Tag: GM

Room at the Top: The 1954 Pontiac Star Chief and Class Consciousness in America

For more than half of its 80-year history, the Pontiac Division of General Motors has tried, with varying degrees of success, to present itself as the hotshot of the GM line-up, with an advertising tagline proclaiming, “We Build Excitement.” Once upon a time, however, Pontiac was a stolid, sensible, rather dull family car whose claim to fame was that it was “priced just above the lowest.” To see what Pontiac used to be before Bunkie Knudsen went racing and John DeLorean twisted the tail of the Tiger, let’s take a look at the 1954 Pontiac Star Chief and Chieftain — the last boring Pontiacs.
1954 Pontiac emblem
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The Crown Corvair V-8

What does nearly every car produced anywhere since the days of the Model T have in common? Other than wheels, it’s the inevitability that sometime, somewhere, somebody has stuffed a small-block Chevy V8 into it. We’ve yet to hear of a V8 Prius and there might be a Russian ZiL or two that remains innocent of the Mouse Motor, but everything else from ’32 Fords to RX-7s, has at one time or another had the ubiquitous Chevrolet engine stuffed under the hood — or wherever else it might fit.

The author recent met some of the members of the South Coast CORSA (Corvair Society of America) chapter and had a chance to see some of the cars owned by the members. Aside from Greg Vargas’s cherry black Monza (pictures of which appeared in our recent Corvair article), we also came face to face with a highly unusual example of the Corvair breed: Chuck Rust’s Crown V8 Corvair, a car that is no longer quite a Corvair, but a Corv-8.
Crown Equipped sticker on a 1965 Crown V8 Corvair
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Razor-Sharp Style: The 1963–1965 Buick Riviera

From 1958 to 1977, the head of General Motors Styling was William L. (Bill) Mitchell, protégé and anointed successor of the legendary Harley Earl. Mitchell was just as contentious and flamboyant as his mentor, but his tastes were somewhat more restrained, bringing about a new era of crisp, confident styling that was perfectly suited to the prevailing mood of the early 1960s. One of the best designs of Mitchell’s tenure — and one of his personal favorites — was the 1963–1965 Buick Riviera, a stylish coupe that finally put GM on the map in the lucrative personal luxury market. But if things had gone according to plan, the Riviera wouldn’t have been a Buick at all, and it came to market only after a strange and complicated journey of missed opportunities, corporate politicking, and sibling rivalry.

1965 Riviera hood ornament close-up © Aaron Severson

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Take Me to Your Style Leader: The 1938–1942 Cadillac Sixty Special

For nearly five decades, Cadillac was the standard-bearer for luxury cars in America. That dominance was not won through technical innovation or forward-thinking product development, but through styling leadership. Although the division produced some gorgeous cars in the early thirties that are acknowledged as classics, Cadillac’s position as a true styling leader can be traced to one car: the 1938-1941 Cadillac Sixty Special. This enormously influential model was laden with then-radical features that have since become the industry norm. The Sixty Special also launched the career of William L. (Bill) Mitchell, GM styling chief Harley Earl’s eventual successor and one of the most influential men in the history of the American automobile. This is the story of the Sixty Special.

1941 Cadillac Sixty Special nose badge
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Last Time Around: The 1971–1976 Cadillac Eldorado Convertible

Thirty years ago, many believed this car would be the last American convertible. It wasn’t, but it did mark the end of the line for that uniquely American concept: the full-sized open car. This is the history of the 1971-1976 Cadillac Eldorado convertible.
1976 Cadillac Eldorado convertible script
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The Summer of John Z: John DeLorean and the Pontiac Firebird

Designing, building, and marketing new cars is expensive, even for the largest automakers. If they’re strapped for cash (e.g., BMC in the fifties and sixties) or overcome by hubris (e.g., General Motors in the eighties), it’s tempting to share platforms between models or even slap a new grille a new badge on an existing model and pass it off as a new product for a different division — a technique sometimes called badge engineering. As confusing and potentially alienating as badge engineering can be for consumers, imagine how the people at their divisions feel when they’re handed an existing product and told to make something new and different out of it. Such was the case with Pontiac’s “pony car,” the 1967–1969 Pontiac Firebird and Firebird Trans Am.
1967 Pontiac Firebird badge
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First, Foremost: The First-Generation Chevrolet Camaro Z/28

Nobody, least of all Ford, expected General Motors to take the success of the Ford Mustang lying down. Still, it took two and a half years for the General to field its challenger, the Chevrolet Camaro, and despite the Camaro’s fresh styling, a broad selection of engines, and a blinding array of options, the Mustang outsold it two to one.

If they couldn’t beat the Mustang on the showroom floor, Chevrolet decided, they would at least beat it at the track. GM was not officially in racing, but that didn’t stop Chevrolet engineers from concocting a fearsome homologation special to qualify their new baby for Trans Am competition: the Camaro Z/28. This is the story of the 1967-1969 Chevrolet Camaro and Z/28.
1969 Chevrolet Camaro badge
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A Tale of the Shark and the Rat: The Chevrolet Corvette Stingray (C3)

When the original Chevrolet Corvette was introduced in 1953, it was a somewhat Pyrrhic effort to create something approximating a Jaguar XK120 using a fiberglass body and a lot of off-the-shelf passenger-car parts. It had neither scorching performance nor roll-up side windows and it sold poorly. It was nearly canceled in 1955 before salvation arrived in the form of Chevy’s new V8 engine, which gave its performance a much-needed shot in the arm. The Corvette also acquired a new chief engineer, a bright and mercurial Russian immigrant named Zora Arkus-Duntov, who did his level best to make it into a genuine sports car.

In 1958, legendary styling chief Harley Earl retired and his longtime deputy, Bill Mitchell, took over GM’s styling department. Mitchell was a car guy, fond of sporting iron and motorcycles. He loved the Corvette, although his vision for what it should be was sharply removed from Duntov’s notions of serious performance. The battle of wills between these two men in the normally stratified and reactionary corporate culture of General Motors would produce many clashes before both Duntov and Mitchell retired in the 1970s, but it also produced the classic Sting Ray and the fearsome third-generation Corvette, known to its fans as simply “C3” — a car of immodest looks and immodest performance. This car:

1969 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray 427
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