As this issue goes to press, General Motors is busily off-loading its last 450 new Pontiacs, most of them G6s. It’s hardly a fitting final act for a brand that gave us some of the twentieth century’s most memorable cars – the GTO, the Trans Am, and the Grand Prix, to name but a few. But Pontiac could have met a similarly ignoble end six decades ago, and thus never have even lived to see its glory days, if not for the success of one man, Semon E. “Bunkie” Knudsen, and one car, the 1959 Pontiac Bonneville.
For much of the 1950s, Pontiac was the weakest link in an otherwise indomitable GM juggernaut. The brand’s reputation for conservatism didn’t jibe with postwar America’s craving for glitz, glamour, and speed. Knudsen, an engineer and son of a former GM president, was named Pontiac’s general manager in 1956 and given five years to effect a turnaround. Knudsen knew that Pontiac couldn’t justify its existence as merely a nicer Chevrolet. Buick had already carved out a niche as the luxurious brand of choice among doctors; Oldsmobiles were renowned for their sophistication. Pontiacs, Knudsen decided, would be sporty. He immediately ordered the brand’s theretofore trademark (but frumpy) chrome striping on the hood and the trunk removed from every car and added a new top-of-the-line model, the Bonneville, to attract younger buyers. In defiance of an auto-industry gentlemen’s agreement banning racing, Knudsen committed to factory-backed NASCAR and NHRA teams, which soon enjoyed huge success thanks largely to the brand’s newly developed V-8. He also assembled a team of hard-core auto enthusiasts, from a young John De Lorean on the engineering side to ad man and drag racer Jim Wangers.
Knudsen’s efforts came to fruition in the 1959 model year. The all-new sheetmetal, developed under the auspices of Bill Mitchell, was the polar opposite of the baroque designs coming out of Chevrolet and Cadillac, with clean, sweeping lines and, for the first time, a split grille and an arrowhead hood ornament. Although all Pontiacs received the new styling, the most significant in terms of promoting the marque’s fast-living image was the Bonneville. Available as a two- or four-door hardtop, a station wagon, and a convertible, it stood apart from lesser Star Chiefs and Catalinas with special trim, more interior features (including a padded dash), and the brand’s most powerful four-barrel and Tri-Power V-8s with up to 345 gross hp. Knudsen loved the new look on prototype cars save for one flaw: the extremely broad body drooped awkwardly over the 1958-spec chassis. He thus demanded that the wheels be pushed out to the edges for a more aggressive look. “Quite frankly, it was done as a styling move,” admits Wangers. Nevertheless, the new car’s 64-inch track – the widest in the industry at the time – provided the perfect hook with which to sell Pontiac’s new performance image. Wangers and his team preached to the buying public the added handling, comfort, and security offered by Pontiac’s new “Wide-Track” lineup. It worked. Sales for ’59 increased by a remarkable 76 percent (to 383,320), and the once-stodgy brand caught the attention of America’s budding youth culture.
One of those young people was Milt Gordon of West Bloomfield, Michigan. He was nineteen when he fell hard for his father’s brand-new, white ’59 convertible. “It used to take me a whole day to wash it,” Gordon recalls. His nights were spent cruising in the grand Detroit tradition, drag-racing up and down Woodward Avenue with stops along the way to pick up food and girls.
In 1988, Gordon – today an orthodontist nearing retirement – sought to revisit those years and found a white Bonneville convertible of his own. He enjoyed driving it so much that he couldn’t resist snapping up the slightly nicer, more original red car that we sampled. The red Bonneville has the optional Tri-Power and bucket seats versus the white car’s single four-barrel and front bench.
Although its three two-barrel carburetors were in need of adjustment, the 389-cubic-inch V-8 had no trouble hustling the two-ton sled from a stop, and the four-speed Super Hydra-Matic provided silky-smooth shifts, even with 119,864 miles on the odometer. The car’s stance is quite broad even by modern standards, but the eight-inch-wide bias-ply tires hardly take advantage of it, which means that the convertible requires constant corrections from the large-diameter, thin-rimmed steering wheel just to maintain a steady course. (Gordon put radials on the more-often-driven white car, which he says makes a major improvement.) The Pontiac also doesn’t appreciate being asked to stop on short notice. And yet, when Gordon takes a turn behind the wheel, he’s able to tame the big Bonne’ with practiced ease, cruising along at 30 mph with his left arm propped comfortably on the A-pillar as the wind blows through our hair. More than fifty years on, the Bonneville still captures the feeling of carefree youth, although Gordon jokingly laments that he now sees only “old farts” driving them.
The ’59 Bonneville’s formula was simple – stunning style plus ample V-8 power and clever marketing equals sales and street cred. Pontiac would follow this simple method with wild success throughout the ’60s and ’70s before GM’s finance- and sales-oriented brand managers – Wangers calls them “little boys in men’s suits” – interfered and slowly but surely steered the brand to its death. The Bonneville nameplate itself departed five years ago, ending one of the longest uninterrupted runs in history. For Gordon and many others, that’s no matter. “I still think the ’59 Bonneville is the prettiest car ever made,” he says.
ENGINE: 6.4L V-8, 260/300/315/330/345 hp
TRANSMISSIONs: 3-speed manual 4-speed automatic
SUSPENSION, FRONT: Control arms, coil springs
SUSPENSION, REAR: Live axle, coil springs
WEIGHT: 4070 lb
Year produced: 1959
Number produced: 82,564 (including 11,426 convertibles)
Original price: 3478 (convertible)
Value today: $30,000-$85,000
(For convertibles; other body styles are generally worth less than half the value of droptops.)
Less common and better looking than contemporary Chevrolets, the ’59 Bonneville remains plentiful enough so as to be reasonably cheap and easy to maintain. (1960 Bonnevilles were mechanically identical and sold better but aren’t as pretty due to their awkward “coffin nose.”) And although it’s relatively tame compared with Pontiac’s later muscle cars, the classy Bonneville still exudes the swagger that made the brand such a trendsetter in the decade to come. Put the top down and let the pushrod V-8’s burble take you back in time.