring--and finally hiring of people who knew
nothing about cars. GM Board member John Smale--called the "Toothpaste King" because of his previous Procter & Gamble experience--decimated GM's marketing department by hiring outside people who knew about things like mouth wash, but nothing about cars. One of his hand-picked guys was from the eye-care products business. There were no marketing people left who appreciated and could maintain GM's strong vehicle images.

Q. Pontiacs once looked distinctive, but then began to resemble other GM cars - which resembled other GM cars.

A. GM cars began to look alike when the automaker began consolidating operations. There was no room for people like Knudsen, who was named head of Pontiac in 1956, when it was called an "old man's car." Knudsen knew racing helped sell cars, so he had Pontiac begin racing. He developed a powerful new V-8 and came up for 1959 with Pontiac's "Wide Track" concept that pulled wheels opposite each other farther apart .That gave Pontiacs a purposeful wide stance that helped make it distinctive. Estes succeeded Knudsen as Pontiac's boss, and then came DeLorean, who had been Pontiac's chief engineer. And Pontiac models such as the GTO, Grand Prix and Firebird Trans Am were developed. When you were driving a Pontiac, you were recognized as a person who "got it."

Q. What do you think about the major Obama administration changes at GM, besides Pontiac being phased out"?

A. It now looks like GM will only keep Chevrolet at the bottom and Cadillac at the top, with Buick in the middle, partly because of its strong sales in the giant China market. Maybe the GMC truck operation will be kept because it's a money maker.

Q. The Obama administration is on a "green kick" and seems to be insisting that more small, hybrid and electric cars be developed.

Q. You can't tell people what kind of vehicle to buy. They'll continue to get what they like and want. America has superhighways, not Europe's narrow, winding roads and high vehicle fuel prices. The only way to sell very fuel-efficient cars or hybrids in significant numbers here is to significantly raise the gasoline tax. Then people will consider vehicles with higher economy, as they did with $4 gas in the summer of 2008. But politicians know that raising the gas tax can be political suicide. GM isn't in trouble because it sold lots of SUVs, which people wanted, but because it's been mismanaged for approximately the last 35 years.

Q. Is the internal combustion engine, and specifically the V-8, on its way out?

A. They'll keep making internal combustion engines far more efficient in terms of power and lower emissions via such things as direct fuel injection and turbocharging. We probably won't see much more V-8 development, but we'll see more V-6 engines with such things as power-enhancing turbochargers. We'll also likely see more alternative fuels for internal combustion engines. There won't be a significant number of gas/electric hybrids or electric cars for a long time. For one thing, the infrastructure for such vehicles simply doesn't exist.

Q. A large percentage of Americans surveyed said they don't care if Detroit automakers go out of business. Do you find that surprising?

A. Many feel import cars are better than domestics, although good U.S. vehicles are being built. It's Detroit's job to bring back customers, and that's a big job. GM, Ford and Chrysler will need very strong marketing, and there will be no overnight gains. Strong domestic car images must be built up. People couldn't care less about images now, so they're buying Japanese autos such as Toyotas and Hondas. You can't blame the Japanese. They're doing it right.

Q. Many younger car buyers grew up driving used Japanese cars such as Toyota Corollas, not American cars such as Pontiacs, Chevrolets or Fords. Is that a

A. Detroit has lost two generations of car buyers and is about to lose another generation of them. Nobody out there under 35 years of age knows or cares about Pontiacs. When GM brought back the GTO from 2004 to 2006, I told it to ignore younger buyers and to target the car at older guys who remembered the 1960s and early 1970s GTOs.

Q. You came along when the love of the car seemed greater than it is today. Is that love disappearing?

A. Many still love cars, but the love affair has been compromised because of such things as computers, video games and such. My generation didn't have those distractions as kids and young people. Up to about 25 years ago, cars and
personal expression were closely related. Now, there's a million other ways to express yourself.

Q. How do you feel about the Chrysler bankruptcy?

A. The Mercedes people who bought Chrysler dropped the ball. For instance, they eliminated the popular, fuel-stingy Neon, leaving Chrysler to compete with no popular small car. And Mercedes did little with the compact Chrysler PT Cruiser since its introduction. It now appears that Italy's Fiat will figure strongly in Chrysler operations. But people over 35 or 40 recall that Fiat had a poor reliabililty reputation in America, with "Fiat" standing for "Fix It Again, Tony."

Q. What about Ford's future? So far, by mortgaging everything, it hasn't had to ask for government-support money.

A. I don't look at sales figures in this very depressed auto market, but rather at market share. Why hasn't Ford picked up at least 5 to 7 points of market share at the expense of GM and Chrysler, with all the media mud being slung at those two automakers? If sales don't pick up, I predict that Ford, which is burning lots of cash, will ask for government money in six months or so.