“Every case is certainly different,” he prefaced, “but, interestingly enough, what most people don’t realize or understand is, there are times those show cars are done after the production vehicles. The converse also happens, though, where someone does a show car and they say, ‘This is too cool to let sit, let’s make a production car.'”

Manoogian continued, “Since each case is a little different, it’s hard to generalize but what you say is accurate, to a point. Because, we used to look at some of that and say, ‘If we’re going to do this really great show car, then we’re going to have to try to be true to that and capture the essence—capture as much of that as we can—in the production car. Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t.”

Hopefully having not hammered at the subject too long, I responded, “To an auto fan, though, to an auto fanatic, it can almost seem like a broken promise.”

“Well yeah,” he said, “it p****s people off because they see a show car and they say, ‘What happened between production?'” Whew, we agreed. He then made two points using a couple of Pontiacs as examples, “When I looked at the [1988] Banshee, I thought maybe they had gone too far. Yet, when the production Firebird came out, to me, it looked better than the concept.”

Banshee vs Trans Am

“But,” he contrasted, “in the case of the [1986] Trans Sport concept—which I thought had the right amount of newness—the production version wasn’t even remotely close.”

Trans Sport concept vs prod vs Previa

In some respects Toyota’s 1991 Previa resembled the Trans Sport concept closer than Pontiac’s own 1990 production Trans Sport. Upon voicing that opinion, Manoogian chuckled loudly. “And we said that,” he told me. “I thought to myself, [Toyota] took a good hard look at that show car and they said, ‘Let’s do that.’ And they did it.” Manoogian was not involved with the Trans Sport concept or its first generation but was Chief Designer for Pontiac Exterior during the minivan’s 1994 facelift.

Indirect effects of design

Car companies are companies. They exist to profit, after all, by making cars. That’s business. But if the ambition of business or product gets too far ahead of the other, the results can have myriad effects on both.

I mentioned a propensity in times past, certainly not limited to GM, to push low-end—or, more accurately, low-end versions of upper models—in order to boost sales volume. I suggested that the tactic’s fleeting benefit presented risk, potentially long-term, to a model name or even brand image.

“I’ll go even further,” Manoogian responded. “In my opinion, the Pontiac Aztek had an impact in the downward spiral of the Pontiac division.” Unlike mine, his opinion is rooted in up-close, firsthand observation. “I remember going to Red Wing, Minnesota, to give a speech on Pontiac design,” he said and recalled the Aztek had just come out. “It was for the Pontiac-Oakland Club International annual meeting and they had asked me to come and speak about how Pontiac’s are designed.”

In preparation, he said he’d put together a big presentation about the division and design, and how the two came together. It included examples from his then most current work, the Grand Prix and Grand Am. “But all the audience wanted to talk about was the Aztek,” he said, still sounding a little frustrated. “And I told them, twenty times, I said, ‘Look, I had nothing to do with that. I’m not here to talk about that car.'” Unfortunately, his un-involvement with the vehicle didn’t exempt him from the fan group’s demands for answers. “They were so upset with the Aztek that they just couldn’t get off the subject.”

More and more, it was becoming clear to Manoogian the harm that was being done. He added, “On the plane ride back to Warren, I thought to myself, ‘This is not going to go good for Pontiac. People hate this car.'”

We both agreed the damage rendered by Aztek was incalculable. I always saw Pontiac buyers as a special breed. That red arrowhead carried with it a statement, at least at one time it had. Over time, various design duds and inappropriate models (and trims) diluted the character of the brand to an almost me-too formula. That left outsiders wondering why buy Pontiac? And some loyalists wondering why stay with Pontiac?

Manoogian recalled, “Once Bob Lutz showed up, he basically said, ‘How did the Aztek ever come to be?'” Manoogian, who credits Lutz for essentially all he is, continued, “He took the reins and said, ‘Okay, we need to do this GTO, this Solstice, the G8. He really took an interest in trying to resurrect the brand.”


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