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1955-1957 Pontiac Strato-Streak

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.

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