Local Pontiac lovers lament loss of iconic brand
As Pontiac died a lonely death, it gave Rick Orelup time to think about his one final wish: Buckle him in and bury him in his metallic blue 1999 Firebird Trans Am.
“I told my parents there’s a spot in the backyard where they can bury me in it,” said Orelup, 31, of Valparaiso. “It will be my coffin. I’m never going to get rid of that car. That’s my baby. That car will never leave my possession.”
The iconic brand, whose muscle cars drag-raced down boulevards, parked at drive-ins and roared across movie screens, has gone out of business.
As General Motors collapsed into bankruptcy last year, it announced it was phasing out the 84-year-old brand.
On Oct. 31, GM’s agreements with Pontiac dealers expired. Sales had fallen from their peak of nearly 1 million in 1968, when the brand’s speedier models were prized for their powerful engines and scowling grilles.
Greg Dobson, 46, of Rensselaer, became smitten at age 16 when Pontiac was at its pinnacle.
“I drove by a dealer and saw that great big eagle on the Trans Am, so I bought a ‘Smokey and the Bandit’ model,” he said.
He currently owns a 2002 Grand Prix in black and red. He traded is wife’s Audi for a G6, but, sadly, she crashed it a year ago.
Formed in 1926, Pontiac made cars for the working class until a sales slump in the 1950s, when GM looked to revive the brand by connecting it to auto racing. From then on, each Pontiac sales boom was driven by speed and each bust caused by outdated or boring rides.
Faithful owners don’t agree with Bill Hoglund, a retired GM executive, who claims the brand lost its edge.
“Pontiacs had that mean feel to them,” Orelup said. “The ram air hood looked like four nostrils on the front and when it came down the street it looked screaming mean. It was classy and had the extra curve right where it needed it. It was distinctive.”
Orelup said his car fit his personality and body and was meant for serious driving.
“When I sit in it, it’s like a glove,” he said. “Other cars don’t feel right. I just slide right in and it fits me perfectly. I got a Trans Am because I like to go fast.
“When I drove in places like Arizona . . . it was fun to get it going above 100 mph.”
Orelup also owns a 2005 Vibe and his brother, Matt, 26, owns a 1965 Bonneville. His dad, Rick, 59, of Union Township, drives one of the first 1,000 Solstices ever made.
Despite spells of success over the past 30 years, Pontiac never returned to its supercharged sales of the 1960s. A low point came the late 1990s, when Pontiac debuted the Aztek, a clumsy cross between a minivan and armored car—complete with optional tent attachment.
Over the years, Dobson has owned four Grand Prixs and four Bonnevilles. He says all went over 150,000 miles with no more than routine maintenance. He liked the brand’s styling first and foremost.
“And when you got in them they were built better, and when you started them they had more power and ran better. The Pontiacs were always priced higher, but I had no problem paying that because you got $1,000 more car.”
By 2008, the last full year before GM announced the shutdown, sales were at 267,000, less than a third of 1968 figures.
“It stinks,” said Dobson. “Even the last cars they came out with were so nice. Now what am I going to do?”
The memories Orelup’s dad has for his silver convertible Solstice are burned into his past like skids marks.
“I fell in love with that car the day I walked by it at the auto show,” he said. “It was a concept car, and I told my wife I was going to buy it for her one day. And I truthfully did buy it for her—I’m just the one that drives it all the time.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.