Curbside Musings: 1956 Pontiac Chieftain Catalina Hardtop – Sweet Treat

1956 Pontiac Chieftain. Petoskey, Michigan. Sunday, September 2, 2012.

Ice cream shops and classic vehicles go together like chocolate chips and cookies.  The most recent instance of my spotting such a combo was this past August while in Lexington, Michigan, not far from Port Huron, with that write-up hopefully to follow.  These pictures go back to Labor Day weekend of 2012, when I had traveled to the northern tip of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula.  The Bob-In Again was a cute, family-run diary bar and restaurant that had opened in 2004 and closed just six years after I had taken these shots, after fourteen years in business.

A beautifully maintained, classic vehicle can serve as an effective billboard, and this ’56 Pontiac beckoned me right off the road even though I had wedding festivities to attend.  I was sorely tempted to spoil my dinner by stopping in for a cone.  Thankfully, my insurance underwriting cost-benefit analysis mindset took control, and the thought of showing up with ice cream drip stains on my freshly pressed suit was enough to keep me on track on the day I had first seen this classic.

1956 Pontiac Chieftain. Petoskey, Michigan. Sunday, September 2, 2012.

I loved consuming all things dairy when I was growing up.  It was the 1980s, and not only were there reruns of Schoohouse Rock! extolling the benefits of proper nutrition which included adequate calcium, but there was the ubiquitous “Milk: It Does A Body Good” ad campaign that the National Dairy Board had launched in 1984.  Like many young kids, I wanted to grow up to be big and strong.  Good bones were going to be a part of that, if all of the kid-oriented commercials and edu-tainment programming that aired during cartoons after school and on Saturdays were to be believed.  It wasn’t just that I wanted to eventually grow taller, but I genuinely liked many things in that food group.  I would eat Kraft singles by the small stack right off of their cellophane wrappers.  I’d regularly drink glasses of milk, even without chocolate syrup.  I even liked cottage cheese.

1956 Pontiac brochures courtesy of

Then there was ice cream.  All of the Dennis brothers had a sweet tooth, but if all of my eventual cavities are any indication, my penchant for sweets was especially strong.  I don’t remember my parents having any overtly negative reaction to this (which is weird, considering we didn’t have “sugar cereal” in the pantry), as long as I had eaten whatever main meal had been set in front of me and I brushed my teeth at night.  A typical dessert for me while in the third grade would have been “one bowl” of ice cream, which amounted to multiple scoops of vanilla piled high in the white Corelle china bowl, with marshmallows and crushed pecans on top, covered generously with either Hershey’s syrup or Magic Shell, which was a topping that hardened within minutes of being drizzled on top.  I’d eat it all and sometimes even lick the bowl afterward.  Literally.

1956 Pontiac Chieftain. Petoskey, Michigan. Saturday, September 1, 2012.

In the days of my youthful metabolism, these habits continued into adolescence… until something changed.  Milk no longer tasted as good to me by my pre-teen years, and I just stopped drinking it.  I’d still have cheese from time to time, but not to the extent that I had when I was younger.  Cottage cheese was now gross, so there was no more of that.  I still liked ice cream, but it started to do wonky things to my stomach.  I wondered if maybe it had been some cheap brand my mom had started to purchase that didn’t sit quite the same way, being the coupon-clipper she always was.  It took a trip to the family physician to determine that I had developed an intolerance to lactose, and ice cream had to go.

I really was upset about this, at first.  Why had my young body decided to change the program?  My mom’s remedy was the introduction of ice milk to our freezer.  This was in the days long before information was available on the internet with a few keystrokes.  Ice milk is basically ice cream with significantly less butterfat.  I’m shocked to learn in 2024 that while ice milk generally has less lactose than ice cream, the actual difference in percentage is much less than I had previously understood it to be.  Maybe this is why this ice milk experiment lasted for only so long before I moved on to sherbet.  What I really remember is how ice milk just wasn’t the same.  Everything with fat just tastes better.  I’m sorry, but it’s true.

1956 Pontiac brochures courtesy of

Someone in my Gen-X age group would have observed a ’56 Pontiac like our featured car to be far removed from this brand’s extremely popular “Excitement Division” image in the 1980s, which turned out Grand Ams, Firebirds, and Sunbirds hand-over-fist.  I’d wager that many non-car-people could recognize a Chevrolet from any of the tri-five years as such, which may not be true of the Pontiacs, years before more widely recognized styling cues had been introduced, like twin-nostril grilles, plastic body cladding, and smoke- and waffle-effect taillamp lenses.  To the young me, while this two-tone ’56 would have been recognizable as a GM product, and while I would have ruled out Buick (lest my Flint card be permanently revoked), it could just as easily have been an Oldsmobile.

1956 Pontiac Chieftain. Petoskey, Michigan. Sunday, September 2, 2012.

By the ’80s, what the above ’56 Pontiac would have looked like to me is an off-brand Chevrolet, like the “ice milk” in the dairy counter of the local General Motors ice cream shop.  Like a Chevy… but not quite.  This is ironic, given that Pontiac was the next step up in the Alfred P. Sloan ladder of brand hierarchy.  This example in what appears to be factory Glendale Green Metallic and White is a Chieftain, with the upmarket Star Chief also available that year.  As a hardtop, it was also given the Catalina designation.  What I can’t tell is if it’s from the 860 or 870 series of Chieftain, and this is after multiple comparisons of pictures of both.  The 870 had slightly nicer interior and exterior trim, but that’s about all I was able to determine.  (Please help me out in the comments.)

1956 Pontiac Chieftain. Petoskey, Michigan. Sunday, September 2, 2012.

The two-door hardtop Catalina configuration was popular in the ’56 Chieftain line, with 46,300 units making it the most popular 860 sold, and with another 24,700 in the 870 series finding buyers.  Overall sales of 405,700 placed Pontiac in sixth place for 1956 production, trailing Oldsmobile by about 80,000 units.  For context, greatest sales volume in the industry belonged to Chevrolet, with 1,567,000 units, followed by Ford with 1,408,000.  Just one year before, the clean-sheet ’55 Pontiacs were considered modern, good-looking cars and were popular, with over 554,000 units sold.  The 27% sales drop for ’56 was substantial.  Viewed through today’s eyes, I like this ’56 for being an attractive GM product that hasn’t been overexposed, which enables it to represent the mid-’50s in my mind without many other more recent associations.

The Bob-In Again may have bobbed out, but my rediscovery of these pictures has only served to reinforce that one moment is sometimes all we have to stop and enjoy (and photograph) things before they disappear or morph into something else.  Also, in a happy twist, my body decided at some point in adulthood to let me have dairy without complaint, so even beach days can be made better with a walk to a nearby ice cream cart.  Pontiac’s not coming back, but my enjoyment of ice cream has.  I’m so glad I can have the real thing.  Again.

Petoskey, Michigan.
September 1 & 2, 2012.

Brochure pages courtesy of