Curbside Classic / Jason’s Family Chronicles: 1950 Pontiac Chieftain Eight Deluxe Sedan – A Spark In The Night

(First posted December 5, 2012)  In 1953, my grandfather, Albert, was 29 years old; his younger brother, Clem, was 24. They were on a joint mission, which involved Clem’s 1950 Pontiac Chieftain Eight, to go retrieve their older sister, Stella.

Stella, who was getting a divorce, needed help transporting her belongings and her dog, Sparky, back to their mother’s house.  Clem volunteered himself and Albert to go get Stella.

Their challenge? Their mother lived just south of Cape Girardeau, Missouri, and Stella was in Enid, Oklahoma.  Clem, always the more impulsive brother, said it was no step for a stepper. At the time, he didn’t fully grasp the idea of a 562-mile trip on the typically low-speed, two-lane roads of 1953.

Clem had owned the Pontiac about eight months, acquiring it from someone who’d bought his cattle but  suddenly could not or would not pay up. Eventually the buyer offered up the Pontiac as payment, shortly after Clem injected the phrase “ass whoopin'” into their conversation. So far, Clem was quite satisfied with it.

Before I go further into this sordid tale, you need to know a little more about Clem.  He was impulsive, but even more quick-tempered.  For instance, when I was about 13, I went to Clem’s with Grandpa Albert, who was going to help him vaccinate some of his cattle.  One of the heifers possessed an independent streak and was highly uncooperative.  Clem got mad and punched the cow right in the face.

On the flip side, Clem had a heart of gold, and would give you the shirt off his back.  Being a person who’d do anything for you, he was highly attentive to many things, especially animals.  My grandmother, Iris, told me about the time an Irish Setter was making a really weird noise at a family function outdoors. Clem dropped what he was doing, ran over to the dog and, realizing it was choking, picked it up and performed the Heimlich Maneuver.  The dog lived to hunt another day.

Since Albert and Clem worked different shifts, the plan was for Albert to get Clem’s Pontiac, pick up Clem, and then drop south on US 61 to US 60 at Sikeston and head west. The trip west was fairly uneventful, with Clem doing the bulk of the driving.  While driving through the Ozarks, Clem was quite pleased that the steep hills didn’t tax the Pontiac’s 268 cu in, 108 hp flat head straight-eight too greatly.

Their only stops were for fuel and occasional bladder relief; they were in their 20’s, after all.  Albert discovered that the Pontiac’s back seat made for surprisingly good accommodations, something that Clem was eager to discover for himself.

Their conversation was light, with Clem periodically wondering aloud if Stella still had “that yappy flea-bag dog.”

The Pontiac’s Silver Streak straight-eight ran flawlessly all the way to Enid. They knew the Pontiac was quite comfortable, and emerged from their time in the car only lightly fatigued.  Clem was even thinking of taking his wife on a trip in it in the near future.

When Albert and Clem arrived in Enid, Stella’s packed suitcases were waiting on the front porch and she was ready to go.  After loading the car, Clem realized the trunk was too full for Sparky to be there, and   Stella said she would hold him on her lap.  Clem, though leery, had no alternative.

In short order they were eastbound from Enid, with the Pontiac loaded to the gills.  Albert was driving, Stella was riding shotgun, and Clem was lounging in the back seat.  About an hour into the trip, just after Albert had aggressively passed some slow drivers, Sparky decided he didn’t like sitting with Stella, He proceeded to dive to the floor, right next to Albert’s feet, and lay down in front of the brake pedal.

Without saying a word, Albert reached down and dragged out a loudly protesting Sparky by the tail.

“Stella, if that dog is going to ride with us, you need to hold onto him.  I won’t be so nice next time,” Albert explained.  Candor among siblings can be so refreshing.

Stella was able to hold onto the dog–for a while.  A few minutes later, he hopped atop the Pontiac’s front seat.  Albert was uncertain about what was going to happen, but he knew he didn’t like it.

AAARRR, AAARRR, AAARRR. Sparky was barking right into Albert’s right ear.

Stella, embarrassed, grabbed Sparky, whom Albert was now ready to throw out the window.  Clem, who had been asleep, yelled, “What’s going on?”

Stella grabbed Sparky and held him close to her chest.  “Boys, I’m sorry, I don’t know what’s gotten into Sparky.  He’s never been this way before,” she stammered.  She held Sparky close for about a half-hour, refusing to let him move.

A little while later, after darkness had fallen, Stella and Clem fell asleep.  Sparky decided to go on another adventure, this time in the Pontiac’s back seat.

Sparky had gotten wise to Albert seeing him, so found a way to sneak into the backseat from the passenger side.  He stood on the floorboard and looked Clem right in the face.

AAARRR, AAARRR, AAARRR. Sparky was talking loudly to Clem.

“Sparky!  That’s not nice!”, exclaimed the now-awake Stella.

Clem’s eyes focused on little Sparky.

Twenty minutes later, after Clem and Stella had again fallen asleep, Sparky returned to the back seat for a repeat performance.

This time, Clem’s plan was crystal-clear.  They were coming into a town, so he knew the timing was perfect. “Albert,” Clem said, “you look hungry.  I’ve got a five-dollar bill that will solve that if you can find us a restaurant.  Stella, do you mind going inside to get us some burgers?  I’ll need to stretch my legs.”

Albert knew exactly what Clem was thinking.  Stella did not.

Albert soon found a greasy spoon and parked the Pontiac beside it, just beyond any direct light.  Stella went inside.

Clem was hot.  “Albert, where’s that little son of a bitch at?  That bastard needs an education.  Did you know he even tried to take a leak on the door panel before we left Enid?”

Sparky, no dummy himself, knew something was up just after Stella vacated the Pontiac.  After some growling and lunging, Clem had Sparky in a head lock.  Albert stepped out of the car to smoke a cigarette while Clem proceeded to give Sparky a crash course in Obedience 101.

Grandpa Albert said Sparky was a very good student, and Clem an effective teacher.  Sparky was quiet and well-behaved for the rest of the trip.  He also steered clear of Clem for the next five years.

Stella was never the wiser.  Later on, by the mid-80’s, Stella had remarried and acquired another dog, Sandy.  A trip I took with them is a story for another day.

But what about Clem’s Pontiac?

Twenty-four years old in 1953, Clem wasn’t the typical Pontiac owner. This was a decade before  Pontiac adopted its signature performance image, and current Pontiacs were seen as senior Chevrolets.

Like many other makes, Pontiacs had been completely restyled for 1949. Although their only obvious difference was a new grille and rearranged side trim, the 1950 Pontiacs weren’t exactly carryover models. The big news was under the hood of eight-cylinder models: Pontiac had bored out their straight eight another 20 cubes, to 268 cubic inches, for an additional four horsepower.

At 305,000 inits, sales of the ’49 models had been respectable, but they paled in comparison with the record-breaking 1950 model year.  For 1950, Pontiac built 330,887 Streamliner Eights and Chieftain Eights, and 115,542 six-cylinder Streamliner Sixes and Chieftain Sixes–in other words, roughly half the eight-cylinder models’ sales volume.

Despite these record-breaking production numbers, advertisements for the ’50 models are scarce.  The only image of a ’50 Pontiac at is on the cover of the owner’s manual pictured above.  All the other vintage ads are for ’49 models.

For a car once advertised as “Chief of the Sixes”, Pontiac was doing pretty well selling its straight-eight engine–and, at least at General Motors, would be the last straight-eight holdout, sticking with it until 1955.  Oldsmobile had offered a V8 since 1949, when they introduced their infamous “Rocket” V8, and Buick had both a straight-eight and a V8 in transitional year 1953.

Early in July, I found this particular Pontiac parked in front of an apartment building.  In a stroke of luck, I saw it again at a car show, where I was able get the picture of its engine compartment.  I kept seeing it daily until it disappeared, sometime around October first.  Since it looks like a driver, I hope it’s merely gone into storage for the winter.