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Monthly newsletter published by McLellan's Automotive History. Dedicated to literature collectors, restorers, museums, publishers, manufacturers and investors who collect and preserve automotive literature
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October 2009 Issue
 
ARTICLE
 
Pontiac Dream Cars of 1953, 1954 & 1955
By Larry Kummer
 
 

Larry KummerIt took a chance meeting with a 1940 Pontiac in a farmer's yard for Larry Kummer to get hitched for a lifetime. That was in 1979... As his connection with Pontiacs grew over the years, he made a decision to switch from his 'regular' work life, and make everything to do with the marque his life's work. Among other things, he runs PontiacRegistry.com — the world's largest source for Pontiac information, services and entertainment. (Read more about the author and his work at the end of this article.) — Ed.

 
 

Rather than think about all the gloom and doom we keep hearing concerning the U.S. auto manufacturing, let's sit back and take a look at the days when everyone was dreaming.... Dreaming of their bright futures in our great land, and of driving the amazing American Iron that was coming out of Detroit.

The manufacturers were dreaming too, and showing us their views of the future at huge Motorama Shows. Here we look at three of the earlier Pontiac "Dream Cars" - the 1953 Parisienne, the 1954 Strato Streak, and the 1955 Strato Star.

 

The other day, while sorting through a shelf full of Pontiac press releases and press kits, I found a number of packets released through the 1980s and 1990s of Pontiac’s more experimental vehicles. Some of them were really off the wall, and others were actually believable concept cars that might have been planned for development down the road. It’s always fun to look at what was viewed as futuristic, now that the future is actually here... still nobody is gliding on a cushion of air, or flying to work in a winged car though. This got me to thinking. These designs of recent times were just part of a long line, an evolution, of design for Pontiac. So, with that in mind, I went digging even deeper into the photo archives.

The first “Concept Cars” I found were the well known Club de Mer and Bonneville Special. We will take a look at these cars, but first I wanted to look at some of the not-so-well-known Pontiac cars. There are three of particular interest from the early years: the 1953 Parisienne, the 1954 Strato Streak, and the 1955 Strato Star. Let’s take a look at them now.

Article continued below...

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1950

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1954

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1955

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1957

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Continued from above...

1953 Pontiac Parisienne
Out of the three “Dream Cars” we are studying now, the Parisienne is the one that looks most like an actual production Pontiac. It was initially built for the 1953 GM Motorama and then updated for the 1954 Motorama, both at the New York City Waldorf-Astoria. That is what some say, however John Gunnell reports that there is no mention of the Parisienne at the 1954 Motorama, and suspects it was relegated to lesser shows and even dealer displays around the country.

Click for larger view
 

Parisienne elegance

At the 1953 NYC Motorama perhaps.
The car sat quite low...
   

It is reported that Paul W. Gillan, a principle stylist at Pontiac’s design studios gave the Parisienne its final concept and design modifications. There is nothing found on who gave it the “first” design concept, but it might be that Harley Earl had a hand in it... but we don’t know that for sure. From the looks of the drop down sill between the rear of the doors and the fenders, it looks like “Dutch “ Darrin had a hand in the design too. It is more likely a case of someone copying “Dutch’s” signature “dip” for a formal look. Henry Lauve, head of the color and interior studios, is credited with the exterior color and the interior design. He is also the one who chose the French name because he studied in Paris.

The Parisienne started its life as a regular production convertible body. From there it was extensively restyled with the fender dips, the openfront landau roof, and a wraparound windshield. Beyond that, the exterior revisions are rather cosmetic only, retaining most of the regular ‘53 trim and brightwork. However, there were definitely additional modifications made to drop the car to only seven inches off the ground, and with a height of only 56 inches. There has never been any reports of the body being “sectioned” or “channeled” over the frame, so until we know, it is assumed that it was all just suspension lowering.

The interior, while beautiful, was not anything futuristic. It was more or less what you could consider just customized. The front had two bucket seats made of pink Roulette leather, which also trimmed the roof lining. The rear was a full seat, and the entire seating area was trimmed in satin frieze with aluminum yarn.

The entire effect, while the car was supposed to look futuristic, was actually a throwback to a much earlier time when cars– even buggies much earlier– had open air leather trimmed chauffeur areas in front, and plush covered areas in the back for the well to do owner. A plexiglas dome is reported as being able to fit the open front area; but, no dome has been seen in any of the photos, or with the car. Was one ever made, or just talked about in the press statements? Regardless, it is a sure bet this car never saw the rain anyway!

For its original debut, the Parisienne was painted a jet black, and for its remake for 1954, it was changed to a pearl light-blue– some say gold (?). For ‘54 it was fitted with the new grille, but no other changes are reported. What makes for intriguing conjecture is how differently this car would have looked if it had been updated into the stretched Star Chief configuration for 1954. It would have been even more regal looking.

From a mechanical stand, the Parisienne was “factory” all the way. It sat on the production 122-inch wheelbase chassis and used the standard 122-horsepower, 268-cubic-inch stratght-8 flathead engine coupled to the Dual-Range Hydra-Matic transmission.

Today the 1953/54 Parisienne is one of the lucky “Dream Cars” that survived. Like all design and show concept cars from GM, this one was most likely slated for the crusher, or at best total dismantling. It is believed that the legendary GM designer Harley Earl took a fancy to the Parisienne and arranged for a relative to keep the car after it was done on the show circuit. Sometime later it ended up in the hands of a man in New Jersey who planned to restore it. It was seen at shows periodically, so it was obviously still in good, and operational condition for some time. Eventually Joe Bortz of the Chicago area purchased the Parisienne and gave it a full and accurate 1953 version restoration. It is now a part of the Bortz Collection of Dream and Concept Cars and is seen periodically at the more prestigious concours events around the country.

The Parisienne is a lucky car, and the hobbyists are even more lucky that this history behind this Pontiac “Dream Car” has been preserved for present and future generations to enjoy.

1954 Pontiac Strato Streak
The year 1954 saw Pontiac with two new “Dream Cars” on the show circuit– at least the major circuit–as the 1954 Motorama introduced the public to the Strato Streak and the Bonneville Special. Perhaps the introduction of the Strato Streak at the Motorama is further evidence to John Gunnell’s claim that the 1954 version of the Parisienne did not make the ‘54 Motorama as some believe. It certainly wouldn’t have served any purpose to have an updated (“outdated?”) last-year’s-car showing next to the all new Starto Streak.

Click for larger view
 

A clean design that still
looks modern today

Unique pillarless hardtop of the Strato
Streak and the swivel front bucket seat
   

It is obvious from first glance, this new concept car was something like never seen before from the design studios of Pontiac. It was a large four-place sedan of totally unfamiliar styling. Some say it was “European” in design, and while there is a hint of Ghia styling in the front treatment, that is where the European theme ends. The overall look seems to hint more to an advancement of the Hudson look from years before with the addition of yet-to-be-seen Cadillac Eldorado sloping rear fenders and a ‘58 GM slanted rear roof pillar design. And, what’s with the ‘57 Oldsmobile rear quarter windows? Obviously, this Strato Streak was the amalgamation of a lot of design ideas of what the most futuristic car, viewed in 1954, would entail.

Most striking of all, however, were the pillarless doors with the rear ones opening in “suicide” fashion. This was a throwback to at least 1940 with sedan rear opening doors, but updated with the now popular hardtop style. The structural support required by the elimination of the center pillar was made up by frame reinforcement. Weight was reduced by using fiberglass for the body, something still pretty new at this time, only recently gaining fame with the Corvette. This new medium sure sped up the body creation process for the design studios who used to have to hammer metal for entire new concept bodies. This new body stood only 54.5-inches tall and was slightly longer than the new ‘54 Star Chief at 214.3-inches.

The outside treatments were rather stark with limited use of chrome and ornamentation, although what there was reflected the ‘50s “rocket ship” era of design with louvers on the side and jet exhaust looking taillight housings. All considered, it was a clean design though that still looks modern today.

The interior of the Strato Streak was further characterized by the jet age look with a center console running from front to rear and housing many of the accessory controls and front and rear glove compartments. The front and rear seats were bucket style with the fronts swiveling for exit, and all trimmed in black patent leather and fabric. Similar four-bucket design would be seen in the ‘58 Bonnevilles still in the future. It is obvious that these “Dream Cars” were truly the things of new ideas and future production.

Engine choice for the ‘54 Strato Streak was again the venerable 268 cubic inch flat head straight eight. While the new V-8s were available at the time of the Strato Streak’s construction, and most likely undergoing the publicized 3,000,000 mile testing, it was not chosen for this concept car as it more than likely would have distracted new 1954 Pontiac shoppers from purchasing a soon-to-be obsolete engine, opting instead to wait for the ‘55s to come out. Not a good sales and marketing plan for sure.

Now, let’s take a look at the press release from Pontiac, and how they described the 1954 Strato Streak.

“A four-passenger, four-door hardtop, this exclusive show car incorporates many features which some day may be standard in the motor car of the future. Long and low, the Strato Streak’s aerodynamic lines are emphasized by windsplits which start on the roof and carry down the rear deck and are flanked by vertical twin taillights in each rear fender to give a jet exhaust effect. The car is 54.5 inches high, 214.3 inches long and 74.5 inches wide on a wheelbase of 124 inches. Modifications in the chassis and body design give passengers ample head and legroom, although the car is considerably lower than a 1954 production Pontiac.

The body of the car is of fiberglass, finished in metallic green. Beginning with the panoramic, vertical-pillar windshield, the passenger compartment is virtually surrounded with glass. There is no center pillar between the doors, windshield and backlight pillars are as narrow as possible consistent with required strength, and the wide rear window is supplemented by quadrant-shaped rear sidelights.

The four seats in the car are bucket-type, upholstered in beige-colored top grain leather and beige nylon cloth intertwined with gold metallic threads. The two front seats swivel 90 degrees for ease of entry and exit. The passenger compartment is ventilated through twin cowl air intakes and elliptical air outlets above the backlight.

Instruments are recessed in nacelles on the panel below a built-in safety cushion, while the windshield wiper and washer controls, cigar lighter and ashtray are located in the tunnel between the front seats. Pontiac’s famous Silver Streak is carried along the crown of each front fender and the same motif if followed in the chrome-ribbed side vents in each front fender, which are functional in providing extra engine ventilation.”

As with so many reports over the years, sometimes there is misinformation. In one report the above mentioned
side vents are described as simulated, which may be true. Often times these press releases were put out before the actual car was completed (so things changed, or didn’t happen as planned), or they were written by people not completely knowledgable of the actual car.

Interestingly, the name “Strato Streak” did in fact become related to the new OHV V-8 as that became the engine’s name with its introduction in 1955 and for some years to come. The Strato Streak that began life as a metallic green was later painted iridescent metallic red and renamed the Strato Streak II.

The Strato Streak’s most distinctive styling feature, the pillarless doors, was not new at GM. The 1953 Cadillac “Orleans” show car had center opening four-door styling. However, what might be extra unique to the Strato Streak is that there were no latching mechanisms at all protruding from the floor. It appears that the Strato Streak’s doors latched at the bottom in the rocker panel area, and in some fashion at the top below the drip rail. While we do not know how the Orleans was configured, it is a pretty safe bet, based on the photo here of the 1957 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham, that there was a cumbersome structure sticking up from the floor... not to cool looking. You can chrome plate it, but it still looks like a piece of an old iron bridge.

1955 Pontiac Strato Star
As everyone knows, 1955 was a milestone for Pontiac as it launched itself into an entirely new era of design and performance. Gone were the rounded bodies of the past, replaced by more angular shapes – although still considered to be quite bulbus by our standards today. But, nonetheless, the new Strato Star was a reflection of the new body designs introduced in 1955, and carried many similar features, especially in the front.

Click for larger view
 
The new Strato Star was a reflection of the new body designs introduced in 1955
   

The front did, of course, have one very different feature than the production Pontiac for ‘55– the headlights, which were set in pod-like nacelles running the length of the hood. But, the wraparound bumper sections defiantly smacked of ‘55 design, as well as the small eyebrow vents above the headlights. The Strato Star grille looks pretty 1956 Chevy-like, but we won’t go there.

The rest of this fiberglass bodied “Dream Car” had little in common with the production ‘55 Pontiac; as a matter of fact, it had no resemblance to anything Pontiac at all– unless of course you count the “Silver Streaks” on the hood which Pontiac just could not seem to part with. Most striking design-wise would undoubtedly be the huge carved out fender sides reminiscent of LeMans racing cars. And, as if that didn’t stand out enough, this silver bodied car had the carved out fender inner liners painted a bright red. Other stand out features included the generous use of glass all around offering nearly unobstructed 360-degree views, and the addition of vertical fins on the rear fenders which blended into taillight housings with fins on the bottom. It was still the era of rocket ship looking designs.

Inside the Strato Star, although a two-door, there was room for six comfortably. It was trimmed in red vinyl and utilized fiberglass panels for the insides of the doors–shades of things to come many years later on our cars of today with the stamped plastic door panels..? To ease the entry into this low–only 53-inches high–two-door, the front seat had three sections. The center was fixed allowing the two sides to be folded simultaneously for passengers to enter from both sides at the same time. And for added head clearance, six-inch panels in the roof raised up when the doors were opened.

The Strato Star was the first Pontiac concept car to finally get the all new OHV V-8 engine, which with tweaks like a 4-barrel, produced 235 horsepower. The production V-8 was only rated at 200 horsepower.

While the 1955 Strato Star was certainly a step above the Strato Streak and the Parisienne in the engine department, it is still easy to recognize its early 1950s heritage. All three would become an end of an era as the later ‘50s took off into even more radical styling trends.

Where are they Today?
As mentioned earlier, the 1953 Parisienne was lucky to have survived so well once its show circuit life was over. The 1954 Strato Streak and 1955 Strato Star were not so lucky. After their stint on the show trails, they were shuffled around in warehouses until, it is believed, new GM styling VP William Mitchell (succeeding the famous Harley Earl) had them destroyed. There is hope among many that these two Pontiac “Dream Cars” will surface one day, as others have, squirreled away in some Detroit garage or salvage yard. The time for their rediscovery is running out, but we can hope.

    ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Larry E. Kummer  
     
 

Although raised in a diehard Ford family, that all changed when Larry Kummer and his young family were vacationing in rural Kentucky in 1979. While searching the hillsides for an old Ford to restore, he stumbled across a car he had never seen before... a 1940 Pontiac Model 2519 in a farmer's yard. And so his love affair with Pontiacs began.

A trip back to Kentucky from his home at the time outside of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with a friend's car and a tow bar, began the Pontiac adventure. That 1940 Pontiac received a pretty good first-time restoration (featured on left), and became the car of choice for a young families' fun and vacation car traveling many miles to shows and conventions.

In the early '80s, after moving to Bradenton, Florida on the Gulf Coast, Larry's Pontiac connection grew as his new graphic arts and printing company took over the editorship of the small newsletter/magazine of the Pontiac-Oakland Club. Over the next 23+ years he took this piece up to a full-color 72-page glossy magazine and built the club to nearly 12,000 members. He had also taken on the task as the organization's club office manager and web master.

After deciding to sell his business and "retire" Larry continued his Pontiac hobby work by creating PontiacRegistry.com, an Internet based ALL Pontiac Club. There he continues to do what he enjoys most, researching and editing Pontiac articles, and helping the Pontiac hobbyplace in every way he can.

The web site continues to grow every day. One feature that he is most proud of took over six months to negotiate. But after all the hard work, PontiacRegistry.com was granted permission from General Motors to reproduce and post on-line every Pontiac Service Manual from 1926 through 1981. One day he hopes to have the largest (and probably only) on-line Pontiac Reference Library in the world.

PontiacRegistry.com is a work of love and commitment. If you are a Pontiac lover you will be overwhelmed by Larry's attention to detail and accuracy, and the sheer volume of information he has put together for just about everything on the make.

 
 
 
 
 
 
The Automotive Chronicles, October 2009
 
 
 
 
 
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