Room at the Top The 1954 Pontiac Star Chief and Class Consciousness …

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Room at the Top: The 1954 Star Chief and Class in America

For more than of its 80-year history, the Pontiac of General Motors has tried, varying degrees of success, to itself as the hotshot of the GM line-up, an advertising tagline proclaiming, We Excitement. Once upon a however, Pontiac was a stolid, rather dull family car claim to fame was that it was just above the lowest. To see Pontiac used to be before Knudsen went racing and DeLorean twisted the tail of the let s take a look at the 1954 Star Chief and Chieftain the boring Pontiacs.


Whoever said America was a society never heard of P. Sloan, and probably wouldn t liked it much if they When Sloan became of General Motors in the early he famously decreed that GM offer a car for every purse and

On the face of it, one might take as a straightforward commitment to providing a product line, but what s model really served to do was to the emerging class system of the production era. Those at the rungs of the socioeconomic ladder, the and the clerks, would buy a Chevrolet, GM s model. Those at the highest the new gentry of the industrial age, Cadillacs, which they or might not drive themselves; limousines with divider to separate passengers from were a regular part of the line-up well into the

In the middle, GM offered a host of makes of ascending size, and prestige. For the doctor, the lawyer, the president, there was Buick; for the engineer or senior manager, the white-collar employees, there was Below that, in the gap between and Chevrolet, was Pontiac.


Pontiac had not been part of the plan. It was the sole survivor of an mid-1920s plan to divide the hierarchy into even gradations by adding companion for each of the middle-class divisions.

At the GM s lower-middle-class division was Oakland, a independent automaker in which GM had a controlling interest in its early Oakland was based in Pontiac, and had originally been a spin-off of the Buggy Company, so its new companion was called Pontiac. In size and it was intended to fill the gap between and the cheaper Chevrolet.

Pontiac s 268 cu. in. cc) straight-eight dated back to the six used in lesser Pontiacs was from it in 1935. In a 1954 Chieftain, the eight made 122 hp (91 kW) and 222 (300 N-m) of torque. Chiefs got 127 hp (95 kW) and 234 lb-ft (316 thanks to a higher compression

The more powerful engine t necessarily the best choice its 7.7:1 compression ratio was by the standards of the time, it was at the limit of the flathead could support, and it to knock on hard throttle, with premium gasoline. economy was a bit under 14 mpg (17 L/100 km) in driving.

The first Pontiac in 1926. It was not a great deal than a Chevrolet, but it had a six-cylinder where the Chevy had a four. In the boom of the late 1920s, the s reasonable price tempted buyers who would otherwise bought a Chevy.

It proved successful and 500,000 had been by 1929.

The onset of the Depression hit of GM s pricier divisions hard and and Buick s companion makes, and Marquette, were dropped 1931. Oakland s sales precipitously, but its cheaper brother was in better shape, so GM management that Pontiac was the more of the two. In 1932 Pontiac a stand-alone marque.

Its sales handily and it settled into a sixth place in industry occasionally reaching as high as

Pontiac s survival was aided by a to increase its commonality with It now used the A-body shell of the stretched in both wheelbase and length through the use of longer side rails and unique fenders. Pontiac still had its own transmissions, and other hardware, but the body cut its production costs improved economies of scale.

its price remained the same, 15% more than a comparable its profitability increased commensurately.

is a 1954 Pontiac. The three on the rear fenders ordinarily mark it as a Star Chief, Chieftains wearing a Indian-head in this spot. This car s fenders and deck seem too to be an actual Star Chief, would have a noticeably tail, by a full 9 inches mm); we believe this is a Chieftain wearing pieces of Chief trim.

A 1954 Chieftain Eight was 202.7 (5,149 mm) long on a 122-inch wheelbase, weighing about pounds (1,765 kg) at the curb.


While Oldsmobile and each offered certain novelties automatic transmission, Carburetion Pontiac eschewed General manager Harry and chief engineer Ben Anibal reluctant even to offer although when they relented in 1948 it was ordered by than three-fourths of Pontiac Pontiac would remain conservative well into the of the 1950s.

By 1954, the cheapest the Chieftain Special Six two-door cost $1,968, $130 than a comparable Chevrolet Bel Chevy s most expensive series. If you stepped up to Deluxe in your Pontiac, which did in a ratio of more than 14 to the price gap rose to $234. If the was not quite posh enough, was also the top-of-the-line Star in DeLuxe or Custom trim, at $2,301.

The 1954 Pontiac had a dashboard not shared with the It has full instrumentation, reasonably in its presentation, something that was disappearing by this time in of cheaper warning lights. The seven-tube radio was a popular

What did you get for your extra Despite sharing the same as the Chevrolet, the Pontiac was noticeably Chieftains were 202.7 (5,149 mm) long on a 122-inch wheelbase, making them 6.2 (157 mm) longer and about 200 (90 kg) heavier than a contemporary Star Chiefs were inches long on a 124-inch adding an additional 70 pounds or so. All of the s extra length was aft of the rear so it had no great advantage in interior

Passenger space was within a of an inch of Chevy in most although the long-tailed Star at least offered a cavernous

This 1954 Pontiac is its rear fender skirts. skirts were technically (like most everything on the car), but very common. this car appears to have of the other pieces of the $27.30 Group of which they part, the owner presumably t like them; there are signs of mixing and matching the pieces from different

The Moon-style wheels are definitely not


In the 1950s, there was a general that moving up the model/price would get you improved performance, but were little if any faster Chevrolets. Buyers could either a six- or eight-cylinder both inline L-head dating back to the mid-1930s. The six was similar in size and output to the Stovebolt Six, which was of vintage.

Both made an 115 horsepower (86 kW) on manual transmission automatic Chevys got 125 hp (93 kW), automatic Pontiacs made do 118 hp (88 kW).

Pontiac s straight-eight, which was on Chieftains and standard on the Star wasn t a lot better, offering a 122 horsepower (91 kW), 127 hp (95 kW) on Star It was a smooth, reliable engine strong low-speed grunt, but it against the Pontiac s nearly heft. In May 1954, Motor clocked a 1954 Pontiac Chief from 0 to 60 mph (0 to 97 km/h) in seconds and on to an actual top speed of 93 mph (150 km/h), compared to seconds and 96 mph for a 1954 Chevrolet Bel Air

The only performance advantage the offered over the Chevrolet was Pontiac s four-speed Dual-Range was much more flexible Chevy s two-speed Powerglide, it was not as smooth.

In keeping with the of the time, the Pontiac was not any better than its plebeian brother; like heater, outside mirrors, back-up lights, and signals cost extra, as they did on a basic Chevrolet. Pontiacs that left the had Hydra-Matic, but it added $178 to the By 1954, both power and brakes were optional, as was air but you could order these on a as well. Pontiac did offer an comprehensive accessory list, from a radio and external sun visor to a prismatic traffic-light (a little mirror that let you see lights cut off by the windshield header), Eye automatic headlight dimmer, a refrigerator, and even a Remington electric razor.

These were relatively cheap although adding a full of what Pontiac advertising Tremendous Trifles could the total price of the car by more 25%.

The most gaudy, and fascinating of the 1954 Pontiac s optional accessories is this illuminated hood ornament. The image of Chief Pontiac this car in many places, so eye-catching (or eye-popping) as this The yellow plastic section up when the headlights are on.

In 1950s not even a cartoonish image of domination was complete if it didn t have wings, suggesting old Chief Pontiac is about to be into space, like the Laika, the Russians first cosmonaut. The Indian motif away rapidly after for which we all may be thankful.


Pontiac s advertising slogan at time was Dollar for dollar, you can t a Pontiac, and the Pontiac did have a reputation for quality, reliability, and value than Chevrolet. however, what you got for your dollars was the visual confirmation you had bought a bigger, more car signifying to the world that you afford a bigger, more car. When you could an additional $200 stretch that, you would graduate to an or a Buick, then eventually to a exactly as Sloan had planned.

The fly in the ointment of Sloan s meticulous hierarchy was that the same instincts it sought to instill in also infected its divisional None of them were to remain in their appointed each coveted the prestige of the above them and the volume of the below. In 1976, former engineer Jim Kaufeld, who was involved in the of the 1953-1954 Pontiacs, told Ken Gross of Special Interest that Pontiac intentionally, gleefully, stole customers not from Chevrolet but from and Buick.

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Perhaps it was only Chevrolet s top Bel Air model was cutting Pontiac s territory, as was Buick s Special.

By the mid-1950s, that competition was cutting sharply Pontiac s volume. Squeezed both sides, Pontiac fell from 418,619 in to 287,744 in 1954.

Pontiac s Silver Streaks were for the 1935 model year; Frank Hershey (head of the styling studio until and Virgil Exner (who his place) have taken for them. The streaks hadn t been applied to the rear from 1941 to 1948 were applied only to the They would be doubled on the models, running along side of the hood, causing to declare that the Pontiac like a fat man wearing suspenders. The Streaks were deleted for in 1957.


Pontiac survived this was partly attributable to the introduction of its V8 engine in 1955. Although and Cadillac had had modern, OHV V8s since Pontiac s management hadn t in any hurry to bring out one of their although they d been various designs for years. In Pontiac could have had a V8 by the model year, but its chief George Delaney, had asked for two years to perfect the design.

The new Strato-Streak V8 engine was similar in to the Chevy V8, although it had some differences, as well. It started off at 287 inches (4,706 cc), more than the old straight but it had 180 gross horsepower (134 a significant 53 hp (40 kW) improvement. An optional bumped that to an even 200 hp kW).

The extra power was enough to lop than five seconds off the mph (0-97 km/h) times and the Pontiac an honest 100-mph car.

The second factor in s survival was the installation in 1956 of

was a posh, limited-edition Bonneville for with then-novel fuel a host of Tri-Power engines; and an aggressive push into racing that started in and culminated in the mighty Super cars of 1962. When left Pontiac to run Chevrolet in 1961, his successors, Pete and John DeLorean, carried on tradition, which took to third place in industry by the mid-1960s.


The blurring of the class boundaries began in the fifties only got in the seventies and eighties, exacerbated by management s continual push for and greater inter-division commonality, as as pressure from the sales to give every division a of nearly every new product.

By the eighties, each division had a line of cars, from to full-size station wagons, and had begun to use identical engines, and other hardware. There fewer and fewer tangible to choose a Buick over an other than a vague memory that the Buick had once been more Today, most of GM s products are so across divisions that is serious question whether s still a reason for the remaining to exist.

The automotive class Sloan identified still although that structure is no dominated by GM products. The tiers occupied by Oldsmobile, Buick, and makes are now dominated by a mixture of and European cars. There is as much snobbery in the distinction a Hyundai, a Volvo, and a Mercedes as once was between a Chevy, an and a Cadillac.

The prestige American appear to have been permanent off of the upper rungs of the replaced by Mercedes, BMW, and The trouble with basing a product plan on class . than technical merit or value, is that in any class even one as financially driven as s status is far easier to lose to gain.

Pontiac, in the 50 years the original Bonneville, has continued to try to itself as the excitement-builder, although as in 1954, it has fallen behind the of its rivals, and there is little of to distinguish it from Chevrolet. has risen from the ashes more than once, but it need another dramatic in the arm if it is to do so again.


Our sources for article included Pontiac The Most Beautiful Thing on by Arch Brown, from Interest Autos #111 1989), and All Things to All Men: Pontiac Custom Catalina by Ken from Special Interest #32 (January-February 1976), which is the of Jim Kaufeld s remarks on inter-division both reprinted in The Hemmings News Book of Pontiacs: from Special Interest magazine . ed. Terry Ehrich VT: Hemmings Motor News, Jan P. Norbye and Jim Dunne, Pontiac The Classic Postwar Years WI: Motorbooks International, 1979); the Editors of Consumer Guide, of American Cars: Over 65 of Automotive History (Lincolnwood, IL: International, 1996); John ed. Standard Catalog of American 1946-1975 . rev.

4th ed. (Iola, WI: Publications, 2002); and Alfred P. My Years with General (New York: Doubleday,

We also consulted MI Tests the Pontiac by Tom McCahill, Mechanix April 1950; Walter A. Pontiac Motor Trial, Trend September 1951; Ted Speed Age Tests the 1952 Speed Age March 1952; the New Dual-Range H-M Pontiac, Motor April 1952; Pete and Walt Woron, Pontiac Motor Trend May 1953; New Pontiac Is Longer and Stronger, Science January 1954; Chief Heads Pontiac for 54, Automobile Topics January Jim Lodge, Heap big car for little that s the Pontiac Star Motor Trend May 1954; and Road Test, Motor . January 1955, all of which are in Pontiac Limited Edition 1949-1960 . ed. R.M. Clarke Surrey: Brooklands Books


The title of this was suggested by the Adam Ant song at the Top, written by Adam Marco Pirroni, and André which appeared on his 1990 Manners Physique . It was previously the of a 1957 novel by John (which may have been the for the song), which was adapted for in the U.K. in 1959.

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