Wide Track: Bunkie Knudsen, Pete Estes, and the Pontiac Renaissance

1958 Pontiac Bonneville Custom hardtop front 3q © 2010 Aaron Severson
Short-wheelbase 1958 Pontiacs, including the top-of-the-line Bonneville hardtop and convertible, were 211.7 inches (5,377 mm) long on a 122-inch (3,099mm) wheelbase; the long-wheelbase Super Chief and Star Chief were 215.5 inches (5,474 mm) on a 124-inch (3,150mm) wheelbase. This Bonneville has neither Tri-Power nor the very expensive optional Rochester fuel injection (an eye-watering $500 extra). Instead, it’s powered by the 285 hp (213 kW) engine that was standard on Bonnevilles with Hydra-Matic. Power is more than adequate, but brakes are not. Lining area is only 178 sq. in. (1,148 sq. cm.) and the drums are poorly cooled, a recipe for dramatic and uneven brake fade.

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 proved 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 Chevrolet Impala, which offered similar style and power for less money.

Admittedly, there was little Knudsen could do about the 1958 car, 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 from Buick, Frank Bridge, 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, was no match for Buick in prestige, and probably couldn’t rival Oldsmobile’s appeal to middle-of-the-road sedan buyers; Pontiac needed a unique hook. The second challenge was that that hook needed to appeal to the younger buyers who were dismissing Pontiac as old-fashioned.

1958 Pontiac Bonneville Custom hardtop rear 3q © 2010 Aaron Severson
The 1958 Pontiac had a new cruciform frame and “Quadra-Poise” trailing-arm rear suspension with a choice of steel coil springs or “Ever-Level” air springs (a $175 option). The frame itself was quite stiff, but the lack of side rails allowed the body to twist and flex excessively and it provided very little protection in side impacts. Pontiac abandoned the cruciform layout in 1961. The false air vent on the trailing edge of the roof betrays the Bonneville’s structural kinship with the 1958 Chevrolet — the 1958 Impala Sport Coupe has the same feature.

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 than 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 and engineer Mac McKellar was developing a series of ever-hotter camshafts. Second, 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 using his own funds.

1958 Pontiac Star Chief Custom Catalina interior © 2009 Aaron Severson
Even the interior of the 1958 Pontiac was gaudier than the ’57 — compare the chrome-encrusted dashboard of this 1958 Star Chief to the relatively subdued 1957 dash pictured on the previous page. This interior was apparently derived from a mid-fifties Cadillac show car, adopted for the 1958 Pontiac at Bunkie Knudsen’s orders.

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). 1958 Pontiacs also 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 1957 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, discarding the designs previously approved by his boss and mentor, styling VP Harley Earl. Inevitably, this volte-face went a little 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.

1959 Pontiac Bonneville convertible front © 2009 John Lloyd (used with permission)
There are several contradictory accounts of the origins of Pontiac’s split grille. Historian Michael Lamm and former GM designer Dave Holls attributed it to Paul Gillan, Pontiac chief stylist from early 1953 to late 1957; Gillan had proposed a similar theme for 1955 only to be overruled by Harley Earl himself. Designer Jack Humbert credited the twin grille to Joe Schemansky, who replaced Paul Gillan in December 1957. In any event, while the Design Staff liked the split-grille theme, neither Bunkie Knudsen nor Bill Mitchell had much enthusiasm for it, which is why it was replaced in 1960. (Photo: “1959 Pontiac Bonneville” © 2009 John Lloyd; used with permission)

The Pontiac studio explored a variety of design concepts for the 1959 model, some of them quite grotesque. Fortunately, the completed design was the most restrained and tasteful of GM’s 1959 cars. Like the 1959 Chevrolet, the 1959 Pontiac now shared the larger B-body used by Buick and Oldsmobile, which was longer and nearly 5 inches (127 mm) wider than the 1958 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.

1959 Pontiac Bonneville Sport Coupe front 3q © 2007 clicks_1000 (used with permission
Note the way this 1959 Pontiac Bonneville’s doors curve downward just above the door handle; for cost reasons, all of GM’s 1959 cars shared the doors of the 1959 Buick, including the Buick doors’ distinct downward slope. Pontiac’s designers have largely concealed that slope with the rear fender kickup that becomes the tailfin. Also note the exaggerated wraparound windshield, which adds to the racy look of the hardtop coupe, but can create glare and reflection problems. (Photo: “Pontiac Bonneville 1959” © 2007 clicks_1000; used with permission)

Pontiac’s ad agency, MacManus, John & Adams, latched onto that feature as an advertising hook and copywriter Milt Colson coined the term “Wide Track.” Although Knudsen didn’t particularly like it, considering it hokey, the slogan became very successful. It was not entirely hyperbole; the 1959 Pontiac did indeed have a greater tread width with than any contemporary GM car, fully 3 inches (76 mm) wider than that of the 1959 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 1959 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 9 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 8 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.

1959 Pontiac Bonneville Sport Coupe rear 3q © 2007 clicks_1000 (used with permission)
The 1959 Pontiac Star Chief and Bonneville were enormous: 220.7 inches (5,606 mm) long on a 124-inch (3,150mm) wheelbase, weighing around 4,500 lb (2,040 kg). The 1959 Pontiacs retained the cruciform frame and trailing-link rear suspension, although the latter had revised geometry to reduce brake dive and ride harshness. The brakes were also bigger, with 191 sq. in. (1,232 sq. cm.) of total lining area, but they were still marginal for the big Pontiac’s considerable curb weight. (Photo: “Pontiac Bonneville 1959” © 2007 clicks_1000; used with permission)

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.

1959 Pontiac Bonneville rear deck badge © 2007 clicks_1000 (used with permission)
The Pontiac Bonneville was introduced in 1957 as a limited edition, available only as a convertible; 630 were sold, mostly to Pontiac dealers for use as traffic builders. In 1958, a Bonneville hardtop was added and in 1959, the Bonneville became a regular trim series, including two- and four-door hardtops, a convertible, and a Custom Safari wagon. (Photo: “Pontiac Bonneville Trunk Badge” © 2007 clicks_1000; used with permission)


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  1. Great, informative article, as usual…but, the last page needs reformating as text is cut off on the right.

    1. Okay, I figured out the problem. It appears to be fixed in both Firefox and IE, although you might have to clear your temporary internet files to get it to reload properly.

  2. As the longtime owner (1974-91) of a ’66 Bonneville convertible, I think you should have mentioned that the 1965 redesign increased the proportions of the larger full-size cars (i.e., the Star Chief and Bonneville series except for the Safari wagons) to about those of 1959-60: Mine had a 124-inch wheelbase and a total length of 222 inches.

    (Also, the ’66 in the photo has the BONNEVILLE grille lettering much to close to the center of the car for some reason; the first photo returned by a Google Images search of “1966 bonneville” shows the correct placement.)

    Thanks for all the detail about the pre-Wide Track period, as well as the reference list.

    1. That’s a reasonable note. I had wanted to mention the larger dimensions, but there wasn’t an easy way to include it in the text; I added it to the caption.

      I have no explanation of the offset grille lettering on the red Bonneville. Maybe it was missing when the owner got the car, and he or she wasn’t sure exactly where it was supposed to go — I don’t know.

    2. To say that there was no reason for Pontiac’s existence is a very shallow statement. The Pontiac Motor division of General Motors designed and built some of the most Iconic car of the 20th Century. There contribution to both Stock Car Racing and drag racing was no small accomplishment. The beautiful full size cars of the late 50s and all through the 60s were some of the most beautiful cars ever sold by GM. The Pontiac was a step up for blue collar workers who couldn’t afford a Buick or Cadillac. And all this is not to mention such popular Icons as the GTO or Fire Bird (Trans Am). Give me a Break!

      1. “Shallow” is an interesting choice of words in this context because, without wanting to seem more than usually argumentative, the qualities that distinguished a Pontiac from a Chevrolet or an Oldsmobile were exactly that. Badge prestige is always an ephemeral quality, especially in the narrow realm of the GM brand ladder, and so are styling and the mechanical advantages, if any, a Pontiac had over its contemporary Chevrolet rival. Ephemeral doesn’t mean it doesn’t count — obviously, people will go to some trouble and expense to get their car or their phone in a particular color, so it has a definable value — but it is a question of degree or taste rather than something you can point to and say, “This is clearly better than that.”

  3. First off, another interesing article.

    However I am still having the problem with the text formatting on the last page. I read your articles on my iPhone so I thought it was just the iPhone. It formats correctly on my iPad. I have had the same problem with some other recent articles, always on the last page. But I keep coming back anyway.

    Oh, and in the photo caption where you detail the expansion on Pontiac’s V8 there is some apparently unintended repetititon.

    1. Thanks for the tip on the photo caption — fixed.

      My apologizes for the formatting problem. What appears to be happening is that certain browsers are objecting to the text links; some browsers refuse to wrap text that looks like a link, which is breaking the margin. I managed to fix it in IE, and I tinkered with it a little more just now, but the smaller window of mobile phone browsers may still present problems. I just found out about this last night, so I haven’t had a chance to address it in previous articles.

  4. Nice article. One question – I had always heard that the X-frame was pretty stiff. Given that GM sold large numbers of four-door hardtops, I would think that a willowy frame would have allowed those bodies to quickly twist themselves apart.

    The big problem with the X-frame was lack of side-impact protection. I’ve seen Ford ads from 1961 comparing the full-size Ford frame with the X-frame (without ever mentioning Chevrolet or GM) to make an obvious point regarding safety.

    What is interesting about Pontiac is that, after about 1963 or so, it achieved success in spite of, not because of, GM’s top management. GM’s executive team fought Pontiac management on several key issues, even as the division was setting sales records and had a great reputation. In some respects, Pontiac was the BMW of the 1960s, in terms of image and the demographics of customers who bought the cars.

    1. The X-frame itself was relatively stiff — not quite as stiff as a full ladder frame with X-member, but stiffer than the later perimeter frames. The big problem was that it didn’t do a very good job of preventing the body itself from twisting, which a big hardtop generally does very readily.

      Pontiac’s [i]pitch[/i] in the sixties was very similar to the one BMW adopted later, and when Pontiac returned to that message in the eighties and nineties, they positioned themselves pretty deliberately as the poor man’s BMW. Pontiac’s [i]demographics[/i] were not that much like BMW’s; they skewed a good deal younger. Both were selling sportiness, but a lot of customers bought BMWs because they were expensive and prestigious, much more so than with Pontiac.

      The late fifties really marked the beginning of GM’s efforts to exert tighter corporate control on the divisions. The senior compacts were really the first salvo, and I think the corporation was frustrated that those cars ended up having so little in common. Senior management kept pushing for more commonality, and more control over divisional operations. One of my sources said that in 1960, a general manager might have to meet with senior management once a month to check in; in 1969, they had to attend corporate meetings at least once or twice a week.

      Even in the early fifties, GM senior management lived in mortal fear of the feds. Their primary fear was the anti-trust division of the Justice Department — they were terrified of being split up, or being forced to spin off Chevrolet — but they also feared federal regulation. There were already growing safety and emissions lobbies in the early sixties, even before Ralph Nader, and GM was afraid of doing anything that might appear provocative or irresponsible. Pontiac’s success put them in an awkward position. They were pleased about the increased sales, but some senior executives felt that Pontiac was putting the whole corporation at risk with childish stunts. They kept wishing there was a way to maintain the sales while taking a quieter, more dignified, less provocative approach.

  5. Were the wide track cars actually made up of wider axles and front suspensions. I remember pontiac wheels had a deeper dish than chevy wheels, but would bolt right on an impala to make it a wide track, too.

    1. I’ve never compared the axle tube length of a ’59 Pontiac to a ’59 Chevrolet, but I believe the reason for the deeper-dish wheels was to accommodate the bigger brake drums; Pontiac expanded the width of its drums by an inch in 1959. The wheels probably accounted for a portion of the track increase, but I don’t think all of it. Keep in mind that both front and rear track width increased about 5 inches from 1958.

      1. The whole axle assy. is different than the Chevy. The housing is larger and the third member is bigger with it’s ring gear at 9.3 inches it shares with Oldsmobile. The axle assy. is a three link attachment When the 61-62 model Pontiac came out and being downsized in length as well as width the axels were shortened, but the third member remained the same. 1961-62 along with 63-64 are four link attachments. 59-60 cars have a rear track of 64 inches. The downsized 61-62 Pontiac’s rear track is 62.5 inches. 1963-63 Pontiac’s return to 64 inches.
        Going back, the 57 is the beginning of this large 9.3″ third member, but the 57 has a 27 spline axle and a narrow 58″ track. The 58 cars get a 58″ track but the axels are now 32 splines and for the first time Safety Track was offered. So, the 58-1964 third members are interchangeable.
        As far as track increases we have 1958 at 58 inches front and rear. 1959 has front at 63 7/8″ rear at 64″. 1960 front at 64″ rear 64″. 1961-62 at front and rear both at 62.5 ” and 63-64 cars at 64″ front and rear track.

  6. A full ten inches shorter in 1961. That’s amazing.

    I’ve always wished I could have been alive in 1960-61 when American car design rationalized so quickly and completely. Probably nothing demonstrated the shift more completely than the Lincoln Continental.

    Imagine how the new cars looked on roadways still full of fins, chrome, and two- (and three-) toned leviathans.

    1. Well, aside from Harley Earl, who was on his way out or gone when the 1961 cars were designed, I think a lot of American stylists regarded the fins, chrome frosting, and jukebox excess with varying levels of disgust and had gone that way mainly because the sales and marketing people had insisted that’s what the public wanted. The recession and generally dismal sales of 1958 gave the naysayers the leverage to steer things in a different direction. (“If that was what people wanted before, it sure isn’t now.”) Had the ’58 cars sold really well, the shift probably would have taken a little longer, but it probably helped that the stylists were very willing, even eager, to tidy things up aesthetically.

  7. Understood; however my impression is that at the time fashion ruled supreme and a change was in the offing no matter what the status quo was. Just as with clothing fashion–whatever’s in style now will be out of style tomorrow. Fascinating topic though! Fords were totally changed every year from 1956 through 1961 IIRC. Chevies just one year behind (their 59 and 60 were similar)..

    1. While designers do have to be cognizant of fashion trends, it’s also important to remember that the logistics of automotive production mean that stylists are always working about three years ahead, so they also need to anticipate and to some extent dictate public tastes. (The gap is sometimes shorter than three years — as discussed elsewhere, the ’59 GM cars were redone very hastily in mid-1956 in reaction to the not-yet-released ’57 Chryslers — but three years was the norm and anything shorter than that was both difficult and expensive.) Occasionally, the stylists are caught off guard, which is what happened with the Pontiac split grille: The 1960 grille was designed, signed off on, and handed off to production engineering before the ’59s went on sale.

      This is why the sales force was often able to push for more chrome, bigger fins, etc. — since the automaker was trying to look three years ahead, a lot came down to the sale organization’s professional judgment about what they thought would sell.

      The general pattern for mass-market American cars of this period was to retain the same basic body shell for two or three at a time with a visible but structurally superficial restyling every year. Again, there were exceptions to that; for example, Chrysler’s big Imperial retained the same shell for longer while GM’s ’58 cars were a one-year body. The latter was very expensive and was again dictated by the last-minute redesigns of the ’59 cars (which were originally supposed to be facelifts of the ’58 shell).

      Non-U.S. and later cars tended to have longer life cycles in part because development costs in general have gone up and in part because unitized construction costs more to tool and thus requires a longer amortization period.

  8. Oh and Harley Earl gets my vote as most overrated designer ever. I prefer Virgil Exner…and Giugiaro…

    1. It’s important to keep in mind that by the fifties, Earl was not a designer in any active sense and hadn’t been for many years. He was a corporate vice president responsible for a bunch of different individual studios and a staff that I think was bigger than all the design staffs of all the other contemporary American automakers put together. His role in the design process at that point was that of a high-level manager who comes in periodically to demand a little more of this and a little less of that or warn that he didn’t want to see a particular rendering ever again. He was like a movie producer as opposed to a director, an actor, or a composer: You would rarely seen any specific element that he personally contributed and the average viewer wouldn’t necessarily know what he did, but he nonetheless bore overall responsibility for what got made and what didn’t.

      Virgil Exner Sr. eventually took on a comparable level of responsibility at Chrysler, but I think Exner retained had a more hands-on role (insofar as his health permitted) and Chrysler’s design staff was considerably smaller than GM’s. (The thing to remember when looking at GM in its heyday was that it was HUGE — as you went up the ranks, your scope of responsibility could expand from “managing a dozen or so people in a department” to running an operation the size of a small city.)

      Style is by definition an ephemeral and transitory phenomenon. Every designer whose career isn’t cut unnaturally short for some reason has their share of hits and misses, some of which really only make sense in the context of their time.

      Harley Earl’s lasting contribution, and what makes him stand out from his peers, is that he carved out a place for styling and the creative process in a corporate industry dominated by engineers (before the war), accountants, and (later) MBAs, most of whom are thoroughly convinced that any business operation can ultimately be reduced to a series of mathematical operations. Earl managed to outmaneuver, intimidate, and dazzle those people with a combination of politicking, showmanship, and consistent sales success. He made them recognize that what his staff did had value and that for best results, the bookkeepers, the engineers, and the efficiency experts needed to keep their hands off the process. That’s a pretty remarkable achievement considering that he was originally hired on a short-term consulting contract!

      Earl established the automotive styling *organization* and for better or worse the products of that organization set the standard for about 50 years. While you can point to various specific examples where a rival beat GM to the punch with a specific feature or did better with a particular theme, they were responding to or hoping to put one over on GM designs. That was due in no small part to the fact that a great many of the American stylists of that period who went on to work elsewhere (including Virgil Exner or Frank Hershey) were veterans of the GM styling organization and carried that model with them.

      So, while one could argue that the designs of, say, Bob Gregorie working with Edsel Ford were more tasteful or better realized, Harley Earl remains THE figure of American design. You might love him, you might hate him (and I think people who worked for him felt both, depending on the day), you might think him overrated, but he’s really difficult to ignore.

      1. That you can come up with such reasoned, comprehensive, captivating–and above all well-written–replies virtually in real time sort of blows my mind. Just discovered your site last night but I can see I’ll be spending a lot of time here!

  9. You state that the 1957 Bonneville was only available as a convertible. It is my recollection that fuel injection was available in 1957 on the Bonneville convertible (my friend had one, silver with silver leather interior) and on (of all things) their station wagon, which was probably a Safari but a Bonneville by a different name. So although the Bonneville model was only available as a convertible, in essence you could get the equivalent in a station wagon, but it carried the Safari name (the mid-50’s Safaris were 2-door and every bit as stylish as the Chevrolet Nomads as they were essentially the same car). And the 1959 Safari in Sunset Glow with matching tri-color interior was absolutely stunning, for a station wagon!

    1. In 1955 the Safari was a short wheelbase wagon with StarChief trim appointments, and leather seated interior just like the StarChief.
      This carried over for 1956 and 57, although late in the 1957 season a new wagon was added with all the appointments of the two door safari, it was called the Trans Continental.
      The 57 Bonneville was only a convertible and all were fuel injected.
      No other 1957 Pontiac model Pontiac could be ordered with fuel injection.
      In 1958 Fuel Injection could be ordered on any Pontiac for the sum of around $500.00

  10. An excellent and well written read. It would be great to have included a little more content of the 70’s but still very interesting.

  11. As the second owner, my father was the original owner of a S/O 59 Catalina sport coupe, my dad ordered a 345 hp tri-power engine with a heavy duty Supra HydraMatic 4 speed with three gear sets.
    Most people who have 1959 or 60 Pontiac’s that were ordered with Tri-Power received the 315HP for 59 or the 318hp for 1960. The difference is in the bottom end of the engine ( 4 bolt mains oil pump etc. and the cam plus the cylinder heads.
    Our car was ordered from the zone office, and most dealers didn’t know about a 330 hp four barrel (NASCAR) engine or the 345HP Tri-Power engine used for NHRA drag racing.
    When we picked up the car at a dealer my dad chose and did the walk around. We found in the trunk the two third members for drag racing we had ordered, but also a solid lifter cam and lifters to make the engine a 345HP car. You see in those days unlike Chevrolet, Pontiac could not sell a car with a solid lifter cam and warranty the car. The cam that was in the engine was the original Hydro cam #886 that was first used in the 285hp dual quad 1956 317″ engine.
    FYI this Catalina, while ordered out of the L.A. zone office was not built in the South Gate Plant. The car was built in Mi. and railed to the west coast because the engine was hand built and balanced in the Pontiac tool room like all NASCAR engines were.

    FYI, the 1959 389″ 2bbl@ 280hp, the 389″ 4BBL @ 300hp and the 389″ Tri-power @ 315HP all used the very good #472 Hydraulic cam. In the 1960 engine the same cam was used but the HP increased on all three engines by 3HP and this was due to a bump in compression by .25. All these hydraulic cam engines above are for the HydraMatic cars.

  12. My wife & I feel most fortunate to have heard John DeLorean & Smokey Yunick publicly speaking. They were BOTH at the POCI convention held at Denver in 1996. They spoke at the same meeting, on the same day in Aurora Co. Together they probably spoke for 2 to maybe 3 hours between them. WHAT A TREAT !!! The BEST AUTOMOTIVE ENGINEER and THE BEST ENGINE BUILDER – Both at the same seminar? YES — Now THAT was a day EVERYONE IN ATTENDANCE WILL NEVER FORGET, Beverly & I included. A WHOLE LOT OF SHARING & LEARNING A ‘GOIN ON THAT DAY !!!!
    DeLorean said that Pontiac was the only GM division that released the wide frame to the public in ’59, the other divisions released their frames the following year, in’60. Just look at a STOCK ’59 GM product and you will see the wheels set inboard – ONLY the Pontiac had the wide frame in’59.
    As for Smokey? The’ol 50+ mission WW2 B-17 pilot was with Pontiac from 1959 to 1963. Over the years he did A LOT of engine development for GM especially the Chevrolet small block. He said what some called cheating was simply a matter of studying the rule book and doing what was NOT banned. A TRUE INNOVATOR. I remember he closed by saying the most important thing you can do when rebuilding an engine is to finish the block by running a cork hone in each cylinder about 18 strokes – which will clean out the micro grit so the rings will never have any trouble seating.

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