Fifty years ago Pontiac birthed the first official Detroit muscle car, the GTO. To understand this milestone, we have to go back to 1956 with the ascension of Semon E. “Bunkie” Knudsen to the office of Pontiac’s general manager.
It was an impressive accomplishment for the 44-year-old Knudsen, but Pontiac was the weakest of GM’s car divisions. Pontiacs were nice but stodgy cars, and Bunkie had a mandate: five years to turn Pontiac around. He did it in three!
GM was updating its V-8s with new lighter OHV designs. The all-new ’55 Pontiac engine had just 287 ci with 180 hp. The following year the engine was opened up to 316 ci rated at 192 hp, and the performance version with 10.5:1 compression and dual quads rated at 285 hp. Knudsen knew he needed a powerful team, so Pete Estes from Oldsmobile was to be Pontiac’s new chief engineer and 31-year-old John DeLorean was to be one of Knudsen’s and Estes’ assistant engineers.
Knudsen came out swinging for his first full year in ’57 with the Bonneville, a performance-luxury convertible version of the full-size Star Chief Custom, with every option except air conditioning. It was powered by a Rochester fuel-injected 347 ci engine, and a $5,000 Cadillac-sized price, which was nearly double the price of the base four-door Chieftain. Only 630 units were built, making it one of the all-time-rare performance Pontiacs. The Bonneville moniker was first used by Pontiac on the ’54 Bonneville Special concept car, a Corvette-like, bubble-top show car.
For ’58, the Bonneville became Pontiac’s top of the line model, offered only as a hardtop coupe and convertible. To keep the price down, the vehicle had fewer standard features, but options could be ordered alá carte. The Pontiac V-8 was extensively revised and stroked, now displacing 370 ci, and with a four-barrel carb and dual exhaust was rated at 300 hp. The Rochester Fuel Injection version was phased out during the model year. The bargain was the 370 Tri-Power with 330 hp for just $100!
Many have observed Pontiac was the only ’59 full-size GM car line that looked right from every angle
Model-year ’59 proved to be the Bonneville’s breakout year. Bill Mitchell was GM’s new chief of design in 1958, but was already working on the ’59 Bonneville with the idea of making a styling breakthough from the Harley Earl era. The new design came in a four-door hardtop sedan, a two-door coupe, the Safari station wagon, and the two-door convertible. The design was longer, lower, and wider, with sleek straight lines, crisp body creases, twin-fin rear fenders, and a new arrowhead logo.
When Knudsen saw the new design, he loved it but felt that the fenders draped awkwardly over the full-size chassis. Brilliantly, he ordered the wheels pushed outboard as much as possible, increasing the track by 6 inches. Many have observed Pontiac was the only ’59 full-size GM car line that looked right from every angle. The marketing department ran with the concept and branded the ’59 Pontiac Wide-Track. This iconic tagline lasted on and off all the way to Pontiac’s end in 2009.
The new Bonneville wasn’t just a pretty face. Under the hood, the Pontiac 370 was bored out again, this time to 389 ci. The base economy engine had 215 hp and the performance Tri-Power 389 had 345 hp. While that doesn’t sound like much by today’s standards, the new 389 Tri-Power was a torque monster rated at 425 lb-ft! It featured the four-speed Hydramatic automatic transmission, and power steering and brakes; the Safe-T-Track limited-slip rearend was optional. Front and rear 11-inch drum brakes (aluminum on the 345hp version) were considered heavy-duty then.
The interior was big and classy with plenty of bright work on the dash, pedals, steering wheel, seat trim, and tri-color upholstery. The back seat was big enough to seat three.
The ’59 Pontiac was met with rave reviews and won Motor Trend’s coveted Car of the Year award. Overall Pontiac sales were up 76 percent to 383,320 units. Pontiac went from Sixth to Fourth place in the car industry. Not only did Knudsen and his team turn Pontiac around, but seeds were planted that in five years would produce the first official muscle car, the GTO.