MCG Car Spotter’s Guide to the 1955-64 Pontiac

This MCG Car Spotter’s Guide spotlights what many regard as the golden age of full-size Pontiacs: the years 1955 though 1964. 


Every so often the Detroit automakers find the sweet spot and produce something special. Pontiacs in these years stood out from the mob with crisp styling, excellent colors and interiors, great ride and handling, and exciting performance. Let’s click them off year by year.


The Pontiac was an all-new car for 1955, with a redesigned  A-body platform shared with GM stablemate Chevrolet, and a fresh, modern 287 CID V8, the division’s first bent eight since 1932.

The nose sported a split bumper with an elaborate sheet-metal surround, headlamp brows, and trademark twin Silver Streak hood bands. The Silver Streak  trim was introduced back in 1936 to disguise the Pontiac’s Chevy-derived body panels and build brand identity.


The ’55’s classy hockey-stick side trim was a favorite with ’50s customizers, who often adapted the pieces to ’49-’51 Fords and Mercurys. Except for its two-tone paint, this Chieftain two-door sedan is fairly plain.


The facelifted ’56 is similar in theme, but note that the front bumpers have a 30-degree crook toward the center, while the ’55 bumpers are straight. That’s one easy way to distinguish the two model years.


Here’s the great Cotton Owens with his ’56 Pontiac on the sand at Daytona Beach. Note the revised side trim and added chrome in the grille for 1956.


The Pontiac line was treated to revised sheet metal for 1957. The division’s new manager, Semon E. “Bunkie” Knudsen, banished the Silver Streak hood and deck trim, saying, “They looked like an old man’s suspenders.”  In a few short years, Knudsen and crew transformed Pontiac from senior citizen’s car into youth market leader.


The Bonneville was the top trim level for ’57, but all Pontiacs sported big, heavy chrome bumpers and taillamp housings. If you look closely, you can see the fuel filler door buried in the left side trim. Note the Fuel Injection emblem in the deck lid. A Rochester mechanical FI system similar to that on the Corvette was available in ’57 and ’58. The setup is incredibly rare today.


1958 is another stand-alone Pontiac year with a unique look. Quad headlamps made their debut in ’57-’58, a handy car spotter’s fact. This front end design nearly became an  Oldsmobile. You can view the clay model in this previous MCG feature: Dreams and Nightmares—the clay studio edition.  


Pontiac’s two-door hardtops in ’58 shared their greenhouse with the Chevrolet Impala Sport Coupe  introduced that year. Various trim models employed different bolt-on elements within the side trim—the Star Chiefs here feature a stylized reverse-scoop thingie in the cove, while the Bonneville sports a giant rocket nozzle. (See slide show gallery below.) The plainer Chieftain and Super Chief models were tastefully bare in this area.


The 1959 model year brought the introduction of two trademark Pontiac features: the two-part split grille and the Wide-Track look. Noting that the bodies had grown too wide for their track widths, creating an awkward, tippy appearance, GM designer Chuck Jordan kicked the wheels outboard, increasing the track width from approximately 58 inches to a full 64 inches, filling the wheel wells and creating a more athletic stance.


The ’59’s rear-end treatment is busy, with star-burst tailfins and inverted mini-fins pressed into the bumper. This Bonneville Vista four-door features GM’s thin-pillared pancake roof, a  design that lasted but two years.


For 1960, Pontiac kept the Wide-Track theme but inexplicably dropped the split grille, a one-year feature that makes the ’60 an easy ID for car spotters today. The sculpted full-width grille was a favorite of GM Styling VP Bill Mitchell.


Compared to the gimmicky, almost garish ’59, the ’60 is relatively clean and restrained in its styling.  By now, the Pontiac V8 had grown to 389 CID and was showing its muscle on the drag strips and oval tracks. Here’s Chuck Stevenson at a track that looks like Milwaukee.


The split grille returned in 1961, re-establishing a styling signature that would remain until the Pontiac brand was discontinued in 2010. Bonneville four-door hardtop shown here.


The 1962 model finalized the classic Pontiac quad-lamp, split-grille style, and it remains one of most popular model years in present day. GM’s convertible-look hardtop roof, shown here, also made its first appearance in ’62.


This rear view of the ’62 Catalina shows off the signature crescent taillamps. On the upmarket Bonneville, each lamp contains an extra segment that extends horizontally across the rear. (See slide show.)


Vertical quad headlamps made their first appearance on the 1963 Pontiac line, another easy tell for car spotters. The Grand Prix, shown here, employed a unique roofline and backlight with curved, concave glass. This is the archetypal Bill Mitchell look.


At the rear, the ’63 Pontiac is identified by its elegant vertical taillamps and a form-fitting, tucked-in rear bumper. The three chrome hash marks on the C pillar indicate that is a Star Chief.


Here’s the final entry in this Spotter’s Guide, the 1964 line. The heavy, die-cast quad headlamp housings up front were replaced with more delicate trim. Shown here is a Catalina Convertible—Pontiac typically offered convertibles in multiple trim models in these years.


It’s easy to spot a ’64 Pontiac driving away. (Bonneville two and four-door hardtops shown here.) Those beautiful boomerang taillamps look like nothing else on the road.



10 thoughts on “MCG Car Spotter’s Guide to the 1955-64 Pontiac

  1. My dad had a ’59 Bonneville four door hardtop in the exact same color scheme as pictured above. He wasn’t much of a car guy but he somehow ended with this flashy car powered by a 389 tri-power. Even at thirty cents a gallon, he complained about the need for premium fuel and less than ten mpg.

    • To me, the ’59 is the wildest of the group by far. Even as a little kid I was like, Wha? I love the Bruce McCall-esque proportions in the lead illustration. This car would be ten feet wide. Wide Track indeed.

  2. Great post! Perhaps the wonderful Art Fitzpatrick and Van Kaufman illustrations included in the slide show deserve a special note. I think those ads made a big contribution to the Pontiac styling image in the 60’s.

    • Tony — Yes indeed. At some point MCG will do an entire feature on Fitz and Van. To us this is fine art, Old Masters.

  3. My favorite is the 1961. GM was still doing a terrific job differentiating the various makes in those days. You can’t see any resemblance to a Chevy in most of these pictures.

    Pontiac had some great looking cars, but they never looked as good as the ones in the Van/Fitz illustrations. Those were easily some of the most evocative auto advertisements ever. It’s a shame that everything is photos now.

  4. My first car was a 55 Pontiac tudor hardtop. It had beautiful flowing lines that you don’t see in the cars of today.

  5. Our new 60′ Starchief was beautiful! My Dad traded in the 58′ Biscayne that my Mom hated! Dad brought home the white over blue StarChief and we had it for years. We drove it from Ilinois to California on Route 66 in January of 1961. We had the only one in our small town here in Iowa.

  6. It is really a nice and useful piece of information.
    I am glad that you simply shared this useful information with us.
    Please keep us informed like this. Thanks for sharing.

  7. From a long time Pontiac fan, the only thing I would add are the ’65-6 “coke bottle” cars. As for the rest of the story, spot on and perfectly stated.

    Many fans regard the 61 bubble top as the ne plus ultra of the full size era, probably the best balance of 50’s exuberance and 60’s ‘continental’ restraint. Not coincidentally, it’s the smallest of the big cars, something that gave Knudsen fits for the year it had the same wheelbase as Chevrolet.

    According to Bill Collins, former Pontiac Chief Engineer, the ’64 A-body program that begat GTO was undertaken to restore the proportions, style and package efficiency of the ’61-2 full size cars, which were beginning to outgrow their position in the market.

    Again, great job, keep it coming!

  8. i notice the 55 56 safaris carry the pontiac style on the rear area…but the standard station wagon is very very chevy looking except the tail light lens..why is this??

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