The 1960 Pontiac holds a very special place in my life. It was the first car my eyes fell on as we stumbled out of the airport in NYC on a hot August night in 1960, having just emigrated from Austria. In that moment, it became an icon for my version of the American dream, a magical place where ordinary folks rode off into a wide-track future seated in a Star Chief. What a name too; so uniquely American: the synthesis of its past and future aspirations. What about the present? Well, we haven’t quite reached the stars, and our Native American history was a lot less glamorous than once extolled. And I never found a genuine 1960 Star Chief for this CC. Have the the wheels come off the American Dream?
Of course, I didn’t realize at the time that seeing a 1960 Pontiac as my first American car on its native soil was very auspicious indeed. Because no other domestic car better symbolized the sixties and everything that decade entailed. The staid also-ran Pontiac brand had just been remade with a surge of youthful excitement, brilliantly tapping into the driving force of the sixties. Its greatest success were still being hatched or hadn’t yet been imagined when this Ventura was fresh. But like an egg, it was pregnant with all the possibilities Pontiac’s youthful management would soon birth from it.
In retrospect, it’s quite remarkable what Pontiac’s Mad Men pulled off, given the constraints they had to work with. The 1959 – 1960 GM full-size cars all had to share the same basic body shell. Yes, the bubble top on this Ventura looks might familiar, having just seen it in our recent 1959 Cadillac CC. But the difference below that interchangeable top is telling: where Cadillac felt compelled to slather on fins, rockets, afterburners and jet intakes, the Pontiac is clearly the most restrained of all those flamboyant 1959-1960 GM cars.
That’s not to say they were dull; hardly, there’s plenty of jet-age zip and tingle to go around. But it’s not beholden to the chromium-slathered fifties anymore. Each division at GM was given the same basic lump of clay for those two years, and the 1960 Pontiac was by far the most organic and forward looking. Pontiac reached its zenith a few years later, but the ’60 clearly was pointing in the right direction.
It was of course a carefully crafted effort behind the curtains. The youthful forty-four year old Semon E “Bunkie” Knudsen took the reins of Pontiac in 1956, and his vision of crafting a performance image for the brand quickly took hold: NASCAR and NHRA racing, the ’57 Bonneville coupe, tri-power carburation, and the utterly brilliant “Wide-Track” suspension. That last one alone undoubtedly paid the biggest dividends.
These ’59-’60 GM cars sat on the frames of the rapidly aborted ’58′s bodies, a classic GM bean-counter move. The new bodies’ longer-lower-wider mantra had the unfortunate effect of making the wheels look lost in their wells. It made them look like an airplane whose wheels would retract on take-off, which one one hand would have been consistent with their aeronautical flavor. But as land-based actual cars, it made them look wimpy, and decidedly undynamic. Hardly the image Knudsen had in mind.
So he set his engineering department to creating a wider-tracked front suspension and matching rear axles (that was easy enough). The difference was subtle, yet sensational, like that rare boob-job that really works: you can’t help but notice, but you’re not sure exactly why.
Of course it wasn’t strictly cosmetic surgery either: the Pontiacs quickly made a rep for themselves as being the best handling of the GM fine family of cars. Combined with the 389 CID (6.3 L) Trophy V8 in various states of tune from a mild 215 hp low-compression two-barrel to the storming 348 hp Tri-Power and those blissful optional finned aluminum wheels/brake drums, the 1960 Pontiacs really were the performance champs of the day. The combination of image-crafting backed by the ability to run the talk quickly vaulted Pontiac into the number three US sales slot by 1962, and one it held for almost the whole decade.
In the 1959 Cadillac CC, I proclaimed it to be the false prophet of the sixties, giving the title to the 1961 Continental. In retrospect. I was only half right, or less. Actually, the Continental foreshadowed the sixties less than the seventies, with that decade’s infatuation with luxury, real and imagined. True, the Continental planted those beautiful seeds ten years earlier in the luxury car class, but it didn’t really represent the spirit of the sixties.
Pontiac did that, along with the VW Beetle. It takes two opposing forces to really make the winds of change into a storm, and those two huffed and puffed better than anyone else that decade. Pontiac unleashed the youth market, or at least tapped the desire to appear youthful, as the baby boomers weren’t yet buying in 1960. But the youthful spirit was already in the air, and Pontiac canned it and sprinkled it generously on everything they built.
The Star Chief at the airport may have initiated me in the cult of the 1960 Pontiac, but that needed nurturing in the inconstant mind of a seven-year old. That was quickly taken care of, thanks to our neighbors across the street when we arrived in Iowa City three days later. Unbelievable: there in the driveway directly across from us sat a matched brace of 1960 Pontiacs: “his” black Bonneville four door hardtop, “her” navy-blue Safari wagon. Given that our driveway would soon be sullied by a dowdy old plump 1954 Ford sedan, you can imagine where my eyes and mind wandered endlessly. They probably got tired of my fingerprints (and cheek prints) on the windows of their Ponchos.
Yes, in those boring long late summer days in Iowa, I would just go over and gaze endlessly, at every detail inside and out. That dashboard is as familiar to me as my nose, and a lot handsomer too. It was simply unfathomable to me how regular folks could have two of these. The American dream was staring at my face every time I walked out the door. More like taunting me.
I went on to have some wild rides in that Safari wagon after I ingratiated myself with their hot-rodding sons, chasing parts and other errands. Those tire-screeching rides were my initiation into the cult of speed, enhanced by the driver’s insistence that Mom’s wagon had a Tri-Power under the hood (not). It might as well have been a full-on NASCAR race engine in my innocent mind, as I slid across the shiny Morrokide upholstery while we terrorized the sleepy town.
So maybe you won’t blame me for being thrilled to the bone upon finding this tired Catalina resting in this driveway. I had seen it years ago, but I had no memory of the street name or even the exact neighborhood. Relying on the male gender’s supposed superior spatial memory, I set off one morning to find it, just following my nose. I had just arrived in the part of town I though it might be, when my eye was caught by a restored two-and-a-half-ton 6×6 Army truck sitting up on the front yard of a house. That’s something worth stopping for!
No sooner do I park and get out, and lo! There’s the Pontiac sitting back there in the driveway (far right corner), exactly where I saw it a decade ago. Thanks for putting out the big sign, Russ!
Now this Catalina coupe may look a bit worse for wear, but its earned its battle scars. Its owner Russ is a musician, and he bought it in 1980 to haul his band’s equipment all over the North West in a tandem axle trailer. Now that’s my idea of a trailer locomotive. Lot more stylish than today’s ubiquitous truck or SUV. The 389 and its rugged Hydra-matic never let him down, as he pursued his version of the American dream.
So is the Catalina’s current state symbolic of the American Dream? Ask someone who’s gay, black, a female executive, or, well, anybody perhaps but a white male. Yes, we’re not quite sitting alone on the perch as we once were, and having to share it isn’t always comfortable, especially as it seems there’s always someone else trying to shoehorn in on it. Only so much room up here…oops, there falls another.
And the metaphor is apt globally as it is domestically. Yes, 1960 was perhaps the apogee of America’s exceptional period, before the Wide-Track veil of innocence was rent and sullied by hubris and the need to let others in on the Tri-Power excitement. So the dream changes; it doesn’t have to become a nightmare.
Russ’s is going to live his by restoring the Ventura, and if the Army truck – which he did for a nephew – is any indication, its going to be a stunner. And I’m living my dream, still ogling 1960 Pontiacs and putting my fingerprints all over their windows. Who says you have to own something to enjoy it? Sharing is the new dream.
[Thanks Russ, for sharing your Ventura. We'll come back when it's finished]