1959 Pontiac Bonneville | Hemmings Motor News

29 Jan 2015 | Author: | Comments Off on 1959 Pontiac Bonneville | Hemmings Motor News
Pontiac Bonneville

Collectors recognize 1959 as the year that Pontiac turned the corner

Buyer’s Guide from Hemmings Motor News

Pontiac was GM’s shining star in 1959 and the refinements that set the brand apart in the Eisenhower era are still dazzling collectors today.

In looks and behavior, the Pontiac, in a manner of speaking has moved into a better neighborhood, Popular Science wrote of the all-new 1959 models. It’s no longer merely an older, gawky brother of the Chevrolet.

Wide Track was a new buzzword cooked up by Pontiac’s advertising agency to draw attention to the big car’s broad stance. The old 347-cu.in. and 370-cu.in. engines were out, in favor of the now-legendary 389–the only powerplant available, but in six different horsepower ratings. Pontiac’s signature split grille made its debut in 1959, while the familiar silver streaks and Indian-themed ornaments were gone.

The entire lineup was reworked as well, for 1959, reflecting Pontiac’s new direction: The Catalina was now the entry-level car, replacing the Chieftain; the Super Chief was gone and the Star Chief Custom was renamed Star Chief; the Safari wagon was promoted to the Bonneville series and Bonneville gained a four-door Vista hardtop; finally, convertibles were offered in the Catalina and Bonneville lines.

In all, there were 14 styles, ranging from the Catalina two-door sport sedan, the value leader at $2,633, all the way up to the top-of-the-line Bonneville Custom Safari Wagon, which started at $3,532. From there, you could start piling on the options: Circ-L-Aire Conditioning climate control; Sportable Transistor Radio, a radio that could be pulled from the dash to serve as a portable radio; power windows; E-Z-Eye tinted glass; six-way power seats; and Wonder Touch power brakes.

The buying public responded to the makeover, snapping up 382,940 Pontiacs in 1959 compared to 216,982 in 1958. The division’s market share moved up a percentage point, and the company went from sixth to fourth place in the industry–foretelling Pontiac’s ascendance as GM’s sophisticated performance brand through the 1960s.

This was a complete turnaround from where Pontiac was in the years immediately following WWII. In the post-war years, Pontiac picked up where the company left off before the war–building good, reliable cars with flathead straight-six and straight-eight engines, that were anything but exciting. That needed to change, and Pontiac started developing V-8 engines in 1949, but didn’t produce a car with a V-8 until 1955.

In 1956, Semon E. Bunkie Knudsen, son of former GM president William S. Knudsen and an engineer, took the helm as Pontiac’s general manager. Faced with the challenge of remaking the company’s stodgy image, he ordered the signature silver streaks 86’ed for 1957 and enlisted the aid of a group of forward-thinking enthusiasts who would become synonymous with the brand’s new image: engineers E.M. Pete Estes and John Z. DeLorean, as well as ad man Jim Wangers.

Midway through ’56, dual carburetors and aggressive camshafts woke up sleepy Pontiacs, and soon the cars joined the rest of Detroit on the oval tracks and drag strips of America.

The tipping point was 1959, and the Bonneville was leading the charge. Compared to the Impala’s somewhat confusing, over-the-top styling, the Bonneville looked contemporary and relatively clean.

The car’s look benefited greatly from the decision to move the wheels further outboard than the rest of GM’s full-size X-frame cars. While new wide-bodied Chevrolets seemed to have their wheels sunk deep inside the wells, Wide Track Pontiacs looked right from all angles. The media, too, responded enthusiastically.

Wide Track is the outstanding automotive advance of the year. We firmly believe that in moving the wheels farther apart, to develop the widest stance of any American car, Pontiac has created an entirely new sense of balance of handling security.

The Wide Track era had begun, and the term would resonate with Pontiac buyers until the division stopped producing cars at the end of 2009. Collectors today treasure 1959 Pontiacs, though the cars don’t enjoy the widespread popularity of Chevrolet’s X-frame cars. What that means to buyers is that you might find Bonnevilles priced slightly less than similarly equipped Impalas, even though they are arguably superior cars to drive.

Restoring a Pontiac of this vintage can be slightly more expensive and more difficult than restoring a Chevrolet, as the aftermarket support isn’t as vast, and commercial parts vendors specializing in Pontiac full-size car parts aren’t as plentiful. None of this is necessarily a bad thing, though, especially if you like the thought of owning and driving a unique car.

Full-size GM cars of this vintage tend to rust in the lower front fenders, lower portions of the door skins, rocker panels and around the rear wheel wells. The floor pans and trunk pans are also susceptible to rust. Floor panels specific to full-size 1959 Pontiacs are available from the aftermarket.

At one time, patch panels for fenders were being produced, but as of this writing we had difficulty finding anyone manufacturing them. (We did, however, find some leftover panels available for sale on the internet.) Rocker panels are being manufactured, as are trunk floor repair panels.

Hoods, fenders, doors, quarter panels, bumpers and trim will all have to be hunted up used.

If you’re considering a project, paying a little more for a car with a rust-free body and its trim intact would pay dividends down the road.

Full-size Pontiacs rode on an X-frame chassis with coil springs at all four corners. Catalina and Bonneville Custom Safaris rode on a 122-inch wheelbase, while Star Chiefs and Bonnevilles (except Safari) rode on a 124-inch wheelbase. The tread width up front was 63.72 inches and 64 inches in the rear. (By comparison, the stance of the 1958 Pontiacs was about 59 inches wide.) A Saginaw steering box was standard issue across the board; optional power assist was provided by a small hydraulic ram attached to the steering linkage.

As an option, Pontiac offered its Ever-Level Air suspension with four independent cylindrical air chambers, a high-pressure air tank, compressor, and levelizer valves. The system proved troublesome, however, and most were replaced with conventional springs.

Full-size Pontiacs used 11-inch front and rear drum brakes with a single chamber master cylinder and optional vacuum assist.

Everything you need to make your 1959 Pontiac drive, handle and stop as good as new is available, in many cases from your corner parts store. Chassis work on a post-war GM car is approachable for the DIY’er as well.

Pontiac Bonneville

Engine and Drivetrain

There were several different production versions of the 389 offered in 1959 (excluding the two racing versions) ranging from 215hp to 315hp. All were based on the same short-stroke design, with a cast-iron block and cast-iron heads, but used different camshafts, carburetion setups and compression ratios to conjure increasing levels of power. On the entry-level end was the base Tempest 420-E with a two-barrel carburetor and 8.6:1 compression conspiring to make 215hp.

Pontiacs with this engine also used a prairie-tackling 2.87:1 final drive ratio. Automotive writer Tom McCahill made a coast-to-coast dash in a Catalina equipped with this powertrain and averaged 21.7 MPG over 60.72 hours and 2,442.7 miles of driving.

One step up from the economy engine was the 245hp engine standard on the Catalina and Star Chief (with manual transmission); followed by the 260hp engine standard on the Bonneville (with manual transmission); the 280hp engine used in the Catalina and Star Chief with an automatic transmission; the 300hp four-barrel engine used in the Bonneville (with Hydra-Matic) and optional on others. Finally, at the top of the performance heap for regular production Pontiacs was the 315hp Tri-Power engine.

To further up the ante over Chevrolet’s two-speed Powerglide transmission, Pontiac offered the four-speed Hydra-Matic as an option over the base three-speed-manual synchromesh. The standard rear-axle ratio with the three-speed manual was 3.23:1. With the Hydra-Matic, the standard rear-axle ratio was a 3.08:1 (except with the Tempest 420-E).

Pontiac engine and drivetrain parts aren’t difficult to find, and the components are easily serviced. Properly set-up and maintained, the engines, transmissions and rear axles will withstand untold years and miles of driving.


Legroom, hip room and headroom were emphasized during the design of the ’59 Pontiacs, so even full-figured drivers won’t feel cramped behind the wheel. Though the number of available options was down overall from the year prior, Pontiac drivers hardly felt like they were roughing it: Power windows, a power adjustable seat, tinted glass, a removable Sportable Transistor Radio and air conditioning were all available.

Upholstery included Morrokide (vinyl) with nylon pattern cloth, three-tone Morrokide, two-tone Morrokide and Morrokide with Jacquard woven nylon faced cloth. There are companies who specialize in interior for vintage Pontiacs and sell seat upholstery kits for Bonnevilles and others. There are also companies that offer headliners, carpet kits and OEM style upholstery by the yard.

The Pontiac Parts, Services etc. and Services Offered sections of Hemmings are good places to begin looking for interior specialists if you’re embarking on a restoration.

While 1959 Pontiacs might not enjoy the widespread popularity of their corporate stablemates from Chevrolet, they definitely make as bold a styling statement today as they did when new. Though 1959 Pontiacs are less commonly seen and less commonly restored than Chevrolets (and Fords), fans of GM’s luxury performance division are no less enthusiastic about their favorite cars, ensuring the future collectibility of post-war Pontiacs.


Brake drum — $99

Brake overhaul kit — $395

Pontiac Bonneville
Pontiac Bonneville

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