January 20

This Day in History

Automotive

Jan 20, 1909:

GM takes an interest in Oakland Motor Car Corp.

On January 20, 1909, newly formed automaker General Motors (GM) buys into the Oakland Motor Car Corporation, which later becomes GM's long-running Pontiac division.

Oakland Motor Car was founded in 1907 in Pontiac, Michigan, by Edward Murphy, a manufacturer of horse-drawn carriages. The following year, another former buggy company executive, William Durant, founded General Motors in Flint, Michigan, as a holding company for the Buick Motor Company. GM soon bought other automakers, including Oldsmobile and Cadillac. In 1909, Oakland became part of GM. The first Pontiac model made its debut as part of the Oakland line in the 1920s. The car, which featured a six-cylinder engine, proved so popular that the Oakland name was eventually dropped and Pontiac became its own GM division by the early 1930s.

Pontiac was initially known for making sedans; however, by the 1960s, it gained acclaim for its fast, sporty muscle cars, including the GTO and the Firebird. The GTO, which was developed by auto industry maverick John DeLorean, was named after a Ferarri coupe--the Gran Turismo Omologato--and is considered the first classic muscle car. According to The New York Times: "More than any other G.M. brand, Pontiac stood for performance, speed and sex appeal."

Pontiac's sales reached their peak in 1984, with approximately 850,000 vehicles sold (about four times as many as 2008), according to the Times, which noted that experts believe GM hurt the Pontiac brand in the 1970s and 1980s by opting for a money-saving strategy requiring Pontiacs to share platforms with cars from other divisions.

In 2008, GM, which since the early 1930s had sold more vehicles than any other automaker, lost its sales crown to Toyota. That same year, the American auto giant, hard hit by the global economic crisis and slumping auto sales, was forced to ask the federal government for a multi-billion-dollar loan in order to remain operational. On April 27, 2009, GM announced plans to phase out the Pontiac brand, which had become unprofitable, by 2010. A little over a month later, on June 1, GM filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and promised to emerge as a leaner, more efficient company.

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