1955-1957 Pontiac Strato-Streak


There seems to be a sort of rule of thumb in the automobile business that you don't introduce a major styling change simultaneously with an important engineering advance -- like a new engine, for instance. That's like expending all of your ammunition at once, which is obviously no way to fight a war. Still, once in a while this "rule" is violated, as it was with the 1955 Pontiac.

Classic Cars Image Gallery

The 1955 Pontiac had all-new styling as well as a powerful new engine.
The 1955 Pontiac had all-new styling as well as a powerful
 new engine. See more pictures of classic cars.

The all-new General Motors A-body, shared with Chevrolet, gave Pontiac a fresh, vibrant look: crisper, smoother, nearly three inches lower, and far more contemporary looking than the 1954 models. Pontiac proclaimed: "Everything New But Its Wonderful Name!"

That was indeed true, and designer Paul Gillan made sure that Pontiac got its own distinct look below the beltline, even though it had to share rooflines with Chevrolet. Flashy two-tone paint jobs were very popular in the mid-1950s. In Pontiac's case, the upper color swept down to the middle of the front doors, then back across the rear deck, creating the illusion of greater length.

The front bumper was massive, and the grille was hardly more than a chrome-framed air intake. Above it rode a hood "that bows low to offer you a fine new close-up of the road." It carried "the sparkle of twin Silver Streaks," and just behind it was the new "Hood-High Cowl Ventilation" air intake.

"New ideas abound -- wherever you look ... Air-scoop-like hoods above newly recessed headlamps and -- along the crest of each [rear] fender -- twin Silver Streaks, curving down to emphasize the importance of big, sharply outswept tail lamps. ... An arching center bar conceals license-plate lighting ... joins the new, wrap-around rear bumpers -- massive and handsomely contoured."

To get a more complete picture of how fresh those new ideas were, inside and out, take a look at the following chart for an in-depth comparison of the 1954 and 1955 Pontiac:


1954
1955
Base price*
$2,557
$2,499
Shipping weight*
3,551
3,568
Wheelbase, inches
124.0
124.0
Overall length, inches
213.7
210.2
Overall width, inches
76.6 75.4
Overall height, inches
64.7 62.5
Bore × stroke, inches
3.375 × 3.75
3.75 × 3.25
Stroke/bore ratio
1.111:1 0.867:1
Displacement, cid
268.4 287.2
Compression ratio
7.70:1 8.00:1
Horsepower @ rpm
127 @ 3,800
180 @ 4,600
Torque @ rpm
234 @ 2,200
264 @ 2,400
Horsepower per cid
.473 .627
Weight (pounds) per bhp*
27.96 19.82
Valve configuration
L-head
overhead-valve
Valve lifters
mechanical
hydraulic
Electrical sustem
6-volt
12-volt
Braking area, square inches
171.0
178.0
Performance (from Motor Trend):


Top speed, mph
92.8 100.3
0-60 mph, seconds
17.4 13.8
Standing 1/4-mile, seconds
20.7 19.7
Standing 1/4-mile, mph
65.0 70.0

* Star Chief Custom Catalina hardtop coupe

Station wagons betrayed their kinship with Chevrolet via the rear fenders, in which heavily chromed taillight bezels fit into the same openings used for Chevrolet taillights.

Following the lead of the 1954 Buick and Oldsmobile, a wraparound windshield was considered mandatory. "A crystal sweep of Safety Plate Glass curves around you in half-circle fashion to open the wide world of view ... and alert you to it," proclaimed the sales brochure. "Pontiac's dramatic new Panoramic windshield increases your area of forward view up to twenty-six per cent. For beauty, for safety -- all around the car -- this is the vision ... of the future!" As a bonus, there was less distortion at the corners than was common on some other makes.

Pontiac's new exterior styling was seen as generally pleasing, even exciting -- save for what some thought a rather unfortunate blunt front end. The ever-quotable veteran auto tester Tom McCahill, writing for Mechanix Illustrated, said it made the car look "like it was born on its nose."

Inside was "Pontiac's all-new instrument panel -- with new red-line speed indicator, centered glove compartment with 'beverage-cup' door, controls at your finger tips." Star Chief Customs came with Firegold or Turquoise Blue cloth upholstery, "alive with the fire of metallic glints," available in solid colors or two-toned with pale White Mist.

Customs could also have a combination of leather and nylon-faced fabric, while the Custom Catalina offered full leather seating. The Star Chief convertible featured Morrokide upholstery in four colors, with ivory-white for "striking contrast." The top came in four colors: black, gray, green, or tan.

In the slightly less deluxe non-Custom Star Chief four-door, patterned nylon-faced fabric contrasted with the "sheen" of sharkskin cloth. As expected. Chieftain interiors were plainer, particularly in the base 860 series.

To learn about the new Pontiac's engine, continue on to the next page.

For more information on cars, see:

Pontiac's Engine

Under the hood lurked a brand-new overhead-valve "Strato-Streak" V-8 engine. It wasn't much bigger than its flat-head, straight-eight predecessor -- 287.2 versus 268.4 cubic inches -- but it generated 42 percent more horsepower and 13 percent more torque. Performance figures, as recorded by Motor Trend, speak for themselves:


19551954
Top speed, mph 100.3
92.8
1/4-mile, seconds 19.7
20.7
1/4-mile, mph
70.0
65.0
0-30 mph, seconds4.4
5.0
0-60 mph, seconds13.817.4
30-50 mph, seconds
6.27.8
50-80 mph, seconds
17.419.6

With the 200-bhp "Power Pack," Motor Trend knocked the 0-60 time down to 12.7 seconds, nearly five seconds faster than the 1954 straight-eight!

This isn't to suggest that the old Pontiac Eight wasn't a good engine. Designed in the early 1930s by Ben Anibal, formerly chief engineer at Cadillac, it was a durable, relatively economical unit, one of the most serviceable engines of its day. Good enough, in fact, that in 1937 Oldsmobile abandoned its previous design in favor of an engine that bore, unmistakably, a filial resemblance to the Pontiac Eight.

However, not to put too fine a point on the matter, Pontiac's V-8 was overdue. Oldsmobile had introduced its short-stroke, overhead-valve "Rocket" V-8 in 1949, Studebaker released its short-stroke in 1951, Dodge and Buick in 1953, Mercury in 1954, leaving Pontiac as the only automaker in its price class to retain the old-fashioned, under-square, L-head, eight-in-line engine.

As a matter of fact, research on V-8 engines had begun at Pontiac as early as 1946, although at that time there was no real urgency about its development. The old flathead, in its fourteenth year of production by that time, was still popular -- and still giving a good account of itself.

In time, competitive pressures would force Pontiac's management to reassess its position, but in 1946 -- with postwar demand for new cars far exceeding the available supply -- the ultra-conservative Harry Klinger, Pontiac's general manager since 1933, had every reason to feel complacent.
In the initial stages of the V-8's development, Pontiac's engineers experimented with the division's traditional L-head layout. No doubt this had something to do with their familiarity with this type of design. But it's safe to say that cost considerations were also taken into account, for due to its simplicity, a side-valve engine was significantly cheaper to manufacture than the overhead-valve type.

In time, however, it became evident to Ed Delaney, Pontiac's chief engineer -- as it had, earlier, to Cadillac engineers -- that the L-head design was simply not compatible with the higher compression ratios that the future was expected to bring. So in the end, Pontiac -- like the Cadillac, Oldsmobile, and Buick Divisions before it (and Chevrolet almost simultaneously) -- settled on overhead valves. Engineer Mark Frank was put in charge of the new engine's development, assisted by Edmund Windeler and Clay-ton Leach.

Incidentally, the original intent had been for Pontiac to continue offering a six-cylinder car as a companion to the new V-8. Several prototype sixes were built, including a V-6 and an overhead-valve, inline version, and consideration was even given to retaining the aged flathead. But by 1954, sixes made up less than eight percent of Pontiac's total production, so it was only logical that all 1955 models should get the new V-8.

Following the example of its colleagues at the other General Motors divisions, Pontiac adopted an over-square design (larger bore than stroke). Thus, friction was reduced, and larger valves could be employed, leading to improved breathing. A monobloc casting was used, with a 90-degree angle between the cylinder banks, while a central camshaft operated the pushrod and rocker-arm valve gear to each side.

Up to this point the proposed Pontiac design wasn't appreciably different than Oldsmobile's -- or Buick's or Cadillac's, for that matter. What set the Pontiac engine apart was its overhead-valve gear, called the "Ball-Pivot Valve Train." Working at home on his own time, Assistant Engineer Clayton Leach developed a new type of mechanism in which the usual rocker-arm shafts were eliminated. It was thereby considerably simplified, and weight was substantially reduced.

In Leach's design, rocker arms were made of cyanide-hardened stamped steel. Each arm was individually mounted on a ball pivot, which in turn was fitted to a stud protruding from the cylinder head. Misalignment of the rocker arm relative to the pushrod and valve stem was eliminated because the rocker arm was able to square itself on the end of the valve stem. Not only was the mechanism much lighter than the traditional rocker shaft arrangement, it was a whole lot cheaper to manufacture.

Some automotive journalists, notably the well-known Floyd Clymer, expressed doubts about the durability of Clayton Leach's valve gear, and indeed it represented a radical departure from past practices. So George Delaney -- a cautious, conservative man by nature -- subjected it to test after test until he was satisfied that it was fully as serviceable as the older, heavier setup used by the other General Motors divisions.

Pontiac boasted, "On the road and in the laboratory -- pre-proved in over three million test miles!" So satisfactory was the layout, in fact, that it caught the eye of Ed Cole, who had just recently come from Cadillac to become chief engineer at the Chevrolet Division. Cole wanted Leach's valve gear for the new V-8 that he and Harry Barr were developing for the 1955 Chevy.

To read about the new Pontiac's performance in its division, see the next page.

For more information on cars, see:

Pontiac's Division

It was General Motors' custom, in the 1950s, to permit the division responsible for any important new development to enjoy exclusive rights to it for the first year -- in this case, Pontiac's division.

The innovative new 1955 drive train made Pontiac's division the envy of General Motors.
The innovative new drive train made
Pontiac's division the envy of General Motors.

Ed Cole, however, sought permission to use Leach's design from the very beginning. We do not know what powers of persuasion may have been applied to Robert M. Critchfield, who had been Pontiac's general manager since 1952, though it's common knowledge that Cole -- who would eventually become president of General Motors -- enjoyed considerable clout in the front office. In any case, Ed Cole's request was granted.

Pontiac's new engine block, like its valve train, was relatively light. This was due in part to the engineers' use of precision casting techniques. But more importantly, in lieu of the deep-block design then in general use (exemplified by Ford's widely touted "Y-Block" V-8), Pontiac split the block at the crankshaft centerline. Thanks to the engine's basic rigidity, this was done with no sacrifice in strength.

Other features of the new V-8 included the right cylinder bank cast slightly forward of the left to simplify distributor positioning, a forged steel crankshaft cradled in five large main bearings, completely machined combustion chambers, and a "Quad-Gallery Lubrication System" to keep "every highly machined part cushioned with oil." Hydraulic valve lifters were also featured.

"Where mechanical connections were used before," said Pontiac, "the Strato-Streak V-8 uses a column of oil to compensate for dimensional changes caused by heat-expansion of valve train parts. The quantity of oil needed is adjusted -- automatically -- to keep lifters in constant contact with push rods. The result? Accurate timing, silent operation, long valve life, no tappet adjustment ever needed!"

Standard issue was a three-speed, column-mounted manual gearbox. Cars so-equipped were powered by a regular-fuel, 173-horsepower version of the Strato-Streak V-8, carrying a compression ratio of 7.40:1. But nearly 91 percent of all 1955 Pontiacs left the factory equipped with the four-speed Dual-Range Hydra-Matic transmission, a $178 option, supplied in combination with 8.00:1 heads. In this edition, the V-8 generated 180 horses.

Then, in the spring, a $35 Power Pack became available. With a four-barrel carburetor replacing the standard two-barrel pot, this package raised the gross horsepower to a comparatively lusty 200, just two horses less than Oldsmobile's Super 88.

Altogether, 13 models were offered, four each in the Chieftain "860" Special and "870" Deluxe series, and five Star Chiefs, including a spectacular hardtop-style, two-door station wagon called the Safari. The Chieftains rode a wheelbase of 122 inches, while top-of-the-line Star Chiefs (except for the Safari) employed a 124-inch chassis.

Overall, the 210.2-inch-long Star Chiefs (again, apart from the Safari) stretched seven inches longer than the Chieftains, the difference taking the form of an extended rear deck. As a matter of fact, the 1954 Star Chief had even more rear overhang, resulting in an overall length 3.5 inches greater than that of the 1955 version; some owners had complained that turning into a steep driveway caused the rear bumper to scrape the pavement.

The volume leader in both Chieftair lines, which differed mainly in interior appointments, was the traditional four door sedan, with the smartly styled Catalina two-door hardtop in second place in the 870 line. A two-door sedan and four-door station wagon completed the roster in each instance, save for a lone two-door wagon in the 860 series.

The Star Chief four-door sedan and Catalina hardtop came in either deluxe or Custom trim; the Star Chief convertible, Pontiac's only ragtop, was considered a deluxe. The Safari, Pontiac's most expensive model at $2,962, was a member of the Star Chief Custom sub-series despite its shorter wheelbase and length. But the most popular Pontiac of them all for 1955 was the $2,499 Star Chief Custom Catalina.

Overall, the new Pontiacs represented the most radical change the division had seen since 1933, and sales responded accordingly. It is true, of course, that 1955 was a record year for the entire industry. Sister divisions Buick and Oldsmobile, for example, scored 47- and 48-percent production gains, respectively. Pontiac, though it remained in sixth place, did even better, showing a rousing 57-percent increase!

For more information on cars, see:

1956 Pontiac

For the 1956 Pontiac, the Strato-Streak V-8 was bored to 316.6 cubic inches, raising the horsepower of the Chieftains to 205 with Hydra-Matic, 192 with stick shift. Star Chiefs, thanks to a four-barrel carburetor now supplied as standard equipment, cranked out 227 or 216 bhp, depending on the transmission. Dual exhausts were standard on all Pontiacs except the Chieftain 860 wagons.

Prices for the 1956 Pontiac were increased by about six percent.
Prices for the 1956 Pontiac
were increased by
about six percent.

A stylish Catalina four-door hardtop -- a "brilliant new look to a wonderful idea" -- was added to the 860, 870, and Custom Star Chief rosters, and a two-door Catalina joined the 860 line. On the other hand, the 870 two-door sedan was deleted. Production of the Star Chief Custom sedan was also halted, but only temporarily, for it would return when the 1957 Pontiacs made their debut.

Introduced during January was another version of the V-8, fitted with twin four-barrel carburetors, 10.0:1 heads, a red-hot camshaft, and special valve lifters. Rated at 285 horsepower, it was available with either a manual shift or a heavy-duty Hydra-Matic.

According to Pontiac, this mill was intended "for those who wish to race professionally or who vie with each other in having a 'hot' performing car." Apparently only about 200 cars were so equipped, and they weren't for everybody.

Motor Trend drove a Chieftain hardtop sedan with this setup, but walked away disappointed because the high-lift cam and rough idle were no fun in day-to-day driving, and because the test car (which was hardly broken in) offered no significant performance gain over a 227-bhp Star Chief tested earlier.

But at least one of the hot 285-bhp engines gave a rather spectacular account of itself under NASCAR supervision at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. In order to advertise its muscle, Pontiac hired the legendary "King of Speed" race driver, the spry 73-year-old Ab Jenkins, to show what it could do.

Driving a specially prepared Chieftain 860 two-door sedan, the lightest car in Pontiac's inventory, Jenkins set a world record by covering 2,841 miles in 24 hours, averaging 118.375 miles per hour, including 28 pit stops. The fastest 10-mile run was at 126.65 mph, the first 100 miles were clocked at 126.02 mph.

Pontiac bragged that only one quart of oil had been added during the entire run despite temperatures as high as 130 degrees in the sun. Ads soon shouted that "Pontiac blazes to new world's record," and, almost as an aside, also boasted that "Pontiac delivered more miles per gallon than any other 'Eight' in any class" in the Mobilgas Economy Run.

These speed records would have been a remarkable achievement for a man half Ab Jenkins's age, and evidently the strain was too much for him. A few days later he was riding as a passenger in a new Pontiac, driven by a company executive. The driver stopped to use the restroom at a service station, and when he returned to the car he found his passenger slumped over in the seat. The great Ab Jenkins was dead.

Prices for 1956 were increased by about six percent. Only minor styling changes were made to "the fabulous 1956 Strato-Streak Pontiac," involving mainly a restyled, chromier grille, plus revised side trim and two-toning. Star Chiefs no longer wore three stars on each body-side; instead, they were set apart by a chrome "jet tube" leading to each tail-light (a la the 1951 Ford!), upon which were affixed three flattened red ovals. Chieftains also got the ovals, but had to do without the extra chrome. Star Chiefs, as in 1955, also sported a thicker diagonal chrome slash (starting at the A-pillar) than the 870s or 860s.

The 1956 Pontiacs also received a number of mechanical and structural modifications, including a stouter "Tru-X frame with four-way cantilever construction," improved rear axle seals, more rigid engine block construction, and bigger universal joints.

Perhaps the most significant change was the adoption, for Star Chiefs, of the "all-new, power-smooth Strato-Flight Hydra-Matic transmission," featuring a controlled fluid coupling and non-grabbing sprag clutches for smoother shifting. Despite Pontiac's claim of "approximately 2 million miles of testing and proving," this unit was accompanied by a number of teething problems. Once these were worked out, the "fluid-flow" Strato-Flight proved to be highly satisfactory -- if not quite the promised "motoring thrill of your life."

But the big news for the year had to do not with the product, but rather with the division's management. On July 1, 1956, General Manager Robert Critchfield was shifted to General Motors' new Tech Center in Warren, Michigan, as head of the process development staff.

Meanwhile, Semon E. "Bunkie" Knudsen, son of former General Motors president William S. "B Bill" Knudsen, was summoned from the Detroit Diesel Engine Division to take command at Pontiac. At 44, Bunkie was General Motors' youngest car-division manager, but he was a veteran of 20 years' experience in various General Motors divisions, including eight years at Pontiac.

Doubtless the younger Knudsen's reputation as an energetic, fearless innovator had preceded him, so expectation naturally ran high. Just a year earlier Pontiac was described as "the worst division at General Motors."

From 1926 to 1933, and again from 1937 to 1955, Pontiac had been comfortably ahead of Oldsmobile in sales volume. But by the time Knudsen took over, Oldsmobile was out-selling Pontiac by a margin of better than 30 percent. Bunkie was determined to turn that situation around, and to run Buick as well.

To learn more about the 1957 Pontiac, the first year under the new command of Knudsen, continue on to the next page.

For more information on cars, see:

1957 Pontiac

The design of the 1957 Pontiac models was just about locked up when Bunkie Knudsen reported for duty at Pontiac. But with new model introductions just four and a half months away, he audaciously stripped the prototype car of its trademark "Silver Streaks" -- a styling device for which his own father apparently had been party responsible back in 1935 (Franklin Hershey claims to actually have designed them).

1957 Pontiac models were restyled to appeal to a younger market.
1957 Pontiac models were restyled
to appeal to
a younger market.

With his oft-quoted comment that "You can sell an old man a young man's car, but you can never sell a young man old man's car!," the new general manager served notice that under his leadership things would be different Pontiac.

Effective with the introduction of the 1957 models, all Pontiac station wagons bore the Safari name. A new four-door Star Chief Custom Safari -- also known the Transcontinental -- was announced dealers on January 11, 1957. Although aficionados tend to think of the high styled Star Chief Custom two-door the "true" Safari, the Transcontinental strutted its own unique features.

The most obvious was the side trim: anodized aluminum on the rear doors and quarter panels, riding beneath a modified side spear. Within the straightened-out spear were four chrome stars (the two-door Safari got only three), follow by Safari script.

Special paint colors and a roof rack were standard, as was leather upholstery. The front seat was split 30/70, with the wider section on the passenger side. The fully carpeted cargo floor sported five chrome rub strips. Notably, the $3,636 price tag topped the two-door Safari by $155, and a production run of 1,894 units also outdid the two-door, by 602.

Apart from the missing Silver Streaks, Pontiac sported some noticeable styling changes for 1957: a reworked grille beneath mildly "Frenched" headlights, new spear-like bodyside moldings that widened toward the rear, and tall, heavily chromed taillight housings (with oval lens) capping extremely modest tailfins.

And there was a major difference in prices, with increases amounting to between nine and 10 percent. The engine was stroked to 347.0 cubic inches, raising its output to 252 horsepower in Hydra-Matic-equipped Chieftains, 227 with the manual shift. The Super Chiefs, which replaced the Chieftain 870s, were powered by the same four-barrel engine as the Star Chief, rated at 244 or 270 bhp, the latter with automatic.

Obviously, increased performance was a key element in Bunkie Knudsen's goal of changing Pontiac's traditionally stodgy image, and the 1957 models played a key role in that effort. Motor Life, wringing-out a 270-horsepower Super Chief, sprinted from rest to 60 miles per hour in just 8.8 seconds, compared to 13.8 seconds for the 180-horse 1955 model tested by Motor Trend.

And the 270-bhp mill was only the beginning! Optionally available for any 1957 Pontiac were two "Tri-Power" engines, each fed by three two-barrel carburetors. The "street" version was rated at 290 horsepower, while the NASCAR-certified edition, equipped with solid valve lifters and heavy-duty components, put out 317 horses. With stick shift, the latter got dual-breaker ignition; with Hydra-Matic a single-breaker unit was supplied. With the 290-bhp unit, 0-60 came up in just 8.5 seconds in a two-door sedan; some other reports placed that figure just under eight seconds given ideal conditions.

But to most people, Pontiac's most exciting news for 1957 was the debut of the Bonneville. Named for the Utah Salt Flats where Ab Jenkins had posted his final speed records just one year earlier, the first-edition Bonneville came only as a convertible.

Standard equipment included, among other bells and whistles, Strata-Flight Hydra-Matic, power steering and brakes, eight-way power seat, power windows, special paint, leather-trimmed upholstery, underseat heater and defroster, Wonderbar radio with electric antenna, deluxe steering wheel, electric clock, padded dash, deluxe carpeting, white sidewall tires, and -- most importantly -- an engine equipped with Rochester fuel injection, nearly the same setup marketed on a limited basis that year by Chevrolet.

Pontiac's version was allegedly designed for maximum low-range torque rather than top-end power. It consisted of separate fuel and air meters on a special assembly that sat where the carburetor and intake manifold normally would. Fuel was injected into each port, making this what we'd now call a mechanical "multi-port" system. Taking a leaf from the Rolls-Royce book, Pontiac declined to specify the Bonneville's output, but eventually relented, quoting 310 gross horsepower and 400 Ibs/ft torque -- impressive numbers even now.

The Bonneville's price was equally impressive: $5,782, enough to purchase a Star Chief convertible and a Super Chief sedan, with $7 left over. Bonneville production was limited to 630 units, supposedly for dealers to exploit for publicity purposes. Also impressive was the weight: 4,285 pounds, 770 more than a Chieftain two-door sedan.

But what wasn't particularly impressive was the performance of the fuel-injected engine. According to Motor Trend, it cut only one-tenth of a second off the 0-60 time recorded by the 290-horsepower Tri-Power car. Fuel injection became a $500 option for any 1958 Pontiac, but at that price it wasn't popular and was phased out after that season.

Following a severe sales slump in 1956, when model-year output fell 26.8 percent, Pontiac faced another drop during 1957, this time 17.7 percent (although calendar-year output actually increased slightly). This was perhaps understandable, considering that Pontiac was fielding a three-year-old design against stunning all-new "Forward Look" competition from Chrysler Corporation, and completely restyled entries from Buick, Olds, Ford, and Mercury.

Aside from Dodge and DeSoto, which both enjoyed a healthy sales increase, all the other mid-priced makes posted losses -- enough to leave Pontiac still firmly in control of sixth place in the production race. The significance of the 1955-1957 Pontiacs was that the make had begun its rebirth with the Strato-Streak V-8 and a new management team headed by Bunkie Knudsen.

The team's efforts would be truly felt with the sensational 1959 "Wide Track" Pontiacs, with which Knudsen and staff would achieve their goal of beating both Oldsmobile and Buick, and thus become General Motors' leading producer of medium-priced cars.

Did you know that the Strato-Streak wasn't Pontiac's first V-8? See the next page for a fascinating look at the brief run of the first-ever Pontiac V-8.

For more information on cars, see:

Strato-Streak Wasn't Pontiac's First V-8!

Most people probably think of the 1955 Pontiac Strato-Streak as being the first V-8 offered by that General Motors make, but they're mistaken. Strato-Streak wasn't Pontiac's first V-8! Twenty-two years earlier, there had been another V-8 bearing the Pontiac name, and an interesting car it was. Here's the story:

The earliest Pontiacs were built by what was then called the Oakland Division of General Motors. A member of the General Motors family since 1909, Oakland over the years had never sold particularly well (an average of about 35,000 units per year in the first half of the 1920s), despite having racked up a number of impressive records in the popular hill-climbing contests of early times. Even in its best year, 1926, Oakland was outsold by Buick by a ratio of five-to-one.

It was at that point that the Pontiac was introduced, as a lower-priced "companion" car. Nothing less than the future of the Oakland Division rested on its success -- and a success it was! By 1928, the Oakland Division was producing nearly a quarter of a million Oaklands and Pontiacs per year, and outselling Buick in the process. Predictably, Pontiac accounted for nearly four-fifths of the division's total volume.

In what appears to have been one final attempt to make a success of the Oakland automobile, the company powered it with a new 85-horsepower V-8 engine for 1930. Billed as the lowest-priced V-8 ever offered to the American public, this car boasted a top speed exceeding 70 miles per hour. Some 700 pounds lighter than the 80.5-horsepower Buick Series 40 Six, the Oakland V-8 was a phenomenal performer, and at prices ranging from $1,025 to $1,195, it was a bargain as well. Buick prices, in those days, ranged upward from $1,260.

But the Oakland still wasn't terribly successful where it counted -- on the sales floor -- and so the decision was made to kill the marque and market the V-8 in 1932 as a senior Pontiac, doubtless in the hope that some of Pontiac's popularity might rub off on the larger car. It didn't, so production was halted on March 22, 1932, exactly three months following the Pontiac V-8's debut. Only 6,281 units had been produced.

But as we've said, the short-lived, first-generation Pontiac V-8 was an interesting car. Or at least it had an interesting engine, in several respects. For instance, valves were positioned horizontally, rather like those of the Auburn V-12. This design was said to provide some of the breathing advantages of an overhead-valve layout, at a substantial cost savings.

Engine dimensions were slightly over-square, 3.44 by 3.38 inches, for 251 cid. Nowadays, of course, we take it for granted that the bore will in most cases be greater than the stroke, but years ago that practice was highly unusual. The obvious advantage, in addition to reduced friction, was that the design enabled Pontiac engineers to use larger valves than would otherwise have been the case. Thus, breathing was further improved.

Then there was the 180-degree crankshaft. That is to say, all four throws were on one plane, instead of being at right angles to one another, in accordance with accepted practice. The company claimed to have employed the single-plane crank because it provided a better firing order, but that was pure hype. The truth of the matter was simply that the flat crank was much cheaper to manufacture than the two-plane type.

Parenthetically, it might be noted that the problem with a 180-degree crankshaft is that it tends to induce horizontal engine vibration at twice the speed of engine rotation. Pontiac responded by taking steps to neutralize this shaking force.

Engine mounts -- rubber biscuits at the rear, laminated spring supports in front -- were designed to let the engine shake without transmitting the vibrations to the chassis. This type of mounting was claimed to produce smooth operation at high speeds, but it permitted too much free motion at idle. To help neutralize that effect, a synchronizer was fitted to the front of the engine. Thus, when the V-8 rocked to the right, the synchronizer worked to push it to the left -- and vice-versa.

Despite these efforts, the Oakland/Pontiac V-8 couldn't match the smoothness of competing straight-eights from Auburn, Oldsmobile, Willys-Overland, Studebaker, and Nash. Nor could it compete, with respect to performance or price, with the $635 Pontiac straight-eight that would be introduced for the 1933 season.

To find specifications for the 1955-1957 Pontiacs, continue on to the next page.

For more information on cars, see:

Pontiac Specifications

By the early 1950s, Pontiac needed to overhaul its overly conservative styling and outdated straight eight. Finally, in 1955, the "old-man's-car" was dumped -- the new, vibrant "Strato-Streak" era was here. Here are the specifications for the 1955-1957 Pontiac:

By 1957, Pontiac sales and production numbers were falling.
By 1957, Pontiac sales and production
numbers were falling.

1955 Pontiac Models, Prices, Production

860 Chieftain (wheelbase 122.0) Weight
Price
Production
2-door sedan
3,476$2,10558,654
4-door sedan
3,511$2,16465,155
2-door station wagon, 6-passenger
3,626$2,4348,620
4-door station wagon, 8-passenger
3,686$2,518 6,091
Total 1955 860 Chieftain


138,520

870 Chieftain (wheelbase 122.0)
Weight Price Production
2-door sedan 3,476$2,20928,950
4-door sedan3,511$2,26891,187
Catalina hardtop coupe
3,521$2,33572,608
4-door station wagon, 6-passenger3,676$2,603 19,439
Total 1955 870 Chieftain


212,184

Star Chief (wheelbase 124.0; wagon, 122.0)
Weight
Price
Production
4-door sedan3,556$2,36244,800
Custom 4-door sedan3,557$2,45535,153
Custom Catalina hardtop coupe3,566$2,49999,629
convertible coupe
3,791$2,69119,762
Custom Safari 2-door wagon, 6-passenger
3,636$2,962 3,760
Total 1955 Star Chief


203,104
Total 1955 Pontiac


553,808

1956 Pontiac Models, Prices, Production

860 Chieftain (wheelbase 122.0)
Weight Price Production
2-door sedan 3,452$2,24041,908
4-door sedan3,512$2,29841,987
Catalina hardtop coupe3,512$2,37046,335
Catalina hardtop sedan
3,577$2,44335,201
2-door station wagon, 6-passenger3,612$2,5696,099
4-door station wagon, 9-passenger3,707$2,653 12,702
Total 1956 860 Chieftain


184,232

870 Chieftain (wheelbase 122.0) Weight PriceProduction
4-door sedan3,512$2,41322,082
Catalina hardtop coupe3,512$2,48024,744
Catalina hardtop sedan3,577$2,53425,372
4-door station wagon, 6-passenger3,657$2,749 21,674
Total 1956 870 Chieftain

93,872

Star Chief (wheelbase 124.0; wagon, 122.0)Weight
Price
Production
4-door sedan3,577$2,527
18,346
Custom Catalina hardtop coupe3,567$2,66543,392
Custom Catalina hardtop sedan3,647$2,73548,035
convertible coupe3,797$2,85713,510
Custom Safari 2-door wagon, 6-passenger3,642
$3,1294,043
Total 1956 Star Chief


127,325
Total 1956 Pontiac


405,429

1957 Pontiac Models, Prices, Production

Chieftain (wheelbase 122.0)
Weight Price
Production
2-door sedan3,515$2,46321,343
4-door sedan3,5602,52735,671
Catalina hardtop coupe3,5552,52951,017
Catalina hardtop sedan3,6352,61440,074
Safari 2-door wagon, 6-passenger3,6902,8412,934
Safari 4-door wagon, 9-passenger3,8352,898 11,536
Total 1957 Chieftain


162,575

Super Chief (wheelbase 122.0)
Weight
Price
Production
4-door sedan3,585
$2,66415,153
Catalina hardtop coupe3,570$2,73515,494
Catalina hardtop sedan3,640$2,79319,758
Safari 4-door wagon, 6-passenger3,765$3,021
14,095
Total 1957 Super Chief


64,500

Star Chief (wheelbase 124.0; wagon, 122.0)
Weight
Price
Production
4-door sedan3,630$2,8393,774
Custom 4-door sedan3,645$2,8968,874
Custom Catalina hardtop coupe3,640$2,90132,862
Custom Catalina hardtop sedan3,710$2,97544,283
convertible coupe3,860$3,10512,789
Custom Safari 2-door wagon, 6-passenger3,750$3,4811,292
Custom Safari 4-door wagon, 6-passenger*3,810$3,636 1,894
Total 1957 Star Chief


105,768

Bonneville (wheelbase 124.0)
Weight
Price
Production
convertible coupe
4,285
$5,782
630
Total 1957 Pontiac


333,473

*Also referred to as the "Transcontinental." Source: Encyclopedia of American Cars from 1930, by the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Publications International, Ltd., 1993. Calendar-year production was 581,860 in 1955, 332,268 in 1956, and 343,298 in 1957.

1955 Pontiac Engines

cid
compression
ratio
carburetorbhp @ rpm torque @ rpm
transmission
287.2
7.4:1
1-2V
173 @ 4,400
256 @ 2,400
3-speed
287.28.0:11-2V180 @ 4,600
264 @ 2,400
Hydra-Matic
287.28.0:11-4V200 @ 4,600 264 @ 2,400 Hydra-Matic, 3-speed

1956 Pontiac Engines

cid compression
ratio

carburetorbhp @ rpmtorque @ rpmtransmission
316.67.9:11-2V 192 @ 4,400
297 @ 2,400
3-speed (Chieftain)
316.68.9:11-2V 205 @ 4,600
294 @ 2,600
Hydra-Matic (Chieftain)
316.67.9:11-4V 216 @ 4,800
315 @ 2,800
3-speed (Star Chief)
316.68.9:11-4V 227 @ 4,800
312 @ 3,000
Hydra-Matic (Star Chief)
316.610.0:12-4V 285 @ 5,100
n/a
3-speed

1957 Pontiac Engines

­
cid compression
ratio
carburetorbhp @ rpmtorque @ rpmtransmission
347.08.5:11-2V 227 @ 4,600
333 @ 2,300
3-speed (Chieftain)
347.010.0:11­-2V 252 @ 4,600
354 @ 2,400
Hydra-Matic (Chieftain)
347.08.5:11-4V 244 @ 4,800
316 @ 2,800
3-speed (Star Chief, Super Chief)
347.010.0:11-4V 270 @ 4,800
359 @ 2,800
Hydra-Matic (Star Chief, Super Chief)
347.010.0:13-2V 290 @ 5,000
n/a
Hydra-Matic; NASCAR certified
347.010.0:13-2V 317 @ 5,200
n/a
3-speed, Hydra-Matic; NASCAR certified
347.010.25:1FI310 @ 4,800
400 @ 3,400
Hydra-Matic (Bonneville)

For more information on cars, see:

­