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Jim Wangers' marketing helped father the GTO

October 22, 2006|by JASON STEIN/Wheelbase Communications

It was one of the moments in life when you have to wonder what if. What if Jim Wangers hadn't decided that horsepower would sell? What if Wangers, the brains behind Pontiac's promotion team in the 1960s, had listened to bosses who wanted small sedans, but not big horsepower? And what if Wangers hadn't taken a chance?

Here's a certainty. Wangers, now 80, probably wouldn't be living in luscious Oceanside, Calif., thinking about how a little red car with a hot engine and a three-letter name became a household word in the auto industry: GTO.

What if.

"We took racing off the track and put it on the street," Wangers recently told the Detroit Free Press.

And it made him into a legend.

People have called him the father of the muscle car, the man who invented cruising on Detroit's famous Woodward Avenue, and the Godfather of the GTO.

For Wangers, the GTO dream was a long time coming.

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"From the time I was a kid, I was nuts about cars," he wrote in his recent book "Glory Days: When Horsepower and Passion Ruled Detroit."

After a stint in the Navy toward the end of World War II, and with an English degree from Illinois Tech, Wangers landed a job with the Chicago Daily News as a copy boy, but quickly moved into promotional writing with Esquire magazine.

What he really wanted to do, however, was get into cars.

After working at the Kaiser-Frazer ad agency, then moving to Chevrolet's ad agency, Campbell-Ewald, Wangers worked at prominent motorsports events. He eventually landed with MacManus John & Adams, Pontiac's ad agency, just in time for introduction of the first "Wide Track" for 1959.

Pontiac was ripe for an overhaul, and Wangers was in on the ground floor.

Pontiac general manager Semon "Bunkie" Knudsen had been assigned the task in 1956 of saving Pontiac in five years . . . or killing it off.

This is where the GTO came in.

"It wasn't a car they really wanted at GM," Wangers remembered.

In the 1960s, times were different in Detroit. Automakers such as General Motors and Ford had been locked in a horsepower battle and the U.S. government and lobbyists involved themselves in attempts to limit engine size and horsepower. Small cars with big powerplants were a no-no.

Working with Knudsen, Pontiac boss Pete Estes and legendary car guy John DeLorean in the Pontiac product team, Wangers created real interest for the GTO by bending the rules and creating a little hype.

"What we did was instead of making (the GTO) a model, we offered it as an option," Wangers said.

And then Wangers came up with a stroke of marketing genius.

"One of the best promotions we ever put together was our first one," Wangers wrote.

He appealed to David E. Davis, then the editor of Car and Driver magazine. Car and Driver was getting ready to move in a new direction with the magazine, emphasizing road tests of American cars.

"I called David one day in early December 1963 to tell him about this great new car, which we were calling GTO," Wangers wrote. "On the basis of the name overlap (with Ferrari's GTO), I suggested this could make for an interesting comparison test. Apparently I had touched a very sensitive nerve with my GTO/GTO idea."

It was a monumental success.

Ferrari didn't want its car compared to the Pontiac and pulled the vehicle from the test. The magazine went ahead with the Pontiac test, as a solo drive.

"They didn't want to get out of the car," Wangers said.

It was a smash cover story, and America quickly couldn't get enough of it.

Wangers, meanwhile, convinced the public that what it wanted was a smaller car with a big engine. America needed a "muscle car," Wangers said.

Dealers took thousands of orders, GM was required to rethink their policy and other divisions would soon get into the act of making similar cars.

Wangers was a certified hero for Pontiac.

By making the division more attractive to younger buyers, the entire scope of the company was changed. Pontiac became known for speed and power.

Wangers even changed a little. He learned how to drag race and established events that showcased the car's acceleration capabilities. He developed a program to get enthusiasts out to local tracks race against professional drivers.

The Pontiac decision spawned numerous competitors that battled head-to-head at the height of "muscle-car wars" that lasted until the early 1970s.

Wangers' efforts, along with those of Knudsen, Estes and DeLorean, also helped raise Pontiac sales levels from 217,000 units in 1958 to an unreal 900,000 in 1969.

But the tide would turn again. Gas prices rose, muscle car sales slipped and times changed. Wangers, on the other hand, stayed in the game.

He continued marketing at GM before eventually retiring and forming his own marketing company.

In 2004, when the GTO was reintroduced on the car's 40th anniversary, Wangers was one of a few people who got to drive it on GM's proving grounds.

"It was a good car," he said then.

He probably knew it was different.

Today he still owns 11 GTOs. And he still dreams of those early days when life was good, cars were edgy and legends were born to ride.

Jason Stein is a feature writer with Wheelbase Communications. You can drop him a line on the Web at: www.wheelbase.ws/mailbag.html.

Copyright 2006, Wheelbase Communications

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