Dear Car Talk:
I just love your crummy column, and I really enjoy antique cars. My favorite is the 1956 Ford Fairlane Sunliner. However, I recently discovered the 1957 Pontiac Star Chief, and it’s quite a beautiful machine, as is the 1957 Bonneville.
But help me out ... other than some of the chrome detailing, those two Pontiacs look almost exactly the same. Why did Pontiac make two different models that look the same? And please don’t use too much engine-ology in your answer; engine specifics make my eyes glaze over. Thanks. --Jeanette
Engine specifics make my eyes glaze over, too. That’s why the guys at the shop will sometimes find me deep into a nap while working on a car, and they’ll have to sneak up and give me a shot in the rear end with the air wrench to snap me out of it.
Car names are a mess, Jeanette. Manufacturers slap them on and remove them at will. So it almost takes a Kremlinologist to figure out what was what. But here’s what we can tell you about the Pontiacs that interest you.
The 1957 Star Chief was Pontiac’s top of the line model at the time. And the convertible version of it was a very pretty car. In fact, if you were a fan of the sitcom “I Love Lucy,” you may remember that the car Lucy, Ricky, Fred and Ethel drove to California on the show was a Pontiac Star Chief (a 1955).
Anyway, Pontiac’s sales were in the dumps at that time. So, to try to goose them, Pontiac created a new, high-performance version of the Star Chief Convertible. They loaded it with every conceivable option, put a crazy-high price on it ($5,782), and called it ... the Star Chief Custom Bonneville. So the Bonneville was just a high-end version of the Sky Chief in 1957. That’s why you’re having a hard time telling them apart. They’re the same car.
The following year, in 1958, Pontiac decided to make the Bonneville its own, separate model. They stripped out all the expensive options they’d put in the previous year and lowered the base price to around $3,000.
By the way, you have very good taste, Jeannette. A well-maintained ’57 Star Chief Bonneville would probably run you about $150,000 these days.
For a mere fifth of that, you can pick up that Fairlane Sunliner. Start hinting for your next birthday now.