PONTIAC'S CHIEFS continued
Since Pontiac has been an engineering pacesetter the past five or six years, Estes was next asked about the value of innovations. "We feel innovations are a great sales stimulus. They're something a customer can't put a price on. But he knows you're a pioneer, a leader, and everyone likes a pacesetter." An innovation, says Estes, can be relatively simple. "Take our Wide Track, for example. This has been very good for us and our customers. It's almost impossible to roll a Pontiac over. The GM Proving Grounds have stopped using Pontiacs for their roll-over tests."
Tracing the origin of Wide Track, Estes points out it was first used on a special Motorama convertible several years back. This particular futuristic car had a peculiar convertible top that couldn't be correctly stacked between the rear wheel wells unless the wheels were moved out four or five inches. "After we did this, we were amazed at the different look it gave the car, particularly when it was put alongside relatively narrow-track models current at the time. We then moved the front wheels out even with the rear wheels, and Wide Track was born."
Another innovation that hasn't gotten too much attention is the perimeter frame pioneered by Pontiac and Oldsmobile in 1961. This frame, which encircles the passenger compartment, permits very comfortable chair height in a non-unitized car. "One thing we've learned," Estes noted, "is that innovation for its own sake can't be successful. The new feature has to do something for the customer."
For his part in Pontiac's sales and engineering resurgence — from sixth place to third in domestic auto sales three years ago, Estes was rewarded by being named Pontiac general manager and a General Motors vice president. At a news conference following his promotion to the helm of GM's second-largest car division, Estes told reporters, "We're going to keep right on building good-looking cars the customer wants, that'll keep him happy afterward with performance, reliability, and economy. If you get that combination, you're in business — and we plan to be in business for a long time."
In 1961, the year Estes took over as boss, Pontiac and Tempest sales totaled 372,871, and the division barely eked out Rambler for the coveted third-place spot in auto sales. Successively, Pontiac sales rose to 528,654 in 1962; 606,791 in 1963 to well over an estimated 700,000 in 1964. And more important, Pontiac's market penetration has risen to an all-time high of about 9 %. The division's lead over its nearest competitor — Oldsmobile — has jumped to nearly 175,000 cars.
In other words, in the 3+ years that Estes has steered the good ship Pontiac, unit sales have nearly doubled — and the end isn't in sight. "We expect to do even better in 1965," Estes asserts smilingly. "In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if we broke every existing Pontiac sales record."
But he's quick to point out that neither he nor anyone in his organization is cocky. "I just don't want anyone to become complacent. This is a very competitive business, and we've seen time and again what happens to others when they get too satisfied with their lot."
This will be the fifth consecutive year that Pontiac's selling in third place. Pontiac people like third place and are determined to hang onto it.
Not the least of the division strong points, of course, is Estes himself. At 48, he's the youngest GM car division vice president in history. His enthusiasm and dedication to the job have no end. Although he works hard — 10 to 12 hours some days and almost every Saturday — he's a firm believer in relaxation and home life. He's a " . . . wonderful family man . . . " as one of his neighbors describes him. "He wears well," says another.
Estes relaxes in his Birmingham, Michigan, home, where he plunges into his heated swimming pool each day from May 1 through mid-October. He reads mostly news and engineering magazines, plays gin rummy, takes an occasional drink, smokes very little. He enjoys golf, but as he says, he'd enjoy it even more if he could play 18 holes in half an hour. Last year for Father's Day, his wife Cathryn bought him "...a fancier set of clubs than Arnold Palmer's."' Estes faithfully promised her he'd play more, but somehow the press of duties gives him too little time.
Most of his other athletic activities are limited to watching. He's an ardent Detroit Lions fan. He views all home games from an upper-tier box in Tiger Stadium. When the Lions are out of town, it's hard to move him from the TV set on Sunday afternoons.
He's also quite a baseball fan. Naturally he follows the fortunes of the Detroit Tigers, but more than that, he watched his youngest son Bill in nearly every game that Cranbrook School played last year. Bill now attends North Carolina University and hopes to make the Tarheel baseball team in the spring. Assumedly, the Estes family will take in a few games down South.
His wife (a graduate nurse he met while attending GMI) is also a football and baseball enthusiast. Their eldest son, Tom, is a Pontiac district manager in Akron, Ohio, while their third son, Ed, works for Cadillac Motor Car Division in the merchandising department. And while Estes enjoys being home with his family, there's little time for play until he actually pulls into the driveway of his quiet home on Waddington Road.
Every night, from factory to home, he road tests a different car. According to instructions, a staffer picks a new car off the final assembly line. It's taken to the executive garage on Oakland Avenue and marked for use by the general manager only. There's a clipboard on the front seat, and Estes makes detailed notations. On these factory-to-home test drives, for instance, he checks the engine on cold starts, hot starts, engine surge, and engine noise. He also listens how smoothly the transmission shifts, for wind noise and road noise. Only a trained mind and ear like his would detect some of the faults. "After all," he figures, "those 300,000 test miles I've driven on the proving grounds and in tests from coast to coast should be useful for something."
But not all his scrutiny is devoted to the mechanical workings of the car. He checks for obvious visual defects that would irritate a prospective new-car buyer. For instance, he takes a close look at the glove compartment and ashtray fit, at the interior trim and exterior paint, at the moldings, etc. He likes to tell the story about taking a car home one night. The horn didn't work. He made a notation and to make sure it was fixed properly, he asked to take the same car home the next night. As directed, the same car was parked in his stall. On his way home, he checked the horn and it worked fine, but somehow, in fixing the wiring, someone had disconnected the air conditioning and it didn't work.
Pontiac has done an outstanding job in the past few years of building a good-looking, good-performing, reliable car. As a result, both dealer and customer confidence in the product have been exceptional. "I can remember that not long ago we had very few sales of our cars before announcement time," Estes says. "People wanted to see a Pontiac before they bought one. But it's different now. Our customers have great confidence in us. For our 1965 model, we had nearly 50,000 sight-unseen customer orders a month before the cars were introduced."
Estes has all of his organization on the move. "You've got to have the Pontiac look," he says. He's a fast mover himself. Much of this he picked up from Boss Ket's philosophy: " . . . never stop moving because you never know when you'll trip over an idea, and you can't trip over anything unless you're moving."
Estes is a firm believer in this. In fact, he's got his own saying which he tells his associates at least once or twice a year. "It's all right to pat yourself on the back for the fine job you're doing. But do it just half an hour a day. The other 23 1/2 hours, think of ways to improve both yourself and your job."