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1955-1957 Pontiac Strato-Streak

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.

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