Obituary - Jim Wangers, 1927-2023
Geoff Carverhill looks back on the life of the man who made Pontiac the GreaT One of the Sixties…
Jim Wangers, one of the most notable names to be connected with the muscle car craze of the 1960s, died on April 29, 2023, in California. He was 96. For many years Wangers was known as The Godfather of the GTO, a title he earned while working as a marketing executive at Pontiac’s advertising agency, MacManus, John & Adams. But prior to this Wangers had gained a wealth of automotive marketing experience that was used to push Pontiac up the leader board to be one of America’s most desirable car brands. Wangers was born and bred in Chicago and one of his first jobs was as a copyboy and then sports editor for the Chicago Daily News.
A career as a journalist was not what he wanted, but his path to eventual car marketing took a step closer when he was offered a position with Coronet magazine, an Esquire company, as a subscription letter writer. He moved to New York with Esquire magazine, whose cofounder, Bill Weintraub, also owned the advertising agency that held the Kaiser-Frazer account. Before too long Weintraub offered Jim Wangers a position on the Kaiser-Frazer account. From then on, Wangers never looked back.
In 1952, Wangers moved with Weintraub to Detroit, but by 1954, Kaiser-Frazer was no more, so Jim found a job as a copywriter at Campbell-Ewald, capitalising on the successes Chevrolet had achieved at the 1955 Daytona Speed Week and organising Chevy’s first factory racing programme. A move from the sales promotion group at Campbell-Ewald into the advertising department a year later enabled him to start pursuing his passion for car marketing. From Chevrolet, Wangers had a brief stint at Chrysler Corporation in 1956, as assistant promotion manager, creating a performance image for Dodge and then to Plymouth as sales promotion manager for the ’57 Fury.
In 1958, Jim went to work at MJ&A as an account manager. John Z Delorean, as chief engineer and then division manager, saw not only a creative talent in Wangers, but a creative car guy, who would prove to be a valuable asset to achieving Pontiac’s makeover.
Prior to the GTO storming on to the marketplace in 1964, Jim Wangers capitalised on John Delorean’s idea of calling full-size Pontiacs ‘wide-track’ cars, but it was the GTO that enabled Jim to aim Pontiac at the emerging new youth market and create the ‘performance’ image that would see Pontiac kick-start the muscle-car craze.
In the Seventies, with Delorean moving to Chevrolet, Pontiac started to lose its way, and by 1973, Wangers left the agency to start his own marketing consultancy. However, it wasn’t long before he was back as a consultant marketing Pontiac to film and TV. One of his first assignments was to oversee the presentation of a Pontiac Trans Am in Hal Needham’s movie, Smokey and the Bandit. Wangers had already had successes during the Sixties with the Monkees TV show and the Monkeemobile, but other TV and movie product promotion opportunities followed: a Firebird Esprit starred in TV series The Rockford Files, alongside James Garner, and in the early Eighties, a Trans Am called KITT in the TV programme Knight Rider.
Following a brief period running Jim Wangers Chevrolet in Milwaukee and the creation of Motortown Inc, the company which was contracted by not only GM, but AMC, Chrysler and Ford to providing speciality appearance packages for particular cars, Jim found his way back to what he loved and what he was best at – marketing cars. His agency Automotive Marketing Consultants would provide marketing advice and comment for many years to come.
An event that personified Jim Wangers’ character and enthusiasm for cars was the 1998 Pontiac Convention in Sturbridge, Massachussetts. One evening, Jim had been busy signing copies of his autobiography and came out to the parking lot to look at the show-ready Pontiacs. A crowd gathered around my friend’s ’64 Tempest Custom Station Wagon and Jim duly spent the next hour sitting on the wagon’s tailgate, talking to the assembled crowd of Pontiac enthusiasts, answering questions, and telling stories of GM and Pontiac.
My friend John later said: “That was better than an audience with the Pope!” Jim Wangers’ name will always be synonymous with the ‘glory days’ of Pontiac.
Wangers at the typewriter...… and with the original GTO.