Incredible Hulk of US motoring reaches the end of the road

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It was a true American icon – a 'muscle car' for motoring romantics. But now the Pontiac is no more. Sean O'Grady mourns its passing

It has been a great ride," says the Pontiac website. Well, they're right about that – there have been some fabulous cars bearing the famous arrow Pontiac badge – but the firm hasn't been independent since 1926, when it was acquired by General Motors, who decided to kill the brand last year. They delivered the coup de grâce yesterday: GM's agreements with its Pontiac dealers finally expired, and a hunk of V8 powered muscle rumbled into history.

Pontiac's demise was well-signposted. GM itself looked headed for the corporate scrapyard last year, and its bankruptcy and rebirth as a part-nationalised corporation saw it jettison its peripheral operations as rapidly as a Pontiac franchise attempting to shift its remaining stock. A last-minute reprieve saw GM retain the bulk of its European operations, including Vauxhall here and Opel in Germany, but Saab was dumped. Hummer, forever linked with American military adventurism and equally wanton fuel consumption, failed even to interest the acquisitive Chinese, and GM's "youth" brand, Saturn, was pensioned off.

The commercial imperative behind the shrinkage of GM was clear. GM's resources were thinly spread even before its most recent difficulties, and the engineering effort and marketing resources needed to support a brand boasting a mere 267,000 sales in 2008 could not be justified. GM simply found that it had to many badges to stick on too few cars. The Chevrolet, Cadillac and Buick marques survive – Buick boosted by its burgeoning popularity in China, whose consumers are partial to its "Dollar Grin" styling.

It is rather a sad end. For petrol heads, Pontiac will forever be associated with the 1964 GTO, and the invention of the "muscle car", though for most people the GTO is much less recognisable than its contemporary, the Ford Mustang. The GTO, by the way, was developed by a rebellious young GM executive named John DeLorean, who later became better known for his "back to the future" steel sports car, made in Belfast at great cost to the British taxpayer.

Like the Mini Cooper or VW Golf GTI beloved of European enthusiasts, the American muscle car offered fine performance in an affordable package based on an everyday saloon, rather than some exotic supercar. Back in the 1960s, Pontiac was the photogenic pride of Detroit, and models such as the GTO, Trans Am and Catalina 2+2 were built for outrageous looks and easy, but formidable, performance from vast unstressed engines. A Firebird Trans Am upstaged Burt Reynolds and Sally Field as they fled the law in Smokey and the Bandit, a cheesy high point.

"Pure" American brands such as Cadillac and Dodge have always found it hard going in European markets, where they are little-understood, but with Pontiac GM never tried, so it remained a curiosity for us. The Pontiac Trans Am featured as KITT in Knight Rider, starring David Hasselhoff, never provoked a stampede of customers to Vauxhall showrooms demanding talking Americana rather than Astras.

To car industry watchers the real surprise is that the worst slump in the industry since the 1930s hasn't claimed more victims, unless we count the end of the always-fragile LDV Vans business in Birmingham a year ago. Marginal players such as Lancia, Chrysler and Saab have survived. Jaguar and Land Rover are back from the brink and thriving.

But with the inexorable rise of the Chinese and Indian industries set to tear the heart out of what is left in the West, including the parts they do not own, surely more brands and firms will join Pontiac on the freeway into the sunset. If they do persist it may be, as MG Rover found, as mere ornaments on the bonnets of vehicles made in Shanghai and Pune.

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