Pontiac's most significant 1950s show car was the 1954 Bonneville Special, the first Pontiac to honor the famed salt flats. General Motors was turning out two-seat design studies like crazy, and one of them, the Corvette roadster, even made it to the showrooms as a limited-production image leader for Chevrolet. Apparently conceived as a follow-up, the Bonneville Special also carried fiberglass bodywork but had a fixed canopy of clear Plexiglas, with "gullwing" sections to supplement the two conventional front-hinged doors.
Wheelbase was 100 inches, about the same as Corvette's and two feet shorter than that of Pontiac's new top-line Star Chief. Overall length was 158.3 inches, height just 48.5 inches. Twin hood air scoops took care of ventilation, while the bucket-seat cockpit featured a black-lighted dash with tachometer, fuel pressure, and oil temperature gauges in addition to the usual instruments.
Wheels wore brushed-aluminum discs, with chrome knock-off hubs and little fins echoing turbine impeller blades. Appearance was marked by a blunt front with a low-set rectangular air intake, Corvette-like nerf bumpers, and bulged fender tops that created a "dumbbell" lower-body profile. Exterior finish was red metallic, complemented by red leather upholstery inside.
Under the hood of this head-turner was an anachronism: Pontiac's familiar flathead straight eight. Jazzed up, with four carburetors and other assorted performance modifications, it was the same basic engine that had been powering Pontiacs for the past 21 years. In such a futuristic machine, it was decidedly out of place.
The Bonneville Special was seen at all major auto shows. Said then-division chief Robert M. Critchfield: "We are proud to present this special car not as an example of what the public might expect to see in our dealer's showrooms next year, but as an example of advanced thinking by Pontiac's designers and engineers." High-sounding words, but the division would need more than a flashy one-off to transform its stodgy image.
From its beginnings in 1926, Pontiac had been positioned an easy step above Chevrolet. In the General Motors scheme of things, you "graduated" from Chevrolet to Pontiac as your fortunes improved. Then, if fate was kind, you continued on up to Oldsmobile, Buick, and ultimately Cadillac. This "ladder" concept, the brainchild of General Motors' renowned former chairman Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., worked very well for a number of years.
But as Chevrolet grew in size, power, and prestige value, Pontiac's alleged advantage began to diminish. By 1953 its cheapest four-door, the six-cylinder Chieftain Special, cost $141 more than Chevrolet's top-line Bel Air equivalent, a big difference. True, the Pontiac outweighed its cousin by a hundred pounds, rode a seven-inch longer wheelbase, and had seven more horsepower, but it was comparatively spartan and thus seemed more like a step down than a step up.
Buick was prospering mightily in those days, Oldsmobile was coming up fast, and Mercury was gaining sales too. Given the rough-and-tumble competition in the low-price field, it was only logical that Pontiac would introduce a larger, more expensive series to capture a share of the rapidly expanding medium-price market.
Thus was born the 1954 Star Chief . Two inches longer in wheelbase than the Chieftains -- 124 versus 122 -- it was 11 inches longer overall and around $250 costlier than the Buick Special. Beautifully finished, the new premium line accounted for 40 percent of division sales in its inaugural season. But those came mainly from Pontiac loyalists, not "conquest" customers. And while Buick and Oldsmobile scored substantial gains that year (the latter 36 percent), Pontiac was off by more than 43,000 cars.
To follow the Pontiac story into 1955 and 1956, continue to the next page.
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