REVISED AND IMPROVED — With the ’55 through ’57 model years, Pontiac began its transformation from senior citizens’ car to leader of the performance youth market. Here’s a closer look at the brand’s early V8 years.
Veteran readers at Mac’s Motor City Garage will recall the Car Spotter’s Guide for the ’55 through ’64 Pontiacs we did a while back. Well, we’ve learned a lot since then. For example: While the Spotter’s Guide concept is a winner, in their original form the features covered too many model years. As a result, the stories were too long for internet reading patterns, and also for the website’s gearwork. Some pages will no longer load properly.
So we’re keeping the feature but revamping the format, repackaging these early Spotter’s Guides into tighter, smaller pieces—with shorter spans, sharper focus, more and better info. Without further ado: MCG’s Spotter’s Guide to the 1955 through 1957 Pontiac.
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. While the new Strato-Streak V8 shared some engineering features with the Chevy V8, also new in 1955, the two engines shared no internal components.
The nose sported a distinctive split bumper with an elaborate sheet-metal surround, browed headlamps, and trademark twin Silver Streak hood bands. The Silver Streak trim was originally devised back in 1936 to disguise the Pontiac’s Chevy-derived body panels and build brand identity.
The ’55’s clean hockey-stick side trim was a favorite with period customizers, who adapted the pieces to their ’49-’51 Fords and Mercurys. Except for its two-tone paint and whitewall tires, this Chieftain two-door post sedan is quite basic—note the ashtray hubcaps and plain upholstery. In car salesmen’s lingo, stripped-down models were derisively known as “heaters and keys.”
Trim levels for 1955 included the Chieftain 860, Chieftain 870, and the top-of-the-line Star Chief. With the all-new design and modern V8 engine, 1955 was a banner year for Pontiac. Over 550,000 units were sold, probably saving the division. Earlier, there was serious talk on the 14th floor at General Motors of killing the brand.
One new body style for 1955 was the sporty two-door Safari wagon, which shared its roofline and overall concept with the similar Chevrolet Nomad. Unlike the other Pontiac wagons, which used Chevy rear quarter panels with different taillamps, the Safari maintained the ’55 Pontiac design theme with round lamps and vestigal Silver Streaks atop the rear fenders.
With its minor facelift, the ’56 is similar to the previous year, but note that the front bumpers have a 30-degree crook toward the center, while the ’55 bumpers are straight. That’s one easy tell to distinguish the two model years. Also, all the metalwork in the grille opening is bright rather than painted.
Here’s the great Cotton Owens with his ’56 Pontiac on the sand at Daytona Beach. Note the redesigned side trim, and just to Cotton’s right you can make out the revised tail lamp trim. For 1956, the Pontiac V8 was enlarged from 287 to 316.6 CID and offered in both 205 hp and 227 hp tune. Three-speed manual and four-speed Hydramatic transmissions were offered.
A four-door Catalina hardtop was introduced in 1956, sharing its distinctive roofline with the Chevrolet Sport Sedan. (In Pontiac naming convention, pillarless hardtops bore the Catalina name, though that would change.) The bright metal taillamp spear identifies this as a Star Chief, but Pontiac offered the four-door hardtop in all three trim levels: 860, 870, and Star Chief. The four-door hardtop was the Motor City’s hot styling trend in 1956.
The Pontiac line was treated to all new sheet metal for 1957, which makes it a treat for car spotters, the one-year model. 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 to the leader of the youth performance market. One favorite Knudsen dictum: “You can sell a young man’s car to an old man, but you can’t sell an old man’s car to a young man.”
Somewhat confusingly, all station wagons bore the Safari name in 1957, including the original two-door sport model. The lineup for 1957, in ascending order, included the Chieftain, Super Chief, Star Chief, and a new flagship, the Bonneville, offered only as a convertible its first year. Engine displacement was increased to 347 cubic inches for 1957, except for the Bonneville, which was poked out to 370 CID.
While the Bonneville was the top trim level for ’57, all Pontiacs sported plenty of brightwork with 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, which echoes the similar badging on the front fenders. A Rochester mechanical FI system similar to that on the Corvette was offered in ’57 and ’58. The setup is incredibly rare today.
Four stars in the side trim identify this ’57 Catalina four-door as a Star Chief. (Bonneville and Star Chief sported four stars; Chieftain and Super Chief three.) While sales slipped to 334,000 units in 1957, Pontiac maintained a firm grip on sixth place in the domestic sales charts. Knudsen and crew, including chief engineer Pete Estes, went to work rebuilding the Pontiac brand.