Ben Bova: Farewell, Pontiac; arrogance doomed you

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General Motors has announced that it will drop the Pontiac division from its line of products. This is part of GM’s floundering effort to save itself from bankruptcy or outright collapse.

The first automobile I ever owned was a Pontiac.

I grew up in South Philadelphia, where the public transportation system of streetcars, buses and subways was so good you didn’t need a car, as long as you traveled within the city’s limits.

My first real job was as a reporter with the Upper Darby News, a weekly newspaper published in the western suburbs of Philadelphia. I could reach the office on public transportation, just barely. The elevated train’s last station was within walking distance of the newspaper’s office.

But in 1955 the office moved farther into the hinterlands and, at age 23, I had to acquire my first automobile. If memory serves, I paid $125 for it.

It was a 1951 Pontiac convertible, lime green. It was a sleek beauty, only five years old. It even had a hand-operated searchlight on the driver’s door — very useful for spotting signs on dark suburban street corners.

It happened to be a clunker. Just about everything was wrong with it, and the car spent a lot of time in garages, being repaired. Rebuilt, actually, piece by piece. One afternoon the fuel pump fell out of the car while I was making a left turn!

But I loved it, and parted with it several years later with real regret.

So I felt a pang of remorse when GM announced it was dropping its Pontiac line.

The historical person Pontiac, by the way, was a leader of the Ottawa nation in the 18th century and is credited with masterminding the American Indian struggle against British domination in the 1760s that became known as Pontiac’s Rebellion. In 1763 he tried to capture Fort Detroit but failed. Somehow General Motors named a line of cars after him. Perhaps the symbolism was prophetic.

Why is General Motors in such financial distress? Why is this enormous corporation on the brink of extinction? Economists, politicians and pundits all have their theories and excuses. I have mine. I think GM’s trouble can be summed up in one word: arrogance.

In 1975 or thereabouts I came into an unexpected windfall as the result of winning a plagiarism suit that another writer and I had instituted against some Hollywood folks. (The story is so bizarre that part of the lawyers’ final agreement included a clause that forbade my colleague and I from telling details of the matter to the public.)

The cash settlement I received was barely enough to buy a new car. Our lawyer bought a sleek, sporty Maserati, but I couldn’t afford anything so grand. I wanted a convertible, though.

I was rudely surprised to find that neither General Motors nor any other American automobile manufacturer was making convertibles. “The American public doesn’t want ragtops,” I was told.

Really? I wanted a convertible. But Detroit had decided that I was wrong. So I bought a Fiat Spider 2000, fire-engine red. I loved it. I eventually sold it to a friend, who still treasures it.

I began to realize that the Detroit automobile manufacturers assumed that they had a perpetual market for their cars in the American public, and they could sell us just about anything they decided to offer. The market for convertibles was too small for them to bother with.

So was the market for small, fuel-efficient cars. Detroit should have taken notice back in the 1950s when the Volkswagon “Bug” invaded the American market. But no, GM and the other American carmakers were too busy selling oversized gas-guzzlers on the basis of their being better sex symbols than teeny little VWs and the Japanese cars that were starting to infiltrate the U.S.

Around that time my beautiful wife and I were invited to see a broadcast of “Meet the Press” in the Washington, D.C., studio where the show was aired. Purely by chance, the guest being grilled by the news reporters was the president of General Motors, Francis X. Something-or-other.

The big, scandalous issue of the moment was the revelation that GM was sometimes putting Chevrolet engines into Cadillac cars. Shock and revulsion! Francis X. did his best to explain how the mix-up happened and promised it would never happen again.

After the show ended, there was a cocktail party in the studio. My inquisitive wife sweetly asked Francis X. why General Motors couldn’t build cars that were as economical to operate as a Toyota.

“You’re being un-American!” Francis X. replied, in some dudgeon. “Besides, we don’t make small cars.”

When my persistent wife reminded him that GM did indeed make small, fuel-efficient cars — in Europe — a minor phalanx of charcoal-gray-suited public relations men came between her and their flustered boss.

But Francis X. recovered enough to say, “If you buy a new Chevrolet, I’ll personally pay for your gasoline for the first year.”

The mountain labored and brought forth a mouse. Francis X. eventually retired, Toyota and other foreign manufacturers took a steadily larger share of the American automobile market and today we have a prostrate General Motors, insisting that if it goes under, the U.S. economy is doomed.

Maybe so. But I doubt it. I think Jay Gould said the same thing about the Erie Railroad back around the 1880s. It wasn’t true then and it isn’t true now.

Maybe we should bail out GM and the other giant corporations that have been mismanaged into the ground. Me, I’ll stick with my Camry. It’s not a convertible, but it does have a moon roof.

So long, Pontiac.

Naples resident Ben Bova is the author of 120 books, including “The Immortality Factor,” a novel about scientists and stem-cell research. Bova’s Web site address is

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