The Pontiac Straight 8 was a car for its time. Still reeling from the depression that followed the 1929 Wall Street Crash, General Motors looked to Pontiac to provide a low-priced car with size and power to match far more expensive competitors.
The engine was critical to this achievement. At the time of its announcement in the autumn of 1932 for the 1933 year it was Pontiac’s most powerful engine and the least expensive eight-cylinder engine built by an American car manufacturer. The engine lasted from 1933 to 1954 until replaced by a 287 cubic inch V-8 in 1955. During its 21-year run the displacement of the “eight” increased twice as platforms grew.
The origins of the Pontiac brand go back to the Oakland Motor Car Company, founded in 1907 in Pontiac, Michigan (named after a famous Ottawa chief). In 1908 William C. Durant founded General Motors in Flint, Michigan as a holding company for Buick and set about acquiring other manufacturers including Oldsmobile and Cadillac. In 1909, Oakland became part of GM. In 1926 the new make Pontiac was launched with the Series 6-27, as a junior brand to Oakland. Pontiac did well with its range of six-cylinder cars, so in 1930 its senior brand Oakland was given an eight. But its premium pricing restricted sales; the decline of the Oakland name had started, and it died in 1931.
By 1932 GM’s profits had tumbled from $248 million in 1929 to a tiny $165,000 and drastic action was needed. Pontiac became its own GM division, and the final Oakland became the Pontiac Series 302 V-8. Chevrolet and Pontiac production were merged, and dealer showrooms now sold Buick, Oldsmobile and Pontiac together.
1933 marked a turning point for Pontiac. The decision was made to dump its six and its V-8, and best were placed upon the new straight-eight. It worked: in the worst year for the American economy since the crash of 1929, Pontiac production nearly doubled. Part of this success was due to clever marketing. The Pontiac Straight 8 was promoted as a likeable car with enough power under the hood to get the job done in affordable luxury. Styling was fresh and handsome, with the rounded lines enhanced by vee-grilles and ‘speedlines’ on the streamlined front wings/fenders. Manufacturing reorganisation also made a drop in price possible, with the cheapest straight-eight Pontiac selling for $585.
Pontiac prospered throughout the years before and after World War II and became a more sporting brand in 1956, when “Bunkie” Knudsen became general manager of Pontiac, alongside new heads of engineering, E. M. Estes and John DeLorean. The names Bonneville, GTO and Firebird have become rightly famous – but it was the modest straight-eight of 1933 that arguably saved Pontiac.
Image courtesy of The Richard Roberts Archive: www.richardrobertsarchive.org.uk