Over the next few months, car buyers have a chance to take home a piece of automotive history and maybe get a bargain in the process. They can buy a Pontiac before the nameplate disappears from new-car showrooms forever.
But they will have to act fast. Inventories are already shrinking, and the very last Pontiacs are due to go out of production sometime next year, following nameplates like Packard, Nash, Plymouth, DeSoto, and Hudson into extinction.
Most of the surviving cars bearing those venerable names are probably considered collectibles today. One day, the current Pontiacs could conceivably be classics, too, although it is hard to imagine a G3 inspiring the passion now reserved for a 1959 Mini Cooper or old VW Beetle.
Pontiacs did have their day, though -- mostly back in the 1960s and 1970s when the Beach Boys' "Little GTO" blared from radios and Trans Am muscle cars cruised U.S. streets on Saturday nights.
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Some Pontiac fans have scratched their heads over GM's decision last spring to shut down a brand with such a rich legacy and more than twice the sales of Buick. Others, like Tom Tabor, a Bay City, Mich., businessman, are simply sorry to see it go.
"I have had a love affair with and interest in Pontiacs for a long time," said Tabor, who owns a 1970 Trans Am. "It's a nice brand. Pontiacs have always equaled 'cool' cars."
The Solstice roadster, the compact Vibe and the sleek, mid-sized G6 are the chief repositories of "cool" today. Soon, they will offer the exclusivity that only an out-of-production vehicle can offer: Your neighbors won't be able to buy a new one at any price.
That may seem a dubious honor to a shopper overly worried about the risks of ownership. But experts don't think there is too much of a downside. It's a lot like buying a Chevrolet or GMC product since GM vehicles share components and modules, said Jeffrey Bennett, a professor of automotive marketing at Northwood University in Midland, Mich.
Pontiacs continue to enjoy normal warranty coverage, and GM has said and it will continue to build replacements parts for them, just as it has done for Oldsmobile since the brand left the scene in 2004.
While a model's sheet metal may be unique to a model, "GM has a tremendous inventory of it," Bennett said. "And panels are also available at salvage yards."
Some buyers may worry about what their Pontiac's value will be when they sell it years later. But Bennett says that shouldn't bother them either. "I don't think anyone can say accurately what a car is going to be worth in five years or more."
Still, there are signs that Pontiacs will hold up well, he said. For one thing, owners are hanging onto their cars longer, keeping them out of used car lots. The "Cash for Clunkers" program also took thousands of used cars off the market, he notes.
These factors will raise prices for all used cars -- including Pontiacs -- that owners sell or trade in the future.
"There is a going to be shortage of used cars, driving prices up," Bennett said. "I think you will increasingly see that as the economic climate warms up."
The case of Oldsmobile's resale prices ought to shed light on Pontiac's situation, but experts disagree about what actually occurred. Kelley Blue Book has reported sharp declines in Oldsmobile resale values after the brand was shutdown in 2004.
But Mike Marsh, co-owner of Marsh Automotive Group in Traverse City, Mich., says Oldsmobile prices have held up well.
"We used to buy a lot of used domestic vehicles for our used car lots, and at that time, we were buying Olds Bravadas and Olds Achievas just like they were current makes -- and their prices were right up there."
"I don't think the G6 will be affected whatsoever. It is a nice car, a premium car, and it's absolutely 100 percent guaranteed in terms of its warranty."
Ironically, the biggest problem may be finding the Pontiac you want.
In early October, inventories were down to a month's supply overall -- low by historic standards. Mark Homan, dealer at Mark Homan Auto Sales in Waupun, Wis., said he was out of Pontiacs, and he knew other dealers in the same boat.
"Long-term, the goal is to turn our Pontiac buyers into Chevy buyers," he said. "It's game over for Pontiac."
GM was still building the G6 in October, but the production levels are drastically lower than a year ago. Production was about 1,500 a week at mid-month, compared to 3,500 in 2008.
The stylish Solstice ceased production in July, and the popular Vibe in August. The company had been producing 100 Solstices a week in mid- October 2008.
Pontiac production is expected to go on for a few more months. In the meantime, available supplies have varied from model to model.
In early October, there was still more than a three months supply of the Solstice and the G5, the brand's version of the Chevy Cobalt. Inventories of the G3, the sibling to the fuel-efficient Chevrolet Aveo, stretched two and a half months.
GM certainly isn't treating the Pontiac brand as though it's already sold out, loading it up with roughly the incentives that Chevys, Buicks and Cadillacs are getting. In October, you could get a $3,500 rebate on a G6 and 0% financing for 72 months on a 2010 Vibe or 2009 G8, yielding $7,000 or more in savings.
But given the low inventories, Bennett of Northwood University doesn't think Pontiac dealers will be piling more discounts onto the factory incentives. That's one more reason to start shopping if you have your heart set on a new one.
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