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How Pontiac Works

Pontiacs of the 1930s
This 1934 Pontiac Eight "trunkback" sedan had built-in luggage compartments.

Mechanically, Pontiac's 1930-31 cars were virtual reruns of the popular 1929 "Big Six" models, retaining an orthodox inline L-head engine with 200 cubic inches and 60 brake horsepower. Offerings comprised the customary open and closed styles on a 110-inch wheelbase (upped two inches for '31) spread over a $665-$785 price range. Sedans and coupes sold best.

For 1932, the rough-running V-8 Oakland became a 117-inch-wheelbase Pontiac, but met with no more success: outsold more than 6-to-1 by "The Chief of the Sixes" on a new 114-inch chassis.

Wheelbase increased to 115 inches for 1933, when Anibal's new straight-eight arrived in a slimmer model group downpriced to the $585-$695 area. Though smaller at 223.4 cid, the inline eight was much smoother than the 85-bhp 251-cid Oakland V-8, and thus far more salable. Horsepower climbed for 1934 from 77 to 84, then to 87 with a bored-out 232 replacement for 1936. The straight-eight was further enlarged for '37, and would continue at that 249-cid size through 1949. A highly reliable engine, it would remain a Pontiac staple until the division's first modern high-compression V-8 of 1955.

Styling in these years followed industry trends. The 1930-32s were boxy and undistinguished, but the transitional '33s and the more fully streamlined '34 models were among the prettiest medium-price cars of the era. The latter jumped to a new 117.5-inch chassis and boasted a notable innovation in GM's "Knee-Action" independent front suspension. Though this was also featured on '34 Chevrolets, components were not interchangeable between the two makes.

Many other parts were shared by then, thanks to Sloan's corporate reorganization, yet the 1933-34 Pontiacs looked unique. Credit Hershey and chief body engineer Roy Milner. Hershey convinced GM styling director Harley Earl of the need for more-streamlined Pontiacs, and accordingly designed a Bentley-type radiator and skirted front fenders with horizontal "speed streaks."

Milner gave open models (including Pontiac's last roadsters in '33) a smooth deck and beltline moldings different from Chevrolet's. With this, Knee-Action, and Anibal's straight-eight, the Pontiac Eight was a pleasing package. Though it couldn't quite keep pace with a Ford V-8 or Hudson Terraplane, it didn't lag them by much. Pontiac's future was now secure.

After two years of nothing but eight-cylinder cars, and with the market still sluggish, Pontiac reinstated sixes for 1935: Standard and DeLuxe on a 112-inch wheelbase. Sized at 208 cid, their "new" six was really just a bigger-bore version of the old 200. Surprisingly, it made only four fewer horsepower than that year's eight: 80 in all.

Standard Sixes cost about $100 less than comparable Eights, which was a lot in those days, and for the rest of the decade they outsold the senior models by a wide margin. Eights were demoted to a slightly shorter 116.6-inch chassis for '35, and all Pontiacs boasted GM's new all-steel "Turret Top" construction that eliminated traditional fabric roof inserts.

"Trunkback" sedans with integral luggage compartments had appeared for 1934. These returned for '35, but bodies were entirely new. Styling was new also, by now of the rounded "potato" school. Pontiac gained added distinction with "Silver Streak" trim, bright-metal bands running forward from the cowl, over the hood, and down the front of the radiator. This has been variously credited to Hershey, "Big Bill" Knudsen, and a young designer named Virgil Exner, who would figure in early-postwar Studebakers and Chrysler's mid-'50s "Forward Look." No matter: Silver Streaks made Pontiacs unmistakable, and would continue as a make hallmark for the next 20 years.

After a mostly stand-pat 1936, Pontiac issued new styling for a trimmer 1937 line of DeLuxe Sixes and Eights on the corporate GM "B" body. Respective wheelbases lengthened five and six inches, which made for better proportions, and a racy reshaped nose with vertical streaks overlaid a more massive wrapped radiator, yielding a rather busy "face." A bore-and-stroke job swelled the six to 222.7 cid, where it would stay through 1940; horsepower stood at 85. The eight was stroked to achieve its aforementioned 249 cid, good for 100 bhp.

After five years of mostly steady gains, sales eased to just over 97,000 in recessionary 1938, pushing Pontiac from fifth to sixth behind Dodge. A four-door station wagon debuted in the DeLuxe Six series. Ads bubbled about all models' "New Silver Streak Beauty," but that was no more than a facelift consisting mainly of a barrel-like radiator with thick horizontal bars and vertical instead of horizontal hood vents.

The rebodied '39s were prettier, with wider "pontoon" fenders, reduced overall height, larger glass areas, and smaller pod-style headlamps well inboard of the front-fender crowns. Pontiac's face remained a bit confused, however, as Harley Earl applied his favored "catwalk" vertical trim between the fenders and a radiator bearing four groups of horizontal chrome bands overlaid with Silver Streaks. Still, there was no mistaking Pontiac for Chevrolet.

Rumble-seat styles and four-door convertibles were absent for '39, but a new series anchored the line: the 115-inch-wheelbase Quality Six. Sharing bodies with Chevrolet, it listed coupes, sedans, and a wood-body wagon in the $760-$990 range. Some $55 more bought the same cars (except the wagon) in new DeLuxe 120 guise: a six-cylinder version of that year's 120-inch-wheelbase DeLuxe Eight. Both DeLuxe lines included a convertible.

As ever, Pontiac's six was thrifty and reliable, its eight a bit thirstier but more refined, and potent enough. One English magazine opined that a Pontiac Eight "might be borne along by the wind" because it was so impressively quiet and smooth.

Depression gloom was lifting, though only because American industry was gearing up for anticipated war production. Still, Pontiac moved a creditable 144,000 cars in the improving 1939 economy to retain sixth behind Chevy, Ford, Plymouth, Buick, and Dodge.

For more on the amazing Pontiac, old and new, see:

For more on the amazing Pontiac, old and new, see:

  • Pontiac New Car Reviews and Prices
  • Pontiac Used Car Reviews and Prices