The primary culprit was a recession that savaged most of the mid-priced brands, but even discounting the economic downturn, the 1958 Pontiac was not a particularly inspiring car. It was powerful — the V8, now up to 370 cu. in. (6,054 cc), had as much as 330 gross horsepower (246 kW) with Tri-Power — but it had dreadful brakes, its new cruciform frame allowed a disconcerting level of body flex, and the newly optional Ever-Level air suspension was grievously unreliable. As for its styling, if it was not quite as glitzy as the contemporary Oldsmobile or Buick, it certainly wasn’t for lack of trying. To make matters worse, Knudsen had decided to hike prices by around $100 across the board in hopes of shoring up Pontiac’s flagging profit margins. As a result, quite a few buyers opted for the Chevrolet Bel Air or the new Chevy Impala, which offered similar style and power for less money.
Admittedly, there was little Knudsen could do about the ’58, whose design and engineering was mostly locked by the time he arrived. Nonetheless, he worked diligently to improve the Pontiac organization, establishing new procedures to debug pilot production and recruiting a new general sales manager, Frank Bridge, from Buick to reinvigorate Pontiac’s sales organization.
Resuscitating Pontiac’s image was a more complicated problem. The first challenge was to differentiate Pontiac from its GM siblings. Knudsen knew Pontiac could not compete directly with Chevrolet on price, it was no match for Buick in prestige, and Oldsmobile had done a better job of appealing to middle-of-the-road sedan buyers; Pontiac needed a hook. The second challenge was appealing to the younger buyers who had dismissed Pontiac as old-fashioned.
Knudsen’s answer to both problems was performance. At the time, GM did not have a performance brand as such, although V8 Chevrolets were popular with amateur hot rodders, and Buick’s big-engined Century was a sort of businessman’s express. Oldsmobile could have claimed that role following the success of the original Rocket Eighty-Eight, but Olds general manager Jack Wolfram was even more conservative that Bob Critchfield, and the Eighty-Eight’s hot rod heyday had largely passed. There was plenty of room for Pontiac to carve out a space for itself in the performance field.
Knudsen’s strategy was twofold: First, Pete Estes set about improving the performance of Pontiac’s production cars. The displacement and compression ratios of Pontiac’s V8 increased every year while engineer Mac McKellar developed a series of ever-hotter camshafts. At the same time, Knudsen arranged for Pontiac to participate in both stock car and drag racing. When GM signed the Automobile Manufacturers Association racing “ban” in 1957, Knudsen continued to support private builders like Henry “Smokey” Yunick under the table, occasionally out of his own pocket.
Knudsen’s efforts soon began to pay off. In early 1958, Pontiacs won the first six places in their class at the Daytona Speed Week with one-mile (1.6-km) average speeds of over 145 mph (235 km/h) and ’58 Pontiacs claimed three NASCAR victories. Pontiac was still far from all conquering, but it was a promising start.
About two months after Bunkie Knudsen arrived at Pontiac, GM stylists got their first glimpse of Chrysler’s all-new 1957 line. The ’57 Chryslers, developed under the auspices of Chrysler styling chief Virgil Exner, Sr., were sleek, low-slung, and dramatically finned, making GM’s 1957 offerings seem bulbous and somewhat dated. The new Chrysler sent shock waves through the GM Design Staff, who had been accustomed to setting the standards for the entire industry. By that time, there was nothing to be done about the ’57s or ’58s, but design director Bill Mitchell organized a crash program to redesign the 1959s, staging a near-mutiny against his boss and mentor, styling VP Harley Earl. Inevitably, the ‘mutineers’ went too far, leading to some of GM’s gaudiest designs, but it was a fortuitous moment for Pontiac, giving the division an all-new design for 1959 rather than an evolution of the unpopular ’58 car.
The Pontiac studio explored a variety of design concepts for the ’59 model, some of them quite grotesque. Fortunately, the completed design was the most restrained and tasteful of GM’s 1959 car. Like the ’59 Chevy, Pontiac now shared the larger B-body used by Buick and Oldsmobile, longer and nearly 5 inches (127 mm) wider than the ’58 A-body. Despite that similarity, the Pontiac looked distinctly different, sporting a new split grille treatment and an unusually wide tread width.
The wider track emerged from the designers’ recognition that while the ’59 B-body was noticeably wider than its predecessors, the tread width of GM’s chassis had remained more or less constant since the end of the war. In late 1956 or early 1957, Chuck Jordan’s advanced styling studio had experimentally moved the wheels farther apart without altering the wheelhouses themselves. Knudsen, Estes, and DeLorean saw Jordan’s model on one of their periodic visits and Knudsen took a fancy to it, feeling it gave the car a more athletic stance.
Pontiac’s ad agency, MacManus, John & Adams, latched onto that feature as an advertising hook, and copywriter Milt Colson coined the term “Wide Track.” Knudsen didn’t particularly like it — he considered it hokey — but it became very successful. The slogan was not entirely hyperbole; the ’59 Pontiac did indeed have a greater tread width with than any contemporary GM car, fully 3 inches (76 mm) wider than that of the ’59 Cadillac. The wider track did provide some handling benefits, although it was not as miraculous as the ads implied. Lateral weight transfer in turns is a function of tread width and the height of the center of gravity, so the wider track provided more level cornering without stiffer springs or anti-roll bars.
Despite the sporting pretensions of its advertising, the ’59 Pontiac’s suspension was rather soft, albeit somewhat less soggy than a contemporary Oldsmobile or Buick, and its steering was slow even with power assist. The Pontiac’s straight-line performance, however, left little to be desired. The V8 was now up to 389 cu. in. (6,372 cc) and even the two-barrel, 280 hp (209 kW) version could do 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in less than nine seconds. With the 345 hp (257 kW) Tri-Power engine, the big Pontiac could go from 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in around eight seconds flat and reach a top speed of more than 120 mph (193 km/h) — quite formidable for what was still basically a family car.
The ’59 was the first Pontiac developed completely under Knudsen’s management and it did wonders for the division’s image. Not only was it was arguably the cleanest and most tasteful of GM’s 1959 models, it was an obvious departure from the underwhelming Pontiacs of the past few years. Even Pontiac’s model names had changed. Knudsen wanted to retire the division’s hoary Chief Pontiac emblems, so for 1959 he abandoned the Chieftain and Super Chief nameplates, although the Star Chief name survived through 1966.
The new Pontiac went over quite well with both the press and the public. Motor Trend gave Pontiac its 1959 Car of the Year award and sales rose by more than 75%. Given the division’s disheartening 1958 performance, that was not as spectacular as you might think; Pontiac’s 1959 sales were still below even its sub-par 1956 numbers. Nonetheless, per-dealership sales were up considerably and the new cars were in high demand throughout the model year. Pontiac’s market share was up markedly, an encouraging sign that Knudsen was on the right track.