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    by Joe Oldham

ONTIAC'S glory story begins, like so many other Detroit sagas, in 1955. The year of Pontiac's first V-8.1 Yes, just like Chevrolet, although Chevy led the V-8 pack with a 1917 "bent Eight." There are actually quite a few parallels between the Pontiac and Chevrolet performance evolution and certainly the performance history of both marques begins in 1955.
      It seems slightly incredible now, through hindsight, that neither Pontiac nor Chevrolet had a V-8 engine before 1955 (except the 1917 Chevy). But Chevys and Pontiacs, especially Pontiacs, were not thought of as a "young man's car" and a big, rip-roaring V-8 engine was never deemed a necessity.
      Pontiac was quite content with its pre-'55 image of being a staid, almost stodgy manufacturer of solid, well-built cars. Not much performance, but plenty of utility. Simple chassis components, well-proven Six and Eight cylinder engines, extra quality where the price would allow and aggressive merchandising. About the most exciting thing about the Pontiac car was the Indian perched up on the hood! The car didn't excite many people but it did make a lot of money for General Motors. The stockholders liked the Pontiac Division very much.
      The first V-8, at 180 horsepower at 4600 rpm from 287 cubic inches, was not meant to be a hot performance option. The engine was only developed and offered because 1) Pontiacs were getting too big and too heavy to be pushed around by straight sixes and eights; and 2) everybody else was jumping on the V-8 bandwagon. Still, at 160 horsepower, the '55 Pontiac V-8 transformed the rather dry, old Indian into a lively performer. Zero-to-60 mph times dropped about five seconds with the new V-8 installed.

We fielded this '67 GeeTo in '67 and won many a trophy with CARS editor Marty Schorr at the helm. Car had Doug's tuned tubes, Goodyear rubber and Motion Dyno Tune.

      Yet, the turnaround was the personification of the too little too late syndrome. By '56, all of Detroit—or so it seemed at the time—was hot and heavy into racing and performance. All types of racing. NASCAR stocker racing, Pan American road racing, drag racing. Even with the engine bored out to 317 cubes for '56, Pontiac couldn't really compete with the big boys—and knew it. Yet they couldn't resist dabbling in the performance arena.
      For the Daytona Speed Weeks in February, 1956, Pontiac engineers designed an optional engine package around the 317 cube V-8. It had dual 4-barrel carbs, solid-lifter camshaft, 10-to-one compression ratio and some other goodies. Horsepower of this engine was rated 285 at 5100 rpm. Cotton Owens and Ed Kretz drove it to speeds of 132 mph on the sand, then had mechanical problems in the Grand National race. The car had potential but was also lots of trouble.
      June, 1956: Enter Semon E. "Bunkie" Knudsen. In June, Knudsen took over as general manager of Pontiac Motor Division and it's never been the same since!
      Knudsen had a theory. You can sell a young man's car to an old man but you can't sell an old man's car to a young man. Kundsen immediately committed Pontiac to building "a young man's car." . . . Build a young man's car and sell it to everybody!!    NEXT >

APRIL, 1973 CARS • 25
1Correction: for 1932 only, Pontiac offered an L-head 251 cu. in. V8, rated at 85 HP.
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