On most American OHV V8s of that era, the pushrods actuated the valves via stamped-steel rocker arms, which were usually pivoted on a rocker shaft in each cylinder head. That arrangement worked well enough, but the rocker shafts added cost, weight, and bulk (even more so on engines like Chrysler’s FirePower V8, whose hemispherical combustion chambers and widely splayed valves required two rocker shafts for each head). In the late forties, Pontiac engineer Clayton Leach developed a much simpler alternative: carrying each rocker arm not on a shaft, but rather on a simple ball pivot, mounted on a pressed-in steel stud incorporating an integral oil passage for lubrication and using the rocker’s contact with the valve stem to locate the rocker arm laterally. Development testing soon demonstrated that this approach was just as durable as a rocker shaft and substantially cheaper to build.
The ball-pivot layout will be immediately familiar to anyone who’s ever worked on a small-block Chevrolet engine, which was not coincidental. When Chevrolet chief engineer Ed Cole learned of Leach’s valvegear design, he asked for and received permission to incorporate it on Chevrolet’s own V8. Ordinarily, contemporary GM policy allowed each division a year of exclusivity on such inventions, but Cole got his way, perhaps because the potential cost savings were too substantial to ignore. Unfortunately for Pontiac, the Chevrolet engine, also launched in 1955, overshadowed the new Pontiac V8 and not many people were aware that the valvegear design was actually Pontiac’s, not Chevrolet’s. (As a side note for those more accustomed to GM’s modern “corporate” engines, we should emphasize that other than the rocker studs, the Pontiac and Chevrolet V8s had very little in common; they were not the same engine!)
In its initial form, the new Pontiac engine displaced 287 cu. in. (4,706 cc). It was rated at 173 gross horsepower (129 kW) with stick shift, 180 hp (134 kW) with automatic; an optional four-barrel carburetor and dual exhausts raised that output to 200 hp (149 kW). All these figures were healthy increases against the outgoing, 268 cu. in. (4,398 cc) straight eight, which made no more than 127 hp (95 kW), and somewhat better than the output of the new Chevrolet V8.
The V8 was now Pontiac’s only engine. Critchfield originally planned to retain the old flathead six for base models, but sales of six-cylinder Pontiacs had been slow for the past few years and the V8 seemed the way of the future, so the six was dropped shortly before launch. If nothing else, making the V8 standard gave Pontiac another modest advantage over Chevrolet.
The V8 was accompanied by completely new styling, initiated by Pontiac chief stylist Raoul Pepin in 1951 and completed under the supervision of Paul Gillan, who replaced Pepin in early 1953. The new body, again shared with Chevrolet, abandoned its predecessor’s bulbous hood, making the 1955 look both longer and wider. To reinforce its position in GM’s brand hierarchy, it had the obligatory slathering of brightwork, including Pontiac’s customary Silver Streaks, now separated into two parallel chrome strips across the hood and decklid. Some wags compared it to a fat man wearing suspenders, but in all, the 1955 Pontiac looked much more modern than before.
THE OLD MAN’S CAR
The 1955 model year set new records for the American auto industry. Thanks to a combination of appealing new designs, overproduction, and aggressive salesmanship, Detroit sold 7.2 million cars in 1955, writing so many long-term auto loans that the Federal Reserve Board moved to raise interest rates. Pontiac had its best year ever, with sales that were nearly double those of 1954. Its market share reached a new high, almost 7.5%.
Unfortunately for Bob Critchfield, the boom couldn’t last. With an oversaturated market and tighter consumer credit, auto sales plummeted. Pontiac’s volume and market share promptly sank by almost 25%. Most automakers were down, but Pontiac’s sales dropped off more than either Oldsmobile or Buick, which now outsold Pontiac by more than 220,000 units despite higher prices.
General sales manager Howard Crawford concluded that Pontiac’s main problem was a lack of image. In the public’s mind, the archetypal Pontiac buyer was a middle-aged high school principal or the night manager of a local bank — highly respectable, to be sure, not exactly aspirational figures for younger buyers. Like its traditional rival, Dodge, Pontiac had become thoroughly stodgy.
Critchfield made tentative moves to redress that image problem, running two Pontiacs at the Daytona Speed Week in February 1956 and authorizing the development of more powerful engines. However, the division’s sales erosion showed no signs of improving and its return on investment was much lower than Buick’s or Oldsmobile’s. For a while, there was talk of shuttering Pontiac as a separate division and demoting it to a cheaper companion model for Oldsmobile.
As the 1956 model year wound down, GM management decided it was time for new blood. In May, Critchfield was promoted to run the corporation’s Process Development Section. On June 1, Bunkie Knudsen replaced him as vice president and general manager of Pontiac.
BUNKIE KNUDSEN COMETH
Semon Knudsen — better known as “Bunkie,” a boyhood nickname — was 43 years old when he took over Pontiac, the youngest general manager in GM’s history to that point. His father, William “Big Bill” Knudsen, had left Ford in 1921 to run Chevrolet and by 1937 had risen to become president of General Motors.
Inevitably, Bunkie’s interest in cars started early. When he was 14, his father gave him a disassembled new Chevrolet, challenging the boy to put it together before he could drive it. Bunkie received his engineering degree from MIT in 1936 and joined Pontiac as a tool engineer in 1939. He went on to work at various GM divisions, including Process Development, Allison, and finally Detroit Diesel, of which he became general manager in early 1955. If Bunkie Knudsen was not quite Detroit aristocracy in the manner of Henry Ford II, he was as close to it as GM’s corporate culture would permit.
Around the time Knudsen became head of Pontiac, chief engineer George Delaney applied for early retirement. To replace him, Knudsen recruited Elliot M. (Pete) Estes, assistant chief motor engineer of Oldsmobile. Estes was reluctant — Oldsmobile was doing very well and it was common knowledge throughout GM that Pontiac was not — but Knudsen convinced him to look at it as a challenge. Knudsen made a similar pitch to Packard engineer John Z. DeLorean, who joined Pontiac in the new position of director of advanced engineering. Estes and DeLorean were even younger than Knudsen; Estes was 40 in 1956, DeLorean 31.
When Knudsen arrived, the 1957 Pontiacs were only a month away from pilot production, but he wanted to make a visible statement that the division was under new management. The day after he arrived, he ordered the removal of the 1957 cars’ “Silver Streak” trim, which required last-minute tooling changes to both the hood and decklid. It was a minor change, but it had a tremendous impact on Pontiac staff, if not the public. The Silver Streaks had been a Pontiac trademark for more than 20 years and removing them was akin to taking the twin kidney grilles off a BMW.
Unlike Critchfield, Bunkie Knudsen loved cars and was eager to improve the product. He would often wander through Pontiac’s offices and studios, usually with Estes and DeLorean in tow, taking a keen interest in new design studies and engineering concepts. Knudsen didn’t waste a lot of time in study groups or committees; if he liked something he saw, he would tell his staff to run with it. Many Pontiac executives considered him a breath of fresh air and his presence provided a considerable boost to the general morale.
DARKEST BEFORE THE DAWN
That improved morale was fortunate because 1957 and 1958 were terrible years for Pontiac sales. Despite new gimmicks like Tri-Power carburetion (an idea Pete Estes brought with him from Oldsmobile) and the limited-production Bonneville convertible, Pontiac’s 1957 volume was down more than 80,000 units from its already-discouraging 1956 total. Its market share tumbled alarmingly to 5.3%. The following year was even worse, with market share falling under 5% for the first time since the Depression.