(first posted 10/28/2011) “Honey, does this make my rear end look too big?” This is a question that, when asked by his sweetheart, strikes fear into the heart of every male. The problem is that the question cannot be answered but in a single way – “Not at all, dear.” This is a problem because sometimes the only acceptable answer is not necessarily the truthful one. If Bill Mitchell, early in his career as head of GM styling, or his Pontiac design studio ever asked this question about this car, the response must have been a less than sincere “no, sir, of course not.”
Bill Mitchell had a long and distinguished career as GM’s chief of styling. The cars designed during his years at the helm were notable for a certain grace, a fluidity of line that made them uncommonly attractive. We recently featured the 1966 Riviera, a car that is sort of the entire Mitchell anthology all wrapped into a single vehicle (CC here).
But if the 1966 Riviera was the quintessential Bill Mitchell, the 1962 Star Chief may be the exception that proves the rule. Is there a GM car of the Mitchell era with more awkward proportions than this one?
Granted, this car came early in Mitchell’s career (the 1960 models had been the first to be restyled under his authority) and we were a year away from the 1963 model that would be one of the most beautiful cars of the ’60s (CC here). Maybe even beautiful cars have to go through that gangly, awkward stage that affected many of us around the age of thirteen or so.
I love the name of this car: Star Chief. It is so Jet Age, so mid-century modern. The 1950s and early 1960s was an era for the stars: Starliner, Starlight, Starfire. You could cruise the lake in a Starcraft. When Frank Sinatra asked us to come fly with him, it would have been in a Lockheed Constellation. So, when you are Pontiac Division and your brand identity from the beginning of time has been the dour Chief of the Ottowa tribe, what do you do to modernize your image?
Although the 1950s was the golden age of cowboys and indians on television (and we can only imagine the possibilities had Pontiac gone down this road), the space age beckoned and we got the Star Chief as the top of the line model in 1954. Star Chief: is this a mixed metaphor, or what?
But the Star Chief’s command of Pontiac’s firmament was short lived. With the 1957 introduction of the Bonneville, performance replaced both the space age and the native warrior. The Star Chief stayed on, but became the ignored, neglected middle child of the Pontiac lineup. Amazingly, the name would remain through 1966, when it became the Star Chief Executive. (Mixed metaphor to the third power?) The car became just the Executive in 1967, and Pontiac replaced one neglected middle child with another. Not everything that John DeLorean touched at Pontiac turned to gold.
But back to 1962. While the Catalina and Bonneville had full model lineups, the Star Chief line consisted of nothing more than a pair of four doors – the four door hardtop (called the Vista) and the four door sedan. No two doors, no convertibles, no wagons. No wonder we never saw many of these. Was this Pontiac’s way of upselling buyers to the Bonneville or the new Grand Prix?
Whatever the reason, how many of these did we ever see back in the day? Even in a year in which Pontiac was the number three selling brand (with well over a half-million cars out the door), the Star Chief was never very common on the ground. There was nothing worse than getting stuck with an “S” while playing car bingo on the interstate. Studebaker and Star Chief, that was about it, and they seemed to be around in roughly equal (puny) numbers in the mid 1960s.
Actually, the Star Chief was quite a value, if a four door Poncho was your thing. In this step above the basic Catalina, you got the same dimensions as the big Bonneville: a three inch longer wheelbase (123 inches) and an additional four inches out back. This must have been quite a value compared to the higher-level Dodges and Mercurys of the time. (OK, there was the Dodge 880, but let’s be honest – it wasn’t so much a step up as an escape hatch.) You also got the Bonneville’s candy cane taillights instead of the Catalina’s parentheses.
The Star Chief also avoided the Catalina’s troublesome Roto HydraMatic transmission. Instead, it shared the Bonneville’s (and the Cadillac’s) old fashioned but superior Super HydraMatic (a/k/a Jetaway). But there was a price to pay for all this value that hits me only now: this car looks really awkward.
Have you ever heard the term “shelf butt”? Well, the Star Chief has a bad case of it. Maybe it is the long wheelbase and the even longer tail end. The ’62 Catalina (shown above) is one of the most attractive cars of 1960s.
The identically-sized Bonneville looks better than this car, too. Maybe it is this car’s four door hardtop body. The Bonnie’s two door hardtop and convertible are strikingly good looking cars. And perhaps the B’ville’s more prominent side trim on the four doors plays some visual tricks on us.
Maybe it was just that wonderful Fitzpatrick and Kaufman artwork. All of their Pontiac advertising for 1962 seemed to feature the Catalina, Bonneville and Grand Prix. Those guys could make anyhing look good. Not just good, but desirable. Alluring. Almost sensual. But the Star Chief was never shown in the ads, only in the brochure (where showing the car was mandatory). And even then, never from the rear. Although the brochure does not appear to feature F&K work, the Star Chief looks good in the artists renderings. Is it me, or are the proportions fudged just a bit in this drawing of the sedan?
I’m actually kind of disappointed here. The ’62 Pontiac is one of my favorite GM cars of all time, yet here is the unfortunate truth: this particular one is just not that well proportioned. Is this car an example of a cherished memory from long ago that does not measure up so well with a fresh look? I’m thinking of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. Or could it be the color? This hot red was never one of my favorites. And those cheap aftermarket wire wheelcovers do not do the car any favors.
Or has our yardstick changed? Does this car prove to us just how influential the XK-E and the Mustang really were, with their long hoods and short decks giving a subtle tweak to our sense of how cars are supposed to look?
Or maybe the car just has a big butt. No matter. The Star Chief may not be as attractive as either of its two gorgeous sisters, but it still has an awfully pretty face and a great personality. And it’s still a lot better looking than most of the other kids in the class of 1962.