The Doomed 1965 Pontiac Banshee XP-833 Was the Beginning of the End for Pontiac

Gunning for the Corvette, the Banshee crossed a sacred line for GM—and Pontiac paid the price.

byBenjamin Hunting|
Culture photo

Pontiac performance was riding high in the early 1960s. The "Wide Track" era was in full swing, kicked off by ad exec Jim Wangers who went on to play an important role in pushing Pontiac’s drag racing success and convincing the company to go full steam ahead with the GTO, a vehicle many credited with jumpstarting the golden age of the muscle car. At the same time, Michigan dealer Royal Pontiac was at the height of its powers, campaigning its Super Duty-prepped 'Bobcats' in NHRA competition while simultaneously serving as a conduit for street warriors seeking the latest in hop-up parts.

Overseeing it all was John Z. DeLorean, whose leadership at Pontiac was instrumental in making the GTO dream a reality. The only General Motors division head with his finger on the pulse of America's youth, DeLorean had big plans to push the brand further into the mainstream, making it a true rival to Chevrolet but with a focus on speed and style.

Key to this approach was the creation of the Pontiac Banshee, a concept car that arrived on the scene in 1964. Referred to as the "XP-833" within General Motors, the two-seat coupe tucked in below the Corvette in terms of size, with aggressive, fluid styling and a chassis and drivetrain combo intended to fight off both European sportsters as well as the unforeseen success of the Ford Mustang, which had scooped up a huge portion of the affordable-yet-fun market that year.

(Editor's note: It's easy to dismiss concept cars as marketing gimmicks and dead-end design exercises. But every once in a while, a company gives away the secret to its future without anyone noticing. With ever-grander promises about electrification, autonomy and material advances being made by today's concepts, I thought it'd be useful to take a look through the archives to see how and when the major engineering and design trends that define the present were actually seeded. This recurring column by the great Ben Hunting is called The Most Important Concept Cars You Forgot All About, and its aim is to give you the tools to understand what's really coming next. -- KC)

The XP-833 was a car that seemed poised to give Pontiac an even stronger identity among the many voices crying out for attention within GM’s portfolio. With eye-searing looks matched by nothing else on the market and a price tag that would have put it in reach of even average buyers, it could have served as a one-two punch alongside the GTO that drove hordes of customers into Pontiac showrooms and set the tone for the division's future.

Instead, the Banshee was stabbed in the back by a jealous Chevrolet, which then surreptitiously stole several of its styling cues to serve as the basis for its own flagship sports car. The death of the XP-833 set off a chain of events that sealed Pontiac's high-performance fate, keeping it hamstrung in second-tier status at GM—a decision that echoed through the next 30 years of the company's existence, prevented it from having anything more than a hint of independence from the mothership. GM finally killed Pontiac amid the recession in 2010, but would things have ended so ingloriously had the Banshee lived?

Pushing the Limits

Understanding the importance of the XP-833 to Pontiac's future means reckoning with two crucial facts about General Motors in the 1960s. The first is that the Chevrolet Corvette ruled the roost, with Chevy’s execs willing to take any steps necessary to protect its cash cow from any potential threat, internal or external.

The second is that at the time, despite its image of conservatism, GM was willing to take risks when it came to automotive design and technology if that meant pushing into new market segments. This was a company that had not only green-lit the turbocharged Oldsmobile Jetfire at the beginning of the decade, but had also enthusiastically built an entire family of coupes, convertibles, and even pickups around the rear-engine Chevrolet Corvair. Even if some ideas, such as the Pontiac GTO, had to be developed skunkworks-style to subvert official corporate policies, there was still enough wiggle room inside the company for enterprising individuals to bring their singular visions to fruition.

The 1965 Pontiac GTO, GM

The latter made Pontiac the perfect environment for DeLorean to thrive in, particularly as he gradually assumed the mantle of the rebellious young exec in GM's stodgy boardroom in the early 1960s. By extension, it made the XP-833 his ideal project, one that pulled from both the company's deep engineering expertise as well as its willingness to experiment with Euro-inspired styling, as long as a business case could be made for production at a profit.

Exotic Looks, Parts Bin Roots

Indeed, there was nothing about the Banshee (so named years later by a former Pontiac employee who stuck leftover badges from an abandoned Pontiac show car, the XP-798, on the remaining prototype) that posed a particular challenge in bringing it to market. The car was built using a combination of chassis components from the Pontiac Tempest compact car along with a number of custom-built but far from exotic suspension bits that also could’ve been sourced from elsewhere within GM's extensive parts bin.

The four-link setup was matched with a T-10 four-speed manual transmission, a set of four-wheel drum brakes, and a 230-ci straight-six engine that was good for 165 horsepower. Pontiac also planned on a deep options list for the car that would potentially include a V8 (which was baked into the second concept example built), as well as higher output versions of its six-cylinder mill. A fiberglass body wrapped around the entire package.

The formula was intended to be fun to drive, inexpensive to build, and cheap to purchase, with the primary draw being its gorgeous styling and its lightweight handling (with the prototype weighing in at a modest 2,300 pounds). It was an intriguing spin on the same winning combination that had inspired hundreds of thousands of Ford customers to drive home in a Mustang, albeit with the reduced practicality of its two-seat format. Still, Pontiac didn't need volume with the XP-833—rather, it was looking to fill an empty spot in its showrooms that stood in contrast to the big-block offerings of the GTO and company. 

Snuffed Out

Ford's role in the genesis of this car in fact predated the iconic production Mustang. As early as 1962, the company had been toying with the idea of a two-seater of its own, producing the Mustang I concept and the more conventional Mustang II the following year as it felt its way towards the eventual coupe and convertible combo that hit showrooms in 1964. Like the XP-833, these models were small and made use of equally humble power plants, with the Mustang II borrowing platform bits from Ford's own economy car, the Falcon (which eventually donated most of its mechanicals to the first production Mustang).

Pontiac was concerned that a street version of the pint-size Mustang concept series wasn't far behind the four-seater, and it didn't want to be beaten to market again as it had been with the pony car craze. The Banshee was DeLorean's hedge against getting scooped a second time, but when the idea for the car was presented to GM president Ed Cole in 1964, the reaction was far from enthusiastic. The Pontiac head cajoled his superiors into proceeding to the prototype stage, and by the middle of 1965 the concepts (one coupe, one convertible) were ready to be evaluated by the General Motors board.

In hindsight, the end result was a predictable one. Concerned as ever about a 'baby Vette' stealing the thunder from Chevrolet's pride and joy, GM immediately axed the XP-833. The idea that Pontiac might pull a fast one with the Banshee and stuff a big block between its fenders terrified Chevy's higher-ups, who were unwilling to risk the car's dominance. They were, however, enamored enough with its looks to have its clay models sent over to their own design studios, where alongside the similar Mako Shark II concept, the XP-833 had a heavy influence on the C3 'Vette that debuted just a few years later. Clobbered by the Corvette, the Banshee never had a chance.

Pontiac Banshee XP-833, via eBay
The 1968 C3 Corvette, GM

The Death of the Future

What happened next? To counter the pony car threat, Chevrolet had a crash program underway to build a direct competitor, and by 1967 the Camaro had arrived on the scene, followed quickly by its Pontiac platform-mate, the Firebird (which itself borrowed some of the Banshee's looks).

Here began the pattern that dominated the next three decades for Pontiac: Almost its entire performance portfolio relied on Chevrolet taking the lead and then borrowing whatever bones were thrown its way. While the Firebird and the Trans-Am that followed were successes, it's hard to deny that Pontiac was severely limited in developing its own identity.

In fact, from the death of the XP-833 to the dawn of the new millennium, the only independent sportscar program developed by Pontiac—the Fiero—was an abject failure, hobbled by cost cuts, maligned by a series of safety issues and recalls, and stuck with four-cylinder power at its debut in the name of Corvette protectionism. An optional V6 brightened its horizons in the second model year, but that wasn't enough to keep it around past 1988.

Outside of the performance world, things were even grimmer as platform sharing became the order of the day at General Motors through the ensuing decades.

It's possible to trace this hi-po inertia all the way back to the Banshee's demise. No doubt sensing that his opportunities to truly make his mark were limited at Pontiac, John DeLorean made the leap to Chevrolet in 1969 but quickly discovered that with more responsibility came even greater scrutiny, and just a few short years later he was out of the GM hierarchy altogether, forming his own company, prototyping the car that would become the DMC-12, and getting into snowcat manufacturing on the side.

With the loss of a leader as charismatic and risk-tolerant as DeLorean, Pontiac was suddenly adrift. Put in its place by the Corvette's untouchable status, stripped of the GTO by the EPA's encroaching emissions regs, and forced to even stop building its own engines, the brand's inferiority complex became a self-fulfilling prophecy as the 1970s gave way to the ‘80s and ‘90s. By the time Pontiac rediscovered its mojo in the mid-2000s with unique models like the reborn GTO, the genuinely impressive G8, and the under-developed Solstice two-seater, it was far too late to salvage its reputation.

While the market conditions, executive shufflings, and economic concerns that dictated the gradual erasure of Pontiac DNA from its own performance line-up are complex and interconnected, it's easy to see how the success of the Banshee—had it ever made it into production—could have set the automaker on an entirely new track. With a sporty, economical, and affordable runabout demonstrating all the reasons why one would buy a Pontiac over a Chevrolet, the XP-833 would likely have survived the energy crisis of the 1970s that saw the rise of similarly cheap and cheerful sports cars arriving from Europe and Japan. 

Imagine a timeline where the Fiero represented a continuation of the Banshee's heritage, rather than a budget-limited marketing failure that never found its niche. That's the future Pontiac was denied when the XP-833 bit the dust. It’s hard to argue that’s the world we deserved—but the one we got is certainly poorer for having Pontiac treated the way it was.

via eBay

Got a tip? Send us a note:›