Pontiac Star Chief
Reviewed by Unique Cars and Parts
Our Rating: 3
, the Star Chief was Pontiac's prestige model; the car was easily identified by its chrome star trim along its sides. When the storyline of I Love Lucy pointed towards a Hollywood setting in the 1954-1955 season, the characters "drove" (in episode 110, "California Here We Come") to the West Coast in a 1955 Star Chief convertible. In 1954, Pontiac also introduced air-conditioning
with all the components under the hood, a first for the price range.
Power to Go
GM’s Pontiac division made a concerted effort to gain a host of new owners in 1956
. How they went about getting more sales was apparent from driving any of the ’56 models, or from watching the changed philosophy in advertising. For many years, Pontiac were very quiet about performance; but this changed in 1956
when they openly bragged about "Flashing Getaway," and "Power to Go.” The boasting was justified too, as for 1956 there was considerable improvement in the Star Chiefs ability to move.
Under the hood the whopping 227-hp V8 sported many improvements over the ’55 model. Even the less expensive 860 and 870 models boasted five more hp than the '55 power-pack maximum of 200. This big jump in horsepower was the result of a bore increase to 3 15/16 inches from 3.25, giving a very substantial 316.6 cubic inch displacement. The compression ratio was upped from 8 to 8.9 to 1, while 7.9 was optional on manual shift models, through the use of a dished piston for operation with regular grade petrol.
Carburetion was improved by a new four-barrel pot with enlarged throats. More efficient breathing characteristics were accomplished by an improved intake manifold with less air restriction. A better performance index had been establioshed with use of a new cam on Hydra-Matic-equipped cars that allowed an increased lift and longer open period of the aluminium-treated valves
The Hydra-Matic Strato-Flight
The new Hydra-Matic Strato-Flight was a symphony in smoothness. Gone was the annoying jerk associated with its predecessors. Gear changes from second to third were practically impossible to detect under normal throttle, and from third to fourth there was absolutely no feel regardless of a wide open throttle. Down-shifts still retained their advantage of engine braking, but the process was devoid of mechanical clanks and whines. This was accomplished by use of a second fluid coupling and sprag clutch. A new P position on the quadrant offered the advantage of acting as a hill holder or parking brake. Unlike other parking pawls, this one let you start the engine in this position. To move ahead, normal gear selection was then made. An improved version of the '55 Hydra-Matic was offered on Pontiac’s 860 and 870 models.
The chassis remained basically the same as '55 but with improved shock-absorber valving providing a slightly softer action, full-length rear-spring liners, improved steering knuckle and support assembly. The power steering unit was redesigned for more compactness and turning resistance was cut from nine to 4.5 pounds pressure. Road feel has been retained, however. Heavier universal joints accommodated the increased engine torque. Body changes were confined to a minor face-lift and an increased length of two inches, adding to the illusion and feel that the Pontiac was a big car, while cutting down on park-ability.
On the Road
The Star Chief was always right up in the front ranks in ease of handling. All mudguards were visible from the driver's seat and the reduced effort required to turn the power-assisted wheel made parking an easy operation, provided you could find a big-enough space. Steering wheel, brake pedal and accelerator were conveniently placed for effortless operation. The transmission selector lever was conveniently-mounted on the steering column and could be flicked to any desired position with one finger without removing your hands from the wheel. The driving position was excellent with plenty of head, shoulder and leg-room. A redesigned front seat helped here, especially if you were fortunate enough to have the then new six-way power job. Regardless of the driver's physical characteristics, the power operated seat could be adjusted to make pretty much anyone comfortable. The windscreen corner-post, steering wheel and doorsill were all designed with the idea in mind that people had to be able to get in and out with ease.
Visibility in general was excellent – with the one exception. The four-door Catalina was in character with other hardtops in having a rear window that reduced visibility in the rear-view mirror to a ridiculous state unless you were willing to draw in your neck like a turtle. The well-placed side mirror overcame this to a degree. Back in the mid ‘50s windscreen distortion was always a problem, but that fitted to the Star Chief was remarkably free of distortion and was high enough to provide a a fantastic forward view. A tinted top edge reduced sun glare. The instruments and dash controls remained functional and easy to read. Pontiac retained its speedometer which showed a red area from 0 to the indicated speed. Radio controls, heater vent and wiper were easy to reach and simple to operate. The two-speed electric wipers produced the usual limited curved windscreen sweep. They were quiet and positive in operation. Centre-located glovebox, handy cigarette lighter, windscreen washer and clock with built-in accuracy, completed the conventional array of items that contribute to Detroit-type driving ease and comfort.
Behind the Wheel
Lack of wind wander or tram-track sway, better body stability and a softer ride, placed the Star Chief among the more stable of 1950s American built cars. With 227 hp under the bonnet ornament you couldn’t help but notice the eager performance potential that Pontiac's ads had been plugging. Acceleration was smooth and rapid enough for anyone not bent on qualifying for pole position at Indianapolis. Performance figures indicated an all-around increase in performance. In the passing range of 50 to 80 mph, 3.7 seconds were cut off the 1955 averages. Manually shifting from low to D3 to D4 range produced no appreciable decrease in time required to reach any given speed. Many similar tests of various automatic transmissions indicated that automatic gear changes could no longer be improved on by manually shifting through the various ranges.
To have flashing performance from 0 to 50 mph and a bucket of mush from 50 to 70 mph was not good, or even safe, performance. By comparison, the '56 Pontiac took a back seat to the ’55 models fuel economy. The marked horsepower increase cost more – particularly if you had a lead foot. But on the plus side, the 1956 Pontiac had more built-in readability that the ’55 model, putting it up among the top of the production-car list. The improved steering system gave more positive control, and while the shock valving was slightly softer than on the ‘55, this did not produce a soggy ride. You would feel the bumps but in a rather satisfying way. ''Solid and predictable" keynotes Pontiac's ride.
Body lean was held to a reasonable minimum and there was no flighty tendency to blaze a new trail in a tight turn. A deliberate breakaway could be corrected by a quick turn into the skid, providing you were on your toes. The power-plant had enough reserve to power you out of trouble (usually) if you missed the curve marker. Washboard surfaces were taken in stride and dips were negotiated without undue front-end oscillation. The power steering unit had a positive return-to-centre tendency that went a long way toward creating the feeling that you were in control. In an era long before traction control mud or ice could cause trouble due to the torque output at the wheels. Owners soon realised that a light foot was a must when accelerating under those conditions.
On the Inside
Getting in and out of the Star Chief was a cinch. The doors swung wide and the window sill was cut back far enough to avoid excessive body twists to clear the top. Seats both front and rear were firm and comfortable; and could be upholstered in an optional two-tone top grain leather. Head and shoulder room in the rear was ample for three people but legroom was barely adequate for the average person. Visibility from the rear seat was excellent and in the case of the hardtop the lack of a centre-post gave a feeling of spaciousness. They are politically incorrect today, but the fitment of rear ashtrays and good draft control added to the riding comforts of the rear seat passenger.
The Star Chief, like all Pontiacs from this era, were extremely well put together. Body panels fitted well and paint was a cut above average. Chrome trim was lined up from one panel to the next and was of good quality. There were air leaks around the windows that could produce some weird sounds at speed. Upholstery, floor mats and headliner were top quality in both material and workmanship. The padded dash was well fitted and interior door panels were protected from excessive wear by strategically placed chrome trim. Seat belts were added as options in 1956
Star Chief Custom Bonneville
, the high performance Star Chief Custom Bonneville was introduced as part of its divisional head's push to raise the marque out of the doldrums. The silver streaks running down the hood were dropped. All gauges where placed in an oval on the dash. In 1958, the Bonneville was first given its own position in the Pontiac lineup as the ultimate Pontiac, and was only available as a two-door hardtop and two-door convertible. While no longer Pontiac's prestige model, the Star Chief remained a well-appointed car. However, in 1959, when the Bonneville gained a full range of body styles, the Star Chief was limited to sedans and hardtops, while the Bonneville and the new Catalina models received the lion's share of Pontiac's attention in the marketplace.
, the Star Chief made 17.97% of Pontiac sales. This was also the first year of the "wide-track" Pontiac's. In the early 1960s, Star Chiefs were nearly identical to the Catalina, however, the Star Chief's engine output was higher. The Star Chief also came standard with interior trim upgrades, and it was built on the longer Bonneville platform. For 1962
, Pontiac offered a 421 cu in 7 litre Super Duty V8 with three two-barrel carburetors, rated at 405 hp (302 kW), as a US$2,250 option (when the base Star Chief listed at US$3,097). In 1966
the car was renamed the Star Chief Executive as the first step towards retiring the name, which by the mid-1960s had become dated. In 1967, Pontiac dropped the Star Chief name for United States sales and renamed the mid-priced model the Executive.