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How Pontiac Works


1950, 1951, 1952, 1953, 1954, 1955 Pontiacs
Up-to-date styling, an improved chassis and a modern overhead-valve V-8 highlighted Pontiac's 1955 lineup. The 1955 Pontiac Star Chief is shown here.

Except for larger, taller grille teeth and reshuffled trim, the 1950 models were predictably much like the '49s. However, the long-running eight was bored to 268.4 cid, good for 108 bhp standard or 113 with high-compression head.

Chieftain gained an important new body style in Pontiac's first "hardtop-convertible." Called Catalina and sold in DeLuxe or new Super DeLuxe trim, it accounted for 42,305 sales, nine percent of the division's total model-year volume. As in past years, an illuminated countenance of Chief Pontiac continued as a hood mascot; like other such devices of the day, it glowed when the headlights were on.

Production rose again, smashing the 1941 record at more than 446,000. Still, Pontiac ran fifth overall, as it had since '48 and would continue to do until 1959.

Volume sank to about 370,000 for 1951 as all Detroit began feeling the effects of the Korean War, yet that was Pontiac's second-best total ever. Fastbacks were fading from favor, so the Streamliner four-door was dropped, soon followed by the sedan-coupe. The most noticeable change was a "gullwing" grille bar below a prominent medallion. Engines were tweaked: the six to 96/100 bhp, the eight to 116/120 bhp.

A busier grille and new DeLuxe side trim were the main alterations for 1952. Horsepower crept up, too. Korean War restrictions and a nationwide steel strike limited model-year output to only 271,000 units.

A major reskin of the '49 A-body and a two-inch longer wheelbase gave 1953's new all-Chieftain line a more "important" look. Once more, buying patterns had prompted these and other changes. Catalina hardtops, for example, now accounted for nearly 20 percent of sales, and automatic-transmission installations had climbed to 75 percent. The '53s were shinier and larger in most every dimension. Key features of the new look involved kicked-up rear fenders, a lower grille, more prominent bumpers, and a one-piece windshield.

Newly optional power steering made the '53s easier to park; more horsepower made them faster. The six now delivered 115 bhp with manual transmission or 118 with Hydra-Matic; corresponding eight-cylinder outputs were 118/122. A lowish rear axle ratio of 3.08:1 was specified for smooth top-gear performance with Hydra-Matic. A mid-1953 fire in the Hydra-Matic plant hampered supplies, however, so 18,499 Pontiacs were fitted with Chevrolet Powerglide in 1953-54. Overall production remained strong at nearly 419,000.

Nineteen fifty-four brought a minor facelift of 1953's major one. Rearranged side moldings and a narrow oval in the central grille bar were the main changes. The big news was Star Chief, a top-line eight-cylinder hardtop, convertible, and four-door sedan on a new 124-inch chassis. These were the plushest Pontiacs yet -- and the priciest ($2300-$2600), another sign of the make's steady push upmarket. Star Chiefs sold well, but Pontiac's total volume slipped to just below 288,000, suggesting it was time for something different.

The all-new '55s were precisely that. Among their claimed 109 new features were fully up-to-date styling, an improved chassis and -- the really hot item -- a modern overhead-valve V-8, Pontiac's first. Dubbed "Strato-Streak," the new engine bowed at 287.2 cid, but could grow much larger and soon did. Standard horsepower at first was 173/180 (manual/automatic); an optional four-barrel carburetor yielded an even 200.

A strong oversquare design with five main bearings, the Strato-Streak was somewhat related to Chevy's all-new 1955 "Turbo-Fire" V-8. Though not quite as advanced, it would serve Pontiac admirably for more than a quarter-century.

As on other '55 GM cars, Pontiac styling was rather boxy but quite trendy, especially the wrapped "Panoramic" windshield taken from recent Harley Earl showmobiles. Equally au courant were cowl ventilation; bright solid colors and two-tones; and a longer, lower look despite unchanged wheel- bases.

A blunt face was the one dubious aspect. As before, Pontiac shared its A-body with Chevrolet, but maintained distinct wheelbases. The shorter one again carried two Chieftain lines: low-priced "860" and midrange "870" sedans and wagons, plus an "870" Catalina hardtop. Star Chief returned on its extended chassis with base-trim convertible and four-door sedan and a Custom sedan and Catalina.

Mounting the Chieftain chassis but officially a Star Chief was an exotic new wagon, the Custom Safari, a "hardtop-style" two-door based on Chevy's new '55 Nomad. Chevy designer Carl Renner recalled that "when Pontiac saw [the Nomad] they felt they could do something with it.…Management wanted it for the Pontiac line, so it worked out." Like Nomad, the original '55 Safari continued with successive facelifts only through 1957, after which both names were applied to conventional four-door wagons.

Two-door Safaris naturally cost more than Nomads -- a stiff $2962 for '55 -- and thus sold in fewer numbers: 3760, followed by 4042 for '56, and a final 1292.

On balance, 1955 was a vintage Pontiac year. Its cars were a solid hit with dealers and public alike, and the division built about 554,000 of them, a new record. But some rough times lay ahead, and Pontiac wouldn't better this figure until 1963, after which it set new records.

At least three factors figured in the interim slump. Buick's Special and the base Olds 88 were priced more aggressively; demand for lower-medium cars shrank as import sales expanded in the late '50s; and the 1956-58 Pontiacs weren't particularly exciting, though they were competitive in most ways and faster than ever.

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