Reprinted from Hemmings Motor News, 05/02/23
Pontiac’s Ad Man and Godfather of the GTO, Passed Away at 96
Marketing genius Jim Wangers, known for being Pontiac’s unsung hero, reportedly died in his sleep on April 27. He was 96 years old.
While his fame comes from being the Godfather of the GTO, coined for his masterful marketing which uplifted the Pontiac brand's success, Wangers offered so much more to the automotive industry before he retired from the public’s eye in early-2018. His career in the automotive field began at Kaiser-Frazer, Chevrolet, and then Plymouth before he began his work with Pontiac.
He joined Chevrolet around the time the brand was planning its 1955 campaign, and much of his time was spent convincing his superiors that participating in NASCAR’s Speed Week would provide good press. His pleas fell on deaf ears and Wangers was told that “Chevrolet was not into racing,” but he pressed on and documented the success of independent Chevy racers at Daytona on his own time. It wasn’t until word of the Daytona race spread to enthusiasts via the media that the demand for cars went up, and then Wagner’s report was taken seriously. By the 1955 model release, Chevrolet became “The Hot One.”
By 1958 he landed at McManus, John & Adams where he first began working on the agency’s Pontiac account. It was there that Wangers began to test performance cars. He put the petal to the metal in 1960 and raced a new Pontiac Catalina in the Top Stock Eliminator class, earning Pontiac a NHRA National drag racing title at the 1960 Nationals in Detroit. The NHRA win lead to Wangers’ influence on performance Pontiac models like the GTO, GTO Judge and Trans Am.
The successful Tom McAn GTO sweepstakes would have never come to fruition without Wangers’ genius marketing mind. He had a hand in “The Monkees” Monkeemobile and was a respected voice in DeLorean’s ad-hoc committee, which developed the 1969 GTO Judge and all the marketing to follow. Wangers also gave the muscle car era a jumpstart when he got the Pontiac GTO on the cover of Car and Driver magazine.
His list of accomplishments is seemingly endless. Lesser-known achievements date back to 1959, when Wangers helped with the creation of Detroit Dragway and brought the NHRA to town to host the Nationals. Pontiac began offering Hurst shifters as a retail option for 1961 after Wangers' insistence. Or how about when Wangers, with Hurst's Dave Landrith, approached AMC with bringing the 1964 GTO concept up to 1969 standards? That project evolved into the 1969 SC/Rambler, which was followed up with the Rebel Machine in 1970. Yet another Hurst creation that Wangers had a hand in was the 1970 Chrysler 300H, followed by the 1976 Volar Road Runner and Aspen R/T. Even the Mustang received Wanger’s attention when the Motortown Corporation designed the 1976 Cobra II package. In 1981, Wangers brought more success to Mopar with the 1981 Charger 2.2.
He left Pontiac in 1969 and opened a Chevrolet dealership located in Milwaukee, where he continued his work in the industry. In 2009, Big Three Performance teamed up with Wangers to create his very own Jim Wangers Signature Edition 1969 Judge GTO, an orange restomod based on his favorite model year.
Hemmings’ Jeff Koch got to know the late Jim Wangers in a story about his collection of classics, where Wangers compares four generations of Pontiac Trans Am. Read the story here.
Also: see the Jim Wangers Collection of Pontiacs that he sold at Mecum in 2019.
And his discussion on the Pontiac GTO/Ferrari GTO road test here: