The Chevrolet “Tri-Fives”, the 1955 – ’57 models, seem to have been, for as long as I can remember, widely recognizable as classic Chevys by people with seemingly no special interest in cars, in general. Even in the mid-’80s when I was an adolescent, I can still remember images of the ’57s in particular being present on everything from TV commercials for 3 Musketeers candy bars to designer Trapper Keeper binders used by me and my fellow grade school students.
Even though I had been gifted by my parents with my first copy of the “Encyclopedia Of American Cars” from the editors of Consumer Guide by middle school, I can’t say that it was my increased interest in these Chevys that made them suddenly seem back in vogue in the public consciousness. There had seemed to be a genuine revival in interest in all things ’50s in the second half of the ’80s, citing movies like “La Bamba” and Pee Wee Herman’s bicycle as just a couple of admittedly random examples.
That three-year generation of Chevrolet seemed ubiquitous in the mid-/late-’80s, and still does today, to some degree. So, on the day I beheld it, why did I view our featured car, the Chevy’s corporate cousin, as such a curio? This was probably because for every ’57 Pontiac of any stripe that I’ve ever seen, I’ve seen probably ten non-Corvette Chevys from the same model year. In 1957, total Pontiac output was around 334,00 units, versus 1,506,000 at Chevrolet. (Coincidentally, ’57 was one of those rare years when Ford outsold Chevy, by about 11%.) Even the model name of this aqua-and-white beauty was something I had to look up, being mislabeled as a longer-wheelbase “Star Chief” on the sign tucked under its windshield.
Our example is one of about 21,300 Chieftain two-doors produced for the model year, with its base price starting around $2,500. Both Pontiac and Chevrolet had a three-tiered model range that year, and the Chieftain was at the bottom. A comparable Chevy 150 two-door would have a base price that started at just under $2,000. A whopping 25% premium over the price of the Chevy might have made the seven-inch wheelbase stretch (122″ vs. 115″) for the Pontiac a challenging sell, though I’m sure there were other differences in content between the two cars.
Memorial Day Weekend in Chicago kicks off what is normally a season filled with a non-stop parade of street festivals and concerts. The village of Skokie, Illinois, which is about fifteen miles north of downtown Chicago’s Loop district, has hosted a street festival called Skokie’s Backlot Bash since 2007, which is where I saw and photographed this beautiful Pontiac. The Backlot Bash is a family-friendly event that includes live music concerts, rides, food and snack vendors, a classic car show, a couple of beer tents, and many other attractions.
I had never been to Skokie before and thought this fest would be a fun way to spend a Sunday afternoon. I was feeling particularly down after having returned from a big, fun, week-long car festival and visit with friends and loved ones back home in Flint, Michigan, just a couple of weeks before. To complicate things slightly, my ex of five years and I had recently begun to exchange olive branches, months after our split. I thought that going to a street festival in a wide-open, public place as an afternoon activity would be a safe bet as a venue to minimize any undue potential weirdness, so we rode the CTA Yellow Line elevated train and deboarded at the Skokie station that was within just a few blocks of the event.
It was one of the hottest days of the year, with temperatures above ninety degrees Fahrenheit in the shade. I felt bad for the ’80s rock cover band that was performing when we arrived, as they sounded great, but there were only so many seats under the shade trees around the perimeter of the general seating area for the people who stayed to listen. Listen we did, for a while, anyway, before I made a beeline to the small corral of classic cars parked in the lot of a bank situated at the entrance to the event.
Nineteen Fifty-Seven was the year that Semon “Bunkie” Knudsen joined Pontiac and was basically tasked with rejuvenating the division. He was only in his mid-40s when he became the youngest General Manager in GM history, at this time. Mr. Knudsen recruited talented engineers from both within the organization (John Estes, from Oldsmobile) and outside (John DeLorean, from Packard), and Pontiac’s reinvention was underway. Those baby steps started in ’57 with minor cosmetic upgrades including removal of the silver hood streaks from the ’56 model (which looked, in my opinion, like suspender straps) and introduction of the expensive, limited-production Bonneville convertible, of which only 630 were made.
It’s truly odd for me to think of Pontiac as having possessed an image as an “old man’s car” at any post-war point, which is exactly what it was before Knudsen and crew went to work. To someone roughly in my own mid-40s age bracket (the same as Mr. Knudsen’s at the time this car was new), contemporary Pontiacs had meant any number of things throughout the years: fast, flashy, funky, futuristic, or any combination thereof. By the time I was correctly identifying makes and models of cars starting around age five or six, I saw Pontiacs as more nicely trimmed, more soulful editions of the cars built on the same GM platform. The restyled ’81 Monte Carlo was an attractive car, but that year’s Grand Prix was the midsize personal luxury coupe I envisioned driving to the disco in the future when I was finally a grownup.
Image goes a long way, though, and the aesthetic difference between this Pontiac Chieftain and a comparable Chevy 150 is all in the details. I’m not talking about what’s under the skin, as the different GM divisions had their own engineers at the time, but just in how the cars from each division look and their visual appeal. On the surface, the Chevrolet and the Pontiac really don’t look that significantly different from one another.
Before anyone suggest I have my eyes checked, I’m not stating that these two cars were the 1950s’ version of so-called badge engineering. It’s just my opinion that I find the ’57 Pontiac almost as attractive as the ’57 Chevy. Which leads me to this question: Do I find the Chevy more attractive because of the inherent “rightness” of its lines, or is my preference for it a partial byproduct of positive associations formed with it over the years through exposure? To ask this question another way, if nobody had told me the ’57 Chevy looks cool, would I still think it looks cooler than a ’57 Pontiac?
There’s nothing really wrong with the way this Pontiac looks. It’s in a great, period color combo, isn’t overly dripping with chrome (relative to other cars of its era), and I like the tri-star motif that adorns much of its external trim like little dingbats. To me, its sheetmetal reminds me of a nice, stylish pair of well-made, off-brand jeans that lost out to the Chevrolet in popularity simply because Chevy was the “Levis denim” of GM divisions.
Like a few of the better rides at Skokie’s Backlot Bash, Pontiac Division had its share of dizzying directional changes. From the start of its modern reinvention in the late ’50s, through the heights of being a technological and style leader in the ’60s, through its luxurious ’70s dominated by the success of the Grand Prix and Firebird / Trans Am, its loss of engineering autonomy in the plastic-clad ’80s, through its sad, subsequent decline and eventual demise in the ’00s, Pontiac had been spun around like whole blood through a centrifuge. Its brand equity had been sucked out of the middle like plasma, and the platelets that were left simply weren’t enough to sustain this brand’s survival once GM got sick and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2009.
I went home that Sunday night and thought about this Chieftain and its relative lack of popularity compared to its Chevrolet counterpart. I thought about the demise of both Pontiac and my long-term relationship. I thought about the midday heat that had prevented a decent rock band from reaching the audience that it might have, otherwise. Lastly, I envisioned the crew dismantling the rides, tents, bandstand, and other attractions at the street festival in Skokie that was, by then, over. I chose to think of these pictures of this ’57 Chieftain as a souvenir and token of when Pontiac’s reborn future seemed limitless, and the best was yet still to come.
(Chicago suburb) Skokie, Illinois.
Sunday, August 26, 2018.