Curbside Classic: 1957 Pontiac Star Chief Catalina Coupe – You Take A Little Chevy, Add A Little Bit Of Olds…


(first posted 2/15/2013)    My dear Pontiac fans, I hate to offend you. However, your brand had absolutely no identity for the majority of its life on the automotive landscape. And here’s my pre-Golden Years of Pontiac example. Until 1959, all you got was an Oldsmolet. Not like that was a such bad thing.


Through the early fifties, Pontiac basically offered a Chevrolet with finer appointments, Hydra-matic drive and a Straight Eight.  Although that wasn’t much more than Mercury offered over a comparable Ford, you can’t say the same about Dodge after 1953. With the new Red Ram V8, Dodge threw out the convention that your semi-premium car had to be sedate.


Pontiac (along with Packard) was the last American car with an old-school flat-head straight, with its modern OHV V8 arriving in 1955. It all came in an new body that was the same basic shell as the A-body Chevrolets. In the case of the line-topping Star Chief, however, the trunk extension added up to some rather B-Body type bulk. And like the Olds Rocket V8 that precedded it by several years, the new Strato-Streak V8 would prove to be an enduring design.


The process of Pontiac fully embracing its new-found performance image took a few years. We’re still a few years away from the lustful, carefree and youthful advertising we typically associate with Pontiac in this restrained ad. Everyone still looks at least forty here. And therein lied the problem. In a field of cars that inspired youthful upward mobility, Pontiac aspired to be the choice of your school principal. Even Plymouth had shed that aspiration by 1956.


A few more baby steps away from the cradle of conservatism happened during 1957. One big leap was the limited edition Bonneville convertible, but it could only tug the rest of the line up so far. It didn’t help matters much that both Dodge and Mercury did flamboyant far better for ’57, making the Pontiac line up appear more the wallflower than it ever did before.


Although the silver streaks that dated back to the 1930’s were finally gone, there’s still enough bric-a-brac that tried to add up value beyond the Bel-Air that sat a few dollars below. Granted, the longer wheelbase and fenders helped the A-body chassis look less stubby compared to its appearance on a Chevrolet.

1957 Oldsmobile-11

But the overall approach for 1957 says “rejected Oldsmobile proposal” to me. We can all acknowledge that General Motors quite often had a corporate “face” more years than not. But in the transition to being the “excitement” brand, Pontiac seemed to borrow the former party planner in the GM hierarchy’s dress and gloves.


Granted, there’s a bit more massaging going on in my brain, but how far is this from the 1956 Oldsmobile “Jet Intake” grill?  It’s cleaner and less “Catfish” like compared to the 1955-56 models, but less unique than those years too.


These ovoid tail-lamps look suspiciously like the morphing “Jet exhaust” tail lamps that went from bullet shaped to ovals at Oldsmobile in 1957. Granted there’s a bit more Chevrolet tail fin too, and the lamps are mounted mid fender instead of in the tips.


None of this would have been too disappointing if we didn’t have The Forward Look to compare these Pontiacs to. But Dodge, especially so, had been solidifying an identity since 1953, while less continuity could be accounted for in Pontiac styling. While Dodge refined it’s Red Ram image with ever increasing aggressive faces, Pontiac went from over-jeweled Chevrolet, to reminding people of fish dinners, to being the most non-descript product of General Motors.


It didn’t get any better for 1958. Harley Earl’s last blowout meant all ’58 GM cars were struck with a case of bloat that Gas-X wouldn’t be able to clear out until 1959. It’s hard to believe, but Pontiac possibly ended up with the most pleasing-to-the-eye GM products that difficult year.


Pontiac would finally get its own image in 1959. And until Brougham plague confused it at the dawn of the 1970’s, it served Pontiac extremely well, pushing them quite often to number three in sales throughout the 1960s. After ignoring this heritage for some truly dark years in the mid 1970s through the early 80’s, this is the legacy that Pontiac (quite rightly) tried to recapture until it died.


But in reality, most Post-War Pontiacs have the lack of identity dilemma that the 1957 models did. The marque’s glory years were truly confined to 1959 through 1972. There’s been flashes of excitement in between, in the form of Trans-Ams , 6000STEs and Fieros. But they often had to share space with barely distinguished from Chevrolet price-leaders and Brougham Bordellos worthy of a Regency or Limited badge.


This is where I have to say: I don’t really miss Pontiac. Except for the brilliance of the 1960’s, it never stood out enough against the popularity or legacy of all the other General Motors brands. I wonder how much my own sentiments toward the brand carry over to the actual cars.


If it ain’t a GTO or Firebird, who really cares about a Pontiac?