The beach is a great destination for contemplating life. Many a pensive mind has gotten clear there and resolved to make a life change. The 1956 Pontiac, though a proud car, never-the-less decided to make a major life change. I can’t say if this epiphany happened on a beach at sundown, but one would be hard pressed to find a better setting for it.
The Pontiac was born in 1926, the offspring of Chevrolet and Oakland divisions of GM. A sizable price gap existed between Oakland and Chevrolet, which an Oakland “companion make” was thought could bridge. The Pontiac was similar size and shared many parts with the Chevrolet, but had a six cylinder engine instead of a four and a few other improved features. The new car was a massive success, so much so that the Pontiac laid his progenitor Oakland to rest in 1931 and struck out in the world on his own.
The Pontiac lived a fruitful life, primarily as a value proposition. A careful buyer could get a significant functional and visual upgrade over a Chevy for not a whole lot more money. Many folks felt it was a great trade off if one could swing the extra cash. In 1935, the Pontiac got bolder and staked his place in the family hierarchy with a distinctive visual trademark: the Silver Streak, which was a chrome waterfall running from the cowl down the hood and cascading into the grille.
In 1952, the Pontiac suffered a tragic loss in the family, when his caretaker, G.M. Arnold Lenz, died in a collision with a train (his wife and two daughters were also in the car, the daughters survived but sadly left orphans). Lenz had been spearheading the division’s work on a new OHV V8 which was originally supposed to be released in the Pontiac for 1953. Some accounts say it was Lenz’s death that delayed the engine, others that Buick and Oldsmobile prevailed on GM to delay it to keep Pontiac from encroaching too quickly on their markets. Either way or both, the Pontiac didn’t get his V8 until the 55 model year.
1955 saw a brand new A body shared by the Chevy and the Pontiac. As part of the value proposition, it had its own styling distinct from Chevrolet, a longer wheelbase and two Silver Streaks. The new V8 was initially a 287c.i. job good for 173-200hp. but would be used in various displacements and versions through 1981. Though the Pontiac in 1955 was the most popular in sales ever up to that point, he was never as loved as Chevy’s Hot Ones. Chevy not only sold over three times as many cars, but the 55 Chevy became a cultural phenomenon then and remains one of the iconic cars of postwar America.
When 1956 rolled around, the Pontiac appeared with only detail changes and a grille arguably even less attractive than in 1955. Sales also dropped to one fourth of Chevy’s still iconic 56 model. The Pontiac knew he remained as always a good value, with his longer wheelbase and V8s more powerful than Chevy’s standard in every model. Why didn’t more people recognize that?
It was at this time that the Pontiac had his moment of existential questioning. Whether it happened on a beach, who’s to say, but he came away determined to make a change. He had a great new caretaker and partner in this quest, Mr. Semon “Bunkie” Knudsen. Mr. Knudsen famously recognized that you can sell a young man’s car to an old man, but you can’t sell an old man’s car to a young man. The quest was to expand the Pontiac’s appeal and market by giving him a more youthful image, with new styling and increased emphasis on performance.
The first step was to immediately drop the Silver Streaks already planned for 1957. The Pontiac asked, “Are you sure? That’s my trademark?” Mr. Knudsen replied “Trust me. Those suspenders are old fashioned. We’re getting you new duds ASAP”. And new duds he got. He also got last minute changes to the side trim and a new midyear model: a Bonneville convertible with up to 310 fuel injected horsepower. In 1958 he had perhaps the most attractive of GM’s new bodies. 1959 was the start of the Wide Track and split grille eras. And we all know where the Pontiac went in the 60’s: a golden era of sales growth, one of the most memorable caretakers he ever had, and some “great ones” that are now some of the best remembered cars of the time.
Sometimes the key to success is to recognize at the right moment that you need to make a big change. If the Pontiac hadn’t changed direction in 1956, maybe some of the most memorable cars of the 60’s wouldn’t have had arrowheads on them.
Postscript: We were on a short stay in Galveston, TX last fall when I ran across this big Chief. If you’ve never been there, Galveston is an interesting place with a lot of history. It’s the only beach town I’ve been to that has a main road (Seawall Blvd.) running between the beach and the buildings. As such, it may be one of the only sizable beach towns in which you can find a gas station with a direct beach view, as well as a supermarket parking lot, strip centers, etc. It does have a few large hotels/resorts, but in some ways Galveston is more like a regular city that happens to be on the beach rather than a beach resort. It doesn’t have crystal clear water or white sand beaches, but the sand is soft, the dropoffs are extremely gradual, wave sizes vary greatly by day, and if you come in the early fall the crowds are thin, the water is still very warm, and seaweed is minimal. That’s when we always try to make it.
I didn’t get much of the story on this Star Chief. The driver was friendly-ish but in a bit of a hurry. He allowed a few pics including in the interior, but quickly left. The front license plate suggests it’s in the hands of a dealer, while the condition gives the impression of being somebody’s daily or at least semi-daily driver. It’s great to see the Pontiac still kicking after so many years!
photographed in Galveston, TX on October 6, 2020