Pontiac would go on to great heights in the 1960s—and again in the 1990s—before it was culled in 2010 as part of GM’s bankruptcy. It often took the #3 sales spot for passenger cars in those two decades, and even pushed aside Chevy for the #2 spot in 1996 and 2000. In between these highs, Pontiac had some nasty lows too. Early on, Pontiac would not have survived the Depression without some drastic intervention by GM President Alfred Sloan and Chief Pontiac stylist Frank Hershey.
Between the two, they revived a moribund brand and set a pattern for much of GM’s subsequent success: shared bodies differentiated by as much distinctive styling as possible under the circumstances. Pontiac’s trademark “Silver Streak” styling appeared in 1935 as that critical stylistic hallmark for the brand, and was used all the way through 1956, by which time Pontiac had slipped again and was in need for another resuscitation.
Pontiac first appeared in 1926 as a companion brand to Oakland, based in Pontiac, Michigan, one of the early car companies acquired by William C. Durant in his creation of GM. The companion brand strategy was devised in the early 1920s, as at that time the five divisions of GM had a highly stratified pricing structure (often referred to as the “Sloanian Ladder”), that left some gaps between the brands, which were identified as opportunities in the hot market of the Roaring Twenties.
The gap between the four cylinder Chevrolet and the Oakland was the first one authorized to be filled by a companion brand, so Oakland, which had already been struggling with inconsistent quality and sales, created the Pontiac. And they shot themselves in the foot in the process.
As these two 1925 sedans show, the Oakland (left) and Pontiac (right) were essentially identical in styling, except for the Pontiac’s 3″ shorter wheelbase. The Oakland was powered by a 185 cu.in. straight six making 44 hp (it had dropped its first V8 back in 1917). And it listed for $1,215.
The Pontiac had a new 186.5 ci.in flat head straight six rated at a somewhat more modest 36 hp, but otherwise the general mechanical configuration and other specifications were largely similar. Except for its price, that is, which was a mere $825, making the Oakland a full 50% more expensive. You can see where this is going: Oakland sales plummeted, and it was gone by 1931. But for a few years, the new Pontiac greatly swelled Oakland Division total sales, until the Depression hit.
And Pontiac was hardly immune to its effects either. The solution, as crafted by Sloan, was to kill Oakland and essentially merge Pontiac’s manufacturing with Chevrolet’s in 1932, in the process creating the template for the future of GM.
The 1932 Chevrolet (above), shared its body, chassis and many primary mechanical aspects with the 1932 Pontiac (below).
As would be the case for decades to come, the main difference between the 1932 Pontiac and the Chevy was a minor wheelbase stretch, in this case in the front, from 109″ to 114″, thus creating a longer hood. But except for that and a different radiator, they were virtually identical externally.
The ’32 Pontiac Six coupe (there was also a short-lived and more expensive V8 model using the Oakland’s troublesome engine) was priced at $635; the Chevy at $490. That additional 30% only bought one an extra 6 cubic inches and 5 hp along with the slightly longer front end and different radiator, and perhaps some minor differences in the interior. Which probably explains why Chevrolet sold 313k cars that year and Pontiac 45k. But the costs for building the Pontiac were now substantially lower.
Sloan’s calm and pragmatic solutions like this to the upheavals of the automobile business were all highly effective: GM never once showed a loss during the Great Depression. In fact, the Depression was ultimately a boon to GM, as it eliminated or permanently weakened much of the competition.
Frank Hershey arrived at GM from Hudson in 1932 and quickly became one of Harley Earl’s most talented stylists. For 1933, he was given the task to differentiate the Pontiac more decisively from the Chevrolet, despite their bodies being largely identical from the cowl back. His bold and prowed Bentley-esque grill and heavily-valanced fenders were very successful in meeting that goal, and sales doubled to 90,198.
Under that lovely front end was something more worthy of it too: a brand new straight eight engine, with 223.4 cu.in. displaced by a bore of 3.19″ and a stroke of 3.50″, and rated at 77 hp. This flat head eight, with increases in displacement, would be used by Pontiac all the way through 1954, then the last of its kind still in production.
For 1935 and a new GM A-Body, Hershey and his team came up with something decidedly different: a continuous band of ribbed bright work that started at the base of the grille and wrapped around over its top, running all the way to the base of the windshield.
Like almost all successful new styling ideas, the provenance of the “Silver Streak” has been in some dispute. Virgil Exner, who left Studebaker for the Pontiac studio in early 1934, claims credit for it, not surprisingly. He may well have done some work on it, but he clearly didn’t originate it, as it was first seen on a model submitted for one of Earl’s competitions in 1933, well before Exner started at GM. Success has many fathers but failure is an orphan.
There is some speculation as to its inspiration. One source says it was the cooling coils on a vintage Napier race car; another says that a piece of extruded clay was accidentally left on the hood of a model. We’ll never know for sure.
Pontiac certainly wasn’t bashful about the result. Nor the effect on sales: up over 60%, to some 130k. Of course sales during the Great Depression bounced up and down for everyone, and 1935 was generally a better year, but this was an exceptional result.
As was commonly the case then, and would be for some time, the second year of a major GM re-style had only minor changes. The headlight nacelles were moved up from the fender to the sides of the hood, as pioneered at GM on the 1934 La Salle. And the side portions of the grille were now body-colored to enhance the Silver Streak even further.
As the badge on the grille spells out, this is a Pontiac 6. After an absence in ’33 and ’34, the six was back in ’36, with 208 cubic inches and 80 hp. This was an update of the original Pontiac six from 1926. The price for this De Luxe Six coupe was $665, compared to $560 for a 79 hp Master De Luxe Chevrolet. This time, the extra 19% bought one a mere single extra hp along with the Silver Streak.
The eight, which curiously had only four more hp than the six, had a 116.6″ wheelbase compared to the 112″ for the six, again, all of it in the front end.
It took some careful perusing of the 1936 Pontiac brochure before I decided that this was a Coupe, and not a Sports Coupe, since the latter has a rumble seat whose lid lifts up from the front, not the rear.
Determining whether it was a De Luxe or Master would have been easy, as the former has Dubonnet independent front suspension, a design licensed from French inventor André Dubonnet, and used on both Chevrolet and Pontiac starting in 1934 for a few years, before they adopted the more familiar SLA with exposed coil springs, and had been used by other GM divisions since 1934. For more details on the Dubonnet system and its issues, see my 1936 Chevrolet CC.
Like Chevrolet, Pontiac offered a traditional and simpler solid front axle suspended by semi-elliptic leaf springs on their Master series, only available as a Six in Pontiac’s case. But foolishly, I forgot to bend down and take a look at the front suspension. A thorough read of the brochure did turn up one—and only one—other significant difference: the Master series did not come with a glove box lock. And this one clearly has one.
Actually, the Eight and De Luxe Six also had slightly different upholstery options, as compared to two for the Master. This would appear to be the taupe mohair and not the modified tweed pattern taupe woolen cloth. In the Master, the second choice was brown patterned broad cloth. Since the mohair was available in both, it did come down to the glove box lock. Whew!
In addition to the coupes and convertible, there were of course two and four door sedans, available as regular sedans and as “Touring Sedans” with a proper but bulging trunk grafted on to the back end. It was practical, but not terribly elegant. And the four door sedans were not as handsome as a the cleaner two doors to start with.
The regular two door sedan did have a very fine profile, especially the Eight, with its longer hood. Who needs luggage anyway?
It reflects quite well on a smaller scale Cadillac’s superlative V16 Aerodynamic Coupe, built for the 1933 Chicago Century of Progress Exhibition. It was so popular with the crowds that Cadillac put it in production for 1934. It was the pivotal change point for GM styling, as it negotiated the potentially difficult transition from classical to modern streamlined in a most elegant way.
This Pontiac Six isn’t quite in that league, but it certainly is a handsome and refined expression of that challenging transitional period, between 1933 and 1939. It was a boon time for the designers, as rarely would there be such profound change in such a short period of time. This ’36 is pretty squarely in the mid point of that era, and as such has one foot in each era.
Its Silver Streak may have started out as an accident or whim, but it became something much larger, and came to define Pontiac styling for…way too long. This is an unfortunate pattern, when a design feature is clung to way past its relevance. By the last few years (1956 being the final year), it looked very contrived, and finally corresponded with a slump in 1956 Pontiac sales, so deep that once again the division’s future was in question. It took some fresh, new thinking by its brash new General Manager “Bunkie” Knudsen, assisted by Pete Estes and John Z. De Lorean to revive Pontiac again.
They set a trajectory that would soon vault Pontiac from #6 to #3 in the sales charts, an even more impressive result than the original Silver Streaks did for Pontiac in the mid thirties. This time, Pontiac had unleashed a tiger.
But back in 1935-1936, these were the cat’s meow. Or just a catwalk.