The '56 Pontiacs were mildly restyled, and four-door Catalina hardtops arrived in each series. Styling was less distinctive -- tester Tom McCahill said the '56 looked like "it was born on its nose" -- and ride comfort wasn't the best. A bore job stretched the V-8 to 316.6 cid, but didn't yield much more power: only up to 205 for Chieftains and 227 bhp for Star Chiefs (though at midyear, a 285-bhp option was offered).
Pontiac settled for '56 volume that was well down on record-shattering '55, declining to 405,500 and a sixth-place industry finish.
July 1956 ushered in a new Pontiac general manager who would prove crucial to the make's near-term fortunes. This was Semon E. "Bunkie" Knudsen, son of '30s division chief "Big Bill" and the youngest leader in Pontiac history. GM brass told Bunkie to do what he could with the existing design for '57, and he hustled, instituting longer rear springs in rubber shackles, 14-inch wheels and tires (ousting 15-inchers), pedal parking brake, and a V-8 stroked to 347 cid for 227-290 bhp.
Stylewise, the grille became a massive bucktooth affair; two-toning switched from 1955-56's half-car patterns to missile-shaped bodyside areas; and Bunkie did the unthinkable by banishing Silver Streak trim as old-hat (it did, after all, hark to his dad's day). Series were reorganized into low-end Chieftain and new mid-price Super Chief on the shorter chassis and Star Chief on the longer 124-inch wheelbase.
Where Bunkie really made his mark was the Bonneville, a flashy Star Chief-based convertible launched in mid-'57. Packing 310 bhp thanks to fuel injection and aggressive cam, this $5782 limited edition was the costliest Pontiac yet. Unfortunately, a hefty curb weight of nearly 4300 pounds dulled performance somewhat. Still it was no slouch: A Bonnie was timed at 18 seconds in the quarter-mile.
Because it was basically a promotional piece for dealers, the '57 Bonneville saw only 630 copies. But it gave Pontiac a whole new performance image even as the Auto Manufacturers Association came down against factory-sponsored racing. (Several '57 "Ponchos" did run well in NASCAR, but they were strictly private entries.) Yet the lack of race wins didn't hamper buyer demand. While Chevy, Olds, and Buick all lost sales to rival 1957 Chrysler products, Pontiac built some 333,500 cars to move within 51,000 units of fifth-place Olds.
Expansive new styling should have helped the '58s sell even better, but a sharp national recession held deliveries to some 217,000. Unlike some '58 GM cars, Pontiacs remained reasonably tasteful, with a simple mesh grille, quad headlights, and side-spears made wider and concave toward the rear. Bodies were lower but not much longer or wider; wheelbases were unchanged.
Offerings now included no fewer than seven Catalina hardtops with two or four doors. Bonneville became a regular series, and sold 12,240 convertibles and hardtop coupes. A 370-cid V-8 was now standard across the line, delivering 240 bhp in stickshift Chieftains/Super Chiefs, and up to 285 in Hydra-Matic Star Chiefs and Bonnevilles. Optional across the board were a 300-bhp triple-carb "Tri-Power" unit and a 310-bhp "fuelie."
Then came the first Pontiacs to fully reflect Bunkie's boldness. The '59s were not just startlingly new; they established the performance pattern that would carry Pontiac to undreamed-of glory in the 1960s. Crisp styling on a brand-new body introduced the split-grille theme that remains a Pontiac hallmark to this day, plus modest twin-fin rear fenders and minimal side trim. Wheelbases were again unchanged, but the wheels spread farther apart on a new "Wide-Track" chassis that made Pontiacs among the most-roadable cars in America.
The V-8 was again enlarged, the cube count rising to 389, a number destined for greatness. Horsepower ranged from 345 with Tri-Power down to 245. There was also a detuned 215-bhp "Tempest 420E" for economy-minded buyers, capable of up to 20 mpg.
Ridding Pontiac of "that Indian concept" was still part of Bunkie's plan, so Chieftain and Super Chief gave way to a new Catalina line on the shorter wheelbase; Bonneville again shared the longer chassis with Star Chief, which would hang on a good long while. Bonneville, bolstered by new Safari wagons and flat-top Vista hardtop sedans, garnered some 82,000 sales. Total volume for the model year rose to near 383,000, boosting Pontiac into fourth place for the first time.
Pontiac show cars of the '50s were always interesting and often predictive. The smooth 1954 Strato Streak previewed the pillarless four-doors of '56. Also shown in '54 was the first Bonneville, a Corvette-like two-seater with canopy-type cockpit on a 100-inch wheelbase. Both cars carried straight eights.
The 1955 Strato Star was a two-door four-seat hardtop forecasting 1956 styling. Wildest of all was the 1956 Club de Mer, with "twin-pod" seating and dual-bubble windshields. Standing only 38.4 inches high, its aluminum body was painted Cerulean blue, one of Harley Earl's favorite colors.
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