A good friend recently told me of a 1978 Pontiac Phoenix he spotted for sale near our Bennington, Vermont, office with an asking price of just $2,200. It was a four-door sedan that boasted just 40,000 miles managed by a then-optional 305-cu.in. V-8 and automatic transmission power team. Inside was a standard interior fitted with a vinyl bench seat, along with what was reported to be factory air conditioning. While the cabin looked surprisingly clean, the exterior exhibited “nice patina,” which was to say faded blue paint complemented by ample surface rust on horizontal panels. The Pontiac had not run in some time, either, as it had just been pulled from storage.
Not that its mechanical health would have been a great concern to fellow Hemmings editor Dave Conwill or me. The 305 was a veteran V-8 in GM’s lineup by the time this late-decade replacement was introduced to take over for the Ventura as Pontiac’s X-body. Even up here in northern New England, any parts that would have been required to revive all eight cylinders wouldn’t have been difficult to locate or costly to source.
Sure, it may not have looked as stunning as it once did, but at just $2,200, the thought was, “How could you go wrong?” Both of us have teens who will be license-eligible very soon, so we’re on the lookout for cheap wheels that can pass state inspection; up here, cars that meet that criteria have become quite scarce. Heck, the Phoenix itself has become a rarity, a comment I made in passing as we looked this example over. During my days on a local stock car team, I witnessed a fair share of this Pontiac’s X-body brethren get unmercifully thrashed past the point of existence.
That was during the mid-’80s to early ’90s, when local circle track racing at the entry level was still relatively inexpensive. Anyone with enough raw talent, or, at least, a preconceived notion they were going to be the next Darrell Waltrip, could have sauntered into their local junkyard and found a high number of base X- and G-body cars from General Motors that had complete, rust-free foundations to work with. Any corrosion on the body panels was a moot point—most of that would be cut away during the transformation to race car. The junker’s engine would be swapped out, so its condition didn’t matter much, either.
These once-commonly-discarded commuter cars became highly coveted after a few brilliant wheelmen figured out that the 1968-’72 GM A-bodies, which had been a circle-track stock car staple since the late Seventies, were as much as a few hundred pounds heavier than the competition. On top of that, growing interest from vintage muscle car enthusiasts was driving up the values of those models. The A-body racers were priced out seemingly overnight.
People born the year that GM pulled the plug on Oldsmobile will turn 18 in 2022. That means they grew to legal voting age having never seen a new car from Lansing. They might vaguely remember seeing a new Pontiac, as that brand’s demise came about after GM’s bankruptcy, bailout, and subsequent restructuring around 2009. Perhaps these hypothetical 18-year-olds might aspire to buy the new Buick Electra electric vehicle that Flint unveiled in September—if it ever progresses from a bold-looking concept car into production. Also, as long as they grew up in China, where the concept was shown and where this new Buick EV is slated to be built and sold.
Times have most definitely changed for Buick, Oldsmobile, and Pontiac but one thing hasn’t—the popularity of the cars those storied marques produced from the prewar era through the 21st century. The B-O-P issue of HMN is one of our most popular, both with readers and with sponsors. It’s for good reason: GM’s middle three divisions produced some of the most innovative, exciting, reliable, luxurious, sporty, etc. vehicles in history and they remain popular with old-car buffs today.
Recently we polled the HMN staff to find out what B-O-P vehicles intrigue them the most and why. Some of the results were surprising and clearly there was a dearth of 1950s- and 1980s-era vehicles that we’ll need to address in a future issue. Here for your perusal are the results.
1922 OLDSMOBILE 43A
Oldsmobile already had decades of production on the road when the 1920s dawned, and the division continued to innovate. Three model lines were available for 1922: the Model M43A “Four,” which relied upon a 224-cu.in. inline-four; the Model 47 “Smaller Eight” that used a 233-cu.in. V-8; and the Model 46 “Larger Eight,” which sported a 246-cu.in. V-8. The M43A sold best, representing 14,839 of the 22,758 Oldsmobiles built that year. Sending its 40 hp to the wheels via a torque tube, the four-cylinder was an advanced design that included three main bearings, a two-stage carburetor, and overhead valves, the latter disappearing after 1923 and not returning until Olds debuted the 1949 Rocket V-8. The entry-level model came as a Roadster, Coupe, Sedan, or Tourer; it was much pricier than the contemporary mass-produced Ford Model T, the range of $1,195 to $1,795 being roughly equivalent to $19,510-$29,310 in today’s dollars. Marque enthusiasts covet surviving examples.— Mark J. McCourt
1926 BUICK STANDARD
Buick was a star of the middle-price market in the 1920s. In fact, it held third place overall in the industry four times in the 1919-’29 period, an era in which Ford was virtually unchallenged and where Chevrolet never wavered from the number-two spot. Model year 1926 was the peak of this period: Flint cranked out 266,753 units, of which 40,113 were $1,195 Standard two-door sedans like the car illustrated, making it the third-most-popular iteration of the third-most-popular car of 1926. Even a Standard was demonstrably better than a $645 Chevrolet Superior or a $580 Ford Model T, while the $1,395 Master was better yet. The Standard chassis had a 114.5-inch wheelbase, while the Master was 5.5 to 13.5 inches longer. Both cars used six-cylinders, with the Standard receiving a 60-hp, 207-cu.in. engine and the Master boasting 75 hp from 274 cu.in.— David Conwill
1932 PONTIAC MODEL 302
Established as a part of GM’s “companion makes” program in the 1920s, Pontiac proved so popular that not only did it long outlive the other companions (La Salle, Marquette, and Viking), but when its own parent faltered in the early years of the Great Depression, Pontiac absorbed it into its operations. The Model 302 was the former Oakland chassis, wearing an enlarged version of the Pontiac Six bodywork. The Model 302 also bore the 1930-vintage Oakland V-8, an 85-hp, 251-cu.in. flathead with a flat-plane crank—which caused considerable vibration but was easier to manufacture with the industrial tech of the time. The next year, the V-8, with its complicated mounts and vibration compensator, would be replaced by the first example of the long-running Pontiac straight-eight family, a 77-hp, 223-cu.in. unit, in a chassis derived from Chevrolet designs—a longstanding part of Pontiac’s formula.— David Conwill
1941 PONTIAC CUSTOM TORPEDO
In the immediate prewar era, Pontiac went upmarket, stepping further from Chevrolet and blurring the division lines between it and Oldsmobile—the next rung in the GM hierarchy—by introducing the full-sized Custom Torpedo line. These glamorous long-wheelbase cars shared their premium Fisher Body “C” bodyshells with the Oldsmobile 90 series Custom Cruiser, Buick Roadmaster, and Cadillac Series 62, with the Pontiac version offered in sedan coupe, sedan, and wood-trimmed station wagon forms. Under their long hoods sat a division-traditional 90-hp, 239.2-cu.in. L-head straight-six or optional 103-hp, 248.9-cu.in. L-head straight-eight. Total production of the 1941 Custom Torpedo Six and Custom Torpedo Eight amounted to just 25,448, with 8,257 and 17,191 units built, respectively. Arguably the most attractive, the two-door Model 29 Custom Torpedo Eight Sedan Coupe is thought to be the rarest variant remaining, making it a prize for collectors.— Mark J. McCourt
1962 PONTIAC GRAND PRIX
When its new car lineup was announced for 1962, Pontiac pitched the freshly minted Grand Prix as, “The personally styled car with the power personality!” It was a fine way of suggesting that the two-door hardtop was a new personal-luxury car, or gentleman’s grand tourer, before outlining just what it came equipped with. It turned out to be quite a list: recessed grille and tail panel design unique to the GP, a lower roofline to enhance its sleek profile, a standard 303-hp 389-cu.in. V-8 engine with a true dual-exhaust system, three-speed manual transmission (although a four-speed and Hydra-Matic were optional), aluminum wheels, an acceleration-friendly axle ratio, Morrokide bucket seats, center console, and full instrumentation that included a tachometer. In short, all the performance of a GTO, combined with the rich appointments of a Bonneville, tucked into a package the size of a Catalina. Starting at $3,490 (or $30,302 today), it found 30,195 buyers; this number quickly increased in the ensuing years.— Matthew Litwin
Just to get you into the spirit of the season, here’s a 1960 Chrysler ad featuring Santa.
Unlike the “Old Man” cheerfully unwrapping his can of Simoniz in A Christmas Story, my track record with scoring car stuff as holiday gifts has been notably poor, but it’s all my own fault.
For years, family members have asked what I would like for my endless projects, but I’ve always felt guilty about taking them up on their offers, since what I needed was usually too expensive for a gift (at least in my mind), so I told them not to worry about it.
Nevertheless, thinking about cars and Christmas did remind me of the best automotive-related present I’ve ever gotten—my 1967 GTO. Though I’ve discussed some of its aspects before, I have yet to delve into how I found it and what the test drive was like.
I’m sure you’ve seen the seemingly endless ads each holiday season that depict people receiving a car for Christmas by simply walking out their front door and finding the latest and greatest model, already in their driveway wearing a big red bow and ribbon. Yeah… that didn’t happen to me.
ack in the mid-1980s, I was in college but had a decent-paying job, so I was searching for a muscle car project. Since the local newspaper classifieds were no help, the Want Ad Press offered the best opportunity for finding something remotely close to home.
The ritual went something like this, I waited for the new issue to come out each week, rifled through it, circled the ads that interested me, and called the sellers to ask them a list of prepared questions. More times than not, their answers dissuaded me from even going to look at the prospect. Then I had to wait a week and do it all over again. Of course, there was no internet back then, so all I had to begin with was a small print ad, typically with about 3 or 4 lines of text, and no photos.
By the fall of 1987, I had endured months of frustration and knew that once the winter weather arrived, everything would become even more difficult. Finally, I caught a break in December. This 1967 GTO was listed, and while most of the cars I had looked at previously were an hour or more away, this one was only about a 25-minute drive, and it passed the telephone interrogation.
When I arrived, I instantly noted the third-gen Trans Am wheels (which I didn’t like on this car), the body damage up front, and the chalky silver repaint over the original Mariner Turquoise hue. Further examination revealed body filler in both quarter panels and the driver’s door, and a rotted trunk floor.
Though we aspire to make lasting memories with our own vintage cars, we don’t always require them to embark on awe-inspiring journeys. One such opportunity is offered by the Nevada Northern Railway Museum in the town of Ely. It has recreated the Fairmont A34 Hy-Rail Inspection Motor Car Pontiac station wagon that the railway had ordered new in 1956, and you can ride the rails in it when visiting the museum on certain days, or even drive it for an additional cost.
The Hy-Rail’s purpose was to ease track inspection by providing a means for which the same car or truck could operate on the road or the rails, by attaching an apparatus to the front and rear of the frame to facilitate the latter. The vehicle would access the track (or leave it) at railroad crossings. With the tires positioned on the rails, the flanged guide wheels of the Hy-Rail were lowered, locked in place, and the steering was locked, to make the car track ready.
Fairmont Machine Company, which was established in the early 1900s in Fairmont, Minnesota, became Fairmont Railway Motors Inc. in the 1920s, and it developed the Hy-Rail in the 1940s. During the 20th century, the enterprise became a leading producer of railway service and maintenance equipment, which was sold worldwide. Fairmont was acquired by the Harsco Corporation in 1979, and Hy-Rail system production continued. Among the various vehicles that were converted over many decades by Fairmont were 1956-1958 Pontiac station wagons
With this Pontiac’s front bumper removed, the Hy-Rail assembly can be viewed easily.
According to the company’s brochure, the Hy-Rail employed a hydraulic pump driven by an electric motor, and at the front and rear of the car was a pushbutton to actuate them, a lever to control a hydraulic valve, and a hydraulic cylinder to raise and lower the guide-wheel and arm assemblies. Mechanical locks (with a safety pin) secured each Hy-Rail unit in the wheels-up or wheels-down position and were engaged by a centrally located lever in front and a lever at either side in the rear. A manual steering lock was also employed and featured a light on the dashboard that indicated when it was in use.
The guide-wheels carried a portion of the vehicle’s load when on the track, and Fairmont explained that it was applied through adjustable rubber-cushion torque units, which aided in maintaining a smooth ride. However, the tires, which also rode on the rails, still supported most of the car’s weight and provided the traction for driving and braking
Word on the street was that Detroit was introducing downsized cars for 1977. When NASCAR got wind during the ’76 season, it began exploring the idea of initiating a rule change that would mandate a 110-inch wheelbase chassis, versus the then-current 115-inch design. But once that process began, developmental cost was a concern, prompting Bill France Jr. to issue a statement: “Eventually, we will have to follow Detroit’s trend. In order to curb expenses, the teams will be permitted to use equipment they already have instead of letting new equipment become obsolete in a short time.” The changes Bill hinted at were finally scribed into the 1981 rule book, with one exception: the outgoing cars would be permitted to race at the season opener at Riverside International Raceway (in Riverside, California) on January 11. Bobby Allison won at the helm of a 1977 Chevrolet Monte Carlo. New downsized cars were permitted to compete side-by-side, even though they were not fully mandated yet. Dale Earnhardt finished third in one such Grand Prix, owned by Rod Osterlund.
“Considering our choices, I think the Trans Am has the best chance of getting finished,” my son Tommy commented while we were shooting photos in the driveway for a Hemmings Daily article this past week.
He was right, given the decrepit condition of our other vintage projects. The T/A has been nestled in the garage since we moved to Western Pennsylvania in 2003. Its bodywork, paint, and graphics were completed about a year before. For those who are doing the math, that’s 19 years ago, which is embarrassing to admit to myself, let alone all who will read this. To put that fact into more painful perspective, Tommy was about a year old when this car came out of the restoration shop. He’s 20 now.
Longtime readers already know that I got the T/A (along with a pile of parts for my 1967 GTO) in the early 1990s, in trade for my 1969 Judge that needed work. The ‘Bird served as a daily driver for several years, and during that time I swapped in a four-speed. Its body was later restored at Melvin Benzaquen’s Classic Restoration Enterprises in New York State. The process was covered though a series of articles published in a now-defunct magazine I edited called High Performance Pontiac.
We know that the 1960s were full of horsepower hijinks, but did you know that manufacturers sometimes fibbed about the size of their engines? Indeed, that burbling V-8 in your beloved classic may actually not measure up to its promised displacement. We rooted out five of the worst offenders.
Available from mid-1963 to mid-1968, the 427 was Ford’s crowning achievement in the 1960s, carrying the torch during Ford’s “Total Performance” reign of global competition. However, to American enthusiasts, the 427 is best known for powering Fords and Mercurys to success on the drag strip and in NASCAR. The FE-series engine was introduced at the same time as Ford’s semi-fastback roofline for the Galaxie 500 and Galaxie 500/XL (as well as Mercury’s Marauder sub-series), and the silhouette’s aerodynamic advantages helped maximize the engine’s performance on the banked ovals. The street 427 was available with either a single or pair of four-barrel carburetors for 410 or 425 horsepower, respectively. Several thousand 427s were built through 1964, with popularity falling drastically in 1965, the last year of big Mercury; in its swan-song year of 1967, the 427 was installed in 89 full-size Fords.
Oldsmobile and Pontiac are history. Buick, which has been hugely popular in China, currently sells only bean-shaped, badge-engineered sport-utility vehicles in North America—one of which is manufactured exclusively in China. All of the new Buick trucklets have model names as forgettable as their styling would suggest and none are badged with “Buick” emblems. This isn’t an attempt to eventually wipe the slate clean of all things Buick, assures GM—the company that in the last two decades has shuttered Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Saturn, Saab, and Hummer. Instead, we’re told, the Tri-Shield logo that appears on all new Buicks is recognizable enough to stand alone, thus making the name “Buick” redundant. Yes, we hear it too. The sound of David Dunbar rolling in his grave.As bleak as the future looks, the historic, collectible vehicles of Buick, Oldsmobile, and Pontiac, are alive and well thanks to the efforts of passionate enthusiasts—several of whom work for Hemmings. Recently, we went around the virtual room (the offices in Bennington, Vermont, are still closed and we’re all working remotely) to determine which B-O-P vehicles from the last 100-plus years intrigue us the most. It was tough to narrow it down, but here’s what we came up with.
1910 Buick Model 10
Early in its history, Buick was in a tight race for the number-one slot in the domestic auto industry, spearheaded by its Model 10. Introduced in 1908, it used an 88-inch-wheelbase chassis that cradled a 165-cu.in. four-cylinder engine and two-speed planetary transmission. Noted for its ease of control, the model’s standard equipment included acetylene headlamps, oil-burning side and taillamps, and a bulb horn, all at a very attractive $900 price tag. Buick built 4,002 Model 10s in ’08, which climbed to 8,100 a year later when its wheelbase was lengthened to 92 inches, coupled with the expansion from one to three body styles. Bolstered by its success in race trim, along with improved cooling by changing from a gear-driven water pump to a centrifugal type, the Model 10 reached its popularity zenith in 1910 when an impressive 11,000 units were built—more than a third of Buick’s staggering 30,525- unit output for the year. That was enough to catapult the Flint-based company to first place in the industry. —Matthew Litwin
Automotive history books are brimming with iconic vehicle names, both domestic and foreign, that have left an endearing legacy in the minds of millions. They’ve originated from all eras, no matter how narrow or broad each is defined: brass, prewar, postwar, and so on. And while each era can arguably claim a rich legacy like no other, perhaps some of the most indelible names appeared when the first, true postwar designs from Detroit emerged in the late 1948-’51 period.Take General Motors, for instance, and its collaboration with Fisher Body that resulted in the first mass-produced hardtop body style.
Buick took full advantage of it in 1949, using it first in the Roadmaster series when the Riviera moniker was applied to the striking design. Cadillac called its hardtop the Coupe de Ville within the Series 62 line, while Oldsmobile chose to name its hardtop the Holiday coupe. Chevrolet’s Styleline series received the Fisher hardtop a year later and called it the Bel Air. The same year, Pontiac’s Chieftain Eight and upscale De Luxe Eight lines received the hardtop, which was bestowed with the Catalina name.In due time, nearly all the carefully selected hardtop names—which obviously or subliminally provided a greater sense of exotic driving pleasure— graduated from trim level nomenclature to full-fledged stand-alone series.
Among them was Catalina, which became Pontiac’s new entry-level model when it replaced the Chieftain line in a calculated move that coincided with GM’s corporate-wide 1959 redesign. The all-new Catalina, offered in five body styles (in addition to six- and nine-passenger station wagons), all with a bevy of standard equipment and a price tag that ranged between $2,633 and $3,209, attracted 231,561 buyers in its freshman year. It also eclipsed the prior year’s Chieftain series by nearly 103,000 units.
With its brilliant melding of style and performance, this GM division left a lasting impact
In 1926, Pontiac was born from GM division Oakland to fill a niche, specifically the spot in the brand hierarchy above Chevrolet but below Oldsmobile. It thrived from the beginning by emphasizing value, soon rendering its parent division obsolete. Over the decades, Pontiac was associated with many things—style and reliability to name a few, but it wasn’t until Bunkie Knudsen began to rework the division’s image in 1956 that performance really came to the forefront. The 1957 Bonneville was intended to send a message to the world that Pontiac was a performance brand, and soon the division was promoting its Wide-Track stance, which delivered longer and lower looks and improved handling. The Pontiac V-8 continued to gain larger displacement variants and more power, and had developed a reputation on the street and on racetracks for its power production. Then, in 1964, John DeLorean snuck an A-body option package called “GTO” past company brass, installing a 389 V-8 in an intermediate chassis in direct conflict with corporate edicts. The muscle car era shifted into gear. For the next few decades, Pontiac was GM’s “Excitement” brand, delivering performance and style at an affordable price across a variety of segments. Sadly, the 2008 economic downturn hit GM hard, and one of the casualties was the shuttering of the Pontiac brand, even as it was offering the exciting V-8/rear-drive G8 sport sedan and sporty Solstice two-seater. Gone but never forgotten, Pontiac lives on through its memorable automobiles and ever-loyal fans, many of whom have shared their own Pontiac stories with us for our Special Section dedicated to this legendary marque.