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.
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.
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.
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.
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 (5,428 mm) long on a 124-inch (3,150mm) 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.
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 “Autronic 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.
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.
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.