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

In 1956, GM’s Pontiac Motor Division was close to death, its sales down, its market share declining, and its image at a low ebb. That summer, however, help arrived in the form of Bunkie Knudsen, Pete Estes, and John DeLorean. Together, they lifted Pontiac out of its mid-fifties doldrums and put it on track for its unprecedented success in the 1960s. This week, we look back at the reign of Bunkie Knudsen and the birth of the legendary Wide Track Pontiacs.

1957 Pontiac Star Chief wheelcover © 2010 Aaron Severson

THE BIRTH OF PONTIAC

For years, if you asked Pontiac executives when the division was founded, they would tell you 1909, the year the Oakland Motor Car Company became a division of General Motors. The Pontiac brand, however, was born in the economic boom of the mid-1920s, part of GM president Alfred P. Sloan’s plan to fill the gaps between the corporation’s various makes by giving each division a complementary “companion make.” Cadillac was paired with LaSalle, Buick with Marquette, Oldsmobile with Viking, and Oakland with Pontiac, which took its name from Pontiac, Michigan (where Oakland was headquartered) and Chief Pontiac, the 18th-century Ottawa leader whose stylized likeness became the new car’s mascot.

The original Pontiac was one of GM’s first exercises in what we would now call platform sharing. It was based on the contemporary Chevrolet, sharing much of its running gear, but it was somewhat bigger and offered a distinct appearance and a new 187 cu. in. (3,059 cc) six-cylinder engine. Since the Chevrolet had only a four, the Pontiac had little difficulty justifying its $180 price premium and quickly became very successful. By the time of the Crash, Pontiac was GM’s second best-selling marque.

1929 Pontiac Big Six four-door sedan side © 2010 Wistula (CC BY 3.0 Unported)
Pontiac received its first real redesign in 1929; it was bigger than the initial 1927-1928 model and the engine was bored and stroked to 200 cu. in. (3,283 cc), giving 57 hp (43 kW) at 3,000 rpm. The ’29 was the first Pontiac to be designed under the auspices of Harley Earl’s new Art & Colour Section. (Photo: “Otrebusy8 DSC1459” © 2010 Wistula; resized and used under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license)

By 1931, with the U.S. economy in ruins, Oakland and Pontiac were moribund and GM seriously considered terminating them both. Sloan still saw a need for a mid-priced brand between Chevrolet and Oldsmobile, however, and since Pontiac was now outselling Oakland by more than five to one, it seemed to have the better future. In 1932, GM abandoned the Oakland brand and the division was officially renamed the Pontiac Motor Division.

Although the Depression was a difficult time for every automaker, Pontiac sales recovered by mid-decade thanks to increased commonality with Chevrolet, a newly optional straight eight, and attractive new styling. It was not a flashy or exciting car, but it represented good value for money and was consistently in fifth place in overall automotive sales, occasionally reaching as high as fourth.

Pontiac soon earned a reputation as GM’s most conservative division. General manager Harry Klingler, who led Pontiac for 19 years, emphasized durability and dependability over frills while chief engineer Ben Anibal had no interest in technical fillips like Buick’s Compound Carburetion or Oldsmobile’s Hydra-Matic. (Pontiac did not introduce Hydra-Matic until 1948, the year after Anibal retired.)

1937 Pontiac Deluxe sedan front 3q © 2009 Charles01 (CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported)
A 1937 Pontiac DeLuxe Six sedan. Although Pontiac offered both a 223 cu. in. (3,650 cc) six and a 249 cu. in. (4,078 cc) eight, most Depression-era buyers preferred the six, which was somewhat cheaper. The 1937 model was the last to be designed under Frank Hershey, who left the Pontiac studio for Buick in 1935. He was replaced by Virgil Exner Sr., whose designs for Chrysler would shake up GM Design in the fifties. (Photo: “Pontiac de Luxe maufactured 1937” © 2009 Charles01; resized and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 license)

That conservatism served Pontiac well in the thirties and was no particular handicap in the postwar sales boom. Pontiacs were nicely styled, reasonably priced, and reliable, and they offered a lengthy list of factory and dealer accessories to fatten the profit margins.

It was not until the Korean War that Pontiac began to stumble. Wartime restrictions on production and consumer credit caused 1951 sales to fall nearly 20% and another 26% for 1952. When the restrictions were lifted, Pontiac sales recovered, but its market share remained static while GM’s other brands grew at impressive rates. By 1954, Pontiac was more than 150,000 units behind Buick and about 65,000 units behind Oldsmobile despite those rivals’ higher prices. Pontiac still enjoyed volume of which the independents could only dream, but something was clearly wrong.

1949 Pontiac Streamliner Eight front 3q © 2010 Aaron Severson
The 1949 models were Pontiac’s first postwar restyling, although they still offered fastback styling, originally introduced in 1941. Fastbacks were called Streamliners; notchbacks were Chieftains. Both were available with either the six or the straight eight.

THE PONTIAC V8

Pontiac’s general manager in the early fifties was Robert Critchfield, previously the general manager of the Delco-Remy division and, briefly, Allison. Critchfield was a manager of solid managerial talent and no particular interest in automobiles. By the early fifties, that was not uncommon at GM — ambitious executives vied for general manager slots because they were a stepping stone to more senior executive positions rather than because those executives had any great desire to build cars. Nonetheless, some Pontiac staffers resented the fact that Critchfield was not a “car guy.”

1949 Pontiac Streamliner Eight Silver Streak 8 badge © 2010 Aaron Severson
The postwar “Silver Streak 8” was little changed from its prewar form, still displacing 249 cu. in. (4,078 cc). It now made 104 hp (78 kW) with manual transmission, 108 hp (81 kW) with Hydra-Matic.

It’s tempting to blame Critchfield for Pontiac’s slump, but by the time he arrived in 1952, the styling for the 1955 models was well under way and many major engineering decisions had already been made. Perhaps the most critical of those was the decision to delay the launch of Pontiac’s new OHV V8 engine. The division’s engineering staff had been working on the new engine since 1946 and it would have been ready for the 1953 model year, but chief engineer George Delaney had asked for an extra two years to resolve some design and manufacturing issues.

Delaney’s concerns about reliability and production costs were commendable, but the lack of a V8 certainly hurt Pontiac in 1953 and 1954. The mid-priced market was becoming tougher and Pontiac was being squeezed both from below — by models like Chevrolet’s plush Bel Air — and from above; Buick’s entry-level Special was priced to compete with the Pontiac Eight.

1952 Pontiac Chieftain Eight front 3q © 2007 Aaron Severson
A 1952 Pontiac, still sporting the division’s trademark Silver Streaks. We’re unable to definitively confirm this model’s identity, but the odds are that it’s a Chieftain Eight DeLuxe, the most popular 1952 Pontiac by a significant margin. For 1952, the old flathead straight eight was up to 268 cu. in. (4,398 cc), making either 118 or 122 hp (88 or 91 kW); the latter was standard with Hydra-Matic, which most buyers preferred.

Pontiac’s new V8 finally debuted for the 1955 model year. It was a fairly orthodox design with cast iron block and heads and pushrod-operated overhead valves. (It was not the division’s first V8 engine; back in 1932, Pontiac had briefly offered a 251 cu. in. (4,106 cc) V8 with a flat-plane crank, inherited from Oakland.) It had two novel features: reverse-flow cooling (pumping coolant through the heads and then the block rather than the other way around) and a then-novel “Ball-Pivot” valvegear layout.

1958 Pontiac Bonneville engine © 2010 Aaron Severson
When Pontiac introduced its OHV V8 in 1955, it displaced 287 cu. in. (4,706 cc). In 1956, it was bored to 317 cu. in. (5,188 cc); in 1957, it was stroked to 347 cu. in. (5,687 cc). The 1958 version, seen here in a 1958 Bonneville, was bored again, this time to 370 cu. in. (6,054 cc). The following year, it was stroked to 389 cu. in. (6,372 cc), where it remained through 1966. In the sixties and seventies, there were also 421 cu. in. (6,902 cc), 428 cu. in. (7,008 cc), and 455 cu. in. (7,481 cc, actually 457 cu. in.) versions, as well as de-bored 326/336 cu. in. (5,340/5,521 cc) and 350 cu. in. (5,798 cc, actually 354 cu. in.) iterations for the Tempest/Le Mans. Unlike Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, and Buick, which had separate small-block and big-block engines, all Pontiac V8s were essentially the same engine, although the 421/428/455 versions had a unique crankshaft.

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.

1955 Pontiac Star Chief convertible front 3q © 2008 Aaron Severson
The Star Chief was introduced in 1954 as Pontiac’s top-of-the-line model. It rode a 124-inch (3,150mm) wheelbase — 2 inches (51 mm) longer than the Chieftain’s — and had a 5-inch (127mm) longer tail. With the standard engine and Hydra-Matic, it could do 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in around 13 seconds, with a top speed of perhaps 103-104 mph (166-167 km/h).

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%.

1955 Pontiac Star Chief convertible rear 3q © 2008 Aaron Severson
The Pontiac Star Chief’s longer tail was intended to give it added prestige; bigger-is-better was still an axiom of American car design in this era. The extended tail does provide some extra trunk space, but the longer rear overhang tends to scrape on steep driveways. The extra size, however, served to convey its status in the line-up: The Star Chief convertible was the most expensive 1955 Pontiac.

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.

1957 Pontiac Safari wagon rear 3q © 2009 Aaron Severson
The Pontiac Safari wagon was introduced in 1955. At first, it was Pontiac’s equivalent of the flashy Chevrolet Bel Air Nomad, available only in two-door form. It was technically part of the Star Chief series, although it rode the 122-inch (3,099mm) wheelbase of the Chieftain. In 1957, the Safari name was applied to all Pontiac wagons, a tradition that continued until 1981.

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.

1957 Pontiac Star Chief Custom Catalina dashboard © 2009 Aaron Severson
This 1957 Pontiac Star Chief, like most fifties Pontiacs, has Hydra-Matic, a $231 option. This is the new dual-coupling Hydra-Matic, which Pontiac dubbed Strato-Flight. It generally worked well, but was quite heavy (240 lb/109 kg), extremely complex, and expensive to produce. Pontiac Star Chiefs and Bonnevilles retained the dual-coupling Hydra-Matic through the 1964 model year, but lesser models substituted the cheaper Roto Hydra-Matic in 1961.

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.

1957 Pontiac Star Chief Custom Catalina front 3q © 2009 Aaron Severson
The 1957 Pontiac Star Chief Custom Catalina traded its Silver Streaks for a rocket-like side spear. The “Catalina” designation was originally Pontiac’s term for pillarless hardtops; it became a model series in 1959. The 1957 Star Chief came standard with the four-barrel version of the 347 cu. in. (5,687 cc) V8 with 270 gross horsepower (201 kW); two Tri-Power engines were optional, with 290 or 317 hp (216 or 236 kW) respectively.

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.

1957 Pontiac Star Chief Custom Catalina rear 3q © 2009 Aaron Severson
The 1957 Pontiac Star Chief was 207 inches (5,258 mm) long on a 124-inch (3,150mm) wheelbase and weighed 4,270 lb (1,937 kg) with power steering, power brakes, and Hydra-Matic.

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.

WIDE TRACK

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)

PONTIAC’S 1960 ENCORE

One of the great challenges of making cars is that you have to make key decisions about future models without knowing how well the current models are going to do in the marketplace. Had Knudsen and Bill Mitchell, who succeeded Harley Earl as VP of Styling in December 1958, known how well the 1959 Pontiac would be received, they probably would have carried over more of its design themes into 1960. However, design of the 1960 cars was mostly complete by the time the ’59s went on sale.

1960 Pontiac Catalina Sport Coupe front © 2009 Aaron Severson
The 1960 Pontiac’s new grille was originally intended to evoke the transmission bulge of the Miller FWD Special Indy racers of the twenties, although the resemblance is hard to see in the finished product. All 1960 Pontiacs had the 389 cu. in. (6,372 cc) V8 — which Pontiac advertising dubbed “Tempest 420” — in several different states of tune. The V8 abandoned its reverse-flow cooling this year, although GM later revived the feature for the LT1 and LT4 engines of the 1990s.

All of GM’s 1960 cars were toned down considerably from their dizzy 1959 heights. The basic B-body shell, all-new for 1959, was carried over, but with far less glitz. The 1960 Pontiac lost its fins, substituting comparatively subdued “rocket exhaust” taillights, and had a completely new front-end theme, abandoning the 1959 Pontiac’s twin grille. The styling staff was generally unhappy about that change, feeling the twin grille gave Pontiac immediate visual identification, but Bill Mitchell was enamored of the new design and his word was law.

Mechanically, the 1960 Pontiacs were changed mostly in detail. The V8 abandoned its reverse-flow cooling system, which had created problems with excessive oil temperatures in high-performance use, while the Hydra-Matic transmission got a redesigned case that enabled a lower driveline. A Borg-Warner T-10 four-speed manual transmission was now optional, although only 722 were sold. The 1960 model year also saw the debut of the first high-performance Super-Duty engines, initially as a dealer-installed option.

1960 Pontiac Catalina two-door hardtop rear 3q © 2009 Aaron Severson
This 1960 Pontiac Catalina Sport Coupe has been lowered; it was originally 54.2 inches (1,377 mm) high — low, but not quite this low. Pontiac retained its cruciform frame and trailing-arm rear suspension in 1960, but the disastrous air suspension was gone. Note the Pontiac emblem in the center of the tail, beneath the T in “PONTIAC,” which conceals the fuel filler.

Pontiac did well in competition in 1960, scoring seven NASCAR victories. Even when Pontiacs didn’t win, they were frequently the fastest cars on the track, with lap speeds of more than 150 mph (241 km/h). In September, Pontiac ad man Jim Wangers also won the NHRA’s Top Stock Eliminator title driving a heavily modified Catalina prepared by Royal Pontiac. Racer Mickey Thompson, meanwhile, tried for a new land-speed record at Bonneville with the Pontiac-powered Challenger.

Pontiac sales were up slightly for the 1960 model year, but market share slipped a bit, although it remained above 6%. Even though the economy was on the mend, many buyers remained wary of the bulk and ostentation of Big Three cars. AMC’s compact Rambler line outpaced Pontiac by around 25,000 units, claiming fourth place in total overall sales.

1960 Pontiac Catalina Vista eight-lug wheel © 2010 Aaron Severson
Pontiac’s distinctive eight-lug alloy wheels first became optional in 1960. Made by Kelsey-Hayes, the aluminum wheels have integral brake drums, providing much better brake cooling than the standard wheels and iron brakes. The eight-lug wheels were relatively expensive (around $125), but they greatly improved stopping power and they’re sought after by modern collectors.

GM’S FIRST DOWNSIZING

GM’s corporate management had recognized that trend during the recession, and dictated a new, slightly smaller B-body for the 1961 model year. As a result, the 1961 Pontiacs were about 4 inches (101 mm) shorter and 2.5 inches (64 mm) narrower than the 1960s while the wheelbase of the low-line models was trimmed from 122 to 119 inches (3,099 to 3,023 mm), shedding up to 165 lb (75 kg) in the process. Their track width also shrank by 1.5 inches (38 mm), to 62.5 inches (1,588 mm), although Pontiac continued to use the “Wide Track” slogan in its advertising.

Joe Schemansky and Jack Humbert, who replaced Schemansky as chief Pontiac stylist in March 1959, wasted little time in reviving the split-grille theme, which Pontiac would use in various forms until the division’s demise in 2009. Except for the rocket-like side spears, exterior trim was considerably more subdued than before. During Harley Earl’s tenure, stylists had often had to add extra brightwork to satisfy the tastes of their boss, but Bill Mitchell favored cleaner, crisper shapes. Another welcome change was the abandonment of the exaggerated wraparound windshields that Earl had favored, with their obtrusive dogleg A-pillars.

1961 Pontiac Bonneville convertible front © 2008 Aaron Severson
The 1961 Pontiac Star Chief and Bonneville retained the older dual-coupling, four-speed Hydra-Matic transmission, but Catalinas and Venturas had the new Roto Hydra-Matic, a scaled-down three-speed version of the H-M with a straight-blade torque converter rather than a plain fluid coupling. Roto Hydra-Matic was neither as efficient nor as reliable as the older transmission, but was cheaper to build. Both it and the four-speed H-M were dropped in 1965 in favor of the new and far more efficient Turbo Hydra-Matic 400.

In retrospect, the 1961 full-size Pontiacs look like a tasteful, well-considered refinement of Pontiac’s successful 1959 themes. At the time, Bunkie Knudsen was not thrilled with them or with the smaller body, which put the Catalina and Ventura on the same wheelbase as the 1961 Chevrolet. That move also didn’t sit well with the sales staff, who understood all too well how tenuous and ephemeral the line between Pontiac and Chevrolet could be. Knudsen got permission to stretch the Catalina and Ventura to a 120-inch (3,048mm) wheelbase for 1962, restoring Pontiac’s slight psychological edge, but he was very uneasy about 1961.

As Knudsen feared, Pontiac sales were down more than 55,000 units for the 1961 model year. The entire industry was down almost 20%, however, so Pontiac actually gained a bit of market share despite the underwhelming debut of the new “rope-drive” Tempest compact. The Tempest sold just under 101,000 units in 1961, less than Knudsen had hoped, but it kept the year from becoming a rout. Pontiac did better in NASCAR competition. Although Chevrolet claimed the 1961 Manufacturers’ Championship on points, Pontiac won 30 races to Chevrolet’s 11, including an impressive 1-2-3 finish at the Daytona 500.

1961 Pontiac Bonneville convertible rear 3q © 2008 Aaron Severson
The 1961 Pontiacs were far cleaner than their immediate predecessors and had crisp lines and fewer gimmicks. The Bonneville was 210 inches (5,334 mm) long, 10.7 inches (272 mm) shorter than the 1960 model; the new car was also 155 lb (70 kg) lighter. The B-body Pontiacs discarded the cruciform frame in favor of a new perimeter frame without a central X-member.

The market rebounded encouragingly in 1962, as did Pontiac sales. Thanks in part to a deft facelift by Jack Humbert, the 1962 Pontiacs sold exceptionally well. Market share swelled to more than 7.5% and the division claimed the coveted number-three spot in overall sales. It would retain that position until the 1970 model year.

PONTIAC AFTER BUNKIE

On November 6, 1961, shortly after the 1962 models went on sale, Bunkie Knudsen was named general manager of Chevrolet, succeeding Ed Cole. Although Chevrolet was at least nominally a step down from Pontiac in price and prestige, it was GM’s largest and most powerful division. The promotion brought Knudsen a step closer to following in his father’s footsteps as president of the corporation.

With his departure, Pete Estes was promoted to general manager of Pontiac and John DeLorean became chief engineer. Since Estes and DeLorean had been heavily involved in many of Knudsen’s strategic decisions, the transition was less dramatic than when Knudsen had arrived in 1956.

Estes shared Knudsen’s enthusiasm for cars, but had a noticeably different management style. Where Knudsen would make a decision and trust his staff to carry it out, Estes was more hands-on, not always in a positive way. He was no martinet — former employees describe him as charismatic and highly approachable — but he was prone to micromanagement, a tendency that would later cause him considerable difficulty at Chevrolet, which operated on a much larger scale than did Pontiac.

1966 Pontiac Bonneville convertible front 3q © 2008 Aaron Severson
By the mid-sixties, the big Pontiacs were back to their previous dimensions; this 1966 Pontiac Bonneville is 221.7 inches (5,631 mm) long on a 124-inch (3,150mm) wheelbase. Pontiac was the style leader for the American auto industry throughout much of the 1960s and this car’s stacked-quad headlamps, complex compound curves, and flared “Venturi” fenders, created by Pontiac chief stylist Jack Humbert, make it easy to see why. These cars shared their body shell with Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, and Buick, but you’d be hard pressed to see the resemblance.

Nonetheless, it would be fair to say that Estes and DeLorean did an exceptional job of cultivating the seeds Knudsen had planted. Knudsen’s tenure at Pontiac was not marked by extraordinary sales success — his best sales year was still below the peaks of Critchfield’s regime — but he had given the division a new direction, setting the stage for Pontiac’s extraordinary success in the 1960s. In 1963, the division sold nearly 600,000 cars. By 1967, it was selling more than 800,000 units a year and its market share approached 10%. Pontiac commanded a sizeable portion of the booming youth market and Pontiac styling led the American industry. Despite the success of the A-body Tempest/Le Mans/GTO and Firebird, most of its sales were the full-sized cars, the lineage of the Wide Tracks.

KNUDSEN AT FORD

In July 1965, Bunkie Knudsen was promoted to group vice president, earning him a seat on the board, and two years after that became executive vice president. He had every hope of making it to GM’s top seat, but when GM president Jim Roche became chairman of the board in October 1967, it was Ed Cole, not Knudsen, who was tapped to take his place.

Recognizing that his chances of succeeding Cole were slim — GM then enforced a mandatory retirement age of 65 and Knudsen was only three years younger than Cole — Knudsen departed GM to become president of Ford Motor Company in February 1968. His appointment was hailed as an industry coup, but his tenure would be short-lived. Knudsen found a bitter rival in Lee Iacocca, who also coveted the presidency, and found himself at odds with Henry Ford II, who was not prepared to allow Knudsen the kind of autonomy the Pontiac veteran had come to expect. Knudsen was fired in September 1969, barely 18 months after his arrival. Afterward, he briefly considered going into business for himself, but in 1971, he accepted the post of chairman and CEO of the White Motor, a Cleveland truck manufacturer. He retired about nine years later at the age of 68 and died in 1998 at the age of 85.

Pete Estes took Knudsen’s place at Chevrolet in July 1965 and in 1974 succeeded Ed Cole as president of General Motors. Estes retired on February 1, 1981, three weeks after his 65th birthday. He died in 1988 at the age of 72.

John DeLorean followed in Knudsen’s and Estes’ footsteps, becoming general manager of Pontiac in 1965 and general manager of Chevrolet in 1969. He became a group vice president in 1972, but he became increasingly frustrated with GM bureaucracy and resigned on April 1, 1973. He went on to start his own ill-fated car company, which collapsed in the eighties amid financial problems and scandal following DeLorean’s well-publicized arrest on cocaine charges (of which he was eventually acquitted). He died in March 2005 at the age of 80.

2007 Pontiac G6 convertible front 3q © 2007 IFCAR (PD)
Pontiac’s last car was a 2010 G6 convertible; this is a similar 2006 or 2007 model. (Photo: “Pontiac G6 Convertible” © 2007 IFCAR; released to the public domain by the photographer, resized by Aaron Severson)

After the departure of Estes and DeLorean, Pontiac’s momentum seemed to fade. Sales of the 1970 models — approved, we must point out, by DeLorean — were down almost 30% and the division’s fortunes in the seventies and eighties were mixed. Pontiac enjoyed several renaissances, but the old challenge of maintaining its distinction from Chevrolet became harder and harder. By the nineties, there was little to differentiate a Pontiac from an Oldsmobile or a Chevrolet except for plastic body cladding and “sporty” detailing.

Jim Wangers, the MacManus, John & Adams advertising exec who led Pontiac’s promotional efforts in the sixties, told us in 2009, “Pontiac, of all the cars on the market, was a promotion, a concept. The real truth was that there was no excuse for a car called a Pontiac. The only reason for its existence was that it was beating the guys at Chevrolet and out-styling and out-imaging the guys at Oldsmobile and Buick.”

1960 Pontiac Catalina taillights © 2009 Aaron Severson

By the end, it was no longer doing even that. GM announced the death of the Pontiac brand on April 27, 2009, and the final car rolled off the line on November 25. Depending on how you figure it, Pontiac was either 83, 100, or 102 years old. It’s worth noting that the final Pontiac, a G6 convertible, bore the marque’s familiar twin grilles, first seen on the Wide Tracks five decades earlier — the last remnant of Bunkie Knudsen’s legacy.

# # #


NOTES ON SOURCES

Our sources for this article included Arthur St. Antoine, “Art Fitzpatrick Illustrations,” Motor Trend October 2005, www.motortrend. com, accessed 13 May 2010; “AUTOS: The Biggest Switch,” TIME 16 February 1968, www.time. com, accessed 13 May 2010; “AUTOS: Why Knudsen Was Fired,” TIME 19 September 1969, www.time. com, accessed 13 May 2010; Ray Bohacz, “Mechanical Marvels: Living in the Shadow: the 1955 Pontiac 287-cubic-inch V-8,” Special Interest Autos #181 (January-February 2001), reprinted in The Hemmings Motor News Book of Pontiacs: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, eds. Terry Ehrich and Richard Lentinello (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2001), pp. 136-138; Arch Brown, “A New Image for Pontiac: 1955 Star Chief,” Special Interest Autos #101 (September-October 1987), reprinted in ibid, pp. 44-52, “1958 Pontiac Bonneville: Like Riding on Air,” Special Interest Autos #90 (November-December 1985), reprinted in ibid, pp. 60-66, “1962 Pontiac Catalina Super Duty: Factory Hotrod,” Special Interest Autos #124 (July-August 1991), reprinted in ibid, pp. 88-95, and “SIA comparisonReport: Improbable Competitors: 1960 Chrysler 300F vs. Pontiac Tri-Power,” Special Interest Autos #127 (January-February 1992), reprinted in The Hemmings Motor News Book of Chrysler Performance Cars: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, eds. Terry Ehrich and Richard Lentinello (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2000), pp. 54-63; John DeLorean and J. Patrick Wright, On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors: John Z. DeLorean’s Look Inside the Automotive Giant (Chicago, IL: Avon Books, 1979); Jeff Denison, “Behind the Mastermind of Pontiac’s Chief Designer Jack Humbert, The Unsung Hero of Pontiac Design,” High Performance Pontiac October 2009, www.highperformancepontiac. com, accessed 8 May 2010; Jim and Cheryl Farrell, “Continental Style: A Contest of Wills: Lincoln’s Mark IV,” Special Interest Autos #199 (February 2004), pp. 44-47; Michael Guathier, “Final U.S. market Pontiac Rolls off Production Line,” motor1.com, 26 November 2009, www.worldcarfans. com, accessed 8 May 2010; John Gunnell, ed., Standard Catalog of American Cars 1946-1975 Revised 4th Edition (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2002); David Halberstam, The Reckoning (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1986); Dave Holls and Michael Lamm, A Century of Automotive Style: 100 Years of American Car Design (Stockton, CA: Lamm-Morada Publishing Co. Inc., 1997); John Holusha, “Semon Knudsen, 85, Dies; Was Prominent Auto Executive,” New York Times 9 July 1998, www.nytimes. com, accessed 8 May 2010; John F. Katz, “1960 Pontiac Bonneville Vista,” Special Interest Autos #172 (July-August 1999), reprinted in The Hemmings Motor News Book of Pontiacs, pp. 68-77; “Knudsen, Semon E.,” Generations of GM Heritage, GM Heritage Center, n.d., history.gmheritagecenter. com/wiki/ index.php/ Knudsen,_Semon_E., accessed 8 May 2010; Richard M. Langworth, “1957 Pontiac Bonneville: Look What’s Happened to Grandma!” Special Interest Autos #48 (November-December 1978), reprinted in ibid, pp. 54-59; Pete Lyons, “1958 Pontiac Bonneville,” Car and Driver Vol. 32, No. 1 (July 1986), pp. 71–78; “Motor Trend Award to the 1965 Pontiacs,” Motor Trend Vol. 17, No. 2 (February 1965), pp. 26-79; Edward Niedermeyer, “Pontiac Is Still Dead,” The Truth About Cars, 25 November 2009, www.thetruthaboutcars. com, accessed 8 May 2010; Jan P. Norbye and Jim Dunne, Pontiac 1946-1978: The Classic Postwar Years (Osceola, WI: Motorbooks International, 1979); Joe Oldham, “Archival Ponchos: The Complete History of Pontiac Performance,” Cars April 1973, pp. 24–30, 94, 112; Chris Paukert, “Officially Official: GM kills Pontiac,” [based on and incorporating GM’s press release of that date, “GM Accelerates its Reinvention as a Leaner, More Viable Company”] AutoBlog, www.autoblog. com, accessed 8 May 2010; “Pontiac’s Chiefs,” Motor Trend Vol. 17, No. 2 (February 1965), pp. 76–79; Richard Rauch, Rich’s Classic Pontiac Server, 1997–2001, www.pontiacserver. com, accessed 12 May 2010; Daniel Strohl, “Semon ‘Bunkie’ Knudsen,” Hemmings Muscle Machines #46 (July 2007); and Anthony Young and Mike Mueller, Classic Chevy Hot Ones: 1955–1957 2nd ed. (Ann Arbor, MI: Lowe & B. Hould Publishers, 2002). Some additional details came from the author’s telephone conversations with Jim Wangers on 8 September and 17 September 2009.

We also consulted the following period road tests: “Pontiac Road Test,” Motor Life January 1955; “Pontiac Star Chief,” Road Test 1956; Otto Zipper, “Road Test: Two Pontiacs,” Motor Trend March 1957; “Pontiac Road Test,” Motor Life March 1957; Jim Whipple, “Car Life Consumer Analysis: 1958 Pontiac,” Car Life March 1958; “Pontiac Road Test,” Motor Life April 1958; William Carroll, “I road tested a STOCK 146-MPH PONTIAC!” Motor Life June 1958; Ray Brock, “Pontiac – 3000 Mile Road Test,” Hot Rod December 1958; “Pontiac Road Test,” Motor Life January 1959; Duncan Maxwell, “318-HP Pontiac,” Cars December 1959; and Ray Brock, “1960 Pontiac Tempest,” Hot Rod May 1960, all of which are reprinted in Pontiac Limited Edition: 1949-1960, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1999).


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24 Comments

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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.

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