Room at the Top: The 1954 Pontiac Star Chief and Class Consciousness in America

For more than half of its 80-year history, the Pontiac Division of General Motors has tried, with varying degrees of success, to present itself as the hotshot of the GM line-up, with an advertising tagline proclaiming, “We Build Excitement.” Once upon a time, however, Pontiac was a stolid, sensible, rather dull family car whose claim to fame was that it was “priced just above the lowest.” To see what Pontiac used to be before Bunkie Knudsen went racing and John DeLorean twisted the tail of the Tiger, let’s take a look at the 1954 Pontiac Star Chief and Chieftain — the last boring Pontiacs.

1954 Pontiac emblem

THE SLOAN SYSTEM

Whoever said America was a classless society never heard of Alfred P. Sloan, and probably wouldn’t have liked it much if they had. When Sloan became president of General Motors in the early 1920s, he famously decreed that GM would offer cars to fill every niche for every buyer. On the face of it, one might take that as a straightforward commitment to providing a widespread product line, but what Sloan’s model really served to do was to codify the emerging class system of the mass production era.

Those at the bottom rungs of the socioeconomic ladder, the workers and the clerks, would buy a Chevrolet, GM’s cheapest model. Those at the highest tiers, the new gentry of the industrial age, bought Cadillacs, which they might or might not drive themselves; factory limousines with divider windows to separate passengers from chauffeur were a regular part of the Cadillac line-up well into the 1980s. In the middle, GM offered a host of mid-priced makes of ascending size, price, and prestige. For the doctor, the lawyer, the bank president, there was Buick; for the senior engineer or senior manager, the college-educated, white-collar employees, there was Oldsmobile. Below that, in the gap between Oldsmobile and Chevrolet, was Pontiac.

THE BIRTH OF PONTIAC

Pontiac had not been part of the original plan. It was the sole survivor of an ill-fated mid-1920s plan to divide the class/model hierarchy into even finer gradations by adding “companion makes” for each of the middle-class divisions.

At the time GM’s lower-middle-class division was Oakland, a formerly independent automaker in which GM had acquired a controlling interest in the corporation’s early years. Oakland was based in Pontiac, Michigan, and had originally been a spin-off of the Pontiac Buggy Company, so its new companion make was called Pontiac. In size and price, it was intended to fill the gap between Oakland and the cheaper Chevrolet.

1954 Pontiac front view
Pontiac’s 268 cu. in. (4,398 cc) straight-eight dated back to 1933; the six used in lesser Pontiacs was developed from it in 1935. In a 1954 Pontiac Chieftain, the eight made 122 hp (91 kW) and 222 lb-ft (300 N-m) of torque. Star Chiefs got 127 hp (95 kW) and 234 lb-ft (316 N-m) thanks to a higher compression ratio. The more powerful engine wasn’t necessarily the best choice — although its 7.7:1 compression ratio was modest by the standards of the time, it was at the limit of what the L-head configuration could comfortably support and it tended to knock on hard throttle. Fuel economy was a bit under 14 mpg (17 L/100 km) in mixed driving.

The first Pontiac debuted in 1926. It was not a great deal bigger than a Chevrolet, but it had a six-cylinder engine where the Chevrolet had a four. In the economic boom of the late 1920s, the Pontiac’s reasonable price tempted many buyers who would otherwise have bought a Chevrolet. It proved very successful and 500,000 had been sold by 1929.

The onset of the Depression hit most of GM’s pricier divisions hard and Oldsmobile and Buick’s companion makes, Viking and Marquette, were dropped after 1931. Oakland’s sales dropped precipitously, but its cheaper brother was in much better shape, so GM management concluded that Pontiac was the more viable of the two. In 1932 Pontiac became a stand-alone marque. Its sales recovered handily and it settled into a comfortable sixth place in industry sales, occasionally reaching as high as fourth.

Pontiac’s survival was aided by a decision to increase its commonality with Chevrolet. It now used the A-body shell of the Chevrolet, stretched in both wheelbase and overall length through the use of longer frame side rails and unique rear fenders. Pontiac still had its own engines, transmissions, and other hardware, but the shared body cut its production costs through improved economies of scale. Since its price remained the same, about 15% more than a comparable Chevrolet, its profitability increased commensurately.

1954 Pontiac Star Chief front 3q view
A 1954 Pontiac Chieftain Eight was 202.7 inches (5,150 mm) long on a 122-inch (3,100mm) wheelbase, weighing about 3,900 pounds (1,765 kg) at the curb.

CHEVIAC

While Oldsmobile and Buick each offered certain technical novelties — automatic transmission, Compound Carburetion — Pontiac eschewed innovation. General manager Harry Klingler and chief engineer Ben Anibal were reluctant even to offer Hydra-Matic, although when they finally relented in 1948 it was ordered by more than three-fourths of Pontiac customers. Pontiac would remain relentlessly conservative well into the middle of the 1950s.

By 1954, the cheapest Pontiac, the Chieftain Special Six two-door sedan, cost $1,968, $130 more than a comparable Bel Air, Chevrolet’s most expensive trim series. If you stepped up to Deluxe trim in your Pontiac, which buyers did in a ratio of more than 14 to one, the price gap rose to $234. If the Chieftain was not quite posh enough, there was also the top-of-the-line Star Chief, in DeLuxe or Custom trim, starting at $2,301.

1954 Pontiac Star Chief dashboard
The 1954 Pontiac had a unique dashboard not shared with the 1954 Chevrolet. It has full instrumentation, reasonably legible in its presentation, something that was rapidly disappearing by this time in favor of cheaper warning lights. The Chieftain seven-tube radio was a popular option.

What did you get for your extra money? Despite sharing the same body as the Chevrolet, the Pontiac was noticeably bigger. Chieftains were 202.7 inches (5,149 mm) long on a 122-inch (3,100mm) wheelbase, making them 6.2 inches (157 mm) longer and about 200 pounds (90 kg) heavier than a contemporary Chevrolet. Star Chiefs were 213.7 inches long on a 124-inch wheelbase, adding an additional 70 pounds or so. All of the Pontiac’s extra length was aft of the rear door, so it had no great advantage in interior room. Passenger space was within a fraction of an inch of Chevrolet in most dimensions, although the long-tailed Star Chief at least offered a cavernous trunk.

1954 Pontiac Star Chief right rear fender
This 1954 Pontiac is missing its rear fender skirts. Rear skirts were technically optional (like most everything else on the car), but very common. Since this car appears to have most of the other pieces of the $27.30 Appearance Group of which they were part, the owner presumably didn’t like them; there are several signs of mixing and matching the trim pieces from different models. The Moon-style wheels are definitely not stock.

PONTIAC IN THE SLOW LANE

In the early 1950s, there was a general expectation that moving up the model/price hierarchy would get you improved performance, but Pontiacs were little if any faster than Chevrolets. Buyers could choose either a six- or eight-cylinder engine, both inline L-head designs dating back to the mid-1930s. The Pontiac six was similar in size and output to the Chevrolet “Stovebolt Six,” which was of similar vintage. Both made an identical 115 horsepower (86 kW) on manual transmission cars; automatic Chevrolets got 125 hp (93 kW), while automatic Pontiacs made do with 118 hp (88 kW).

Pontiac’s straight-eight, which was optional on Chieftains and standard on the Star Chief, wasn’t a lot better, offering a meager 122 horsepower (91 kW), 127 hp (95 kW) on Star Chiefs. It was a smooth, reliable engine with strong low-speed grunt, but it strained against the Pontiac’s nearly two-ton heft, so 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) took 17 seconds or more, although top speed was in the 90–93 mph (145–150 km/h) range, respectable enough for the era and a bit faster than a Chevrolet Bel Air. The only real performance advantage the Pontiac offered over the Chevrolet was that Pontiac’s four-speed Dual-Range Hydra-Matic was much more flexible than Chevrolet’s two-speed Powerglide, albeit not as smooth.

In keeping with the fashion of the time, the Pontiac was not any better equipped than its plebeian brother. The Pontiac’s trim was a little plusher than low-line Chevrolets’, but amenities like heater, outside rear-view mirrors, back-up lights, and turn signals cost extra, just as they did on a basic Chevrolet. Most Pontiacs that left the factory had Hydra-Matic, but it added $178 to the tab. Power steering and brakes, added to the options list by 1954, also carried an extra charge, as did air conditioning, still a very expensive and relatively rare option. Even the nifty minor gadgets that make the accessories catalogs of this era so entertaining to modern readers — including an “Autotronic Eye” automatic headlight dimmer, a prismatic traffic light viewer, and a Remington portable electric shaver — could also be ordered from your Chevrolet dealer, although we would hazard to guess that Pontiac buyers tended to order a few more of these extras than did the typical Chevrolet customer.

1954 Pontiac hood ornament
The most gaudy, tasteless, and fascinating of the 1954 Pontiac’s many optional accessories is this dazzling illuminated hood ornament. The stylized image of Chief Pontiac adorns this car in many places, none so eye-catching (or eye-popping) as this one. The yellow plastic section lights up when the headlights are on.

1954 Pontiac hood ornament
In 1950s America, not even a cartoonish image of colonial domination was complete if it didn’t also have wings, suggesting that old Chief Pontiac is about to be launched into space, like the doomed Laika, the Russians’ first canine cosmonaut. The Indian motif faded away rapidly after this, for which we all may be thankful.

SIBLING RIVALRY

Pontiac in this period did have a better reputation for quality, reliability, and resale value than Chevrolet, which counted for something, but mostly what you got for your extra dollars was the visual confirmation that you had bought a bigger, more expensive car — signifying to the world that you could afford a bigger, more expensive car. When you could afford an additional $200 stretch beyond that, you would graduate to an Oldsmobile or a Buick, then eventually to a Cadillac, exactly as Sloan had planned.

The fly in the ointment of Sloan’s meticulous product hierarchy was that the same social-climbing instincts it sought to instill in customers also infected its divisional managers. By the mid-fifties, GM’s divisions, coveting the prestige of the makes above them and the volume of the ones below, consciously and even gleefully sought to horn in on one another’s territory. Pontiac went after Oldsmobile, Chevrolet’s top-of-the-line cut into Pontiac’s territory, and Buick went after both Pontiac and Oldsmobile with its downmarket Special. None was content to remain in its original, Sloan-appointed slot.

By the mid-1950s, that internecine competition was cutting sharply into Pontiac’s volume. Squeezed from both sides, Pontiac sales fell from 418,619 in 1953 to 287,744 in 1954.

1954 Pontiac Star Chief rear view
Pontiac’s famous “Silver Streaks” were introduced for the 1935 model year; both Frank Hershey (head of the Pontiac styling studio until 1935) and Virgil Exner (who took his place) have taken credit for them. The streaks hadn’t always been applied to the rear deck; from 1941 to 1948 they were applied only to the hood. They would be doubled on the 1955-1956 models, running along each side of the hood, and were deleted for good in 1957.

BUNKIE TO THE RESCUE

That Pontiac survived this crunch was partly attributable to the introduction of its first V8 engine in 1955. Although Oldsmobile and Cadillac had had modern, OHV V8s since 1949, Pontiac’s management hadn’t been in any hurry to bring out one of their own, although they’d been developing various designs for years. In fact, Pontiac chief engineer George Delaney had chosen to delay Pontiac’s V8 by two years, from 1953 to 1955, for additional mechanical development.

The new Pontiac Strato-Streak V8 engine was similar in concept to the Chevrolet V8, although it had some significant differences as well. It started off at 287 cubic inches (4,706 cc), slightly more than the old straight eight, but it had 180 gross horsepower (134 kW), a significant 53 hp (40 kW) improvement. An optional “powerpack” bumped that to an even 200 hp (149 kW). The extra power was enough to lop more than five seconds off the 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) times and make the Pontiac an honest 100-mph (160-km/h) car.

The second factor in Pontiac’s survival was the installation in 1956 of Semon E. “Bunkie” Knudsen as the division’s new general manager. Bunkie knew that the stodgy, conservative, school-principal Pontiac was in danger of extinction. Knudsen made one significant symbolic gesture — removing Pontiac’s trademark chrome “Silver Streaks” — and began a major push to establish Pontiac as GM’s excitement division, hoping to reach out to younger buyers who had never considered Pontiac before. There was a posh, limited-edition Bonneville for 1957, with then-novel fuel injection; a host of “Tri-Power” engines; and then an aggressive push into stock-car racing that started in 1958 and culminated in the mighty “Super Duty” cars of 1962.

When Bunkie left Pontiac to run Chevrolet in late 1961, his successors, Pete Estes and John DeLorean, carried on this tradition, which took Pontiac to third place in industry sales by the mid-1960s.

PONTIAC’S IDENTITY CRISIS

The blurring of the class boundaries that began in the fifties only got worse in the seventies and eighties, exacerbated by upper management’s continual push for greater and greater inter-division commonality as well as pressure from the sales organization to give every division a version of nearly every new product.

By the early eighties, each division had a full line of cars, from compacts to full-size station wagons, and they had begun to use identical engines, transmissions, and other hardware. There were fewer and fewer tangible reasons to choose a Buick over an Oldsmobile, other than a vague cultural memory that the Buick name had once been more prestigious. Today, most of GM’s products are so similar across divisions that there is serious question whether there’s still a reason for the remaining divisions to exist.

The automotive class structure Sloan identified still endures, although that structure is no longer dominated by GM products. The tiers once occupied by Oldsmobile, Buick, and Cadillac makes are now dominated by a mixture of Japanese and European cars. There is just as much snobbery in the distinction between a Hyundai, a Volvo, and a Mercedes as there once was between a Chevrolet, an Oldsmobile, and a Cadillac. The prestige American brands appear to have been pushed permanently off the upper rungs of the ladder, replaced by Mercedes, BMW, and Lexus. The trouble with basing a consumer product plan on class, rather than technical merit or outright value, is that in any class system — even one as financially driven as Sloan’s — status is far easier to lose than to gain.

Pontiac, in the 50 years since the original Bonneville, has continued to try to pitch itself as the excitement-builder, although today, as in 1954, it has fallen behind the pace of its rivals, and there is little of substance to distinguish it from Chevrolet. Pontiac has risen from the ashes before, more than once, but it will need another dramatic shot in the arm if it is to do so again.

# # #

NOTES ON SOURCES

Our sources for this article included Arch Brown, “Pontiac Eight: ‘The Most Beautiful Thing on Wheels,'” Special Interest Autos #111 (May-June 1989); and Ken Gross, “All Things to All Men: 1953 Pontiac Custom Catalina,” Special Interest Autos #32 (January-February 1976), both of which are reprinted in The Hemmings Motor News Book of Pontiacs: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, ed. Terry Ehrich (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2001); the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Encyclopedia of American Cars: Over 65 Years of Automotive History (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, 1996); John Gunnell, ed., Standard Catalog of American Cars 1946-1975, rev. 4th ed. (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2002); Jan P. Norbye and Jim Dunne, Pontiac 1946-1978: The Classic Postwar Years (Osceola, WI: Motorbooks International, 1979); Alfred P. Sloan, My Years with General Motors (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1964); and Anthony Young and Mike Mueller, Classic Chevy Hot Ones: 1955–1957 2nd ed. (Ann Arbor, MI: Lowe & B. Hould Publishers, 2002).

We also consulted “MI Tests the 1950 Pontiac” by Tom McCahill, Mechanix Illustrated April 1950; Walter A. Woron, “Pontiac Motor Trial,” Motor Trend September 1951; Ted Koopman, “Speed Age Tests the 1952 Pontiac,” Speed Age March 1952; “Testing the New Dual-Range H-M Pontiac,” Motor Trend April 1952; Pete Molson and Walt Woron, “Pontiac Eight,” Motor Trend May 1953; “Plush New Pontiac Is Longer and Stronger,” Popular Science January 1954; “Star Chief Heads Pontiac Line for ’54,” Automobile Topics January 1954; Jim Lodge, “Heap big car for little wampum, that’s the Pontiac Star Chief,” Motor Trend May 1954; and “Pontiac Road Test,” Motor Life, January 1955, all of which are reprinted in Pontiac Limited Edition Extra 1949-1960, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1999).

The title of this article was suggested by the Adam Ant song “Room at the Top,” written by Adam Ant, Marco Pirroni, and André Cymone, which appeared on his 1990 album Manners & Physique. It was previously the title of a 1957 novel by John Braine (which may have been the inspiration for the song), which was adapted for film in the U.K. in 1959.


25 Comments

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  1. In 1956, my dad got a pale green ’53 Pontiac with the straight 8. It replaced a ’49 Frazer for which he had (understandably) gotten tired of chasing parts at junk yards. It was his first car with automatic, and he was really enthusiastic about it. For weeks he was telling people, “You just step on the gas and it goes, you step on the brake and it stops!”

    I was pretty young and not much of a gearhead at the time, so I didn’t notice if it was a Chieftain or a Star Chief. It had the light-up hood ornament, which I thought was pretty cool. My dad was a fairly hard-nosed, practical chemistry Ph.D. He once said that he didn’t think everyday items such as toasters and typewriters should be made to look pretty because of the cost of doing so. I’m sure that if he’d bought the car new, he’d have had no time for that hood ornament!

  2. Great article and required reading for muscle car fans. They assume Pontiac started with the first GTO.

    Also, good to show how the old brand structure was built for the days of only one ‘standard size’ car. Once the middies and compacts came around, overlap greatly occured. Then, Impala owners traded in for Cutlasses, etc,etc. We know the rest of the GM ‘look alike’ story from there.

  3. the pontiac shown here, is a starchief, not a chieftain, pontiac started to design a V8 engine in 1946, chevy’s timetable had nothing to do with it. chevrolet got to borrow pontiac’s stud mounted ball and rocker arm valve system. pontiac had the 287 ohv V8 ready in 1953, chevrolet hadn’t even gotten started on it’s design yet. you could not get factory air conditioning in chevrolet untill 1955.

    1. You’re right about the engine — there’s actually a new article coming up soon about the Knudsen-era Pontiac, so I got into more detail about the development of the Pontiac engine that wasn’t reflected here.

      I’m not certain this is a real Star Chief. It obviously wears Star Chief trim, but it also had the non-stock wheels and a number of what I think were non-standard trim pieces. It’s been a while since I took those photos, but my recollection was that it seemed too short in the tail to be a real Star Chief. I didn’t get the VIN or talk to the owner, but I suspected it was actually a Chieftain with Star Chief trim added. I may be mistaken, but on other early-fifties Star Chiefs I’ve seen, the extra length of the tail was more pronounced.

      1. hi, i agree that the length of the trunk area doesn’t quite look right, chieftains had the back up lights mounted on the trunk lid (carried over from 1953), the rear body tail panel looks correct for starchiefs. power steering was first offered by pontiac in 1953. power brakes weren’t listed as an option untill 1954, but dealer’s had retro conversion kits for 1953 owner’s who came back and wanted the treadle vac power brake option added to their 1953 pontiacs. 1954 pontiacs with the straight eight was the first american automobile to have up front, in dash, factory air conditioning, beating out everyone else. i have this same factory air conditioning system, complete, that i’m transplanting into my 1953 pontiac chieftain custom catalina coupe.

  4. Just bought a really nice 1954 Chieftain and can not find out vin data at all. My vin l8zs461 and want to find out more on this car. What were the options for this car. It rides like a dream and want to keep it orginal as much as possible. She has an inline 8 and 4 doors. Color is black and a 3 speed manual.Any help would be nice.

    1. Bought a 1954 chieftain a few days ago. I’m in Cape Town South Africa so I imagine I’m going to have a serious problem with parts or trims should I require them. If you are able to, can you please refer me to companies, individuals who could be of assistance.

      1. I’m not able to advise anyone on buying or selling parts or anything like that — sorry!

  5. While the performance of the six-cylinder ’54 Chevrolet Bel Air with Powerglide was approximately the same as the straight eigbt ’54 Pontiac Star Chief with Hydra-Matic, I’d bet most people would find the flat-head eight smoother and quieter (when the valves were properly adjusted) than the OHV Chevrolet engine. Another advantage the Pontiac had for longer engine life was full-pressure lubrication while the Chevrolet still relied on the “dip and hope splash” lubrication. The big advantage the Powerglide Chevrolet sixes had over both Pontiac engines was hydraulic valve lifters which eliminated periodic valve adjustments which required head removal on the L-head Pontiac engine.

    1. hello rusty shepard, the pontiac straight eights and sixes do not require cylinder head removal to adjust the lifter-valve clearance, and the valves do not require periodic adjustments if the intial adjustment is correct and the jam nuts properly tighten.

  6. I have a set of 1954 pontiac fender skirts. These skirts have 3 stars on them, i cant find anything like them. The fender skirts are green.can u tell me what i have.

  7. I have an antique Pontiac Chieftian pocket knife. It has the chieftian logo on one side and the slogan, “Dollar for dollar you can’t beat a Pontiac”. I am just trying to find out if this was given to dealers or suppliers. The person that I inherited it from was in the supplier business. It is a beautiful knife with the original leather sleeve. It is also in mint condition. Just wondering if anyone knows anything about it. I can’t find any information anywhere on the web. Thanks!

    1. I also have a vintage Pontiac pocket knife with the “dollar for dollar” slogan. It is in a brown leather case with a red leather lining. My father worked for GM in the mid-fifties on the Parade of Progress, then did a short dealership stint. I can’t find out what it is worth either.

  8. This car is definitely a Star Chief. The Star Chief had an extra 2 inches in the wheel base. On this car the difference is visible between the rear door jamb and the rear wheel well. Also, this car has the longer trunk. You’re right about the photos not looking right. But, that’s due to camera angle. I took one look at the area around the rear wheel well and that told me all I needed to know…it’s a Star Chief.

    1. Dan — thanks for clarifying! Yeah, the photos were obviously not taken under anything resembling ideal conditions.

  9. Kelly, I have the same knife from my father in law. I was wondering if you found out any info on it that you could share with me. Thank you!

  10. Beautiful looking car! I’ve always liked cars built by General Motors between 1949 and 1954. My favourites are Pontiac and Chevrolet.

  11. If someone decides to buy one of these 54′ Pontiacs, they’d save a lot of cash by purchasing a car with good chrome on it! I bought my starchief back in 1980 and today the grille alone costs more than four times what I paid for the entire vechicle back then!

    1. Sadly, I get the impression that’s become the case with a lot of old cars other than the usual suspects (e.g., Mustang, first-gen Camaro, Tri-Five Chevrolet): Mechanical parts might be no problem, but heaven help you if you’re missing some unique bit of chrome trim that’s not shared with a lot of other models or model years.

  12. I am restoring a 1954 Pontiac Star Chief 2 door hardtop and am looking for a manual that is for assembling the body. I am doing okay with the motor and I think I have all the body parts but need to know if I need anything else before reassembling. If you know where I can find a manual please email me with the information and I thank you so much.
    Bobby

    1. Bobby,

      I’m afraid I really don’t know — if you do a web search, you’ll know more than I do about that. My only vaguely clever suggestion would be to check out your local public library system. Libraries, particularly in big cities, often have a surprisingly large selection of automotive repair manuals stretching back decades. (You’d need to check the card catalog or talk to a reference librarian because the different volumes may be scattered throughout various branches.)

      Even in a city like L.A. or New York, there’s no guarantee that the library will have the specific volume you need, of course, but it’s certainly worth a look. If nothing else, it might give you the chance to review a helpful-looking book before buying a copy online.

  13. I have a 53 Chieftain that has the straight 8 engine. The engine begins to knock under load. It is pretty loud. It is a low mileage car. I have a service manual on the engine and there is a paragraph specifically mentioning an engine knock at 40 mph which is exactly when mine starts. However they don't mention whether it is something that needs addressed or you live with. Can anyone shed any light on this for me? Thank you

    1. As I keep saying, I'm afraid I'm not able to provide any sort of repair or maintenance advice — sorry!

  14. What, pray tell, is “tasteless” about a illuminated hood ornament?

    1. I don’t think illuminated hood ornaments are necessarily tasteless — gaudy, to be sure, and rather gimmicky, but hey, sometimes that’s fun. Turning the traditional Chief Pontiac bust (Did he or his heirs ever get anything from Pontiac’s use of his likeness? I have to wonder) into a weird light-up caricature on the nosecone of a fanciful space-age plane or rocketship, on the other hand, is in exceptionally poor taste, albeit par for the course in mid-fifties Americana. It’s like turning one of those grotesque cigar-store Indians into a pinball machine.

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