GM shakeup may kill ‘classics’


Rex Brandstatter’s father bought the family’s first Pontiac half a century ago, trading in their detested Chevy for a bright and shiny 1960 Pontiac Star Chief, with a white top and a blue bottom.

The 59-year-old has been hooked on Pontiacs ever since.

“I really, really liked the tail lights,” recalled Brandstatter, now a Coralville-based real-estate agent.

“These are small ideas, but I liked the way Pontiacs rode, the way they sounded. I was just a kid, but that’s the way I started.”

Fifty years later, Pontiac — the iconic brand that helped spawn the performance-car era — is on the verge of extinction.

General Motors — the corporation that owns Pontiac — plans to make Pontiac a “focused brand with fewer entities.” The measure is part of a restructuring plan the company presented to the U.S. Department of the Treasury in hopes of nabbing billions of dollars in federal support.

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Some automobile buffs think this could tarnish Pontiac’s history of muscle cars and lead to the production of smaller, generic vehicles.

“Now, Pontiac will probably be forced out of the lineup at GM,” Brandstatter said. “My fear is that GM will become more of a Saturn-type thing, which is a McCar, in my opinion. No performance. Family-friendly, user-friendly, but not performance-friendly. It’s sad.”

One local dealer said GM is shifting toward more family-friendly, fewer performance-oriented cars. Still, he said, the future of Pontiac is largely unknown.

“Nobody really knows where the strengths are going to be right now,” said Mike Ney, a sales manager at Community Motors Iowa City. “It’s hard to say.”

Ney, a 12-year veteran of the auto sales industry, said he’s seen a decrease in Pontiac sales in recent years.

GM’s restructuring plan is not the first sign of an ailing auto industry. And slumping sales aren’t isolated to Pontiac show rooms.

GM, the largest U.S. automaker, has already borrowed $13.4 billion from the government and is asking for an additional $16.6 billion. Chrysler, the third largest automaker nationally, has borrowed $4 billion and wants an additional $5 billion to stay afloat. Ford, the second largest, has not yet asked for federal dollars, though executives there have taken pay cuts.

Five hundred miles away from Detroit, enthusiasts cling to their own relics of the industry’s storied history.

Mark Heacock said each collector’s brand loyalty drives the hobby.

“Everyone has his own things, and you kind of have your own cliques and rivalries,” said Heacock, the president of Classy Chassis Cruisers, an Iowa City classic car club. “It’s a lot of fun.”

Brandstatter houses his 1970 Pontiac GTO Judge in his garage — or, as he calls it, a “condo for my cars.” The fifth-generation Coralville native was happy to spout out car history trivia as he grazed his hands across the muscle car’s steering wheel.

“This car will throw you to the back of your seat,” Brandstatter said, adding only 3,629 hardtop GTO Judges were built in 1970. “It’s quite a car — it’s quite a car.”

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