Automotive History: The Bucket Seat Era Started Modestly In 1958 And Now Bench Seats Are History

Pontiac 1958 Pontiac-Bonneville-DV-11-GCA_i002

(first posted 11/21/2015; expanded 11/20/2021) I happened to notice bucket seats in the 1960 Bonneville rendering that was at the top of the Art Fitzpatrick post the other day, which got me thinking: just what was the first post-war American production car (other than the sports-luxury Thunderbird) to sport bucket seats? The bench seat was universal, until it was slowly and steadily replaced by the bucket/individual front seats. And here’s where it started: in the 1958 Pontiac Bonneville convertible, as an option. But they’re hardly very bucket-like, with their utterly flat cushions, looking more like something out of a Jeep or truck. Well, it was a modest start, but it took root and eventually killed the bench seat.

Pontiac 1958 bonneville br 2

The Bonneville was a key part of Bunkie Knudsen’s makeover of Pontiac, and first appeared in 1957 as a very high-trim and high-performance limited production convertible. In 1958, the range was expanded to include a coupe, but only the convertible offered something new to the typical big American car: optional front bucket seats.

Pontiac 1958 bonneville br

Here’s a closer look at the brochure rendering. Obviously, a console was not yet part of the equation, never mind an actual floor shift.

Pontiac 1958 Convertible06

What’s particularly noticeable about these seats are their narrowness; one could walk through the aisle to the back, especially with the top down.  And of course the very flat cushions, which of course negates the whole purpose of bucket seats. Oh well.

Pontiac 1959 bonneville bucket seats

Pontiac must have gotten some feedback on that issue, as the 1959 versions have drastically re-contoured bottom cushion, to help keep those folks in their seats as the plumb the limits of Pontiac’s Wide Track handling. It looks like the same basic seat shell though, otherwise. But it does rather predict the shape that would grace so many GM cars within a few years. Still no console though.

In 1959, Chrysler upped the ante with swiveling bucket seats, which included a short console and flip-up padded center armrest.

In 1960, the Chrysler 300F included this very fine full-length console, which extended through to the rear bucket seats. It also had a floor shifter for the rare optional 4-speed.

Corvair 1961 Monza int red

The 1960.5 Corvair Monzawas the breakthrough car, as it was the first to offer buckets and a sporty ambiance (never mind the actual sporty handling) accessible in a low-price car. By 1961, the Monza with its standard buckets and floor shift (four speed optional) was a hot item. Its success directly led to the birth of the Mustang, as Lee Iaccoca has stated quite clearly. Extremely influential, in terms of what it led to: millions of popular-priced cars with bucket seats, floor shift, and consoles. I called it the most influential car of the decade, but now that I think about how bucket seats and floor shift have become utterly universal, perhaps I was too modest. The most influential car of the post war era?

The 1961 Studebaker Hawk offered front bucket seats and an optional 4-speed with a floor shifter. By 1962, these were available on the Lark too. Obviously, their numbers were rather modest.

Olds 1961 Starfire Conv_DV-06-HHA-i02

The 1961 Olds Starfire convertible seems to have had the first console and floor shift (with automatic transmission). In that regard, it even beats the Thunderbird for those honors, which never did have a floor shifter after it moved to four seats in 1958, until…1983?

Thunderbird 1958 int -

Of course we need to pay tribute to the 1958 Thunderbird, which had both buckets and a console, and pioneered the sporty-luxury personal four-seat car.

Thunderbird 1957 int

Somewhat oddly, the two-seat ’55-’57 T-Bird had a bench seat, along with a floor shift, so the ’58 changed that up, in more ways than one.

Corvette 1953 Roadster_Interior

That’s something the original Corvette from 1953 got right, although the lack of a manual transmission was a sad omission. The stick was for the Powerglide automatic, and was oddly positioned, as it just hung off the side of the box where its shift linkage was located. A properly located shifter for the Powerglide would have to wait until 1956.

Corvette 1953 shift knob rotate

I’m deviating, but this gives me a chance to show you some shots I’ve been saving for years, about the changing Corvette PG shift pattern. I was going to do a post on that subject alone, but I may never get to it, so here’s Chapter 2 of the Bucket Seat Chronicles. Here’s the original one from 1953-1955. Yes, it’s reversed from one would expect, and as later used, but that’s because it’s just a lever attached to the side of the box, and this is the sequence that the normal sedan column shift levers worked.

Corvette 1956 int red

Even when the Corvette’s shifter for the PG was moved to the center of the tunnel in 1956, that same reversed pattern was still there.

Corvette 1956 1957 shift apttern automatic

Like this.

Corvette 1958 1961 shift pattern automatic

In 1958, when the Powerglide adopted the new safer and PRNDL pattern on its passenger cars, the Corvette’s PG quadrant was still reversed.

Corvette 1962 shift pattern automatic

Not until 1962 was the pattern reversed to make it correspond to the column shift cars. Why in 1962? Was it a safety issue?

CC 181 011 925

Or because Chevy was planning to make offer floor console shifters for the 1963 Impala SS and Nova SS (shown), and knew that offering those mainstream models would require a “normal” shift pattern.

CC 181 007 925

The adoption of the front bucket seat into low-end mainstream cars was quick; it was less than three years from the expensive ’58 Bonneville to the 1960.5 Monza, and within a couple more years they were sprouting in the front seats everywhere, like this ’62 Chevy Nova SS.

Chevrolet 2012 impala bench seat

And the last “bench seat” on an American sedan? The 2012 Chevrolet Impala. Not exactly a true bench seat, but one that could still be used by a middle passenger. And just what car had the last genuine bench seat, with a continuous seat and seat back? Your turn.