New Zealand Classic Car - - Feature Car -

sta­b­lished in 1926 as a di­vi­sion of Gen­eral Mo­tors, Pon­tiac quickly gained a rep­u­ta­tion for build­ing solid and re­li­able cars, although they were not es­pe­cially pow­er­ful. !at would all change when Se­mon ‘Bunkie’ Knud­sen took over in 1956, as he quickly adopted model changes that lead to a to­tal re­ju­ve­na­tion of the marque. With the youth­ful pres­ence of peo­ple such as John Z Delorean also on board, Pon­tiac would, in e"ect, kick-start the US mus­cle-car boom with its GTO, and take up a new role as GM’S per­for­mance arm.

While Pon­tiac may have made a name for shoe­horn­ing mas­sively pow­er­ful V8 mo­tors into hum­drum sa­loons, it left it to an­other di­vi­sion of GM — Chevrolet — to get on with the busi­ness of designing and build­ing a home-grown sports car.

Medal­lion-wear­ing Burt Reynolds wannabes may have been happy with their ‘scream­ing chicken’–em­bla­zoned Transams, but by the early ’80s, moves were afoot that lead Pon­tiac to dip its toes into the sports-car mar­ket. By that time Delorean had parted ways with GM, and was busy­ing him­self con­ning money out of the Bri­tish Gov­ern­ment as he at­tempted to get his gull-winged DMC12 sports car onto the mar­ket.

Mean­while, back in Detroit, GM’S Ad­vanced De­sign !ree stu­dio had taken the con­cept of a cheap com­muter car and trans­formed it into some­thing of a #rst for a US auto man­u­fac­turer — a mid-en­gined sports car. Af­ter a se­ries of pro­to­types were built, the new de­sign was passed over to Pon­tiac which, as the com­pany’s per­for­mance di­vi­sion, was ex­pected to #nal­ize the car’s en­gi­neer­ing and ready it for se­ries pro­duc­tion. On Septem­ber 14, 1983, the Pon­tiac Fiero was o$cially launched — and while mid-en­gined cars had been around in Europe since the ’60s, the Fiero was a truly rev­o­lu­tion­ary car by US stan­dards.

Sadly, the Fiero was ini­tially lum­bered with a lame four-cylin­der en­gine that could only wheeze out a mis­er­able 68kw. Although the car sold well it was largely unloved, and any half­way de­cent Ja­panese hot hatch could blow the Pon­tiac into the weeds.

In 1987 Pon­tiac #nally woke up, and af­ter brie%y try­ing a tur­bocharged model, slot­ted a fuel-in­jected 2.8-litre V6 into the Fiero. I drove one of th­ese V6-en­gined Fieros many years ago ( Clas­s­ic­car, Oc­to­ber 1995), and with a touch over 100kw on tap the car o"ered a rea­son­able amount of power, but it was hardly go­ing to set the per­for­mance world alight — too lit­tle, too late, and in March 1988 the Pon­tiac Fiero was no more.

Fresh Start

Wind­ing the clock a few decades on from the Fiero, Pon­tiac once again de­cided to have a punt at the af­ford­able sports-car mar­ket, that at the time was dom­i­nated by the Mazda Mi­ata (that’s MX-5 to you and I), Honda’s S2000 and the Porsche Boxster. With those ri­vals in mind, the Sol­stice first broke cover at the 2004 North Amer­i­can Auto Show, and the small and stylish road­ster soon had the US mo­tor­ing press sali­vat­ing at the thought of the car be­com­ing a pro­duc­tion re­al­ity.

Not want­ing to lose the mo­men­tum gained from that debutut show­ing, Pon­tiac buck­led down, and by mid 2005 the first pro­duc­tion ex­am­ples were be­ing put to­gether.

As de­signed by Franz von Holzhausen (later the main designer at Tesla), the pro­duc­tion Sol­stice re­mained close to the orig­i­nal con­cept. Built on GM’S Kappa plat­form and pow­ered by a 2.4-litre Ecotec four-cylin­der en­gine, the Sol­stice con­vert­ible was a hit with buy­ers, and Pon­tiac strug­gled to as­sem­ble enough cars to meet de­mand — over 7000 or­ders be­ing re­ceived within the first 10 days af­ter the model’s of­fi­cial launch.

With the suc­cess of its new sports car con­firmed, Pon­tiac in­tro­duced a more pow­er­ful ver­sion — the GXP — in Jan­uary 2006. The tur­bocharged, 2.0-litre Ecotec in­line four fit­ted to the GXP rep­re­sented a real mile­stone for Pon­tiac — as well as be­ing a smoother en­gine than the 2.4, it was also GM’S first-ever di­rect-in­jec­tion petrol en­gine. In 2008 the stylish Sol­stice coupé joined the line-up, this model be­ing fit­ted with a re­mov­able hard­top.

Al­ready well priced, the Sol­stice out­sold the Mazda MX-5, the Pon­tiac’s main home-mar­ket ri­val, in 2006, and the later GXP fol­lowed with an equally keen price on launch and a big in­crease in power (194kw rather than 132kw) over the stan­dard Sol­stice — all at an ad­di­tional cost of only US$2710. The GXP also fea­tured a stiffer chas­sis, al­tered gear ra­tios and sta­bil­ity con­trol. Styling was un­changed other than for the ad­di­tion of some ex­tra grilles around the fog-lamp hous­ings.

Although there was an ini­tial sales boom in 2006 and 2007, de­mand for the Sol­stice slowly dwin­dled de­spite the ap­pear­ance of a fur­ther se­ries of pub­lic­ity-seek­ing con­cept cars. In its fi­nal year of pro­duc­tion, 2010, only 20 ex­am­ples were built.

Sum­mery Sol­stice

Hav­ing never seen one of the Pon­tiac-badged sports cars in the flesh, I jumped at the chance of updating my Fiero driv­ing ex­pe­ri­ence when Roger Phillips, the head man at UDM Spe­cial In­ter­est Ve­hi­cles, told us that he’d just landed a Sol­stice GXP — the only ex­am­ple cur­rently res­i­dent in New Zealand.

So, with­out fur­ther ado I soon found my­self strolling around our test car. I have to say that I was rather taken by the GXP’S styling — although less by its overly large, af­ter­mar­ket rims — the car seem­ingly en­dowed with a whiff of Euro­pean style while still be­ing rec­og­niz­ably Amer­i­can.

By the time you read th­ese words, this Sol­stice GXP will be in the hands of its new Kiwi owner — and they’ve elected to keep the car in orig­i­nal LHD form rather than get UDM to un­der­take a RHD con­ver­sion. Un­like Mus­tang-tot­ing Ash­ley, it’s been a while since I drove a LHD car, but I soon got into the swing of things.

As I slot­ted the GXP’S five-speeder into third and gave it some gas, I couldn’t help feel­ing that it was a shame Pon­tiac couldn’t have de­vised a way to pep up the Ecotec en­gine. Quite frankly, it never re­ally felt or re­sponded like a clas­sic sports-car mo­tor. There’s noth­ing left once it spins much over 5000rpm, with progress up to the redline a fairly leisurely af­fair. All this wasn’t helped by a quiet, flat-sound­ing ex­haust sys­tem — if this was my car I’d be rip­ping out the fac­tory ex­haust in or­der to in­stall some­thing with a much more sport­ing note. The GXP’S gear­box — shared with the Hum­mer H3 — while op­er­at­ing smoothly enough has none of the MX-5’S ri­fle-bolt pre­ci­sion.

For­tu­nately, the Sol­stice makes up for th­ese short­com­ings with a truly com­fort­able ride and ex­cel­lent straight-line sta­bil­ity. On

the road, it al­ways felt firmly planted — although the car’s rather non-lin­ear steer­ing took some time to get used to, as it doesn’t re­ally let you know what’s hap­pen­ing un­der­neath. I would have pre­ferred a lit­tle less as­sis­tance.

So, I’d la­bel the Sol­stice GXP as more of a sport­ing cruiser than an out-and-out sports car.

Pon­tiac may have been set­ting its sights on the MX-5, Boxster and Honda S2000, but in real terms — de­spite be­ing faster than the Mazda and Porsche — the GXP doesn’t dis­play the pre­ci­sion feel and han­dling of ei­ther. On the road, the Sol­stice would be no match for the Honda S2000 ei­ther in the han­dling or per­for­mance stakes.

Alas, the Pon­tiac’s value as a week­end cruise-mo­bile is se­verely ham­pered by its dis­tinct lack of lug­gage space.

A few years back I owned a Toy­ota MR-S — a car with a few cub­bies be­hind the seats, and a ridicu­lously tiny boot up front —

its ex­cuse be­ing that it was mid-en­gined. The more con­ven­tional front-en­gined Sol­stice of­fers even less stor­age space — with the hood up, there’s very lit­tle boot space, and once the hood is stowed away, there’s per­haps just enough room for a tooth­brush and a change of un­der­wear!

How­ever, like most two-seater rag-top sports cars, the Sol­stice is prob­a­bly best con­sid­ered as be­ing some­thing of an au­to­mo­tive toy — a car kept for pure driv­ing plea­sure and damn prac­ti­cal­ity, a role the Sol­stice GXP per­forms with an en­dear­ing mea­sure of style.

Win­ter Sol­stice

Alas, the Sol­stice marked the end of the long sum­mer for Pon­tiac, and in 2009 GM an­nounced that the wors­en­ing fi­nan­cial sit­u­a­tion in the US was forc­ing the com­pany into a round of rad­i­cal re­struc­tur­ing — the up­shot be­ing that the Pon­tiac name was con­signed to the his­tory books with the last car, a G6, rolling off the pro­duc­tion line in Jan­uary 2010.

In an ironic twist, the re­vived Delorean Mo­tor Com­pany — a car com­pany with­out a car — se­ri­ously con­sid­ered tak­ing over the Sol­stice fol­low­ing Pon­tiac’s demise, per­haps in trib­ute to the late John Z Delorean. Alas, this was one Sol­stice that wasn’t go­ing to oc­cur twice in one sea­son!

ear­lier vis­its, on one spe­cial oc­ca­sion I was in­vited to clam­ber into the pas­sen­ger seat in or­der to be treated to a drive down the road and back.

I didn’t need much urg­ing, and I was soon nestling into the car while my fa­ther but­toned up the pas­sen­ger side ‘gull­wing’ door — my arms weren’t long enough to reach the door-pull.

As we sped down the road head­ing out into the Hamp­shire coun­try­side, the only car com­par­i­son I could make to the Mercedes was my fa­ther’s rather slow and pedes­trian Mor­ris Mi­nor. The 300SL was a world apart from the hum­ble old Mor­rie — I had never, ever trav­elled at the types of speeds the Ger­man sports car reached in the hands of my fa­ther’s friend. Quite lit­er­ally, the ex­pe­ri­ence took my breath away. All too soon the drive was over, and as I stepped out of the car, I could feel my legs wob­bling while my voice came over all shaky and queru­lous — no doubt due to the amount of adren­a­line that had been dumped into my sys­tem dur­ing that ex­tremely fast drive in the coun­try!

So, thanks for reignit­ing mem­o­ries of my youth — next month I may even be tempted to buy the next edi­tion of your mag­a­zine. JA Harding, via email [Glad we could rekin­dle those al­most­for­got­ten mem­o­ries — hope­fully, we can turn you into a car per­son! AGW]

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