Home Cars The 20 Best and Influential Pontiacs Ever Made That Most Car Enthusiasts Never Forget

The 20 Best and Influential Pontiacs Ever Made That Most Car Enthusiasts Never Forget

Vukasin Herbez August 10, 2018

Pontiac has been absent from the American and global car market for several years now. This once famous brand fell victim to the global recession and a sharp drop in car sales. When GM filed for bankruptcy and dealt with the government bailout, management decided to get rid of the nameplates that didn’t make a profit. Time will tell if this was a smart decision, but economics aside, car enthusiasts still mourn the loss of this legendary brand.

Pontiac started as an economy version of the GM long-defunct Oakland brand, which was popular in the mid-20s. They established the company in 1926 and by the early ’30s, it was one of the bestselling GM nameplates they promoted to a separate division. Pontiac was always above Chevrolet and below Oldsmobile and Buick in terms of luxury and price. From 1930s all the way to late 1950s, Pontiacs weren’t all that special and interesting.

But then the company adopted a performance image and built a motorsport heritage. This transformed it into one of the most dynamic and exciting brands on the U.S. car market. This was the winning formula and from that point, Pontiac started offering a stylish combination of performance and luxury that appealed to millions of customers.

So, keep reading to learn about the best Pontiacs they ever made. These infamous cars left an everlasting mark in automotive history. These influential models, legendary shapes and cars presented something new and different than regular GM products. Just browse this list and you’ll see why GM made a big mistake by killing this brand in 2010.

  1. 1958 Pontiac Bonneville

Even though the Bonneville nameplate is famous, most Pontiac aficionados and car enthusiasts connect it with those late ‘60s and early ‘70s full-size sedans. However, they introduced the Bonneville in 1958 as a separate model. In fact, this was the car that started the whole performance image for Pontiac. In those days, Simon “Bunkie” Knudsen was head of the Pontiac Motor Division.

But he wanted more excitement for the brand, so Knudsen took a Star Chief model and gave it a full makeover. They improved the design and added a gorgeous rear end that mimicked rocket engines. And then they topped it off with the most powerful engines Pontiac had to offer. The 1958 Bonneville was available only as a two-door hardtop or convertible, emphasizing its performance appeal.

Under the hood was a 370 CID V8 engine delivering 255 HP in its base form. For those who wanted more power, there was the Tri-Power option with 300 HP and the top of the line fuel-injected version with 310 HP. With this engine, the 1958 Bonneville was one of the most powerful and fastest GM cars of the day.

Thanks to its performance and beautiful design, they chose the 1958 Bonneville to pace the Indianapolis 500 race. The Bonneville had moderate success on the market and Pontiac managed to sell over 12,000 copies. Today, knowledgeable enthusiasts highly appreciate this car, but the general automotive public has forgotten.

  1. 1962 Pontiac Catalina 421 “Swiss Cheese”

In the early 1960s, Pontiac realized that racing helped sell cars and that famous Detroit`s mantra “Win on Sunday-Sell on Monday” really works. At that time, Pontiac was big in NASCAR, but its drag racing reputation in the NHRA championship was slim. Pontiac had a good basis for a fast Super Stock car in the two-door Catalina and a potent 421 V8 engine.

But they needed more. It needed to add power and subtract weight. To do the latter, the Pontiac engineers manufactured numerous aluminum parts like bumpers, fenders and hoods, saving 159 pounds from the heavy car. Moreover, they soon nicknamed it, “Swiss Cheese,” since they also drilled holes in the frame to save a few grams more. With a high compression 421 V8 engine and 410 HP, these Catalinas were lightning quick.

Needless to say, “Swiss Cheese” Catalinas proved to be the fastest on the strips. They even won numerous races, earning Pontiac some much-needed publicity. They used the cars for two years, 1962 and 1963. However, Pontiac built only 14 “Swiss Cheese” Catalinas. And they gave each one to notable a drag racer of the day. Today, they have accounted for most of the cars. But, the prices for those valuable drag racing legends are close to $1 million.

  1. 1962 Pontiac Tempest

In the early ’60s, most major U.S. car makers introduced compact models. Chevrolet had the Corvair, Ford had the Falcon, Plymouth had the Valiant and Pontiac presented the Tempest. In most cases, those compact models were smaller versions of bigger cars. So, they all shared design cues and mechanicals.

But Pontiac went a different route and presented one of the most advanced and interesting American cars of the era. The new Tempest had an independent suspension at a time when all cars had a live rear axle. Also, it featured an economical four-cylinder engine that was a cut down V8 when all their competitors had six cylinders. Also, the Tempest used a rear mounted gearbox and a transaxle design, which was unheard of at the time.

Today, only the most expensive Gran Turismo coupes like the Aston Martin or Ferrari use this system. But in the ’60s, Pontiac was the only production model with this solution. More so, the Tempest didn’t have a conventional drive shaft connecting the engine in the front with the transmission in the back. Instead, it used a torque tube with a cable inside. This layout gave the little Tempest an almost ideal weight distribution.

Also, it had enough room for six passengers since there wasn’t a transmission tunnel in the cabin. Compared to the rest of the compact cars, the 1962 and 1963 Pontiac Tempests were from another planet. During its lifespan, Pontiac sold over 200,000 Tempests, making it a solid success.

But in 1964, the company introduced a bigger, more conventional Tempest. Despite its revolutionary mechanics, perfect driving dynamics and motorsport success, people soon forgot those first-generation Tempests. Today only diehard Pontiac fans remember it. And it’s rare to see in any car shows, too.

  1. 1964 Pontiac Tempest GTO

In the early ‘60s, Pontiac enjoyed success on drag strips across America. So, the performance aspect became a powerful marketing tool for the new generation of buyers who wanted powerful, fast cars. Pontiac wanted to capitalize on its success but was reluctant to invest in a sports car built from scratch. Also, all their production models were big, heavy vehicles.

However, a young engineer named John Z. DeLorean thought of a genius idea. He wanted to install the big, powerful 396 V8 into a light, intermediate Tempest two-door body. This was an easy and affordable way to create a true performance machine. The result was the Tempest GTO, as they called it. It was an option on the Tempest intermediate model.

So, for just $295, buyers could get a high performance 396 V8 with 325 HP in standard or 348 HP in the famous Tri Power form. A manual transmission, unique trim, GTO decals and dual exhausts were all parts of the package. Since the car was light, the Tempest GTO delivered a convincing performance.

In fact, in 1964, it was one of the quickest American cars on the market. Even Corvette owners weren’t safe from the Tempest GTOs lurking at stoplights across the country. However, the Pontiac sales manager wasn’t particularly fond of the model. He thought that the GTO package didn’t have enough perspective.

But his estimate of a maximum of 5,000 Tempests per year was drastically surpassed by the official sales figures of over 32,000. So, it was clear the GTO was a hit among younger buyers and that a star was born.

  1. 1966 Pontiac Bonneville

Pontiac revealed the Bonneville in 1958. The Bonneville was always a desirable car with the best and biggest engines they packed in highly-designed bodies. However, in the ’60s, this model was popular and in a class of its own. And the success of the GTO affected the whole Pontiac range. Suddenly, all Pontiacs were sportier and more powerful and aggressive.

Even their four-door sedans became performance machines. And the biggest, most luxurious Bonneville is their best example. They restyled the Bonneville for 1965, but in 1966 its design matured. It evolved into an elegant, low and sleek form perfect for this performance sedan. And the Bonneville came in a hardtop with the Pontiac signature wide-track design, split grille and nine-bolt wheels.

Also, Pontiac customers could get lots of optional equipment and powerful engines. The 389 V8 with 325 HP was standard. But, you could also get the mighty 421 V8 with the famed Tri Power option producing 360 HP. Unfortunately, during the ’70s and ’80s, the Bonneville primarily became a luxury car, losing its performance edge.

  1. 1969 Pontiac Grand Prix

The allure of powerful engines and aggressive design was a Pontiac trademark. So, their management wanted to widen its appeal and go beyond regular muscle cars like the GTO and Firebird. To enter the world of luxury muscle cars, Pontiac had the perfect candidate in the Grand Prix. The Grand Prix was a personal luxury coupe they introduced in 1962 in a coupe body style with powerful engines and a long list of options.

This model went against the Ford Thunderbird and Oldsmobile 98 as a so-called gentleman’s express. However, with the restyling of the Grand Prix for 1969, they had the chance to introduce trim packages to transform this comfy cruiser into a real muscle car. And Pontiac jumped to the opportunity. They used a cool-looking new design with a long hood and short rear end and with an interesting and driver-oriented dashboard.

The 1969 Grand Prix looked apart from the competitors and sales immediately jumped. Second, there was a cool trim option called SJ which featured a high output 428 V8 engine which delivered 390 HP and a host of other performance options. The moniker “SJ” was borrowed from the legendary Duesenberg brand.

Back then, they featured the SJ insignia on the most powerful Duesenberg cars. So, Pontiac wanted to get a piece of that legend with the Grand Prix SJ. The automotive press and the fans approved of this luxury muscle car, so the Grand Prix sold well. The powerful V8 propelled this big coupe to some respectable acceleration times. And despite Pontiac’s intention to make it a form of executive transport, the Grand Prix SJ was a respectable street machine.

  1. 1971 Pontiac Grand Ville

The early ’70s were good times for the Pontiac Motor Division. During the ’60s, the company re-imagined itself and proved to be a leader in several segments with a high annual production. So, in the 1971, Pontiac management decided to enter the luxury car segment by introducing a new, top of the line model they called the Grand Ville. Until then, the Bonneville was their premium model.

With several body styles available, a nice lineup of engines and lots of optional extras, the Bonneville sold reasonably well and was a wise choice in the luxury field. However, Pontiac wanted something that would be closer to the Cadillac or Oldsmobile than to the Chevrolet Caprice. So they presented the Grand Ville using a Bonneville platform. But, they added a few trim details that differentiated two models.

The Bonneville stayed in production, but they downgraded it below the Grand Ville. Pontiac decided to offer the 400 V8 engine as standard and the 455 as optional, with a high level of equipment. But for those who wanted something extra, Pontiac offered a leather interior, climate control and a heavy-duty suspension. They also offered an AM/FM radio, and even adjustable brake and accelerator pedals.

The Grand Ville came as a two and four-door hardtop and luxury convertible. However, the market didn’t respond well, so the sales figures were low. At the same time, the energy crisis hit America, so those big gas guzzlers fell out of favor with most customers. They discontinued the Grand Ville in 1975. So, the Bonneville returned to the top spot in the Pontiac model lineup.

  1. 1977 Pontiac Trans Am Special Edition

The late ’70s were sad times for muscle cars. All the models had diminutive horsepower ratings and heavy bodies, which made their performance embarrassingly slow. And the Firebird/Trans Am range could not escape this, as well. However, Pontiac still managed to produce some memorable cars through its Special Edition models. They even dressed up the Trans Am and turned it into a street icon.

The main model was the Trans Am, which they equipped either with a 4.9-liter turbo engine or a 400 NA V8. However, neither of those power plants produced more than 220 HP during its 1977 to 1981 production run. However, the main aspect was the design with signature graphics and an appearance package. They affectionately called it the “Screaming Chicken.”

This car had a highly stylized flaming bird logo on the hood of the car that was extraordinarily modern and hip for the standards of the day. It started as a relatively small sticker on the middle of the hood in the early ’70s, only to grow to a big sticker covering the entire hood. Finally, it found its way to the B pillars, rear end and front fenders.

The 1977-78 Firebird Trans Am gained international fame by appearing in the cult movie, Smokey and the Bandit. This helped triple the sales numbers, turning the Trans Am into a movie legend, as well as a muscle car icon.

  1. 1983 Pontiac Fiero

The story of the Fiero is one of the greatest “what if” tales of the American car industry. This compact sports car caused a big sensation when they introduced it in the early ’80s. Everybody expected another GTO from Pontiac. But in fact, they got a small sports car that was something the Italians would build. It was a bold move for Pontiac to introduce a compact, rear wheel drive car with the engine positioned in the center of the car.

They even paired it up with a five-speed manual transaxle gearbox. By the standards of the day, this was the most advanced American production model ever. The customers were hyped by the appearance of the Fiero. And with its cool and modern design and advanced technology, the initial response was exciting. So, in 1983 the sales figures were over 130,000 cars.

Unfortunately, Pontiac didn’t develop the Fiero, so the early models were badly put together. Also, the engine power was low, and the interior was cramped. So, GM responded by upgrading the car. By the end of the ’80s, the Fiero was a solid sports car with 150 HP coming from its 2.8-liter V6 engine and improvements all around.

But it was too late so GM killed the Fiero after the 1988 model year. Over the years, Fiero fans were active in promoting their favorite car, although it seems like everyone else has forgotten about this model.

  1. 2002 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am WS6

By the early 2000s, the Firebird/Camaro combo was outdated with its live rear axle and big weight. And the market wanted more modern and lighter muscle cars. The 2002 model year marked the end of the road for the Firebird. So, Pontiac decided to go out with a bang. They introduced one of the best, fastest and most powerful Trans Ams they ever made.

It was the menacing WS6 version. The WS6 was a handling package on the Trans Am available before that time. But in the 2002 model year, it represented the best of what Pontiac had to offer. With the venerable 5.7-liter V8 engine with 325 HP, a six-speed manual transmission and numerous suspension upgrades, the 2002 WS6 could accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 4.8 seconds.

That proved that Pontiac still knew how to make a brutal, lightning-quick muscle car. The exterior featured the big Ram Air hood and a sleek rear spoiler. That made the Trans Am WS6 quite a looker despite having a 10-year-old design. So, if you can, pick one of these cars since they are the definitive future muscle car classics.

  1. Pontiac G8

They presented the Pontiac G8 in 2008 and discontinued it in 2010, right before the Pontiac brand was gone. The reason this relatively new car is on this list is simple. Car enthusiasts and customers quickly forgot the G8, even when it was new. Yet it was a true performance sedan and a proper rear-wheel-drive model.

To revive their performance image, Pontiac imported Australian-built Holden cars to re-badge them as Pontiacs. The first car was the Holden Monaro. They gave it a new old name: Pontiac GTO. Despite the 400 HP engine and convincing performance, the GTO wasn’t the success Pontiac wanted.

The next car was the G8 they conceived as the Holden Commodore. Pontiac thought a rear-wheel-drive sedan would help them fight their European competitors. And with the redesign and small-block V8 engines, it was an effective performance sedan, too. The base engine was a solid 3.5-liter V6 with 256 HP.

But the real deal was the G8 GXP with 6.2-liter V8 and 415 HP. The G8 came with high levels of standard equipment, as well as a lot of optional extras. Unfortunately, car customers weren’t ready to accept a G8 performance sedan that could beat those overpriced European models.

After years of anemic models, front-wheel-drive economy cars and the minivans of the ’90s, Pontiac lost its performance image. Only a handful of buyers remembered what they were capable of anymore. So, when they finally presented a car to reclaim their title of a performance brand, it was too late.

In two years, Pontiac sold over 30,000 G8s. Interestingly, the platform and the concept lived on in the form of the Chevrolet SS, a highly praised car. However, it was that last Pontiac that people have forgotten.

  1. Pontiac Trans Am 455

The 1971 Firebirds and Trans Ams were practically identical to the 1970 models. Still, they represented one of the best muscle cars on the rapidly changing market. And 1971 proved to be the last true muscle car model year buyers could get those high powered and legendary engines.

The 455 V8 delivered 335 HP. But most muscle car enthusiasts argue that Pontiac underrated the numbers. Even with the higher compression in the Trans Am H.O. version, that 455 V8 had the same horsepower figure. So, the real output was closer to 400 HP with a corresponding performance and top speeds.

  1. Pontiac Aztec

The Aztec was not a popular car but it is on this list since it is one of the most memorable Pontiacs ever. Pontiac introduced the Aztek in 2000. It was a good idea, on paper at least. The mid-size crossover model came with sharp new styling, a decent engine lineup and plenty of interior space. It was a modern concept at the time.

Pontiac was eager to present it to the public since the overall sales of the brand were slipping. They thought a new model will boost the popularity of the brand and bring new customers to the dealerships. The plan was sound, except for the design. Somehow, those Pontiac designers managed to draw and push to production one of the ugliest cars they ever made.

Every design component of the car is extremely ugly. In fact, even the interior is questionable. However, over a decade after they stopped producing them, Azteks are popular. This is mostly due to an appearance in the cult TV show, Breaking Bad. Also, the Aztek won many first places in “ugliest car” lists.

  1. Pontiac Banshee I

The Banshee I was the first in a long line of Pontiac concept cars that had an influence on production models. The first one to emerge in 1964 was extremely advanced with compact dimensions, a lightweight body and a powerful engine. Pontiac conceived it as a “Mustang killer.” But GM was afraid that a sports coupe from Pontiac could affect their Corvette sales, so they canceled the project.

Most car fans think that’s too bad since the Banshee I had the potential to be a fantastic car. GM even incorporated several design cues into the next generation Corvette. Today, both prototypes have survived: one silver coupe and one white convertible. But what would have happened if GM allowed Pontiac to build the Banshee and changed sports car history?

  1. Pontiac Catalina 2+2

In the mid-60s, the Pontiac GTO was on the forefront of the exciting new muscle car movement. And the GTO was stealing the headlines, but Pontiac also had the Catalina 2+2. The regular Catalina was a great looking, decent selling model. And in 2+2 form, it transformed into a true Gran Turismo with a luxury interior and fire-breathing engine.

Since the Catalina was a full-size model, it was eligible for engines over 400 CID, according to the GM rules of the time. This meant that the Catalina 2+2 came with the famous 421 V8. But, if you wanted, you could get the Tri-Power intake system. That system was the same as on the GTO, boosting the power to 376 HP.

  1. 1967 Pontiac GTO

The GTO was the undisputed king of the muscle car movement. But in 1967, this model received an important mechanical update, keeping it on the top. Design-wise, they changed little, but under the hood, it was significant.

The venerable 389 V8 with the Tri Power option was gone. Pontiac replaced it by the new 400 V8 which came with the famous Ram Air intake system. This change allowed the GTO to deliver even better performance numbers. Also, it opened the doors to more powerful and faster cars from Pontiac.

  1. Pontiac Grand Prix GXP

Despite the name, most people didn’t consider the Pontiac Grand Prix to be a performance car. So, by the early 2000s, it was just an ordinary GM sedan. However, Pontiac presented the GXP package and suddenly, the front wheel drive Grand Prix was a hot performance car. The GXP package consisted of a 5.3-liter V8 with 303 HP going to the front axle.

Also, it got a revised suspension and gearbox. This transformed this family sedan into a highway missile. The GM engineers invested a lot of time to make this front wheel drive car handle like a European performance sedan. The GXP even had wider front wheels than the back to fight torque steering and improve road holding.

  1. Pontiac Solstice GXP

Although the Solstice GXP Coupe sports car couldn’t save the company, it was one of the best Pontiacs they ever made. This is because it was a competent little car with great potential. Pontiac envisioned it as a little sports coupe to fight the Audi TT and BMW Z4.

But, the Solstice GXP Coupe was faster and nimbler than most of its rivals. With a 2.4-liter turbocharged engine and 260 HP on tap, the Solstice GXP Coupe delivered a vivid performance and competent handling. Unfortunately, not a lot people understand the value of this great model.

  1. Pontiac Trans Sport

Back in the early ’90s, minivans were as popular as SUVs are today. And GM had several models for eager buyers. But one of the most interesting was the Pontiac Trans Sport they produced from 1989 to 1999.

The Trans Sport wowed car customers with its spacey styling and enormous interior space. Also, it came with some unusual features, like sliding rear doors. The basic technical layout was conventional, but the design really stole the show. However, the sales were good and people still remember the cool looking Pontiac minivan from the ’90s.

  1. Pontiac El Catalina

In 1960, Pontiac wanted to expand their portfolio. They even thought of producing some sort of light delivery vehicle or truck. The closest thing GM had was the popular Chevrolet El Camino they based on a full-size Chevy car platform. So, the Pontiac R&D department took the El Camino and mounted its own 1960 Catalina body.

Then they chopped and reshaped with the El Camino rear glass and truck bed. They called the finished concept the El Catalina. And it was more beautiful and elegant than the El Camino. Interestingly, GM didn’t have anything against the project. But Pontiac decided it wasn’t worth the investment since the market was small and management didn’t want to gamble.

These are the 20 best, most important and memorable Pontiacs they ever made. Some are older than others, but they all share one thing: they changed automotive history. Which one would you drive if you had the chance? Many car fans would like to see some of the older models make a comeback. And who knows, maybe they will someday.

Please wait 5 sec.