Curbside Classic: 1971 Pontiac T-37 – We Build Confusion

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For fifteen glorious years, Pontiac Motor Division of General Motors led a charmed existence.  Under General Managers Semon (Bunkie) Knudsen, Elliot (Pete) Estes and John Z. DeLorean, Pontiac rose from being on the endangered species list as a maker of cars for old men to the hottest Division at GM.  During these years, Pontiac brought us the Bonneville, the GTO, the Firebird and the Grand Prix.  Then began what could be described as a forty-year-long descent that concluded with the 2009 termination of Pontiac.  Was this car the sign of everything to come?

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The original 1961 Pontiac Tempest was covered with the fingerprints of all three of these successive (and successful) Pontiac execs.  Led by DeLorean, the engineers were not about to share the Corvair with Chevrolet due to concerns about the car’s handling characteristics.  The Team at Pontiac began its cut-and-paste job with a body, systems and components sourced from all across GM, with some inventive additions of its own.  The resulting 1961 Tempest became the best seller of General Motors Y body car (outselling the Olds F-85 and Buick Special) even before Pontiac added even more zest with the LeMans.  The 1964 version of the car begat, of course, legendary GTO.

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Thus began the lineup that anchored Pontiac’s mid-sized offerings all through the 1960s – the basic Tempest, the sportier LeMans and the mad-dog GTO.  Everyone in America understood this heirarchy, and it sold a lot of cars.

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In 1969, John DeLorean left the Pontiac Motor Division to take on the challenges at Chevrolet.  And we all remember his successor, right? . . . . .  Bueller? . . . .  Anyone?  How about F. James McDonald?  He was the longtime GM engineer who had come up through the ranks of the company’s foundry operations, eventually heading the Defiance, Ohio foundry.  McDonald would have a short tenure at Pontiac, arriving in 1969, then moving to follow DeLorean yet again at Chevrolet in October of 1972.  McDonald would finish his career as President of GM from 1981-87 under Roger Smith’s chairmanship.  McDonald is credited (or maybe this is not the right word) with the dismantling of GM’s individual Divisions, a structure that would itself be replaced in 1991 under Chairman John Smith.

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When I was a kid, there would always be several magazines that would hit the newsstands in early summer, in which new cars for the coming model year would be previewed.  Often illustrated with nothing but line drawings, these mags would hit the highlights of everything that we would need to know to be informed about the new cars that would soon be flooding our neighborhoods.  I still vividly recall being informed in 1970 that for 1971, Pontiac would introduce the new T-37.

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“What”, I wondered, “was a T-37?”  No matter, they would soon be all over and I would get used to their slightly European nomenclature, just as I had things like the Plymouth Gran Coupe and the Ford Galaxie 7 Liter.  But then came the 1971 model year. Soon enough, I became surrounded by GM cars with slits in the trunklids for the new Flow Through Ventilation, and the hugely hyped Vega and Pinto.  But I’m not sure I ever did see a T-37.  I saw lots of these labeled as a LeMans (notice how deftly I avoided having to try to spell LeManses?) and even got on close terms with the GTO that Mrs. Bordner next door bought to replace her 1968 model.  But the T-37 seemed to be missing in action.  I wondered if it was one of those things that got cancelled before production, or even maybe shortly into the model year.

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Then, about three years ago (so don’t call the number on the windshield, please), I saw this one, in the same lot where I found the 1957 Pontiac station wagon (CC here).  It turns out that the T-37 was not the unicorn that I expected it to be, as Pontiac built around 45,000 of them.  But it would be gone after the 1971 model, with the bottom of the A body pyramid now being supported by the LeMans.  This one at least got upgraded to an automatic transmission and Morrokide (vinyl) upholstery.  The many selling feaures written on the window omits “V8 engine”, so perhaps this one really sports the 250 cid six under the hood.

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In researching this car, I learned that there was a T-37 appearance upgrade package offered for the 1970 Tempest, and a GT-37 model/package (I’m still not sure which) that turned the Tempest/T-37 into a Road Runner wannabe.  The GT-37 would have been a really rare find, with production never getting out of the mid four figure range in either year.  My research also explained the basis for the name.  According to an interview (found here) of Jim Wangers, the Pontiac adman who was so much a part of the Division’s success in the ’60s, McDonald was kind of an old-school manufacturing guy who really didn’t get what Pontiac was all about.  This model was a case in point:  In Pontiac’s serial numbering system, T stood for Tempest and 37 was the internal code for a hardtop coupe.  So, there you have it – pure sales magic.  Even perpetually clueless Chrysler called it’s car a Road Runner instead of a PL-22.

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More incredibly, Pontiac seems to have invested approximately nine minutes in educating the general public on the new car.  “Hi, I just bought a new T-37!” Even today (as in 1971), many casual Pontiac fans might congratulate you on your new Air Force training plane, your new Texas Instruments calculator, or your new testosterone-boosting supplement.  “Oh, it’s a car.”  And not a very exciting one, at that.

1971 Pontiac Ad-02

So, alas – all I found here was a low-end Tempest under an alias.  It is not a Tempest, not a LeMans, and certainly not the cheap-speed GT-37.  Confused yet?  You are in good company.  That this minimalistic approach to naming a car was a failure was soon evident even to Mr. McDonald, as the 1972 version of the car became simply the LeMans.  We will leave the nonsequitur of Luxury LeMans for another time.

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Was this a tremendous blunder?  No, but it certainly was a bonehead move, at least a small one.  After all, nobody really cares what the strippo, low profit model is called.  But people do care about things like image, consistency and name recognition.  Tempest may not have been the greatest model name in 1971, but at least everyone knew what it was and where it stood in the lineup.

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Pontiac would make more moves like this, lurching between success and failure over the next thirty five-plus years.  But unfortunately, there would be too many “T-37” moments in the ensuing years.  I’m looking at you, G-8 (the car, not the governmental confab).  Which is a shame, because many of these unfortunately named cars deserved better.  This one certainly did.

Further Reading:

1969 Tempest Custom S  (Paul Niedermeyer)

1969 GTO Judge (J. P. Cavanaugh)

1973 LeMans Coupe (Dave Skinner)