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By Brian Earnest
If a group of curious teenagers would have had just have 15 measly dollars balled up somewhere in their pockets on that fateful day back in 1976, Harold Cary probably wouldn’t still have his beautiful 1955 Pontiac Star Chief convertible.
By the time the group of teens stopped at Cary’s Mason City, Iowa, home, he had enjoyed 15 years of happy times with his Pontiac, but he just couldn’t envision keeping it for ever. “It was sitting outside of our house, and one day a group of three or four kids were driving by, and they stopped and wanted to buy it,” Carey recalls. “They wanted to hot rod it, I guess.
“They offered me 35 bucks for it, but I wanted 50. I suppose at the time the car wasn’t all that special … But I decided to keep it.”
Three years later, Cary’s affections toward the car warmed up again and he began putting together plans for a restoration that was eventually brought the ragtop back to drop-dead gorgeous condition. And nobody bothers to stop and ask if they can get the car away from him cheap these days, either. Carey is still frequently driving his 1955 convertible, and the black-and-white 1955 Safari wagon that it shares garage space with, and after owning the two cars for a combined 64 years, he isn’t in a hurry to part with either of them.
“I’ve had people ask me what I’m gonna do with ’em when I kick off,” Cary says with a chuckle. “I tell them I’m going to be buried in them.”
But Cary wasn’t considering traveling to the Great Beyond, or anywhere else for the matter, in a shiny red and white convertible back when he was a poor college student back in ’61. “I was going to junior college and working part time at a grocery store, and my dad worked at a Pontiac garage and he knew I needed a car,” Cary remembers. “One day. One day I dropped into the store and a salesman handed me keys and said, ‘Drive it home and tell me what you think if it.’ Well, it was real nice. It drove straight as an arrow down the road. It was beautiful. By the time I got home I knew I wanted it.
“I don’t remember the exact mileage, but I’d say it was approaching 100,000 or better. The guy bought it new here in town and was a body man at a Pontiac garage. He bought it new in May of ’55, and traded it in May of ’58 on another Pontiac convertible. Then another guy here bought it and he traded it back in in ’61. That’s when I got it.”
“It was a total surprise, but I came up with the money out of my pocket. A got a one-year load, and it was quite expensive back then — $595!
Actually, $595, doesn’t seem that bad for a six-year-old convertible that carried a $2,691 base price tag when it was new. The Star Chiefs and all the other Pontiacs were boldly restyled for 1955, and their bold, wide, twin chrome stripes that run down the front of the hood make the ’55-’56 Pontiacs among the most instantly recognizable cars of the ’50s. Pontiac called them “Silver Streaks,” and the name was fitting.
Two-tone paint jobs were all the rage and seemed to work nicely with new chrome treatment that angled across the doors and ran down the beltline to the tail lights. Heavy new grille assemblies departed radically from the previous year’s models, and trendy new wraparound glass gave drivers some serious windshield visibility.
Pontiac claimed its new cars have more than 100 new features, including the new overhead-valve “Strato-Streak” V-8. The 287-cid, 180-hp (173 with the synchromesh transmission) was the same in all of Pontiac’s offerings for the model year, and it was a significant step up from the outdated L-head design it replaced.
The Star Chief series was one step up from the Chieftain in Pontiac’s two-series hierarchy. The Star Chief line also included the redesigned Catalina but only the base Star Chief series offered a convertible. The two-door, six-passenger droptop was joined by a four-door sedan. A total of 19,762 convertibles were built for the model year, well below the 44,800 sedans and a far cry from the two-door Catalinas, which saw 99,929 assemblies and were the top-selling Pontiacs overall for the model year.
Cary admits there were plenty of times over the years when he could have used a couple extra doors in his Star Chief. “I drove it every day until I got married in ’63, and we took it on the honeymoon,” he said. “Then we had it as a family car for a while. We bought our two boys home from the hospital in it in ’64 and ’67.
“Oh, we drove it a lot. In the early ’60s we’d pile into it and go up to Minnesota Twins baseball games. Seemed like about every Sunday they’d have a doubleheader, and we’d head north, get baked up there and cruise home with the top down.
“Then my sister needed a car going to junior college, so I let her drive it for about a year and a half… In about 1968 we decided we needed another car, so we bought a new one and this one kind of went into storage for a while.”
Cary wasn’t sure what he was going to ultimately do with his beloved convertible, but he says he finally began getting some good ideas around 1979. “I joined the P.O.C.I. (Pontiac Oakland Club International) and they had a convention up in Minneapolis, and I got the bug to get it restored,” he said. “So I started from then on to pick up new old stock parts, bumpers, anything I needed.”
Cary went on to have the ’55 re-painted, the upholstery re-done and engine and transmission overhauled. “One year I’d have one thing re-done, the next year it would be something else,” he said. “I guess you never really get ‘done,’ but by about ’86 I was pretty well finished with it.”
Some of the more popular options on the 1955 Pontiacs included the “cutting edge” accessories of the day: power steering, brakes, seat, antenna and windows; fender skirts; remote control outside mirrors; underseat heater and defroster; Autronic Eye; illuminated hood ornament; fog lamps, rear seat speakers; padded dashboard; and dual-range four-speed Hydra-Matic. Cary says he is still friends with the car’s original owner, and occasionally reminds him that he “went cheap” when he originally outfitted the convertible.
“It don’t have any power!” he laughs. “It’s got the spotlight. It’s got the padded dash, and it’s got those bumper guards in back. It’s got the four-barrel carburetor, and of course radio and heater, but it doesn’t have any of the major power things, which would have been nice … I guess I like the way it is, but every now and then I see the guy, he’s in the car club with me, and I give him heck for not putting more stuff in it.”
Cary figures he puts between 600 and 900 miles a year on his convertible, and alternates driving it with his ’55 Safari. “I think I’ve had it to five Pontiac conventions, and I’ve had it in points judging once and it took a second,” he said. “In AACA I’ve taken a couple of second juniors… It’s hard to get up to that next step when you drive it a lot.”
For as much as he has enjoyed having his convertible waiting for him in the garage for most of the last five decades, even Cary is a little surprised the marriage between man and machine has lasted this long. “Nope, I never would have thought I’d still have it,” he said. “Back then, it was just another car to drive, and I wasn’t really into old cars back then.
“I guess you could say I hate to get rid of things.”