Curbside Classic: 1957 Pontiac Chieftain Safari – Are We There Yet?

(first posted 11/11/11)   The humble station wagon.  Everyone remembers the glamorous wood-bodied versions from the 1930s and 40s and even the behemoths of the 1970s.  But in the 1950s, there was no more iconic vehicle than the station wagon, and this weary Pontiac is a rare survivor of that era.

The station wagon was a creature of necessity.  Through the 1930s and 40s, large families were the exception rather than the rule, and normal sedans took care of them just fine.  Chrysler did a small but steady business in stretched 7 passenger sedans like Howard Cunningham’s DeSoto Suburban, but these were rarities.

But 1946 began what became known as the baby boom.   From 1940 to 1960, number of families with 3 kids doubled, and the number with 4 kids quadrupled.  By 1957, the boom had reached its peak with 4.3 million new babies and a modern record of 3.77 children per family.  And all of these kids had the annoying habit of making friends who were inclined to ride along when it was time go somewhere in the family car.

A basic sedan was not going to be enough car for the modern family of the 1950s.  So, just as the American auto industry would mark phenomenal growth of the minivan three decades hence, the 1950s saw explosive growth of another new market segment: the all-steel, sedan-based, three-row station wagon.

Station wagons had been around since the Model T and before, but it took a long time to get all of the wood out of these things.  Although Willys was first with the Jeep, the 1949 Plymouth Suburban was the first of the mass market offerings.  Chevrolet was there in 1950 and Pontiac, of course, came along for the ride as well.  Ford was among the last entries, with its all steel 1952 wagons.  Along with the nation’s growing families, the transition from wood bodies to steel would be why station wagons went from less than 3% of production in 1950 to nearly 17% by 1960.

By 1957, virtually everyone was in the wagon business, because the family car market was where a significant chunk of volume (and the money that went with it) was.  Pontiac was no exception.

The 1957 Pontiac station wagons were an interesting juxtaposition of two opposing philosophies.  Pontiac, under the leadership of Bunkie Knudsen, was beginning its quest to become America’s favorite performance car.  This year saw the new Bonneville kick the Star Chief from the top perch on the totem pole.  The Bonneville was one hot car, with Tri Power or even Rochester fuel injection, giving the car admission to that exclusive club that required 300 horsepower as a condition of membership.

But Pontiac was not just about the performance market, and offered quite a few wagons in 1957, all of which would be called Safari. The 1956 Safari had been a single model that shared Chevrolet’s unique Nomad body.  The Nomad-based Safari was back for 1957 (as the Star Chief Custom Safari),  but it had a lot of company.  In addition to this basic nine-passenger Chieftain Safari (which also came as a 2 door), there was the higher level Super Chief Safari.

Pontiac must have decided that four station wagon offerings were not enough, and at mid year brought us the ultimate Poncho wagon: the Star Chief Custom four door Safari, also known as the Transcontinental.  After the Bonneville, this was the most expensive Pontiac in the book, which probably accounts for its sales of a bit under 1,900 units.  Maybe our west coast correspondents can keep their eyes peeled for one of these rarities.  It would be my guess that the ladies in this illustration were not among those with the 3.77 children.

Unfortunately, sales at Pontiac were down fairly substantially across the board in 1957, to roughly 330,000 units (from over a half million in 1955).  This is probably owing to new models in the Mercury and Dodge showrooms.  Even our subject car, the  four door Chieftain 9 passenger Safari, was never a very common car, with sales of about 11,500.  Altogether, Pontiac sold nearly 32,000 wagons in 1957.

Although this Chieftain model was the most basic of Pontiac wagons, it was assuredly no strippo.  Just look at the level of trim, both inside and out.  As was often the case in these years, the buyer who elected to move up from a Chevrolet was rewarded handsomely.  The Pontiac Strato Streak V8 was up to 347 cubes for 1957.  This was not much smaller than Cadillac’s 365 cubic inch mill.  Also, that beefy V8 was mated with either a 3 speed manual (rarely) or the same Dual Range Hydra Matic as was in Oldsmobiles and Cadillacs.  This Pontiac wagon was a lot of car for the money in 1957.

We all know that styling is a subjective thing.  Pontiac seems to have done a reasonably good job of differentiating itself from its little brother, if not exactly disguising its Chevrolet A body roots.  The increase to 122 inches of wheelbase in even the lower models didn’t hurt here.  This Pontiac fits squarely into the Harley Earl school of automotive design – lots of chrome and flash.  Not a lot of subtlety or understatement here.  I have always wondered how it was Pontiac and not Oldsmobile that got its sides plastered with a huge rocket that spewed stars as exhaust.

With a 1957 Dodge parked nearby, however, this car would have looked dated pretty quickly, and reminds us all why the Forward Look was so influential.

One thing I have never understood is that upside-down V on the hood.  I understood it when Pontiac was still being powered by the ancient straight 8, but why did it continue after the modern V8 came along in 1955?  Wasn’t a big chrome V federally mandated in those years?  It certainly seemed so.  It also appears that Chief Pontiac was on the way out of town even in 1957.

It is kind of hard today to imagine 9 people spending much time in one of these.  Looking at it in person, the car just isn’t that big.  But we should remember that in those days before seat belts became common (let alone child safety seats), any den mother or football coach could cram a dozen kids inside without half trying, so I suppose that a mere nine would have been fairly comfortable.  And in a ’57 Pontiac, everyone got to sit looking forward.

I spied this car along the road in a consignment lot in Evansville, Indiana on a recent trip to the city.  Thinking back, I am not sure I can ever recall seeing a ’57 Poncho wagon in the flesh (metal?)  This one is a little rough, but is in amazingly good shape for an original wagon.  After all, station wagons would be passed down from family to family (in order of decreasing resources) and then to a tradesman or two who would generally wring every last bit of life out of them.   Other than a lot of surface rust, this car looks pretty solid.  Rocker panels did not usually last this well in the midwest during this car’s heyday.

I have been trying to figure out the color combination on this one.  I cannot imagine a green car with a red and white interior coming out of the GM system in those days.  That sounds more like one of those early 70s Chrysler anomalies that we have all heard about.  Maybe the green was a repaint.  Or maybe the car was special ordered by a department store Santa.  Who knows?  What I do know is that this car makes me nostalgic for a time before the 1960s when GM would give you a full set of gauges even in the low level model.  The truth is, whoever bought this car new got a heckuva package, even if the styling was a little overdone.

I am glad that the place was closed on the day I stopped to photograph this Safari.  This is the kind of car that calls my name.   Even though the logical side of my brain would tell me to run away as fast as I possibly can, the other side says “Come on – some fresh paint, a new set of whitewalls, and we can all go out for ice cream.”

So, who will start us out with 99 bottles of beer on the wall?   And no, we are not there yet, so you will just have to hold it until we stop for gas.