1957 Pontiac Star Chief Safari
For the 1957 Pontiac Star Chief Safari, Pontiac stroked its V-8 to 347 cubic inches, boosting horsepower to 270 (244 with manual shift). Chevrolet, meanwhile, bored out its 265 to 283 cubic inches, and most Nomads came equipped with the 185- or 220-horsepower versions. As before, both makes listed special high-performance engines, Pontiac's being a 290-horsepower 347 with the soon-to-be-famous Tri-Power (triple two-barrel carbs), but again these were mainly for racing.
Side trim for both wagons in 1957 lost the splashy two-tone look, though the Safari sported a narrow, full-length, rocket-shaped contrasting color at mid-body height and Chevrolet's rear fenders carried anodized aluminum inserts. Nomad went to an expensive bumper-grille design, though not as heavy as Safari's.
Tailfins were becoming an important design feature, especially from a profile view, but Chevrolet and Pontiac merely hinted at them -- at least when compared to Chrysler's highflying rear fenders. A lower stance was achieved by reducing wheel diameters from 15 to 14 inches, an industry-wide change.
One of the most memorable changes for 1957 occurred at Pontiac: The Silver Streaks and Indian symbols were stripped off forever, one of the first dictates of Semon E. "Bunkie" Knudsen, who took over as Pontiac Division general manager in July 1956. Never mind that Bunkie's father had been instrumental in establishing the hallmark by which everyone had identified Pontiacs for two decades.
Though the Pontiac Safari and Chevrolet Nomad story centers around styling, a great part of the historical importance of these beautiful station wagons is based on the year in which they bowed: 1955. It was a time when the exuberant post World War II automotive scene had reached its zenith.
Vehicle production was at an all-time high -- over nine million cars and trucks. More than 50 percent of them had been manufactured by General Motors, then King of the Road in America. With brand-new styling and engineering from both Pontiac and Chevrolet, plus the very successful 1955 small-block V-8 engines which became legends in their own time, the handsome hardtop station wagon design was simply the richest icing ever to top off a crowd-pleasing, all-American cake.
In retrospect, some unfriendly fire was aimed directly at Safaris and Nomads, pointing out that their two-door design was impractical for maneuvering people in and out and for hauling, that they were more expensive than top-of-the-line convertibles, that they were prone to considerable leakage through the hastily engineered liftgate/tailgate area. Probably at least partly for these reasons, sales were disappointing -- but that has little historical influence on how the cars are judged today.
During that postwar mid-1950s boom time the word "suburbia" described a new way of life in America. And the Safaris and Nomads -- their sleek, one-off dream car styling contrasting sharply with the contemporary high-production, workaday wagons -- were just about the best way ever to haul groceries and Little Leaguers in the daytime, and arrive at a posh country club dance at dusk.
"Elegant inside; flashy outside." The Safari was indeed a fabulous wagon for the fabulous Fifties!
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