Pontiac's forgotten '57 - Old Cars Weekly

Pontiac's forgotten '57

The one-year-only Pontiac Transcontinental Safari wagon
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By Bill Rothermel, SAH

57 Pontiac Starchief Safari 4 dr1

1957 was an important year for the Pontiac Motor Division of General Motors. Semon E. “Bunkie” Knudsen arrived in July 1956, officially becoming general manager and taking charge of the floundering brand. At age 43, he was the youngest person to ever serve as a GM divisional manager. It was Knudsen who claimed the trademark “Silver Streaks,” which had adorned Pontiacs since 1935, looked like suspenders holding up a pair of trousers. It was he who said, “You can sell an old man a young man’s car, but you can’t sell a young man an old man’s car.” Turns out, he was right.

In a last-minute rush, literally just before the 1957 models came to market, Knudsen unceremoniously ordered the Silver Streaks removed from Pontiacs before production started. And, thus, he set about transforming Pontiac’s staid and stodgy reputation. From that point on, the Pontiac Motor Division of GM became its sportiest — a reputation it carried forth until its demise in 2010. The action also let everyone know just who was in charge of forging the new image and the direction in which Pontiac was headed.

A rare surviving Transcontinental Safari in red with a white top from the Old Cars archive.

A rare surviving Transcontinental Safari in red with a white top from the Old Cars archive.

Pontiac’s show car trio

Three cars were announced by Pontiac Sales Manager Frank Bridge to debut at the National Automobile show in New York on Jan. 11, 1957: the La Parisienne four-door, the Star Chief Custom Bonneville convertible and the Star Chief Custom Safari four-door station wagon, later dubbed Star Chief Custom Transcontinental Safari. The La Parisienne was a Star Chief Custom four-door hardtop specially finished in Coral Mist and Pearl White with an asymmetric interior pattern. La Parisienne never entered production, though the Parisienne name was used on Canadian Pontiacs beginning in 1958 and on a Chevrolet Caprice rebadged as a Pontiac for the U.S. market in the 1980s. The Bonneville and the Transcontinental Safari became mid-year entries for the newly revitalized GM brand.

Building a performance rep

In 1957, Pontiac’s Strato-Streak V-8 engines were enlarged to 347 cubic inches across the board. A total of eight drivetrain setups were offered with power ranging from a 227-hp economy version to 317 hp in a “Tri-Power” triple-carbureted racing engine announced in December 1956. Star Chief Custom Safaris included a 270-hp four-barrel version as standard equipment. To illustrate the change in Pontiac’s image, the least powerful engine in 1957 had 100 hp more than that of its most powerful engine just three years earlier!

An ad pictured the Transcontinental Safari four-door station wagon, but oddly, it didn’t identify it.

An ad pictured the Transcontinental Safari four-door station wagon, but oddly, it didn’t identify it.

“The Pontiac is the fastest-accelerating Detroit family car that Motor Trend has tested yet this year, which surprised us,” said the enthusiast magazine. Uncle Tom McCahill was equally enthusiastic about the new Pontiac in Mechanix
Illustrated
.

The increased displacement of the Pontiac V-8 was accomplished by lengthening the stroke from 3-1/4 to 3-9/16 in. and all main bearings were enlarged 1/8 in. to 2.62 in., the block casting was stronger and bearing caps heavier, oil rings improved and the valve guides vented. In NASCAR guise, solid lifters were fitted along with a 10:1 compression and heavy-duty components. Pontiacs set new class marks for acceleration in the Standing and Flying Miles at Daytona Beach and won the 160-mile Grand National race on the beach stock car course with an average speed of 101.6mph — 11 mph faster than the previous record.

All 1957 Pontiacs received a stylish facelift of a three-year old bodyshell. Pontiac proudly called the styling “Star Flight” which was highlighted by missile-like side trim, flatter tailfins, extended back fenders with V-shaped tips, a 1.6-in. lower hood line, new front and rear bumpers increasing length by 1.2 in., new taillamps and 14-in. wheels that gave the car a 1/2-in. lower overall height.

The new 1957 Bonneville convertible was Pontiac’s halo car as its top-of-the-line and most expensive offering. Included in the $5782 Bonneville price was virtually every accessory Pontiac offered, but air conditioning remained available at extra cost. Showcased in the Bonneville was standard Rochester fuel injection similar to that offered by Chevrolet. While Chevrolet claimed to be the first U.S. manufacturer to offer one horsepower per cubic inch with its solid-lifter 283-cid V-8 with fuel injection, Pontiac was initially reluctant to promote the horsepower of its V-8 stating that it had “in excess of 300 horsepower.” It turns out the reluctance was due to the “fuelie” being rated at 310 hp, less than the one-horsepower-per-cubic-inch rating of Chevrolet. Pontiac fuel injection also offered less horsepower than its own triple-carbureted engine.

The 1957 Bonneville was released as a limited-edition model “for dealer use only.” Just 630 Bonnevilles were built for 1957 — one per dealer. The Bonneville returned for 1958 with a hardtop coupe added to the convertible offering.

The Transcontinental Safari station wagon was a late addition to the line and didn’t appear in the initial 1957 Pontiac brochure. This later Pontiac document pictured the car; note the headline labels it the Star Chief Custom Safari four-door and at the bottom, its further identified as the “Transcontinental.”

The Transcontinental Safari station wagon was a late addition to the line and didn’t appear in the initial 1957 Pontiac brochure. This later Pontiac document pictured the car; note the headline labels it the Star Chief Custom Safari four-door and at the bottom, its further identified as the “Transcontinental.”

Top model gets lost in Pontiac’s blitz

With all of the fuss over the limited-production Bonneville and the Star Chief Custom Safari two-door sport wagon (Pontiac’s counterpart to Chevrolet’s Nomad sport wagon), the Transcontinental Safari — which was actually Pontiac’s top wagon — took second stage. Today, the Transcontinental Safari four-door wagon is virtually unheard of and little known by collectors. The new wagon was given GM Style Number 2762SDF and priced at $3636. It was an upmarket version of the Super Chief and Chieftain four-door wagons and also Pontiac’s priciest station wagon: $155 more than the Star Chief Custom Safari two-door wagon.

Outside, the Transcontinental Safari was distinguished by a modified side spear containing a fourth chrome trim star; special paint; a standard roof rack; and an anodized aluminum trim panel below the side spear. The Transcontinental Safari’s anodized aluminum panel was similar to that found on the high-line Bonneville convertible.

The Transcontinental Safari’s interior was pure luxury with genuine leather seats including a 70-30 front seat; the seat back on the passenger side was much wider and available with a headrest. The rear seat folded flat and the cargo area was carpeted to match the interior, which was finished with bright metal cargo slats. The Transcontinental Safari was announced just a few months after production of the rest of the 1957 Pontiac line began and didn’t appear in early brochures, so one can only conjecture why sales were so few. Just 1894 Transcontinental Safaris produced, making it almost as rare as the Star Chief Custom Safari two-door wagon with just 1292 units built.

All but four of the 3186 Star Chief Custom Safaris (the two-door sport wagon and the Transcontinental) were built with the optional Strato-Flight Hydra-Matic automatic transmission. Safaris equipped with dual exhaust used simulated bumper outlets with the exhaust redirected to prevent fumes from entering the passenger compartment. Neither Star Chief Custom Safari returned for the 1958 model year. The Transcontinental quickly became Pontiac’s “forgotten ’57” in what was otherwise a pivotal year for the GM division.

Perhaps best summarized in the book “Pontiac Since 1945” by Richard L. Busenkell, “Nineteen fifty-seven can be pinpointed as the year in which Pontiac’s image truly did change. After two-years of dramatic improvement, the firebreathing ’57 models, aided by the glamorous Bonneville, succeeded in transforming the public’s perception of Pontiac. No longer would auto magazine and car buffs overlook Pontiac when discussing Detroit’s hottest cars. Never again would anyone be surprised when a Pontiac turned in a sizzling performance. Pontiac was well on its way to becoming something unthinkable a few short years before: the yardstick by which the performance of every other American sedan was measured.”

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