AN INTERVIEW WITH JIM WANGERS
PONTIAC AND THE 1970'S
By John Chung
It was a nice sunny day on Wednesday, June 9, 2010. While driving south on I-5 to Oceanside, California for my appointment, I was thinking to myself how exciting it is to get the opportunity to interview Jim Wangers for PontiacsOnline. To many Pontiac hobbyist, Jim Wangers is the man that jump started the muscle car era with the GTO. Thru Jim’s marketing ideas and saavy, he gave the GTO and Pontiac brand a youthful and performance oriented image. Resulting in Pontiac achieving number three in sales and later becoming the most influential brand associated with the muscle car era.
As I arrived at his offices, I was warmly greeted by a cheerful Jim Wangers. Jim’s office is decorated with Pontiac plaques and awards that he has been honored with thru the years. His office also houses a wonderful display of diecast and promo models.
Jim first asked me about Pontiacs Online. As I told him about the start up of the PontiacsOnline website, I could sense that Jim was very supportive of the Pontiac collector hobby that has lived beyond the brand itself. Jim started with a brief talk about the poor decisions made during the last 30 years by GM management that led to the tragic ending of the Pontiac brand. Forgetting Pontiacs recent past, Jim was ready to move forward and share his experiences of the Widetrack era that began in 1959 and lasted throughout the 1970s.
I could write an entire book about Jim's life experiences as the Account Executive for Pontiacs ad agency MacManus, John and Adams and how he helped build Pontiacs image back in the 1960s, however that has already been well documented in Jim’s book "The Glory Days". If you have never read the book, I encourage you to purchase a copy of Glory Days. The book provides a detailed account of Pontiacs rise in the 1960s.
With the collectability of 1970s era Pontiacs gaining interest in the past few years, I asked Jim to talk about his experiences during that decade. Here is a summarization of Jim's recollection of Pontiac during the 1970s.
1970 - 1973
After John Delorean left Pontiac to become General Manager of Chevrolet, James McDonald was put in charge of Pontiac. McDonald had previously been Director of Manufacturing at Chevrolet.
Jim Wangers and several key Pontiac people from the 1960s that included Product Planner Ben Harrison, Chief Engineer Steve Malone, Assistant Chief Engineer Bill Collins and Engineer Herb Adams were left to keep the momentum going. The problem was that McDonald and his GM lieutenants did not understand the Pontiac image that had been created during the 1960s. Not only did they not understand the Pontiac image, they did not bother trying to understand the image. The Pontiac image in the 1960s was built upon the premise that Pontiac had to beat the other makes in order to increase market share. To beat the others meant not only "winning at the track on Sunday" as they say in the industry, but to beat the others with better styling, offerings and price. That is exactly what Pontiac did. Pontiac beat the other makes to get to the number three sales spot and achieve high profits for GM.
Instead McDonald and his team cheapened the Pontiac image by offering lesser versions or stripped down models like the T-37 and GT-37. Catalina sedans soon became priced comparable with Chevrolet’s Impala and BelAir sedans. McDonald also made the decision to remove the sporty and innovative Endura nose slated for the 1970 Bonneville just to save a few dollars in manufacturing cost. To further diminish Bonneville’s name and performance image as Pontiac’s top model, MacDonald brought out the Grand Ville.
The momentum Pontiac achieved in the 1960s had pretty much stopped. Jim's recommendations did not seem to get thru to McDonald and his lieutenants as they had a manufacturing mentality……. low cost, high volume. Pontiac profit margins dropped and sales eventually fell to number four and would further spiral down. During this time period Jim Wangers decided to leave his position as Pontiac’s Account Executive.
After McDonald left Pontiac, Martin Caserio was brought in as Pontiac's General Manager. Similar to McDonald, Caserio had been brought up thru GM's manufacturing ranks, with his last position at GMC Truck division. To boost profit margins, Caserio tried to position Pontiac to be more like Oldsmobile and Buick, substituting luxury in place of performance. The famous 455 Super Duty development was almost thrown out as well as the Pontiac Trans Am. It was at the urging of Engineer Herb Adams, Product Planner Ben Harrison and several others that kept Pontiac a formidable performance player during those years with the 455 Super Duty.
Fortunately the 455 Super Duty Trans Ams proved successful and carried on the performance image for Pontiac . Martin Caserio was replaced by Alex Mair as Pontiacs new General Manager. Alex's son Steve Mair was only 21 at the time his father had became Pontiac’s General Manager. Steve Mair was very familiar with Pontiac and its performance image from the late 1960s. As a teen, Steve Mair hung out at Royal Pontiac and saw first hand the performance cars that were generated out of Pontiac. Steve recommended to his father "you need to get Jim Wangers back". After Jim Wangers first meeting with Pontiac's new General Manager, Mair signed Wangers on as a direct consultant.
The Lil Widetrack Astre and Motortown
One of Jim Wangers special talents was to take models that were lagging in sales and create an image car for the model to increase sales. Prior to signing on as a direct consultant to Alex Mair at Pontiac, Jim had started up the company Motortown. Motortown was a "coachbuilding and accessory" company that created cars like the Cobra II Mustang for Ford, Dodge Aspen RT and Volare Road Runner for Chrysler during the 1970s.
Dodge Aspen RT
Plymouth Volare Road Runner
Dave Landrith, one of Jim's friends from Hurst Performance had presented to the Detroit area Pontiac Dealers Association the idea of a dressed up Astre to differentiate the car from being a Vega. The dealer association liked the idea. With that, Landrith approached Jim Wangers for ideas on the car. Jim came up with the name L'il Widetrack and the stripe package. A facility had been setup in Detroit to convert Astres to L'il Widetracks. This was the birth of Motortown. All parts and accessories used to convert Astres were sourced from aftermarket suppliers. Sales were so successful with the L'il Widetrack that other dealers outside of the Detroit area wanted L'il Widetrack Astres to sell as well. One thing Jim Wangers had learned from his L'il Widetrack experience is that the aftermarket wheels made by Appliance Industries used on the car did not meet GM warranty specifications. Pontiac took notice of this. Jim's lesson learned was to never use aftermarket wheels for such future programs conversions.
PO: How many L'il Widetrack Astres were built?
JW: Approximately 3,000.
PO: Were they all Silver color?
PO: The brochure for the L'il Widetrack pictures an Astre Safari Lil Widtrack wagon, were there any Astre wagons converted to L'il Widetracks?
JW sidenote: To keep delivery cost down, all Astres were actually driven to Motortown's Detroit facility and after the conversion the L'il Widetracks were driven to the selling dealer.
Smokey and the Bandit Trans Am
One of Jim's first consulting projects for Alex Mair was to evaluate movie producer Hal Needham's proposal to use Pontiac cars in a movie script titled Smokey and the Bandit. It was Jim's recommendation to Alex Mair to support this movie by making the Trans Am the star of the show. Around that time Pontiac Designer John Schinella had designed a black and gold Trans Am for model year 1976, that car’s color scheme was the perfect car to be used as "the Bandit". Alex Mair took Jim's advice to heart and heavily supported the production of the movie by supplying Pontiac cars in the filming. The 1977 black and gold Trans Am featured in Smokey and the Bandit launched a successful sales run of the Trans Am from 1977 to 1981. Sales leaped to an all time high in 1979.
JW sidenote: The Black and Gold SE Trans Ams are highly collectible today.
Pontiac had restyled the intermediate Lemans in 1973 with new GM Colonnade styling. 1973 intermediate Lemans sales were good during its intro year, however, sales steadily declined in 1974 and 1975. Another one of Alex Mairs projects for Jim Wangers was to figure out a way to help increase Lemans sales. Dealers complained they were loosing customers who were interested in a Trans Am for its performance, but needed a car with a back seat that had more room. Leading those customers to a bland looking Lemans did not make the sale.
Jim's recommendation was to come out with a limited edition one year only promotion car to generate Lemans showroom traffic for the Spring season. Utilizing a 1976 Lemans loaner provided by Pontiac, Jim had it painted Carousel Red, added a shaker scoop, some stripes, rear spoiler and named it The Judge.
When he presented the car to Pontiacs Marketing Group, the concept was immediately shut down. The orange color and graphics were too loud for the groups taste. Some members of the group didn’t even know what a Judge was. Further, Pontiacs Sales Manager Jim Vorhes and Division Controller Bill Hoglund were against the idea because of cost. Steve Mair prodded his father to give the concept car consideration. With some influence from Product Planner Ben Harrison, Alex Mair agreed to take a look at the concept. A private viewing of the car at Pontiac's Engineering garage was arranged, Alex Mair liked the concept. Knowing that the Pontiac Marketing Group did not like the concept in orange color, Jim was able to win their approval to produce the car in white color, similar to the 1975 All American Grand Am prototype that John Schinella designed.
Grand Am All American Show Car
The Judge concept car was renamed to Can Am to capitalize on the Trans Am name and the Can Am series race.
PO: Whatever happened to the orange prototype?
JW: The car was returned to Pontiac.
JW sidenote: The orange prototype was powered by a Chevrolet 305.
After a press release to dealers was sent out, Pontiac received approximately 15,000 potential orders of the 1977 Can Am. Motortown was awarded the contract to convert Lemans to Can Ams. All of the cars were white, had Grand Prix dash boards and equipped with either the T/A 6.6 400 or a 6.6L 403 Oldsmobile motor. 5,000 units were planned to be built. The conversion at Motortown’s Troy facility required cutting a hole in the hood, installing the shaker scoop (1976 version of the shaker), installing the rear spoiler and adding stripes and Can Am graphics.
Motortown was off to a good start producing over 1,100 Can Ams. But due to a failure with the rear spoiler tooling equipment, production at Motortown halted. Meanwhile, the Pontiac Plant had produced a yard full of white Lemans with 400/403 motors to be shipped to Motortown. These cars sat at the Pontiac marshalling yard for several weeks awaiting shipment to Motortown for conversion. Unfortunately, Motortown was unable to repair the rear spoiler tooling equipment. Pontiac immediately decided to cancel the Can Am program. The remaining white 400/403 equipped Lemans that had sat in the marshalling yard were sold off as white Lemans Sport coupes. All those cars were sold with their Grand Prix dash installed.
Several dealers had contacted Motortown and Pontiac requesting to buy Can Am parts, decals, stripes and seek approval to convert dealer stock Lemans to Can Ams. However, Motortown did not recommend that since the conversion was somewhat laborious for a dealer to handle. Additionally, the location for the shaker hood cutout was different if a Lemans was equipped with a motor other than the Pontiac 400 or Oldsmobile 403.
The cancellation of the Can Am program pretty much ended Motortown. The assets of Motortown were sold to Evans Automotive. In 1978, Alex Mair was promoted within General Motors. Jim Wangers direct consulting agreement ended.
JW note: Prior to the cancellation of the Can Am program, it was suggested to convert the existing Lemans in the marshalling yard without the rear spoiler, ship the converted car out and later when the rear spoiler tooling equipment was up and running, forward the rear spoiler to the dealer for installation. It is believed that Pontiacs Controller Bill Hoglund had something to do with that idea not getting approved due to the cost involved in shipping the cars from the Pontiac yard to Motortown and back.
PO: There seems to be some discrepancies on the final production number for 1977 Can Ams. How many were produced?
PO: Because of the successful sales start of the 1977 Can Am, I understand Motortown had been given a 1978 Lemans to convert to a Can Am.
JW: Yes, a new white 1978 Lemans was provided to convert into a CanAm. The car had the Pontiac 301 motor. Motortown had installed a shaker, spoiler and added graphics. That car looked very nice. Unfortunately, when the 1977 Can Am program was cancelled, the proposed 1978 program ended as well.
PO: What happened to the 1978 prototype?
JW: It was returned to Pontiac.
PO: Do you have any pictures of the 1978 prototype?
JW: No, I don’t believe I do.
PO: In 1978, several automotive magazines came out with an article about a Pontiac prototype named Grand Am CA. Was that car the 1978 Motortown Can Am prototype?
JW: No. The Motortown car was a Lemans as I remember the car had Lemans front grills.
The 1977 Ventura Sprint Can Am
PO: I once saw a Sunroof equipped 1977 Ventura Sprint that had similar graphics to a Can Am. Were you involved with that conversion?
JW: No, the former Sales Manager at Motortown had sold that concept to sunroof manufacturer Wisco as a way to sell additional sunroofs. That car was solely a dealer aftermarket conversion sold by Wisco. Pontiac did not have any involvement with that car, but it did make the dealers happy.
1978 & 1979 Grand Prix SSJ and 1981 Grand Prix Americana
PO: Tell me about your involvement with the 1978 and 1979 Grand Prix SSJ?
JW: Yes, I was involved with those cars while consulting for Evans Automotive. The SSJ Grand Prix was brought out as a specialty car to recapture the elegance and luxury of the Grand Prix. Several were sold throughout the country.
PO: Were you involved with the 1981 Grand Prix Americana?
JW: Yes, that car was also done while consulting for Evans Automotive. Like the SSJ, the Americana had a Landau roof and a targa type band. It really looked nice on the 1981 Grand Prix body style. That car started out as a regional promotion for the Boston/New England area Pontiac dealers, but caught on with the New York Pontiac dealers .
Jim Wangers continued a prosperous career in the Automotive industry in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. He continued to work his magic bringing out specialty cars like the Dodge Charger 2.2 for Chrysler and further built up AMCI as a premier company servicing the automotive industry.
The 1970s were a turbulent decade for Pontiac. But thanks to Jim Wangers efforts, he was able to keep the Pontiac image going for us with special cars he had his hand in during the 1970s. Even though the Pontiac brand is no longer with us today, the Widetrack era is alive and well with Pontiac hobbyist all over the world. Jim's participation at Pontiac shows and races with the GTO Tiger have kept the Pontiac image alive. If you don't believe me, just take a look at how many old 1960s and 1970s era Pontiacs are running around at shows and being restored every year. Ten years from now ask somebody what is a G6 is and they probably will not know. Ask them what is a GTO or Trans Am and they will recognize it as a collectible Pontiac from the muscle car era. Thank you Jim Wangers!
Jim Wangers in 1964
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