Dick Maynard Column March 04, 2009

Car songs ain’t what they were; neither are the cars

“Little GTO you’re really lookin’ fine
Three deuces and a four speed and a 389”

Today’s 40s and unders will find it hard to believe there was a time “back in the day” when hit songs were penned about cars. The year was 1964 when Ronny and the Daytonas reached “the tippy-tippy-top of the pop crop” with “Little GTO.”

Last week General Motors, as part of the reorganization plan Congress required before sending several billion bailout bucks in the automaker’s direction, announced they were abandoning Saturn (so much for a “whole new car company,” selling Hummer (to whom?) and were scaling Pontiac to a “niche” brand or scuttling it all together.

The end of Pontiac? How sad. And GM has no one to blame but themselves.

Fifty years ago, young males were a captive audience for Pontiac. The company could do no wrong. GTO, first of the “muscle” cars, absolutely ruled.

Pontiac dominated NASCAR, and the resulting rush of race fans to Pontiac showrooms gave birth to the axiom “win on Sunday, sell on Monday.”

Growing up along the Mississippi River in western Illinois, it was Arnie “The Farmer” Beswick from nearby Morrison who ruled Midwestern drag strips in his Firebird funny car.

“Get a helmet and a roll bar and I’ll be ready to go

Take it out to Pomona and let ’em know.”

Pontiac’s roll continued well into the seventies. The favorite flick of ’77 featured Burt Reynolds and Sally Field “eastbound and down” as Sheriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason) chased their Pontiac Trans-Am from Texarkana to Atlanta in “Smokey and the Bandit.”

Pontiac, in the world of automobiles, was the definition of “hot.” “Was” being the operative word, as the marketing mavens at GM killed the golden goose in the mid-1980s, deciding to make Pontiac more like a Buick.

A Buick? That’s what our folks drove. Who raced Buicks either on the oval or at the drags?

Who wrote hit songs about a Buick?

The wizards of Bloomfield Hills accomplished the impossible. The Pontiac was turned into just another in the long line of humdrum offerings from the Detroit assembly line.

Not to knock a Buick. Midwesterners think they’re the perfect car for retirees who find Cadillacs “too showy.” (Did anyone ever believe Tiger Woods, in his 20s making untold millions, really drove a Buick as the television commercials claimed?)

And so began Pontiac’s death spiral which reached its nadir with the Aztek, universally acclaimed as Detroit’s all-time ugliest car. (Think of the Aztek as an AMC Pacer without the charisma.)

Oh, they still write songs about cars. It’s just that today’s lyrics are a far distance from “Little GTO,” according to this country hit by John Rich:

“ ’Cause in the real world they’re shuttin’ Detroit down

While the boss man takes his bonus and jets on out of town

Yeah while they’re living it up on Wall Street in New York City town

In the real world they’re shuttin’ Detroit down”

Please know the sum of my knowledge about the car business is less than zero. Is there anyone among us who hasn’t heard ad infinitum of what caused Detroit’s hard times from antiquated factories to onerous labor contracts? And we’re equally aware how critical the domestic auto industry is to our nation’s economic well-being.

But, is it possible a good start toward recovery would entail a marketing strategy of once again offering cars we actually want to buy?


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