When Ian Pratt bought the Chevrolet Pontiac and Buick dealership in Calais in 1996, he had more than 100 types of cars, pickup trucks and SUVs that he could drive as his demo vehicle.
But for Pratt, there was really only one choice — the Pontiac Firebird Trans Am.
A jet-black convertible with a Corvette LT-1, 350-cubic inch V-8 engine, the Trans Am was the ultimate muscle car. It growled as it prowled. “Everybody wanted to drive it, everybody wanted to ride in it,” the 36-year-old Pratt recalled Monday.
“It turned heads everywhere it went,” he added. “All the Pontiacs were like that. They were just great-looking cars. When everybody else was making a bunch of vanilla boxes, Pontiac was always a lot sportier, a lot sharper.”
That’s why Pratt and other auto dealers around the state lamented General Motors’ decision Monday to close plants, cut hourly workers and dealers, and to eliminate its Pontiac brand.
The announcement sent a chill through state automotive markets. Several Pontiac and GM dealerships in Bangor, Belfast, Dover-Foxcroft and Ellsworth declined to comment on the news or didn’t return phone calls seeking comment. Those who did discuss it called GM’s decision the end of a storied chapter of American car history that dates back to 1926.
“I can’t believe that they will shut Pontiac down,” said Jason Clifford, a sales representative at North Country Auto of Lincoln, which sells used Pontiacs. “I would have shut down a few other brands before I did that.”
“It’s the sports car end of the GM line and [President] Obama doesn’t like anything that uses more than a pint of gas,” complained Walter Hight, owner of Hight Chevrolet Buick Pontiac GMC of Skowhegan. “I don’t think it’s GM’s decision at all. It’s all him.”
Pontiacs are cultural touchstones, the dealers said. When Lucy, Ricky, Fred and Ethel took “I Love Lucy” to California, they did it in a 1955 Pontiac Star Chief convertible. One of America’s first muscle cars, the Pontiac GTO, inspired a Beach Boys song, “Little GTO.” Burt Reynolds rode to superstardom at the wheel of a legendary 1978 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am in the “Smokey and the Bandit” movies.
“It is probably going to end up being a positive move for GM, but we would have preferred that they not cut that deep into their product lines,” said Wayne Rose, general manager of Cranberry Motors and Blueberry Ford of Machias.
“You hate to lose a whole pedigree in the line, and essentially that’s what they are taking out. They have a lot of good products in that line that I would have liked to see continue,” Rose added.
Pontiacs, the dealers say, appeal to younger motorists looking to not spend much money for a car — $10,000 to $20,000 — and seek something with style, power and reliability. Pontiac provided that. Japanese cars look cheap and weak in comparison, they said.
“Pontiacs have always sold well,” said Paul Nantkes, sales manager at North Country Auto, which has dealerships in Houlton, Lincoln and Presque Isle. “If you want to spend $10,000 to $12,000 for a car, they give you a good value.”
Many Pontiac models are sports car starter vehicles, Pratt said. They introduce young people to the idea of a sports car, which the buyers eventually change out in favor of Corvettes, Mustangs — even Ferraris and Lamborghinis — as their income levels rise.
“It’s a better car for the money than the Sebring or the Taurus,” Clifford said.
Consumers will be hurt by Pontiac’s loss, Nantkes said. They will have one less brand to choose from, and foreign-built cars will have one more inroad into the American car market, he said.
Rose predicted that GM’s Chevy line would fill the vacuum created by the absence of Pontiac. The 2010 Chevy Camaro, the first Camaro produced in years, is a step in that direction. The new Chevy SS, Impala and Malibu will continue that trend of sportier-looking cars.
And people who buy Pontiacs shouldn’t worry about being orphaned. With parts interchangeable with Chevrolet and GM, like the Oldsmobile, Pontiacs will still be easily repaired and covered by warranties, Rose said.
“It is just a very sad day,” Pratt said. “My grandfather was a Pontiac dealer in Millinocket since 1949. It’s almost unthinkable that we would no longer have a Pontiac in the world.”