Move over Chevy, there’s a significantly cooler Tri-5 convertible that the classic car hobby is finally starting to respect
Cars like this stunning 1956 Pontiac Star Chief Custom Convertible represent a striking alternative to the usual ’50s vintage cars seen at car shows. Priced more reasonably than a comparable Bel Air, you get luxurious styling in a bigger package, more horsepower from a 316 “Strato Streak” V8, and a mature and refined look that appeals to us with a bit of gray around the temples.
Based on the Chieftan, the Star Chief was Pontiac’s prestige model that was 2-inches lower than all other Pontiacs and featured loads of style. The mid-50s was a crucial time for Pontiac that ushered in a completely new design for its already successful Chieftain, and ’56 further revised the bold looks under the tutelage of GM Bunkie Knudson and his all-new design team. Examples like this gorgeous 2nd gen droptop with its heavy-duty bumper-grille combo, enclosed circular parking lights, and bomb-type bumper guards were instrumental in starting off Pontiac’s Tri-5 excellence with a bang. Crisper, smoother, and featuring a lower bodyline than its predecessor, it features lots of iconic trim (although some was deleted during the resto) and a flashy profile. This particular droptop, dubbed ‘My Blue Heaven’, was beautifully rendered during its comprehensive restoration and boasts the added flash of chrome side pipes, a continental kit with eponymous airbrush work, and an even lower body thanks to a 2-inch suspension drop. The resulting look is breathtaking, with curb appeal unmatched by just about any other convertible in our showroom. Flashy pastel paint jobs were all the craze in the 1950’s, and we absolutely love how the Code JJ Vista Blue finish covers that smooth body – a perfect choice for any lover of the era. The warm color hugs the long car’s curves, and the finish is well above average for this top-end driver quality droptop that garners attention everywhere it goes. Any signs of age or use are hard to find, with the only minor complaints we could find hiding in the door jambs and under the hood, although this isn’t some perfect show pony that shouldn’t ever be driven – this Poncho was built to cruise. It fits together quite nicely, with great gaps and doors that close with reassuring solidity, and since there are practically zero reproduction pieces for this car, you know it’s always led a good life. The custom trim and brightwork are dynamic, from the tapered slash moldings and straightened ‘Sweepspear’ trim on the profile, the shaved hood and door handles, to the highline windshield stainless and rocket taillights, all of which are dead giveaways that this is a top-of-the-line vehicle. A small fortune went to the chrome shop, where the bumpers, grille, and the rest of the ornamentation were restored to excellent standards, helping this car put any Bel Air to shame at the car show.
One look inside and you can see why so many people fell in love with the simple elegance and beautiful design of Pontiacs from the ’50s. The restored blue two-tone seats were reupholstered in luxurious vinyl, using a pattern that’s right for the era and remains all-day comfortable with practically zero signs of use. The chrome-laden, two-tone dashboard is mostly stock aside from those cool ‘hard candy’ style knobs and switches, the period-perfect gauges are about as ornate as you’ll ever find, and although that killer two-tone steering wheel was borrowed from a ’61 Chevrolet, it’s a natural fit. Thick blue carpets on the floor use a plush weave and nap while the matching blue dash pad and two-tone door panels are all in excellent condition and help tie in the entire cabin together. Factory options are relatively sparse inside (as was the case for most cars in this era) although you do get power locks, power steering, an electric clock and electric antenna hooked up to the original AM radio (needs service), and a power convertible top. That vinyl dark blue top is in excellent shape, and stores neatly underneath a matching vinyl boot that’s a perfect contrast to the light finish. Out back, the neatly finished trunk was painted to match the car and finished with plush carpet.
The Pontiac was only a little bigger than the Chevy, but the 317 (316.6) cubic inch overhead valve V8 was definitely stronger than Chevy’s 283, and this particular non-numbers cast-iron block was bored to 350 cubes and rebuilt to factory specs that exceed the original 227 base horsepower ratings. Add in the factory-style Rochester 4-barrel carburetor and custom Cadillac air cleaner finished to match the continental kit, and you have a high-profile cruiser that can run with the best of them. It’s neatly finished under the hood with chrome valve covers, black inner fenders and a light blue firewall, and factory components everywhere you look. The healthy small block is backed by the virtually indestructible Strato-Flight Hydra-Matic 4-speed automatic transmission with controlled coupling whose crisp shifts are a true mechanical pleasure, and it spins a 3.23 geared rear end that’s perfect for highway cruising. It starts quickly and pulls hard through the factory gears with a terrific V8 soundtrack from the dual exhaust pipes that exit underneath the rear bumper and through the side pipes. Power steering and responsive drum brakes ensure a wonderful ride quality each time, and despite the big body, this Poncho actually handles quite well. A clean and incredibly solid frame/undercarriage reinforce the idea that this has always been a solid car, and with 2-inch lowered body atop Colorado Custom wheels shod with 215/75/15 whitewall radials, it rides and handles superbly.
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Location: Fort Worth, Texas, United States