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Story and photos by Brian Earnest
For such a lovely, conservative, seemingly benign family car, Paul Craddock’s 1958 Pontiac Chieftain sedan sure seems to have stirred up more than its share of arguments and discord over the years.
The car was a bone of contention between the original owner and his spouse very early in its life, and 52 years later, Craddock still finds himself occasionally sparring with observers who don’t quite believe the car’s amazing originality.
But it really doesn’t take much examination to realize this Chieftain is not your ordinary 1950s hobby car. With a paltry 2,549 miles on its odometer, the Starmist Silver sedan is certainly one of the lowest-mileage 1950s Pontiacs in the country, and it may well be the most authentic Chieftain in existence.
Aside from a set of plug wires and new tires that were mounted some time in the past five decades, Craddock’s car has all of its original equipment, in original condition. His only nod to non-originality is a pair of fender skirts over the back wheels, “but I can just snap those off whenever I want to.”
“The only problem I ever had was the gas tank was so rusty inside and outside, and nobody makes them. Well, there’s a place in Minnesota, you send the tank to them, they cut it open, sand blast the whole inside, and then they coat it and they put it back together, seal it and coat the outside. It’s guaranteed for 20 years, and it’s the original tank.”
Craddock doesn’t really blame people when they don’t quite believe the mileage total. He figures they’ll understand he’s not kidding when they actually get a look at the car.
“Most people don’t believe you. If you are talking to somebody and say, ‘Yeah, I got a ’58 Pontiac,’ you can talk about cars or something with them all day,” he said. “When you say, ‘I got a ’58 Pontiac with that many miles, they just say, ‘Oh yeah, right.’
“If the car is around, I tell them to just look at it.”
The soft-spoken Craddock, a resident of Friendship, Wis., still chuckles about the time a flashy, jet-setting gentleman rolled into the salvage yard he operated at the time and struck up a conversation with him about Pontiacs. “He had this nice-looking car and was wearing these nice-looking clothes and everything,” Craddock recalled. “He came in and was looking for something, and was telling me about how he went all over looking for specific parts for specific cars… We got to talking and I told him I had a Pontiac in the garage with 2,500 miles on it.
“And he said, ‘Yeah, and I’m God.’ I took him in the garage and he was just flabbergasted. He said ‘I’d give my right arm to take this to Pontiac Nationals.’”
The pristine Chieftain certainly seems to be enjoying much more appreciation these days than in did originally. But it was the rift that it started when it still smelled new that ultimately kept the car in such immaculate condition.
“The story I got was a farmer bought it brand new and when he brought it home, his wife flipped because he bought a new car,” Craddock said. “Every time he drove it, they got in a big argument, so he put it in a barn and covered it up and left it there. Then when the man and his wife both died, the kids sold it to a friend of mine at the estate auction…
“He had it probably 15, 18 years, but he only put 8 miles on it in all the time he had it. He had a 70 x 70 building, heated with carpeting in it, and he had all kinds of cars in it … And I went down there one time and was buying stuff from him because I had a salvage yard, and I said ‘If you ever want to sell this thing, I’d like a crack at it ‘…
“I never figured he’d sell it and I never figured I could afford it. Then, about 15 years went by, and he gave me a call and said he had a new Harley, a new Tahoe and something else and said he was getting rid of the Pontiac. He said, ‘Are you still interested?’ And I said ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘What do you want for it?’ I was scared to ask. He said, ‘Come down Sunday morning and we’ll go out to breakfast and talk about it.’ He lived down in Illinois. So I went down there and went out to breakfast. And he said, ‘A lot of people want that car, because of the low miles, but I know you’re not buying it for resale, so I’d rather see you get it.’ So he shot me a price and I said I’d take it.
“The time flies and I’m not even sure what year it was, but I’ve had it a good 12 years at least.”
Although they were handsome, freshly redesigned and generally well liked at the time, the 1958 Chieftains probably weren’t on many short lists of cars to keep and preserve when they were new. They were Pontiac’s bottom-tier offering, one step below the Star Chief and two rungs below the Bonneville. The new styling for the model year included a fancy honeycomb grille, new quad head and tail lights and concave rear fenders. Under the hood, the Chieftains came with a newly enlarged 370-cid V-8 that produced 240 hp with the synchromesh transmission or 270 with the Hydra-Matic.
The four-door sedans were among seven different body configurations available for the 1958 model year. The big four-doors were by far the most popular with 44,999 copies produced for the year. They carried a base price of $2,638 and tipped the scales at 3,815 lbs.
Cheiftains like Craddock’s represent the last of a breed. The 1958 model year was the end of the 10-year run for the nameplate. For 1959, the Chieftain was replaced by the Catalina in Pontiac showrooms.
These days, Craddock faces a conundrum that is familiar to anybody with a rare or exceptionally pristine car: How to enjoy the car without subjecting it to more wear and tear – and more miles on the odometer? What do you do with a 52-year-old vehicle so original that the jack and spare tire have never even been out of the trunk?
“Oh, I’ve driven it probably a half hour at the most — maybe 15 or 20 minutes. I don’t like to run it any more than I have to,” he said. “Yeah, I [have regrets] because it rides so nice. It’s great to drive. It rides like a big old boat.
“I just keep it clean, what else can you do with it? You can’t start changing stuff, you just try to keep it clean. I like to start it up once in a while, because the gas gets old. I start it up and let it run for a while. I don’t put a lot of gas it in.”
Craddock admits he has to fight the urge to fix up the few minor flaws that reveal the car’s unrestored condition. There are a few rub and wear marks on the doors and interior, and a few small signs of patina on the chrome and stainless. The engine has never been taken apart, and the engine bay has never been touched with anything more than a brush or damp cloth.
“There is wear on it. Under the tail light it has got a little bit of rust,” he said. “I’d like to put a continental kit on it, but the guys say ‘No, don’t do that.’ … I’d like to pull the engine out and clean it up, because I’d like to have a sharp-looking engine compartment, but everybody says don’t do that either.”
For as little as he actually gets to drive it, however, Craddock certainly wouldn’t trade his Chieftain for any other.
“I remember when he said, ‘OK, I’ll sell it to you,’ I just couldn’t believe it,” he said. “To this day I can hardly believe I got it.”