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Pontiac’s Wide-Track first wowed buyers 60 years ago

Published in blog.hemmings.com

The team of Fitz and Van (Art Fitzpatrick and Van Kaufman) created highly praised advertising artwork for Pontiac in this era. Vintage artwork courtesy of the Automotive History Preservation Society.

After getting an eyeful of Plymouth’s 1957 offerings featuring Chrysler’s “Forward Look,” GM stylists changed direction for the 1959 designs and ultimately penned the classic bolder, lower-longer-wider lines that many revere today. Pontiac went wider between the wheels than the rest, and “Wide-Track” was born.

The division also introduced a dramatic split-grille front-end theme that, despite going on hiatus for 1960, returned for 1961 and became a defining styling element for most Pontiacs until the division’s demise five decades later. The twin-fin rear styling would only last one year, however.

The Chieftain and Super Chief names were retired for 1959, and the Catalina, which was previously the designation for two-door hardtops, graduated to a series. Thus, the entry-level Catalina, mid-priced Star Chief, and top-tier Bonneville (now with additional body styles) comprised the three lines. Each differed in equipment and trim, and the latter two featured a longer wheelbase and wider taillamps. Availability varied by series of the two-door sedan, hardtop, and convertible; four-door sedan and beautifully styled Vista hardtop with a flat roof, thin C-pillars, and wraparound backlite; and the Safari six- and nine-passenger station wagons.

For General Manager Semon “Bunkie” Knudsen, this would be the first Pontiac line fully developed under his supervision since he arrived in the summer of 1956 with a plan to revitalize the division’s models through youthful styling and increased performance. During a Saturday morning walk-around of the ’59’s clay model in the styling section with Chief Engineer Pete Estes, the Wide-Track concept was born. Knudsen shared the story with me for a 1994 interview for High Performance Pontiac magazine.

“At that time, although the body styling was very appealing with the normal tread, the new Pontiac looked like a football player in ballet shoes,” Knudsen recalled. “Pete and I moved the wheels out as a styling measure and it looked fantastic. We checked it out and found that the cost to make the change was minimal, so we went ahead and it was well worth it.”

This General Mills sweepstakes ad provides a view of many of Pontiac’s 1959 models.

Consequently, when the 1959 Pontiacs went into production, the front track was about 5-inches wider than the 1958 models, and in the rear, it was just over 4½-inches wider. The aggressive appearance that resulted, combined with shrewd marketing, helped to sell cars, but an additional benefit was improved stability on the road.

Working with the wider 63.72-inch front track was a conventional short/long arm independent suspension featuring ball joints, low-rate coil springs, shocks, and an anti-roll bar. Anti-dive control when braking was also improved.

The rear axle was located by a pair of lower control arms and a U-shaped upper arm. Low-rate coil springs and angle-mounted shocks were employed, and the rear track measured 64 inches. Bias-ply 8.00 x 14 tires were standard, but 8.50 x 14s were used on station wagons.

A recirculating ball-bearing gear-type steering system provided an overall ratio of 29:1; that was reduced in effort and ratio (to 22:1) when optional power steering was ordered.

Revisions to the X-frame’s design were said to add rigidity, and though the wheelbases remained the same as 1958, the ’59 bodies were a few-to-several inches longer depending upon the series. Riding on a 122-inch wheelbase, Catalinas were 214.3-inches long, and the Bonneville Custom Safari and Catalina Safari station wagons were 213.7-inches long. Star Chiefs, and now Bonnevilles, used a longer 124-inch wheelbase and were 220.7-inches long. Width increased to 80 inches over 77.4 inches for 1958.

Famed automotive journalist Tom McCahill made the NASCAR-sanctioned Pontiac Coast-To-Coast Economy Run, which extolled the fuel efficiency of the new Tempest 420E V-8 (215-hp 389-cu.in. economy engine), and the division promoted it with this two-page spread.

Attributes of the 1959 Pontiac included more than simply the wider track, however. For instance, braking was improved via multiple design updates. The front drum diameter was reduced from 12 inches to 11 inches, but they were also widened to 2½-inches. Reductions in fade were realized via additional air circulation around the outside of the smaller-diameter drum because it wasn’t as close to the inside of the wheel as it was the previous year, a new cooling flange adorned each front drum, and a cooling groove ran around the middle of the front brake shoes. Rear drums remained at 11 inches but were also widened to 2 inches. The drum’s friction area was moved an inch inboard relative to the wheel to further improve cooling.

Engine size grew to 389-cu.in. from 370 via an increase in stroke to 3.75 inches. Main bearing journal size was enlarged to 3.00-inches, the block’s bulkheads were reinforced, and engine mount locations were revised to reduce vibrations.

Though only one displacement was offered, engine output choices were abundant for what Pontiac called the “Tempest 420” V-8s. Ahead of the standard column-shifted three-speed manual transmission was a 245-hp 8.6:1 compression ratio two-barrel engine in the Catalina and Star Chief and a 260-hp four-barrel version in the Bonneville. When the improved-for-1959 four-speed Super Hydra-Matic transmission was specified, a 10:1 compression ratio 280-hp two-barrel was installed in the Catalina and Star Chief, and the Bonneville was equipped with the 300-hp four-barrel. The 260-hp and 300-hp engines were also optional for the Catalina and Star Chief.

Extra-cost high-performance 389s included the 10.5:1 compression-ratio 315-hp Tri-Power for the street, and the 420A 330-hp four-barrel and 420A 345-hp Tri-Power built primarily for racing.  A 420E 215-hp 8.6:1 compression-ratio economy engine was also offered at no additional charge.

Various rear gear ratios were employed to best match the engine and transmission choices, and the Safe-T-Track (limited-slip) differential was optional.

Though the Bonneville appears to be stopped, the impression is that it just negotiated those curves behind it—with Wide-Track!

Interiors were redesigned and now featured a three-pod panel for instruments and warning lamps among many other updates over the previous year. Trim, equipment, and upholstery styles and types varied among the different series.

The 1959 Pontiac’s modern styling, Wide-Track (which would live on as a marketing term for decades), and performance attributes were acknowledged by Motor Trend magazine, which declared it the car of the year.

Pontiac sales skyrocketed to 383,320 for the 1959 models, propelling the division from sixth to fourth place and crushing the 1958 total of 217,303. But to be fair, 1958 was also a recession year. Today, the ’59s remain collectibles and provide historical evidence of Pontiac’s success in an era when the division was emerging as a trend setter in the auto industry.