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by John Gunnell  More from Author

Double Anniversary Spotlights Pontiac Customs & Hot Rods

This is a big year for Pontiac enthusiasts, and hot rodders who enjoy tweaking Star Chiefs and Firebirds are no exception. There are plenty of modified Ponchos pounding pavement across America, and their builders can appreciate the double celebrations marking milestone anniversaries for the Pontiac marque’s birthplace and the cars that carry the same name as that city.

Pontiac, Michigan will be celebrating its sesquicentennial in 2011. The city north of Detroit has a long, rich history. It was first settled in 1818. The area where the Saginaw Indian Trail crossed the Clinton River was a natural spot to put a new town. By 1820, there were enough people there to form a village named after the famous Indian Chief who had made his headquarters in the area only a few years earlier. The village was officially recognized by the state legislature in 1837 and incorporated as a city 150 years ago in 1861.

With abundant natural resources, Pontiac became the home of several carriage manufacturing companies that were thriving when the first cars were introduced. Pontiac quickly became a capital of the new automotive industry. It became the county seat of Oakland County and an industrial center for carmakers. GMC started there in 1912, and Pontiac Motor Division was born in 1926. If you do the math, you’ll see that would make 2011 the 85th birthday of the car.

The Pontiac automobile was an immediate hit and turned Pontiac into a boomtown. By 1927, the book Michigan's Thirty-Seven Million Acres of Diamonds described it as "the third fastest growing city in the state." Believe it or not, by 1928 a car that was really the first Pontiac hot rod was put together. It was a stripped-down Pontiac that one of the company’s early dealers made into a racecar to promote the hot performance of Pontiac’s “Chief of the Sixes” model.

Pontiac actually offered a V-8 model in 1932, the same year that Henry Ford launched the “Deuce” V-8 that captured the hearts of early hot rodders. In Pontiac’s case, the engine came from the Oakland, which was the car that the hot-selling Chief of the Sixes evolved from in 1926 and eclipsed in 1931. This led to the offering of a Pontiac V-8 in 1932 to sell the engines originally intended for use in Oaklands. For Pontiac installs, a few accessories were relocated to the other side of the block, but the basic engine was unchanged.

Fans of Oakland and Pontiac V-8s say their cars give spirited performance, and we can recall a challenge put out at the Pontiac Oakland Club International’s second convention held in Wichita, Kansas in 1973. Bill Dube – an Oakland owner who loved saying that the “S.O.B.” on his baseball cap stood for “Sweet Old Bill” – challenged Pontiac dealer and 1932 V-8 owner Byron “Joe” Stout III to a drag race that would have been a real “title” bout. As Bill laid it out, whoever won would own both cars after the race. As far as we know, the contest never came off, and we suppose it would have been the same as identical IROC Camaros dragging.

Whether the Oakland or Pontiac V-8 was faster didn’t much matter, as both engines were gone by 1933, when Pontiac switched to a durable straight eight that became its top engine offering for 21 years. Advertised and promoted as a power plant that was “built to last 100,000 miles,” this heavy and slow in-line eight was far from a hot rodder’s dream. When earlier proponents of the sport began racing on California’s dry lake beds before, during and after World War II, the great bulk of their cars ran with Ford flathead V-8s under their hoods.

Once in a blue moon, cars with a Cord Lycoming V-8 or a LaSalle V-8 might show up at time trials. Ralph Schenck and Bob Rufi both had 130-150 mph streamliners that ran Chevy fours, and Charles Dimmitt put together a Class D roadster with a long, long hood that hid a Cadillac V-16. There were some GMC-powered cars, too, and even the occasional Duesenberg straight eight, but for the most part the lakebeds and salt flats were “Ford Country” until overhead-valve Olds, Cadillac and Chrysler Firepower V-8s showed up in the early 1950s.

Hot rodders, of course, tried anything and everything to try to go a little faster, and there was at least one Bonneville streamliner planned or built around a Pontiac straight eight. A drawing of it appeared in one of the Petersen magazines in the early 1950s, and for years we had a photocopy of it at our desk. (Naturally, now that we’re writing about Pontiac hot rods, it is nowhere to be found.) In any case, Pontiac power wasn’t on the hot rodders’ “radar” until the 1955 V-8 arrived.

Early customizers weren’t the biggest Pontiac lovers either, although we have seen a number of photos of 1941 models that were done in the years just after World War II. Apparently, the clean look of the cars made just before the war were appreciated more than the postwar models that came with heavier looking grilles and more ornate “Silver Streak” treatments. For the most part, the early 1950s Pontiacs shared coachwork with the other GM makes, but the Chevys were cheaper to buy and cleaner, while the Buicks, Oldsmobiles and Cadillacs came “ready made” with the V-8 power plants that kustom car builders preferred.

Early in 1956, after the launch of its V-8 model in 1955, Pontiac formed an association with Lou Moore, a racecar mechanic who had significant experience with the Indy 500. Moore was hired to build two Pontiacs for NASCAR drivers Cotton Owens and Buddy Krebs to pilot at Daytona Speedweeks. The cars had a special 285hp 317ci Pontiac V-8 that was then made available for all models.

Cars with this “extra-horsepower” engine did 0 to 60 mph in 11 seconds and had a top speed of 132 mph in practice. Both engines had teething problems in Florida, but a few weeks later, Moore talked to his friend Ab Jenkins about taking the powerful Pontiacs to Bonneville. Moore’s untimely death delayed this effort, but Jenkins later went and set a 24-hour world speed record of 118.37 mph for 2,841 miles. Soon after 43-year-old Bunkie Knudsen took over at Pontiac in 1957, the company was offering a 270hp four-barrel V-8 and a trio of Tri-Power V-8s with ratings from 290 to 317 hp, plus a fuel-injected Bonneville convertible.

One of the 317hp V-8s was used in a Chieftain two-door sedan that was privately entered in the Daytona Speedweeks competition by none other than Knudsen himself. Driven by John Zink, Jr., this car set a new lap record of 136 mph. Other Pontiacs driven by Cotton Owens and Joe Littlejohn also set records in the Flying Mile and the Grand National stock car race. Through such efforts, Knudsen built up the Pontiac high-performance image and had hot rodders everywhere talking about his brand.

A Pontiac racing legend was born in 1959 when Ace Wilson’s Royal Pontiac – a small factory dealership in the Detroit suburb of Royal Oak, Michigan – started specializing in supplying Pontiac performance parts to drag racers to illustrate what kind of car his parts could produce. Wilson had his mechanics put together a “Royal Hot Chief” racing car based on a 1959 Catalina two-door coupe with Tri Power, three-on-the-floor gear shifting (to meet National Hot Rod Association regulations) and a 4.89:1 rear axle. It did the quarter in under 14 seconds.

In 1960, Pontiac ad man Jim Wangers took the NHRA’s Top Stock Eliminator title with a 363hp Pontiac built by Royal Pontiac. Another of Knudsen’s hot rodding friends, Mickey Thompson, also did a lot to promote the Pontiac name in the 1959-1960 period. His electric blue Challenger I Bonneville Streamliner, powered by a four Pontiac V-8s, set the World Land Speed Record at 363.67 mph. This set the stage for the some legendary 1960s Pontiac racecars such as “Swiss Cheese” and Super-Duty Catalinas and the original 1964 GTO.

“Factory hot rods” and aftermarket specials like the Catalina 2+2, Hurst Grand Prix, GTO Judge, Grand Prix SSJ and Firebird Trans Am kept Pontiac’s high-performance-car image alive for over a decade and pushed the brand to be ranked third in industry sales. However, as the collector car hobby kicked into high gear in the early 1970s, it was still rare to see a customized or hot rodded vintage Pontiac on the streets of America. When POCI formed in 1972, the most-collected Pontiacs in the roster of the new club were bone-stock 1940 and 1957 models. We can’t remember seeing any hot rods at the early conventions.

In fact, we had only seen a single Pontiac hot rod up until that time. That was in the late 1960s, after we got our first car and heard about some impromptu drag racing going on Sunday afternoons in the parking lot of a “big box” department store in Staten Island, New York, where we lived at that time. The hottest car at those outlaw events was an early 1930s Pontiac sedan with a 389ci Poncho V-8 stuffed into it. While it was blazingly fast, the antique buggy had primitive brakes, and after winning one heat, it just kept going until it hit a chain-link fence and stopped suddenly, but safely. The next Sunday, a squad car and a local judge put in appearances at this “stoplight grand prix” and the racing ended.

During the 1973 POCI convention at Joe Stout’s Wichita Pontiac dealership, the attendees took a tour and, while driving through the park, we passed a hot rodded early 1950s Pontiac heading the other way. POCI was so small then that the national tour looked like a Sunday outing. The young man driving the hot rod wasn’t much impressed and never joined the club. In fact, the first hot rod we remember seeing at a POCI event was the magenta 1939 coupe that Fred Menger, of Minnesota, brought out. For many years, that 5-window with its ship’s prow nose, low-slung stance and fat tires was the club’s “token” hot rod.

Today, things have really changed. Many modern collectors have no idea what a 1940 Pontiac looks like, and most of them consider a 1957 model a “real antique.” Instead of one Pontiac club, there are probably half a dozen or more, with several specializing in “factory hot rods” like the GTO and Trans Am. POCI has grown and welcomed many more modified car enthusiasts and even has a special Pontiac hot rod chapter. And there are members, such as Lou Calisibetta, who have become specialists in hot rodding Pontiacs.

Calisibetta’s Old Stillwater Garage in Stillwater, New Jersey is famous for his redo of the Alexander Brothers “Golden Indian,” a radically customized 1960 Pontiac hardtop that Lou owns. He also created a pair of well-known Pontiac “woodies” based on a rare 1957 Transcontinental station wagon and a 1958 four-door Custom Safari wagon. In 2010, Lou was elected to the Kustom Kemps of America (KKOA) car builders’ Hall of Fame. On the H.A.M.B., where accolades are extremely rare, someone posted: “Good for Lou! He is a great guy and an amazing builder to boot. That shop sure does turn out some top-notch stuff.”

Compared to Fords and Mercurys – and even Buicks and Lincolns – it is rare to see a Pontiac custom or hot rod. Our guess would be that this is because modified builders go looking for certain cars to do and Pontiacs just aren’t on their lists. We have the feeling that, in a lot of cases, at least for pre-muscle car models, enthusiasts stumble onto a Pontiac and then decide to modify it because it’s easier and cheaper to do it that way than to complete a stock restoration. You don’t find many parts for early Pontiacs in mail order catalogs. To bring them back to stock, you either have to find good used parts (which is getting hard) or purchase NOS factory parts (which is getting expensive and close to impossible).

We have seen one Pontiac dragster with a sign saying it was a 1926 model, but it was really just an old frame with a fiberglass body and all new powertrain. That 1928 Pontiac racing car we mentioned earlier still exists, and we know a shop that is building a 1928 Oakland. It’s the only Oakland rod we’ve ever heard of. One car we’ve seen rodded a lot is the waterfall grille 1936 Pontiac, with its art deco looks. We notice those because we have a stock 1936 in our collection. We had a bear of a time getting parts for our repairs, so we can understand there being a large amount of 1936s getting the hot rod treatment. Most are coupes.

We’ve seen a handful of late-1930s and late-1940s Pontiac rods. In fact, we were once driving our stock 1948 Streamliner sedan back from the St. Ignace, Michigan show and passed a 1948 hot rod Streamliner coupe returning from Back to the 50’s in Minnesota. That car had no windshield washer bottle, but did have the fluid nozzles. We had the bottle and not the nozzles, but we couldn’t swing a trade. The modified 1948 had a sub frame, a V-8 engine and bucket seats, but otherwise it looked pretty stock. Those cars just don’t lend themselves to change.

Early 1950s Pontiacs are fairly hard to customize, too. Talented builders can do it, but it is much easier to start with a car that has less trim, less weight and the smaller tires that look better on a custom. Pontiacs of this era that are modified generally feature only bolt-on items like lakes pipes, sun visors, hood scoops and Moon discs or spoke wheels. It is very easy to convert a 1953 or 1954 model to V-8 power, because these cars were actually slated to get the V-8 before the general manager of Pontiac at the time was killed in a car/train crash.

Once you get to the 1957 to 1962 models, you get into an era that better lends itself to customizing. This explains why quite a few of these cars – particularly 1958-1960 Catalinas – are getting modified today. With the 1961-and-up models, you start entering the true muscle car category, where the hot rodding usually takes place under the hood. However, if you’re lucky enough to get hold of a Super-Duty or something of that nature, then your Pontiac hot rod will look just fine if you do it up in “drag racer” style.

Whatever you do and however you modify your Pontiac this year, you can expect it to get a little extra attention due to the two big Pontiac anniversaries taking place in 2011. When you show your Pontiac custom or hot rod, be sure to take along a sign telling people why this is a special year for Pontiac lovers.

This car appears to have a 1926 Pontiac frame but all else is newer.

Phoenix Machine is building this unusual 1928 Oakland hot rod.

Historian John Sawruk rode in first Pontiac “hot rod” before he passed on.

POCI’s rod chapter is for cars like this 1936 coach at Grand Rapids convention.

Another 1936 coupe showed up at POCI Badgerland Chapter meet.

This 1937 coupe was a fixture at Lake Geneva Classic Car Rally.

The Beldenville, Wisconsin car show brought out this 1939 coupe.

This vintage black and white photo shows Fred Menger’s 1939 at early POCI meet.

We passed this 1948 hot rod while driving our stock 1948 the opposite way.

Early 1950s Pontiacs are usually customized with bolt-on goodies.

This jazzed up 1955 Safari is from first year of Pontiac OHV V-8.

Lou Calisibetta built his 1957 woodie on a Transcontinental wagon.

Another Old Stillwater Garage creation was this flamed 1936 Bonnie.

Lou brought the Alexander Bros “Golden Indian” back to life.

This flamed and scalloped 1962 is the cover car for Alan Mayes’ book Old School Customs.


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