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Story and photos by Brian Earnest
Just six years into its life, the beautiful white and red 1957 Pontiac Bonneville convertible seemed headed for a nomadic existence. Surely, somebody would want to hang onto such an attractive, well-appointed droptop. It was an undeniable beautiful car, plush and comfortable, with a big, powerful engine — and it was a convertible!
But for some reason, the unusual first-year Pontiac — which would eventually become very collectible and valuable — had gone through three owners in six years and was looking for a fourth. That’s when Chuck Richardson came into the story. And that’s where the shuffling of the car’s title stopped.
“I bought it right here in Spring Green (Wis.), at Richardson Spring Green — that was my dad,” said Richardson. “It came in as a trade at Christmas of ’62 and came on trade for another ’57 Pontiac — a black and white Star Chief. I put down $600 for an even trade.”
Now, almost 48 years later, Richardson is still driving the rare Bonneville — rare because it was one of only 630 built for 1957. And the cars were unique, regardless of their production numbers, because they featured the “new” mechanical fuel-injection unit on a 347-cubic-inch V-8. Such cars are highly collectible these days, and prices often climb into six figures when the cars cross auction blocks.
Collector values and investments in his future and were the last things on Richardson’s mind when he swapped Pontiacs back in the winter of ’62, however. “It kind of fell into my lap,” he admits. “I was only 18 years old at the time and going to [college]. There was just something about it. I liked it. I don’t know why.
“The injection, I didn’t think it was all that big a deal. I just didn’t know that much about it. I just liked it because it was a red and white convertible.”
There was an awful lot to like about the Bonneville model when it was introduced to the public in December of 1956. Pontiac was determined to fire up its image and new company head honcho “Bunkie” Knudson was determined to spring some exciting new cars on the American buying public. The Bonneville was one of the first of those offerings, and it was a beauty.
The fancy new Pontiac tipped the scales at a hefty 4,285 lbs. and was actually included as a model in the Star Chief series – the top level on Pontiac’s menu for 1957. The 630 examples were reportedly released only one-to-a-dealer.
The Bonnevilles came only as a two-door ragtop and carried a base price of about $5,800 — a small fortune in 1957. For that type of investment, Pontiac expected buyers to get a lot of “wow” for their money, and the Bonneville delivered.
The cutting-edge Rochester fuel-injection unit helped wring out about 310 hp from the 347 V-8. Not only were the Bonnevilles big, classy and fun to drive — they could really go! At the time, Pontiac claimed they were the fastest cars the company had ever built.
The cars shifted through a three-speed Hydra-Matic and featured four-wheel hydraulic drum brakes and independent front suspension.
The car’s standard wide-whitewall tires rode on a 124-inch wheelbase the Bonneville shared with the Star Chief. The list of standard equipment was impressive, as it should have been for a car with such a beefy price tag: power steering, power brakes, power eight-way seat, Wonderbar radio, leather interior, Hydra-Matic transmission and fancy wheel covers.
“Mine has about every option … Air conditioning is about the only thing it doesn’t have,” said Richardson. “The only thing I added was the lighted fender ornaments, which I was surprised it didn’t have because it had everything else.”
All of the Bonnevilles were painted white (Kenya Ivory) with either a blue or red spear that ran from the front wheel all the way to the tail lamps. Interiors were white with matching red or blue trim.
Fitting their luxury car price tag, the Bonnevilles were heavily chromed and decorated. The ornate grille work was shared with other Pontiacs and was set off by two large Pontiac “dagmars.” The prominent headlamps were trimmed in chrome and of a hooded design. Seven distinctive, louver-like chrome strips were mounted just behind the front wheels of Bonnevilles.
At the rear, wonderfully sculpted fins were fitted with a chrome-drenched tail-lamp assembly. The thick rear bumper included prominent exhaust ports at the corners. “Fuel Injection” lettering was found on Bonnevilles just above the lock on the rear deck lid, just between two horizontal chrome bars that resemble fancy little towel racks, and again over both front wheel openings.
Of course, with a car named after the famed salt flats, Pontiac needed the car to turn heads with its performance, and the Bonneville didn’t disappoint. Horsepower estimates vary, but it is generally conceded the cars kicked out 310 to 315 ponies. Their go-fast reputation got a nice boost when Bonnevilles began making noise on NASCAR tracks.
Richardson’s car still has its original fuel-injection unit, but for many years he drove the car using a conventional carburetor setup. “The injection, I think they were having trouble getting it to run correctly. I think that’s one reason the guy traded it in. He wanted a go-to-work car with a carburetor, so he was willing to kind of trade down,” said Richardson.
Richard drove the car for years, then finally parked it out behind his dad’s shop with the idea of eventually restoring it. “Yeah, it sat outside, which is probably why the floor went bad in it,��� he said. “I parked it and it sat for quite a few years. Then I decided, ‘Well, I’ve got to sell it or restore it.’ I’m glad I restored it.”
The car’s first makeover effort came around 1980, when it got, among other things, a new coat of paint. Roughly 18 years later, it received some more involved restoration work. At that point, Richardson got the opportunity to make it a factory-correct fuel-injected car again.
“I drove it with a four-barrel on it until about ’98, and then it went out to Casper, Wyo., to be restored,” Richardson said. “The guy who had the shop specializes in ’57, ’58, ’59 Pontiacs, he had a ’58 fuel-injected car, plus there was a car just like [mine] out there. So he knew something about injection and I wanted to put the injection back on … I kept the unit and it’s the one that’s on the car.”
At that point, Richardson found out that the engine he had been running all those years was actually a 1958 model — not the car’s original 1957 mill. “My dad’s mechanics did it, and I just assume they had a ’58 motor laying around, and just decided it was easier to do it that way,” he said. “At the time, I guess they thought it was easier to take the whole unit than just take the injection off it.
“I knew the carburetor was a ’58, but didn’t realize they [swapped] everything until I got to Casper.”
With a rebuilt 1957 motor installed and his de-bugged, authentic injection unit, Richardson’s car ran better than ever after the restoration. “Once I got the injection back on, oh yeah, there was a big difference,” he said. “The four-barrel was pretty tired, plus the motor was probably a little tired, too. Now, I think it’s got the 300-some-horse it’s supposed to have.”
During its frame-off restoration, the car also got a new leather interior, new door panels, a new padded dash and some updates to its shiny pieces. The exterior paint, though, was still looking good. “It was painted about 30 years ago and was still too good to redo it. So it’s got old paint on it, but it’s still decent.”
These days, Richardson is a fixture at just about every car show within easy driving distance of his Fitchburg, Wis., home. He says the car is seen so often at shows that it doesn’t usually get much of a star treatment. When the car heads to new territory, however, it gets the kind of attention appropriately reserved for truly rare survivors. “I drive it a lot,” he said. “I just rolled 80,000 [miles] this summer, and I go to a lot of shows… If I go to a new place, or where people are really in the know, it gets a lot of attention,” Richardson said. “One of the better comments I got was from a guy who walked up and said, ‘There’s a car you only see in magazines!’”
Richardson chuckles at the idea that he and his Pontiac will be closing in on 50 years together in a couple of years. Such a lengthy marriage seemed pretty unlikely back at Christmas time in 1962.
“I have a tendency to keep things, I guess,” he said. “I have a ’65 Grand Prix that I’ve had for 30-some years. I just don’t get rid of ’em.”
Perhaps the closest he ever came to parting with the car came years ago when a stranger was flashing wads of money and was not ready to take “no” for an answer. “The guy followed me home and had $15,000 in cash,” Richardson laughed. “That was a lot of money. It was very tempting. I held the money in my hand for a while, but I decided to keep it.
“It’s something special: ‘A’ because of what a unique car it is. And because I bought it from my dad. That’s always going to be neat.”
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