(first posted 7/31/2015) Pontiac’s existence had always been a bit tenuous. It was by far the youngest of the GM brands, dating to 1926, when it was introduced as a companion brand to Oakland, one of the original GM brands. Pontiac barely survived the Great Depression, and had a rather bumpy ride through the 1940s and into the 1950s. By the middle of the fifties, there was serious consideration on the 14th floor as to whether the Silver Streak division still had a future. Pontiac was losing sales to Buick and Olds from above, and Chevrolet from below. Its rung on the now-rotting Sloanian ladder was precarious.
But then three scrappy guys showed up in 1956 and turned Pontiac into the hottest GM brand of the sixties. The 1959 Pontiac was the first of that exciting Pontiac decade, before its future once again became murky. How did they do it?
Semon E. “Bunky” Knudsen was the son of legendary William “Big Bill” Knudsen, who had masterminded much of Henry Ford’s pioneering mass production success in the teens, and then did the same for GM when he moved there in 1921, and eventually ended up as President of GM. Bunky earned his stripes at GM, with a stint at Pontiac in the thirties and then Detroit Diesel. In 1955, he was made GM of Pontiac, and he quickly hired Pete Estes from Oldsmobile to be his Chief Engineer, and a young John DeLorean from Packard to be his assistant. Knudsen saw performance as one of the keys to success; not just purely straight-line performance, but the whole package. The future of Pontiac rested in better than average engineering, as well as youthful styling. And a good sales job.
Knudsen’s first shot over the bow was the 1957 Bonneville, a limited-production (630 units) Cadillac-priced convertible, with a 310 hp fuel injected version of the Pontiac 347 CID V8. Its purpose was primarily to get the dealers excited again about Pontiac’s future, at a time when sales were in the cellar. In 1957, Pontiac sold a mere 288k units, just a bit ahead of Mercury, and was in sales spot #6, behind both Olds and Buick. It was going to be a hard slog.
One of Pontiac’s big problems was getting out of Chevrolet’s shadow. In 1932, when Pontiac looked like it was going under, GM President Alfred Sloan saved it by turning it into a badge-engineered ’32 Chevrolet, sharing the same body and built right along side each other. It was a first, on many levels.
It wasn’t the first use of shared bodies, as one of Sloan’s biggest breakthroughs in lowering costs at GM had been to have basic Fisher body shells shared by the upper divisions, starting in 1926. But there was still a lot of differentiation of styling between them. The 1932 Pontiac was literally a tarted-up ’32 Chevy, but it saved the brand, for the time being.
Through 1958, Pontiac was stuck with sharing the A-Body with Chevrolet, with mixed results; the ’57 being a low point for the most part. The 1958 Bonneville (above) was clearly an Impala coupe with more Harley Earl-approved chrome slathered on.
That all changed with the 1959s, as all five divisions now shared the same basic body shell, first locked in by Buick. Each division had the less-than enviable job of carving out a distinctive look from the Buick, and the results are endlessly debated. While a number of the Pontiac’s styling gags are typical of the era, especially at the rear, the distinctive front end with its divided grille and nose would become a very enduring Pontiac face, despite taking a one-year time-out for 1960.
The wide-set headlights accentuated the wide look that Pontiac was after, and not just purely for looks alone.
Already starting with the wide new 58’s, the ever-wider bodies of GM cars were hanging out over the wheels, which created a decidedly undynamic look. Pete Estes made the brilliant decision to widen the front and rear track of the ’59 Pontiac, all the way to some 64″ inches, front and rear.
It didn’t just end there, with with wheels pushed out a few inches. Pontiac made a big deal about its engineering prowess in 1959, and there were a number of aspects to their cars that put them in a leading position within GM, despite the long-time rep that Oldsmobile had for being GM’s “Experimental Division”.
The slogan for 1959 was “America’s Number 1 Road Car”, and Pontiac backed that up, within the limitations of what they had to work with. Some of the names, like “Wonder-Touch” power steering is typical for the times. But the Pontiac’s wider stance did improve stability, handling, and steering response, although it probably was still not quite as good as a ’59 Chrysler.
The ’59 Pontiacs used GM’s X-Frame, which does not deserve the bad reputation it has developed, since the body was strengthened at the sills and the floor was ribbed to compensate. But whether the ride was truly “Gyro-Level” is debatable.
The optional air suspension was probably scrapped before it went into production, as that had already turned into a disaster on the ’58 GM cars. GM’s pioneering air suspension on its buses a few years earlier was a breakthrough in ride quality, and was reliable. The hype for the automotive air suspension was quickly deflated, and many were converted to steel springs at the dealers.
But Pontiac claimed its brakes superior, although all brakes are intrinsically “air cooled”, and the famous finned brake drum/hubs were still a year away.
In addition to a range of power outputs for its 389 CID V8, from 245 hp to 345 for the Tri-Power, Pontiac also offered a high-efficiency package with a specially-tuned 215 hp version teamed with the four-speed Hydramatic and a very low (numerical) rear axle ratio, giving overdrive-like engine rpm on the highway. This became something of a Pontiac specialty, and was a preview of things to come 15 years later.
There was another special ingredient in Pontiac’s success for 1959: the dreamy renderings of Art Fitzpatrick and Van Kaufman. This was the first year for the team on a major campaign, and the results have become icons of that era.
Needless to say, their rendered versions of the ’59 Pontiac was exceptionally wide-tracked.
It’s not easy to decide, but I think this is my favorite, titled “Times Square”. Art did the cars, and Van did the scene and figures, a brilliant pairing.
The settings were often highly improbable.
But they inevitably left a deep impression. As soon as I arrived in the US in 1960, I cut out everyone I could find, and wallpapered my bedroom with them.
It was great eye candy with which to fall asleep. And it undoubtedly primed me for the psychedelic era to come. Bunkie Knudsen gave Fitzpatrick and Kaufman the credit they deserved: “Your efforts played a great part in bringing us to third place in the industry. Without them our job of moving Pontiac up the ladder would have been impossible”.
So what was it? Styling, engineering, or great ads? How about the near-perfect combination of all three, which came to be Pontiac’s (not-so) secret sauce as it climbed ever higher in the coming years.
Pontiac’s sales in 1958 were a mere 217k; in 1959 they exploded 76%, to 383k, which vaulted them right over Olds and Buick into fourth place. By 1962, Pontiac was selling over half a million units and passed Rambler and Plymouth for the coveted third place behind Chevrolet and Ford, that sweet spot it held through 1969, after which things started to fall apart for them. By that time, all three of the dynamic trio that had made the Pontiac excitement happen had moved on, and Pontiac again became a somewhat troubled brand.
Let’s take a look at this splendid Catalina Vista four door hardtop that I spotted some distance ahead tooling a long at a brisk clip, but managed to follow into the parking lot of this Siemens office on the outskirts of Eugene, where its owner Tom works. Yes, this is a semi-regular driver, owned since 1989, and has been lovingly upgraded some to make that more feasible. Needless to say, it stands out in this parking lot of typical contemporary vehicles.
It’s “air-cooled” drum brakes have been replaced with disc brakes up front, and 15″ vented steel wheels with tasteful hub caps and trim rings.
This is as glassy as a greenhouse as was ever made, short of a Messerschmidt bubble car. The huge windshield wraps around the sides as well as into the roof.
The “flying wing” roof penned by Carl Renner at least gives some shade in the back, unlike the sloping giant rear window used on the coupes and regular sedans.
The accessory air conditioner is undoubtedly a welcome addition on hot days, although it’s not currently functional. That explains why all the windows were down, which made shooting very easy.
The Pontiac had a big and bold instrument panel, although not nearly as far out as many Chrysler products of the time.
The steering wheel hub is a perfect encapsulation of the (Googie) times. The quadrant for the Hydramatic still has R on the far right, which would be changed in a few years to reduce unintended activation of reverse in a forced manual downshift.
Presumably the after-market turn signal stalk/switch is to replace the defective original. Maybe parts for it are hard to source anymore?
The rear seat is of course commodious, although these lower cars can never compare for seating comfort with the taller sofas that were used some years earlier. The X Frame’s main benefit was to allow rear footwells that dropped down below the frame and sills. Note the asymmetrical upholstery pattern on the upper seat back, which goes the opposite way on the front seat.
Let’s take a look at what’s behind the trademark nose.
We know it’s a 389 (6.5 L), as that was the only size offered. But there were no less than nine versions available. Manual shift (three-speed) cars had standard engines with a regular-gas 8.6:1 compression ratio, with 245 hp and a two barrel carb for Catalina and Star Chief models, and 280 hp with a four barrel for Bonnevilles.
All Hydramatic-equipped Pontiacs had a higher 10.0:1 CR, and 280 hp and still a two-barrel for Catalina and Star Chief, and 300 hp with a four barrel for the Bonneville. The exception was the 215hp 420-E, which had the low compression and specially-tuned two-barrel carb along with the HM and extra low rear axle ratio. The “420” designation refers to the 389’s torque rating, but only on the 300 hp version.
For extra performance, Pontiac offered a 315 hp Tri-Power (three two-barrel carbs) version for normal street use. There were also HD versions of the four barrel and Tri-Power 389, with 303 and 345 hp, intended primarily for racing use.
Since we’re lifting lids, let’s take a look under the rear one too.
It’s ample sized, obviously, but these GM car trunks were rather shallow, given the big gas tank directly underneath. And then there’s a spare tire to deal with too.
Tom showed me a jacket with his car on the back. This is a long-term love affair.
It’s a bit hard to really talk about the styling of these cars with a serious tone of voice. Let’s face it, they’re ridiculous and over the top, especially the rear ends. The ’59 Pontiac’s rear end is not among the best from GM that year, and doesn’t do its quite handsome face justice. If one fin per side is good, two must be better, right?
It looks like a motel or fast food marquee; just needs a kitty cat face to go along with the ears. I much prefer the 1960’s cleaner tail end.
The Catalina series was the volume seller of the ’59 Pontiac family, with 231k, or 60% of the total. The starting price of this Vista sedan was $2844, or just $62 more than a Chevy Impala four door hardtop V8. The Catalina’s engine had 106 more cubic inches, the wheelbase had three more inches, and the optional automatic had two more gears. The track was several inches wider. But the Impala’s interior trim might have been a wee bit nicer; at least it had longer arm rests. The Catalina-level trim was more like a cross between the Bel Air and Impala. Still, it’s easy to see the appeal.
Needless to say, build quality back in the good old days, especially on all-new models, was not at the level we’ve become accustomed to.
Anyway, a big and wide car like this requires stepping back some to take it all in. With a somewhat more restrained rear end, the ’59 Pontiac could/would have been something quite exceptional, for the times and for GM; a synergistic combination of style, engineering and advertising that was unprecedented at the time. Chrysler had the engineering, but by 1959, its styling was starting to get stale, or strange. And they certainly couldn’t touch the Fitzpatrick and Kaufman renderings.
America’s Number 1 Road Car? In 1959, that honor would probably go to a Chrysler 300 or Studebaker Hawk. But for a line of popular-priced cars, the Pontiac gets a B+ for effort. even with the rear quad finlets.
But who would want to re-write history and leave out those crazy ’59 GM rear ends? They’re a testimony to that one brief moment in time when the designers were sent home with Dr. Seuss books for their bed-time reading and given OJ spiked with LSD in the morning, and told to let it all hang out. At least Pontiac let the wheels hang out too.
Considering the rush job that GM did on the ’59s, I find them somewhat amazing.
One can certainly find flaws in each, but it is hard to pick out anything better from the competition (Ford maybe?) and that profile shot shows how good the basic shape was, as do the just slightly cleaned up 1960 models.
Chrysler had that same flat trunk problem, but at least on non-convertibles they put the spare on a bracket up over the rear axle. The milk crate full of supplies, jumper cables, and the shop manual is a familar sight. 🙂
When I hit the open trunk picture, I immediately got a strong memory of the smell of the trunk of my ’66 Tempest (and pretty much any car from that era with a spare-in-trunk).
Such beautiful cars. I’m a huge fan of the Fitzpatrick/Kaufman ads too.
Here’s a (very long) gallery of them : http://www.carstyling.ru/en/entry/Art_Fitzpatrick_and_Van_Kaufman_AF_VK_Jet_Age_Glamour/
Thanks for the great link. I love these illustrations.
+1 on that!
Nice shot of the interior. I’ve always thought Pontiac’s secret weapon through the ’50s and ’60s was its dashboards. The exterior was too much like Chevy except for the orange lighted Chief on the hood, who made Pontiacs instantly recognizable at night.
Other GM cars had entertainment on all sides per Mr Earl’s dictum. Only Pontiac had entertainment inside as well. As a kid I didn’t pay much attention to the dashboards of our Chevys and Dodges. The first time I rode in a Pontiac, I was absolutely hypnotized by the clock in the middle of the radio speaker. It was probably unsafe, but it was entertainment.
Best dashboard I ever owned was in my ’66 Tempest – it was jewel-like.
Beautiful car and wonderful writeup. As a kid, an aunt and uncle had a copper 1960 Catalina sedan, so I had lots of time to get used to the 60, which I have always liked a lot. This 59 has a lot more gingerbread, and while I still prefer the cleaner 60, that split grille face on the 59 is a winner. And this dash is very Chrysler-like to me, with those big round dials. Hard to tell, was that full instrumentation too?
Pontiac would have an amazing variety of engine configurations and gear ratios all through the 1960s. They really did reach out to a person’s inner engineer by allowing you to spec out a car just your way. Pretty interesting, considering that they usually had only one or two engine sizes and a single automatic.
DeLorean claimed that Pontiac could be so successful because it was a relatively small operation within GM. It was huge Chevrolet that eventually became the real problem child from a management perspective.
The artwork is magnificent. The dreamlike quality of the styling was just a great combo with the evocative backgrounds chosen. Even the little slogans, gyro level ride or wonder touch steering. Imagine listening to a salesman rattle those off on a test drive in this car from another world.
The length and width of the cars had risen so fast that I wonder when the customers came in to drive them what that was like. The hair trigger torque of the big block V8 combined with the newly vast dimensions and lower seating must have created challenges on that test drive.
I can imagine bringing in your say 52 just Chevy with powerglide and six and driving this car. The husband is blown away by the styling, the power and by the fact that having had a promotion or two since 52 he can actually afford this car. The wife then brings him back to earth has she noticed the seats were not as comfortable and it is just a little scary around the edges. That argument has now gone on for 56 years and will never let up.
Thanks for bringing this car to us. This owner did an exceptional job in doing what had to be done to drive it while keeping the spirit of the car intact.
I will question you on that 7 year age difference in between the trade in and the new car. Back then, cars were ideally traded in every three years, most likely 4-5 was the norm, anything 7 years old probably had 50,000 miles on it and was in line for its first complete rebuild.
Talking 7 years on a trade in back in the 1950’s is more in line like taking 14-15 years on a trade in today.
Perhaps in rust areas, though didn’t they salt the roads less then. The 52 would have surely still been common on the road and would probably on average had somewhere between 60 and 70k, as people then had shorter commutes. Was the 52 Chevy 6 and powerglide really that short lived? It is before I was born.
That timing for keeping a car certainly was lore in my family. They were convinced that somewhere between 2 to 4 years was the amount of time you could get out of a car with “no trouble.” So my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles were usually in and out of cars on average every 3 years. The exceptions were my frugal grandfather, who kept his Fords for around 6 years until “they were junk” (he drove them hard) or my widowed great aunt in Massachusetts who kept her Plymouths “until they rusted” which was usually about 5-6 years (except the Volare, which rusted at 3 years…).
The guys did do some recycling though. Compare the backgrounds of this 60 with the 59 in this article. I had the 1960 version on my bedroom wall (from out of a rare imported Saturday Evening Post).
And the 1959
I would give my right arm for one of these…just a beautiful car. One of the few designs that I like all versions from coupe to four door and wagon. Those Fitz & Van ads are just perfectly exaggerated, period colored art. GM designers from this period were using everyday items for inspiration in car design, from toasters to door knobs, this car is 1959.
The ’32 Pontiac being nothing but a badge-engineered Chevrolet is a great tidbit. Was it the first of its kind? If so, it was an amazing look at things to come over a half century later.
It’s a shame that the all-too-typical, GM corporate-man James McDonald was the guy who eventually succeeded Knudson and Delorean as the head of Pontiac. You have to wonder what might have been had Knudson, Delorean, and Estes been at Pontiac a decade later than when they first got their start at the division. Could they have still worked their magic at Pontiac in the moribund, 5-mph bumper, emission-choked seventies? By then, Knudson had moved to Ford for a very short presidential tenure, rumored to have been booted simply because he made the faux pas of routinely entering Henry Ford II’s office without knocking. Likewise, Delorean would quit GM (some saying he was really fired) in his ultimately tragic effort to build his own car. Only Estes would stay with GM to become president of the company.
It’s hard to say whether the team that had made Pontiac such a success in the 1960s could have worked their magic in the 1970s. The 1973-75 Grand Am was probably the car that best embodied the 1960s spirit at Pontiac, and it really didn’t go very far in the marketplace.
The cars that kept the division afloat after the first fuel crunch were the Grand Prix and Firebird/Trans Am. The latter catered to the buyers who wanted some semblance of muscle-car performance, but most buyers wanted “luxury looks” at middle-income prices, as Oldsmobile’s success during the decade proved. Those buyers weren’t interested in muscle cars like the old GTO. For most buyers, muscle cars were yesterday’s news in the mid-1970s.
Agree. The 1970s were such a different time with different tastes compared to the 1960s, and I think it was a real challenge for the brands that previously had heavily emphasized performance. I’d argue that Pontiac suffered the worst from this shift in consumer buying preferences, but I also think Dodge really lost their way as well (in addition to suffering from all the other ChryCo woes at that time).
Dodge lost their way, but then recovered by essentially taking over Plymouth’s slot.
Ahhh.. Nice to see the real Pontiac wide tracks. In Canada we had to settle for Catalina bodies on Chevrolet underpinning. They were odd ducks with tiny wheels and tires tucked well into the wheel wells. Despite this they were popular and sold well being a quarter notch up from comparable Chevrolets. There were the odd Catalina and more so Bonnevilles around but they were scarce. The import duties drove the cost up towards the high end Buick and low end Cadillac range.
We got the same Pontiacs here in Australia. Parisiennes & Lurentians
Since Canada was part of the Commonwealth, their CKD kits had a lower import duty, compared to a non Commonwealth country.
Yeah theres a couple of Cheviacs tip toeing their way around in town here, though NZ did get some real Pontiacs that got RHD converted new but our CKDs came out of Canada.
The ’59/60 Pontiac grilles show one of the hazards of the annual-style-change regime; the next model had to be locked in before the public had a chance to see the one before. Thus, the ’59 Pontiac was a roaring success thanks in no small part to its’ wide split grille, the split went away for ’60 because back in 1957-58 when they were working on the ’59s and ’60s it had only been meant to be a one-year styling fillip, and when they realized that they had what would replace the Silver Streaks and lighted Chief Pontiac as a brand identifier they had to rush to get it back on the ’61s.
“Camshaft-to axle-ratio”?? Well, they are connected …
I guess because I hadn’t seen one in a while I thought the 58 Pontiac looked more like a Buick or Oldsmobile than a Chevy. I think I prefer the 58 Pontiac to the 58 Chevy.
This 59 is a nice car. My favorite 59 GM is a Pontiac, though the Buick is also….interesting(?). Yet, such a nice shape is over – decorated. The 59 Mercury is vaguely similar to the Pontiac….at least from the side (with different roof treatments), and being a Ford fan, I’d have a hard time chosing between the 2. But I think the Pontiac’s dash would win me over.
Hard to believe, that these 59s only offered 1 engine, and harder to believe that it came in NINE different states of tune.
My favorite feature of this car? Love the 2 toning, inside and out.
Great write up on a cool car and I got to see one of these everyday when in Virginia City, MT. It has been parked on the street since the late 90s according to the plate tabs, but still looks pretty good. Sure the paint is faded and the edges are rough, but all that funky 50s styling is still quite visable. I find it interesting that the Tempest 420E print ad includes Baja California and Baja California Sur, but no other Mexican States. In those print ads is it even possible to have all four lights on?
Even in Portland, OR 50s cars are not terribly common so I do not know if I will see one of these cruising down the road. There has to be a 59 Pontiac in Cuba somewhere.
Two thoughts after reading this great Pontiac story:
1) It reinforces my long held belief that styling change from GM ’58 to GM ’59 was a huge leap and great improvement. This was especially notable for Buick and Oldsmobile but true across all divisions and certainly this Pontiac.
2) How popular then, and for a decade or more, was the body style of the four door hardtop and how quickly it disappeared. I miss it and enjoyed the windows down on the one four door hardtop I owned (a ’76 Electra 225). Windows down on this Catalina is an impressive sight.
The styling was a big improvement, but the interior packaging wasn’t quite ideal. You’re virtually sitting on the floor in the 1959 GM cars. Note that when these cars received their first major redo for 1961, they became somewhat taller, and easier to enter and exit.
And I thought yesterday`s article on the `57 Nash was excellent, you outdid yourself with this one! This is why I come to CCs everyday. Simply brilliant.
Beautiful car, and beautiful artwork. We won’t see a time like that ever again.
I am curious as to how Pontiac actually created the wide track on these cars, given that they were working within the constraints of a shared body/chassis design. Did they achieve it simply by fitting wider rims/tires? Or did they actually change the front suspension pieces and fit a wider rear axle? The story says the track was 64 inches -how does that compare to the other GM models in 1959?
Only the basic body shell was shared. The frames, suspensions, brakes, steering, etc., as well as the drive trains were all unique to each division. I know it sounds a bit odd, and that was of course eventually changed, but that’s how it still worked back then, as it did in the 30s and 40s.
For instance not all of these ’59s used the X-Frame; Olds used a perimeter frame. So even the body shells were different to some degree, as the X-Frame bodies needed stronger sill and ribs in the floor.
Thanks, Paul – always enjoy your posts, and this one in particular, as my parents owned a 1959 Pontiac Star Chief four-door sedan. It was melon-colored and had enough room for our growing family (nine when they traded it in for a 1964 Catalina 9-seat wagon). Dad was a “tool and die man” and worked for PMD at “the foundry” in Pontiac, MI (where all of my siblings were born) on the third shift, seven days a week, for 34 years.
I’ve always been a fan of “Fitz and Van” and have just received news that a new 200-page hardcover book, produced in cooperation with the estates of Art Fitzpatrick and Van Kaufman, may now be pre-ordered. The book includes 196 illustrations, accompanied by insightful text based on years of research.
Here’s the link for more information – I am so excited!
Great write up on the car that began Pontiac’s golden decade. Despite the Jetson styling cues the 59 GM cars always struck me as the first modern automobiles. All baby fat roundness finally gone.
Pontiac’s sales in the early 50 are behind Buick, who was 4th, but ahead of Oldsmobile. For 1955 Pontiac’s sales are over half a million, and Pontiac does not beat this till 1963. Buick’s sales in the late 50’s decline considerably, due in part to quality control during the hot sales of the mid 50’s. I can’t think that GM was seriously thinking of dumping Pontiac. What made GM the biggest of the big three was the Buick, Oldsmobile and Pontiac divisions. Dropping any one of them would have reduced sales.
I think Sloan introduced the companion cars intending to fill in gaps and dumping at least one older make, and my guess is that Oakland was probably seen as redundant even before the companion car Pontiac was introduced.
The 59 Pontiac fins were the smallest of all the fins. Possibly the least stylish too, but Oldsmobile’s fins were not great either. I don’t like what either Chevrolet or Buick did with their fins, but they did have a bit of style.
From what I’ve read, the plan under discussion involved folding Pontiac into Oldsmobile. How this would have worked, I have no idea. Bunkie Knudsen was instead brought in with orders to turn the division around.
I believe that Oldsmobile beat Pontiac in sales from 1954 through 1958. Oldsmobile was fourth in sales for 1954, after Chevrolet, Ford and Buick. It fell back to fifth for 1955 and 1956, as Plymouth moved up to fourth.
That’s what I remember reading.
1955 was something of an an anomaly, as car sales were explosive, and the Pontiac was new that year with a new V8. But the momentum quickly dropped.
Olds did beat Pontiac from 1954 – 1958.
My dad was one of those ’55 Pontiac buyers. It was his first new car. To a young engineer, the value proposition of a basic Catalina two door sedan with a longer wheelbase and bigger standard V-8 than a Chevy was hard to resist.
After World War Two, Buick’s pricing starts more or less at the top end of Chevrolet. Pontiac’s prices are also in this range. Buick’s Special could easily replace the Pontiac line as well as the Olds 88 models. But having three makes means that you have three different styles, which in the end probably is what sells a particular make.
Wiki’s automobile production by year page shows that the top three makes after WW2 are Chevrolet, Ford and Plymouth through 1954. Buick moves up from #4 (beginning in 1949) to #3 in 1955. Pontiac was #5 until 1954 when it moves down to #6. Pontiac’s sales are up and down but never bad. Buick on the other hand builds 739,000 cars in 1955 and by 1958 this is down to under 250,000. Buick’s sales remain up and down till the early 60’s.
Pontiac, being a lower priced make than either Buick or Olds, should have outsold them. I am have not read many books on GM, so I don’t know much about the history of Pontiac. However, I do think that GM’s success at gaining about 50% of the market was due to having three mid range makes that did sell fairly well. That, and Chrysler’s difficulties with maintaining quality when their sales picked up. As time goes on, each division gains a customer base that keeps GM on top for some time.
What I do recall reading is that both Buick and Pontiac were considered conservative cars (bankers cars) in the early to mid 50’s. I think Buick took sales away from Pontiac in 1955 for whatever reason. Buick was far too successful for their own good in 1955. Clearly Pontiac is changing its image by the end of the 50’s and turns itself into a performance make by the early 60’s. Buick continues as GM’s most conservative make.
Amazing how things can change, from the somewhat moribund ’57 to the me-too ’58 to this masterpiece for ’59. I even like the doubled fins, though they’re obviously over the top.
The photos have me thinking that the Pontiac might wear the flat-top roof best of all the ’59 offerings.
Paul: nice write-up! Thanks for the background on Kaufman and Fitzpatrick. Lots of their art over on plan59.com.
Something tells me the disc brakes aren’t the only upgrade on this car…the engine sports an alternator.
I have very fond memories of Pontiacs from this era. About the time I started driving (legally) my grandmother bought a 1959 Star Chief four door sedan, in the same pale gold as the feature car. To someone whose previous experience was in six cylinder Fords and Plymouths, driving the Pontiac was like piloting a rocket ship. I didn’t get to drive this Pontiac as often as I wanted, probably because the first time I took my grandmother for a ride in her car I got us sideways while taking off from a stop. Ah, torque and a sixteen year old male, a match made in heaven.
After a couple of years the ’59 Pontiac was replaced with a 1963 Catalina as the rust finally made the Chief too unsafe to drive. The ’63 was probably a better car but it just didn’t have the magic of its predecessor. If I could go back in time my grandmother’s Star Chief is one of the cars I would like to experience once more, just to see what it was like.
I remeber reading in Pontiac history articles from old buff books that pre-Bunkie, they were the “little old lady” brand.
It’s got six fins if you count the skegs like I do!
Are those holes in the back of the fins where backup lights would have gone?
Yes, the backup lights are in the “cat’s face” at the back of the fins.
Love the car, that fabulous ’59-’60 GM wraparound windshield, Wide-Track, the Fitz and Van ads, and Paul’s writing! Despite the somewhat odd rear end treatment, I prefer the Pontiac over the other GM cars in 1959.
On our first full day in southern California on a trip there back in 2005, here is what we saw on the Pacific Coast Highway in Seal Beach.
FWIW, Pontiac sold just 600 1959’s with the air suspension–plus more than you ever wanted to know about Detroit walking away from these (Oct. 1959 article):
I love the head-on shot. Whenever I see the Kaufman & Fitzpatrick ad images of these cars, I always get the idea that the width has been subject to a certain amount of artistic license, but if so, it’s really gilding the lily. The Pontiac’s front tread (63.7 inches) is wider than the overall width of some popular European and Japanese cars of the ’60s and ’70s.
Beautiful , just beautiful ! .
” So what was it? Styling, engineering, or great ads? How about the near-perfect combination of both ”
? both ? by my count that’s three , I blame my Public School education =8-) .
You got me there… I did say it was only “near-perfect” 🙂
I’m just funnin’ ya Paul =8-) .
This car and the Pontiac brochures remind me of the ’58 Bulgemobiles, a great National Lampoon Parody from the early ’70s. The cars were wider than Nebraska on the inside, and the people sitting in them looked so tiny.
Now that most modern cars are 4 doors, classic 4 door cars seem to fit in just fine. They were shunned back in the day when 2 doors were cool, 4 doors not. This beauty is a great example of how a car such as this, with just a little brake/tire upgrades such as this car has received is still a great car to drive daily at least when the weather is good. Great example of GM’s space race futuristic late ’50’s styling. If your going to burn a lot of gas, this is the machine that makes it worth it!
You are absolutely correct on the 2door vs 4door. I own a 59 Catalina 2 door HT I bought back in 1991. When I bought my car I thought I`d be nice to have a parts car. I put out some feelers for a 59 Pontiac parts car and received a reply from a fellow with a pretty decent Vista roof 4door hardtop, (Colorado car 50,000 miles, original paint, what would be a survivor today) but Geez, he wanted $1200 for it. I offered him $300 which didn’t take, but that fall he lost his storage and called me to come and get it. I gave him $300 for it, brought it home, fixed a few minor issues and drove it for a few weeks. Now other than the paint being thin , it looked as good as the car in this story, but at the time I didn’t care, it was a 4 door. I parked it in my back yard and took off the parts I needed as I restored my 2DR HT. 25 years later it`s still sitting there in my back yard, now buried to the rockers, floors rusted out , stripped , wrecked & completely destroyed. Now that I`m older I look at it every day, feeling pretty stupid that I destroyed what was a beautiful very useable car just because it was a 4 door. Funny how things change, I would be proud to own & drive that 4 door today.
GM was all over the road styling wise in 59. I absolutely LOVE the 59 Buick, am neutral on the Pontiac, although the ads really make it look appealing. The 59 Caddy just looked silly to me, the Olds was just fugly, and the Chevy is about on par with the Pontiac in my world, but at least they made the El Camino.
I grew up with a flat top 59 Buick Invicta. It ran like a champ, even when north of 100,000 miles, but those frameless windows rattled like crazy. The brakes were awful, and so was the Dynaflow, but still I loved the car. Sadly my parents sold it about a year short of me becoming old enough to legally drive it.
Pontiac could promote plushness & performance–and then turn right around and plug the thrift angle with that economy-tuned 389 and low axle ratio–that 21.7 mpg for the coast-to-coast trip seems pretty respectable, no matter what speeds/routes they chose (The ’59 looks notably less w-i-d-e in the photos than in the paintings, of course):
That really is a great millage for a full size car with a big block V8. I remember Tom McCall’s road tests from Mechanix Illistrated. My school library had old issues. I can’t really picture Uncle Tom driving cross country at 40MPH. I wonder if that included stops. I would guess the mileage would be better in the fifties to prevent engine lugging. I wonder if he just sold the right to put his name on a Pontiac test.
That’s an average speed, which strongly implies that it took place at somewhat higher road speeds (in the legal 55-65 mph range, probably) and includes periodic bathroom breaks and the odd 20 minutes to wolf down a drive-in hamburger.
If you are cruising at 50 MPH, you will average about 40. Fuel consumption would have been best at about 45 to 50. The hydramatic would have most of the engine’s torque by pass the fluid coupling (assuming this is the 4 speed hydramatic). Once I cruised at 50 MPH with my 71 Riviera and averaged 16 MPG.
We had a ’59 Catalina when I was a kid. I recall that the name “PONTIAC” was spelled out in block letters across the lower part of the dashboard, with the ‘P’ and the ‘C’ hiding pop-out ashtrays. As a 10-year-old, one of my favorite pranks was to swap the two so that it read ‘CONTIAP’. Ah, the memories…
Awesome looking car! I’ve always preferred the 1959 Pontiac than the 1960 Pontiac. 🙂
edited front view
So, I’m going to a funeral in Riverside, Ca. yesterday and saw the twin of this car just sitting in someone’s driveway, same color even .
Unrestored, decent shape looked like to me .
Here is a fascinating 1959 Parisienne. The most interesting thing is the engine.
Nice! I forgot these came with an I6.
I love how these old cars with the smaller engines had so much unused space under the hood that you could stand inside the engine compartment with your feet on the ground, as you can see in the video at 5:40.
I am betting that any driver or passenger taller than about six foot one, would be brushing against the headliner in the 1959 GMs. I think these had the same flattop roof as the Cadillac. Video commentary just confirmed that.
Very handsome car. Thanks
When I worked for a defense contractor, we were taught to slap the “open” and “locked” magnets on the safe doors at an angle, so the eye went to and the brain registered the irregularity. The extra-wideness in these Pontiac ads does the same thing.
Ironically, Pontiac was never more differentiated from Chevrolet than when it met the Great Spirit. It’s too bad GM didn’t move Cadillac up market enough to give BOP more room as foreign competition forced Chevrolet quality upward. Cadillac sales were too high in the good years of the 70’s, and they didn’t expect the huge growth in the coastal upper and upper middle class after ’82 and the status-marking that followed.
Turn signal setup is from a truck outfits like Western Star and Kenworth still use that switch non self cancelling.
When I got my draft notice in 1964 for an “all expense paid trip to SE Asia”, I was driving a 1959 Pontiac Bonneville with the multi color interior and all white outside. I had to sell the car as my Dad didn’t want to hold it for me in case I didn’t come back alive. I sold it for $1200. It was in beautiful condition. I sure miss that car.
Would it be fair to say that the 1960 Ford Fairlane took the rear of this ’59 Pontiac as inspiration for its own back end? What my eye caught was the image on the back of that jacket in the trunk. The taillights looked cribbed, or at least inspirational for the Ford to me.
I was thinking the ’59 Pontiac and the ’62 Mercury rears have some similarity:
Nice to re-read this one, Paul. We’re all used to cars now where the tread is wide enough to fill out the wheel wells, and non-Pontiacs of the era all look (to my 2021 eye) to ave too-small wheels, too far inset.
I understand about the vogue for small wheel sizes—when a l-o-w car is the goal—but if wider track had actual driving benefits, why weren’t all Detroit cars like that already—-was there some material savings via a less-wide rear axle carrier, etc.?