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: