Curbside Classic: 1948 Pontiac DeLuxe Streamliner Station Wagon – At the Dawn of the Jet Age, a Varnishing Breed

(first posted 6/19/2012)    Every once in awhile, fun stuff really can happen when you get a text message while sitting on the couch on a Sunday afternoon.  This is what happened to me a couple of weeks ago.  As I was enjoying the remnants of my Sunday newspaper (yes, I still read one of those) I received a picture text from my son Jimmy.  “Cool car, check it out” was the message.  “Great,” I thought.  “Another resto-mod with a Chevy smallblock.”  But, it was nearby, so I figured that I would waste five minutes of my life and go look.  First impressions are not always accurate, and this is one that was not.  It turned out to be a genuine straight 8 Pontiac that I was glad I checked out.  And now, you can too.

This car is the junction where Pre-WWII America met it’s postwar counterpart.  Postwar America was all about promise and possiblity.  Modern, strong, and made of shiny steel and glass – this was the vision of the powers that led American institutions in those years.  But in the immediate postwar years, there was a bit of a gap between the vision and the reality.  Because automotive development had been arrested during the war years, early postwar cars were little changed from their prewar cousins – the main differences being that the postwar cars were much more expensive and much harder to get.  So, while all of America awaited the automotive promise of the future, folks were happy enough to snap up the new yet familiar cars that were the objects of waiting lists everywhere.  Except at Lincoln dealers, but that is another story.

I have always wondered why, in a postwar sellers market, when manufacturers could sell everything they could make, would they continue to offer these anachronistic old lumber wagons?  Was it the shortages of steel?  Was it the need to use (at least for awhile) the lumber resources that the biggest auto companies still controlled?  Or was it the desire to still offer some of the most expensive cars in the catalog so as to make as much money as possible in a market where price was (almost) no object?  I can see the answer being all of the above.

In 1948, Pontiac was probably the most conservative of all of GM’s five car divisions.  This conservatism would be more evident as Pontiac moved into the 1950s.  But in 1948, there were a lot of conservative cars.  So what made Pontiac stand out?  Two words (or perhaps four): Eight Cylinders and Hydra-Matic.

The first step up from Chevrolet got the new car buyer of 1948 quite a lot.  Many medium priced cars had offered a choice between six and eight cylinder power going back to the 1930s.    But Pontiac must have been one of the lowest priced eights out there.  Not that there was that much practical difference.  The Pontiac eight was only about ten cubic inches larger than the six, and offered only another thirteen horsepower.  But to Mr. & Mrs. postwar America, that didn’t really matter.  What mattered was that long engine block with the eight sparkplugs that told the world that you had made it, or were at least en route.  This probably explains why in Pontiac’s long wheelbase Streamliner series (though not in the lower priced Torpedo series), the Eight outsold the Six by more than three to one.

But Pontiac did not stop there.  The world’s only fully automatic transmission was offered by General Motors, and that was the famous Hydra-Matic Drive.  This modern marvel that shifted gears automatically for most Cadillac drivers was now available in the Pontiac as well for the first time in 1948.  This was clearly a big deal, as almost every page of the 1948 Pontiac sales brochure uses the words Hydra-Matic multiple times.  If you don’t think this was a big deal, just read Pontiac’s description: “This great mechanical masterpiece – which completely eliminates the clutch pedal and permits the driver to drive from sun-up to sun-down without touching a gear or a lever – is brought to buyers in the Pontiac field for the first time in history.”  It probably even made the newspapers.  Interestingly, this car appears to be one of only about 22% of 1948 Pontiacs that was not equipped with Hydra-Matic Drive.

By 1948, the woody wagon was a dying breed.  Most of the independents that had made woody wagons did not bring them back after the war.  Jeep had already brought out a steel wagon, albeit a small and crude one.  Plymouth would follow in another year, and everyone else would soon join in, or else exit the station wagon market altogether.  The late 1940s were about the future, and the future of station wagons was steel.  Although those who wanted the utility without the outsized upkeep (and wouldn’t that include most wagon buyers?) would welcome the steelies with open arms, these timbermobiles are a beautiful last gasp of a now-extinct species.

Last year, I wrote at some length on how station wagons went from expensive and demanding niche vehicles to a staple of the baby boom family in the 1950s (here).  The 1957 Pontiac wagon featured there was a pracitcal, powerful and versitile vehicle for growing postwar families.  This one, however, is a throwback to an earlier time.  Expensive and elegant, this big Pontiac makes me think of executives on  trout fishing trips at the lodge with highballs to share afterwards.  This car was much too impractical for busy middle-class family life.  No, this car was for the horse-country set that liked some old-style class and panache with their utility.  So, how fitting that this one was found parked at a country club.

Most of you are aware of my station wagon fetish.  These old wood wagons have a special and unique place in my heart.  I look at these in much the same way I admire a classic Chris Craft speedboat.  I love them.  I would ever so much enjoy the experience of a ride.  But I am not sure that I am the guy who should actually own one.   A close up look at this car shows the reason – as beautiful as the car is, it is time for wood maintenance again.  Bring on the sandpaper and the spar varnish, and hope that you have not let it go too long so as to allow rot to get a toehold.  A wood wagon would be like being married to a beautiful, but high-maintenance woman.  I prefer my beauty with a little less upkeep.  But I am happy that not everyone agrees, so that I may admire from afar.

Color is a very subjective thing.   Each of us has our own likes and dislikes.  But when it comes to these wood-bodied cars of the 1940s,  is there any other acceptible color choice besides this rich maroon?  Parma Wine, according to the brochure.  I have seen other woodies in other colors.  But if there was ever a need for governmental regulation of paint color, it is here.  “All wood-bodied cars shall henceforth be painted maroon.”  I am sending this to my congressman and expect to see a new statute in the United States Code quite soon.

But back to today’s car.  Although he would be de-emphasized in later years, Chief Pontiac was still working hard to sell Pontiac cars in 1948.  The Chief’s image was used in the car, in the logos, and even in magazine advertising.  In those years, there was no mistaking that this car was named after the dynamic and forceful leader of the Ottowa nation.

The original Chief Pontiac forced all of America to take notice of him in the 1760s when he laid seige to Detroit.   The car that was named for him did the same in the 1940s.   It was probably a good thing for other carmakers who offered products in Pontiac’s price range that all new cars were so hard to get after the war.  Had it not been so, these attractive and feature-packed Pontiacs could have made the car business a lot more difficult for several other companies.  As it was, Pontiac outsold Mercury by nearly a factor of five, and was less than 8,000 units behind the fourth-best seller, Dodge.  However, for those lucky folks who made it to the top of the waiting list at their local Pontiac dealer, what a great way to finish out the 1940s.  Eight cylinders, a Hydra-Matic, and a popular price would be a winning combination, at least until the modern ohv V8 would burst on the scene the following year.  But until then, and when paired with some old-school wooden coachwork, this eight cylinder Streamliner station wagon would be that rare car of the era that would be at home in almost any setting.