Automotive History: Shockingly Low Volume Production Cars – The Pontiac Edition

(first posted 5/25/2017)     Welcome once again to our journey into the world of shockingly low volume production cars.  Today, we are moving out of the low-priced field a smidgeon by looking at Pontiac.

As before, this scrutiny is centered around the time period of 1946 to 1995.  While this list is fairly extensive, it isn’t necessarily comprehensive as it’s always possible one slipped through the fingers.  Interestingly, Pontiac does not report anything below the magic threshold volume of 1,000 until much later than most; in fact, it’s in the midst of the Nixon Administration.

1971 The Judge convertible

Production:  17

With a name pulled from a routine on the television show Laugh-In (later played by Sammy Davis, Jr. but originating with Pigmeat Markham), The Judge was an option on the GTO.  The body for the GTO was shared with the mid-sized LeMans.  Confused yet?

The Judge option was an additional $395 over the cost of the $3,676 GTO (this is a convertible price).  The GTO convertible cost $200 more than a basic LeMans sport convertible.

Choosing The Judge gained one more than just a name – it brought a 455 cubic inch (7.4 liter), 335 gross horsepower V8, rally wheels, hood air inlet, assorted decals, and a black textured grille.

The hardtop version was relatively more popular with 357 being sold.

1974 Luxury LeMans Safari two-seat wagon

Production:  952

Sitting on the midsize A-body, the Luxury LeMans was accompanied by the LeMans, LeMans Sport, and Grand Am.  The two-door hardtop Luxury LeMans was by far the most popular of its line with just under 26,000 being sold.

Look in the upper left-hand corner

Interestingly, some of the literature for the Luxury LeMans indicates no wagon was available.  Might that be an indicator of its paltry sales (the three-seat version only sold 1,178 examples) or buyers flocking toward more base model offerings?

It’s hard to say as none of Pontiac’s midsize wagons exceeded 4,800 sales in 1974.

Sedan shown

1979 Phoenix hatchback

Production:  923

The X-car cousin of the Chevrolet Nova, the Phoenix wasn’t always a Phoenix.  When an X-car Pontiac was introduced in March 1971, it was called Ventura II.  The Roman numeral was discarded for 1972, then in 1977 Pontiac offered a Phoenix trim on the Ventura.  For 1978, the X-car was now simply a Phoenix.  Nothing generates consumer comprehension quite like having three names on the same car in seven years.

The Phoenix did indeed rise from the ashes of the old names.

The 1979 Pontiac X-body hatchback was a only mildly changed Nova hatchback, and both cars had been around since 1973.  This version of Phoenix went away for the new front-drive X-body Phoenix in mid-1979.

1980 Catalina sedan shown

1981 Catalina coupe

Production:  1,074

Contrary to how it may seem, not all B-body GM products were champions on the sales charts – which is why a minor exception to a self-imposed rule about volumes is being made.

The reasons for this meager showing are many, but a distinct factor is the big Pontiacs never were as popular as the Olds and Buick cousins after 1977.  Incorporate it being a base model two-door and an explanation starts to form.

It was also during this time the United States was having pronounced economic foibles, meaning repressed auto sales.  Plus, Pontiac was showing itself to have an unclear market position at this time which further eroded sales, with 1981 sales falling precipitously from 1980 levels.

Two-door shown; all were dressed similarly

Phoenix SJ five-door hatchback

Production: 268 in 1982; 172 in 1983 

Few cars have been launched with greater fanfare, only to disappoint as much, as the fabled GM X-bodies.

Reusing the Phoenix name from the old, outgoing X-body Pontiac, the new Phoenix, just like the B-body Pontiac, was never as popular as its Buick and Oldsmobile cousins.  Sales for the Phoenix in inaugural 1980 were 178,000 and dropped to below 50,000 by 1982.  Volumes dropped further for 1983.

The SJ was a good concept, but nothing unique.  Coming with a distinct appearance package and a high-output (for the times) 2.8 liter V6, the combination of a five-door, gussied up hatchback simply didn’t resonate with buyers.  These five-doors are the most extreme examples for sales; none of the SJ models broke 1,000 units in either 1982 or 1983.  The 1982 coupe seen here is the most populous at 994.

1983 2000 Sunbird convertible

Production:  626

By its own admission, availability of the 2000 Sunbird convertible was limited.  These, along with the nearly identical Chevrolet Cavalier, were transformed into convertibles by ASC, American Sunroof Corporation.

This year marked Pontiac’s return to the convertible market.

1985 Sunbird SE Turbo

Production:  965 (coupe), 658 (sedan), 535 (hatchback)

While Pontiac may have built excitement, it sure didn’t sell with some of their cars.

On paper, these sure looked attractive for the times.  A four-cylinder engine banging out 150 horsepower combined with a more assertive appearance was certainly more enticing than a pedestrian looking Sunbird with a weak-kneed 88 horsepower.  One distinct downside was price; at $9,275 for the coupe, it was $1,740 more than an LE trimmed coupe and was in Grand Prix price territory.

Another factor was internal competition.  The front-drive Pontiac Grand Am introduced in 1985 was visually sportier from the outset – not a car dolled up as such.  Neither explains the entirety of the Sunbird Turbo’s tepid showing, but these go a long way toward it.

1987 Sunbird GT hatchback

Production:  415

The Sunbird GT coupe (similar to the SE seen here) sold 12,060 copies to the 415 of the mechanically identical hatchback.  The $400 premium for the hatchback doesn’t explain the difference, although the American market’s lack of enthusiasm for hatchbacks probably does.

6000 SE wagon

Production:  887 in 1989; 423 in 1990

Might it be attributed to the $2,900 premium over a regular LE wagon?  Might it be a ride and drive that was firmer and tauter than the regular 6000?  Or is it another case of building excitement worked for getting people into showrooms and not translating into actual product?

Regardless, the sales of the 6000 SE wagon was but a small fraction of regular 6000 wagon sales.

There’s a lot more to come, so stay tuned.