Car of the Week: 1957 Pontiac Chieftain

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By Brian Earnest

John Broughton didn’t know if he’d ever get around to buying an old car to play with. He’d never had a hobby car in his previous 73 years, but he always hoped that “someday” would come and he’d find the right car at the right time.

This spring, all the planets seemed to align perfectly and Broughton knew, without a doubt, from the moment he laid eyes on his 1957 Pontiac Chieftain that he had found the car he’d been waiting for.

“I had a ’57 Pontiac four-door before I went into the Army, and I had another one when I got out, so I was interested in getting another one,” said Broughton, a longtime resident of Illinois who now makes his home in Prescott Valley, Ariz. “Well, it turns out there was one for sale right here in town. I went and looked at it and, boy, I’m glad I did!”

Broughton found out about the car from a friend at his health club, but when he inquired about the car, the seller’s wife told him it was a 1975 Pontiac — not a ’57. “I had no interest in a ’75 Pontiac, but I got on my scooter and went over there just for the heck of it,” he said. “I could not believe my eyes when I pulled up and saw it was a ’57 Chieftain that looked like it had just pulled out of the factory. It was just beautiful, and it looked brand new. I couldn’t pass it up.”

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The seller was a retired Huntington Beach, Calif., police officer who had given the car a frame-off restoration back in the late 1990s before eventually relocating to Arizona. And as luck would have it, the buyer and seller had some things in common. “We were both in the Army… and as we talked ore, it turns we were Morse code interceptors in the US Army Security Agency and that we were both stationed at the same post, Rothwesten, outside Kassel, Germany. He was stationed there in 1964 and I had transferred from there in 1963,” Broughton said. When he applied for personalized license plates for his new machine, Broughton chose — just by happenstance — the same “57CHFTN” plates in Arizona that the previous owner had in California. “There were a lot of coincidences that made me think that it was meant to be that I found this car,” he added.

Broughton owned a ’57 Chieftain two-door hardtop for a few years before he joined the service in 1961, then bought a second used ’57 two-door hardtop when he returned from his hitch. “I’m guessing I got rid of it just because it got old and at that time cars got old and rusty, especially in those Midwest winters,” he noted. “I always liked the looks of them. They are a neat looking car, but not real garish. It’s got chrome on it, but it’s not over the top like some cars you see.”

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Even with their new “Star Flight” styling, the 1957 Chieftains never enjoyed the same love that the 1957 Chevrolets received. Of course, Pontiac also launched its prized Bonneville in mid-1957. Even though only 630 Bonnevilles were built for that first year, they still seemed to gather more attention that the handsome Chieftains.

Not that the Chieftains weren’t a commercial success, however. GM built more than 162,000 of them for 1957 in six body styles. Broughton’s car was one of 21,343 two-door sedans built that carried a base price of $2,463. They all carried new missile-shaped side trim, more prominent grille work, lower hoods, new horizontal tail lights, fender scripts and three stars on the rear fenders. Under the hood was a 347-cid V-8. A four-barrel and Tri-Power were both optional — the latter giving the Chieftain a more-than-respectable 290 hp.  Hydra-Matic transmission and dual exhaust were also optional. Other popular options included power steering, windows and brakes, eight-way power seat, air conditioning, padded dash, heater/defroster and custom wheel discs.

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Broughton’s car was pretty much a bare-bones example until it was restored by the  previous owner. He had the car fitted with period-correct power steering and brakes.  “It doesn’t have air conditioning, and no power windows,” Broughton said. “It’s pretty much just stock. The only thing that really doesn’t work right now are the windshield wipers. They work off a vacuum on the fuel pump, and the guy couldn’t find the right fuel pump for it so he put in a regular fuel pump without a vacuum [connection]. I’m going to try to get a correct fuel pump for it so I can have wipers if I ever get caught in the rain.”

The previous owner also painted the car a non-Pontiac color combination. The deep red with white trim looks great, however, and Broughton has no plans to change it. “It’s actually a Nissan color. It’s called Cherry Red Pearl with Glacier White Pearl. I like the colors and he’s got a whole bunch of trophies he won at shows. I may hit him up for those … He’s also got a binder with all the paperwork from restoration. He’s got it all still packed away in box from when he moved. I would like to have that. Hopefully I can get that binder from him.”

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The ground-up rebuild of the car also included powdercoating the frame, chassis components, rear axle and wheel wells. The interior of the Chieftain was originally black and white, but the previous owner had an upholstery shop re-do the interior in authentic Pontiac red and white.

Before Broughton can start on what he hopes will be a busy cruise schedule this summer, he’s getting a leak fixed in the transmission. So far, it’s the only thing about the Chieftain he isn’t thrilled with. “There is a cross member on the frame under the transmission, so you can’t just drop it. You’ve got to take the engine and transmission out to get at it,” Broughton said. “So I’m having that fixed. The [seller] took that cost off the price because he knew about it, so that’s OK.”

When he was searching for a car, Broughton checked out some hot rods and customs, but never found anything to his liking. Now he’s glad the previous owner of his Chieftain was also a fan of stock machines and didn’t do anything radical to his Pontiac. “It’s not hot-rodded up. He wanted to keep it stock, and for me that makes it easier to maintain. I don’t have to worry about getting custom parts that may not exist anymore.”

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The Chieftain had only 4,900 miles on it since its restoration when Broughton bought the car. It figures to get more exercise in the immediate future, as its new owner didn’t buy the Pontiac to have it simply sit in his driveway and look good. Broughton fondly remembers the many miles he traveled in his previous two 1957 Chieftains, and he’s looking forward to many more. The lovely Pontiac has given John and his wife, Mary, a vibrant new hobby they can enjoy together.

“It’s just nice to display it and meet a lot of nice people who are involved in old cars,” John said. “I just enjoy driving it around, and out here we get a lot of nice days, even in the wintertime, to drive them. It’s something neat that we can enjoy, and it didn’t break the bank. And especially with the weather in Arizona, it’s something that in 5, 6 or 10 years from now will still look like it does now if I take care of it.”

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