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Home/Technical Info/Pontiac/ 11. Car Models Described/
Pontiac 1955-1958: Performance Solidified - the Early V-8 Years

The 1955 Pontiacs, while not that much different in looks from 1954, were advertised in a much different manner - especially when it came to "power".
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by Automotive History Preservation Society Staff - reprint with permission only

The 1955 Pontiac V8 was not that division's first venture into a vee-style eight cylinder engine configuration. In 1932 a one-year-only version of the Oakland ftathead V8 was produced for the newly minted Pontiac Motor Division. Bad timing in the depths of the Great Depression forced the extravagant option into retirement after only one year and 6,281 examples.

Work on a modern, overhead-valve V-8 engine for Pontiac had begun as early as 1949 under longtime general manager Harry J. Klingler, but development proceeded slowly at first due to Klingler's lack of enthusiasm for a new powerplant. As such, the conservative Klingler was seen as inappropriate for the growth of this mid-price brand. He was thus moved over to corporate headquarters as Vice-President of Vehicle Production.

The dynamic Arnold Lenz took over Pontiac, hoping to institute rapid change, but as fate would have it, Lenz died in a car/train crash the following year.  As a result, one of his key initiatives, the V-8 program, was again set back.

R.M. Critchfield succeeded Lenz, and, while not as energetic as Lenz, he slowly got the engine modernization program rolling again. As we know now, it wasn't until 1955 that the new Pontiac OHV V-8 engine hit the market. But when it did, model-year sales took an immediate jump to 554,000 units -- up from 287,744 the year before. This huge increase signified to all at Pontiac that a high-performing V-8 was essential to sales success.

Significant in the  introduction of the V-8 was that Critchfield, seeing Oldsmobile's success with only OHV V-8 power, decreed that there would no longer be any 6-cylinder engine offerings by Pontiac.

Critchfield has set the stage, and, in 1956, when Semon E. (Bunkie) Knudsen took over the reins as general manager, Pontiac went a step further. Knudsen, son of former GM president William S. Knudsen, was the youngest GM general manager at age forty-three. It didn't take rocket science for Knudsen to see where the stodgy brand needed to go to stay as successful as it had been in 1955. Therefore, he proceeded, with absolutely no fanfare, to make over the Pontiac image from ho-hum to performance .

He put together a new engineering group headed by E.M. (Pete) Estes and John Z. DeLorean, with the mission to develop a line of new cars with true performance potential. They were enthusiastic followers of the idea and collaborated on developing a racing program focused around the ever growing NASCAR sanctioning body.

To highlight a move into a competition and factory racing program, an "extra horse-power" engine option with dual four-barrel carburetors and a full-race camshaft was crafted by staff motor engineer head Malcolm R. 'Mac' McKellar. It was released in mid-1956 and became the first in a series of so-called NASCAR and "Super-Duty" Pontiac V-8s.

The Pontiac V-8 was increased in cubic inch displacement every year from 1956 through 1958,  going from 287 to 317 to 347 and finally to 370.  Horsepower climbed from 200 in 1955 to the 1956 2 4-barrel Strato Streak's 270, then to the 1957's 317 HP NASCAR, and then to 330 in the race-only 1958 version.

Meanwhile, styling moved quickly away from the rather chunky 1955 models to the sleek 1958s -- culminating in the hot-looking Pontiac Bonneville. Along the way, the 2-door hardtop Safari wagon of 1956-57 showed the world that Pontiacs were stylish and fast.

The stage was now set for 1959 and beyond, where "wide track" and "389" would be synonymous with Pontiac and performance. 

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This 860 2-door sedan would be a racer's favorite with the Strato-Streak 270 HP V-8.

The "Catalina" name became firmly associated with performance Pontiacs in 1957.

By 1958 there was no question that Pontiac was a performance brand - as this Bonneville ad illustrates.


















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