Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Pontiac Bonneville Special

The Pontiac Bonneville Special was a purpose-built, concept car that was unveiled at the General Motors Motorama in 1954 and was the first two-seater sports car that Pontiac had ever produced. Designed by renowned designer Harley J. Earl and hand built by Hommer LaGassey and Paul Gilland, the Special was an experimental car, a two door, grand touring sport coupé that incorporated innovative breakthrough styling like an all-plexi canopy with gull-wing panels on a sleek fiberglass body. Two Special prototypes, one painted metallic bronze and one emerald green, were built with the intention of unveiling them simultaneously at the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York and the Pan Pacific Auditorium in Los Angeles in 1954.

As of 2006, both cars still exist, belonging to Joseph Bortz of Highland Park, IL.


The design of the Special drew its visual impetus from America’s fascination with aeronautic and rocket design in the 1950s, employing a wind-tunnel inspired profile and high-tech bright work throughout the body, hood and grill. Glass covered recessed headlights, like those on the 1953 Corvette, two rows of louvers on the fenders and twin "silver-streaks" on the hood that lead to functional air scoops were it’s most distinguishing features. The rear end styling was its most over-the-top visual cue. Featured between two rather bold fender fins were ultramodern twin exhaust chrome-ports, similar to today’s Porsches, and a custom spare tire enclosure with space-age wheel disc that gave the car a jet-powered appearance.


Interior styling in the Special was state of the art for its time, and indeed would pass muster against today's computer-designed automobiles. The dashboard was a sleek, wing like design that incorporated a clean horizontal layout of working instruments that gave the interior a futuristic cockpit look. Even underneath the dash, the gauges were sealed in by a contoured metal facia with brushed finish, assuring by Earl that no detail would go unnoticed. Between unique, parabolic shaped, leather bucket seats lay a matching metal, center console with functionally modest gear shift handle, twin vent-control levers, and ignition key slot. Centered over the three spoke, Corvette-style steering wheel was a single, large speedometer that read a top speed of 120 mph. Passengers gained entry through conventional, lower doors and gull-wing panels, incorporated into the monocoque-style canopy, that swung upward.

Power plant

Under the hood lay the "Special"-8, a bored out, high output 268 in³ engine that was painted bright red and detailed in chrome. This was a unique configuration for the "eight", installed in the only two Specials ever made. Called the Silver Streak[3] in de-tuned production cars, it was Pontiac's most powerful engine to date in the early 1950s. Similar in appearance only, this was a high compression variant that was modified with a long-duration cam and aspirated naturally through four Carter YH side-draft, single barrel carburetors, the same used in the 1953 Corvette, under open-mesh breathers. Total output was the highest ever for the "eight", rated at 230 bhp, though some estimated it at over 300 bhp. Like the Special, only two of these remarkable variants were ever made. Gearing was controlled through a 4-speed Hydramatic automatic transmission.

Note: Pontiac’s new V8 was being considered for use in the Special but was instead held back by GM marketing. They directed that the straight-8 be used, to keep the "vee" a secret from consumers for one more year until its debut the following year.


Carry-overs from the Special that actually made it into production models

The name "Bonneville" was rumoured to have come from GM designer Harley Earl visiting the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. It was in fact the first car at GM to have been named after it, and would become Pontiac's top end performance platform for 47 years.

The silver-streaks would appear again as a pair on the 1955 and '56 Chieftains and Star Chiefs, not to mention Pontiac's concept car for 1956, the Club de Mer.

The twin scoops: Designed to channel cool air into the driver's compartment, they resurfaced again on both the 1967 Firebird and 1968 GTO.

The louvers: Emblazoned horizontally on the fenders behind the front wheel wells, they would appear again as vertical slits on the 1957 Star Chief Bonneville and 1965 [[Pontiac 2+2|2+2]].

The tail fins: A bold feature on the Special, they would be copied on the 1955 and '56 Pontiac.

The instruments: The 1958 Bonneville - '58 being the first full year for the Bonny - had a sleek instrument panel that looked a lot like the one in the Special.

The wheels: The finned wheel covers on the Special became a design cue for Pontiac's famous 8-lug, aluminium rims that were introduced in 1960.

The colour: It was undoubtedly being remembered when designing Pontiac's modern two-seater, the Solstice, which was also painted metallic bronze.

According to Special owner Joseph Bortz, the air in the tires, with the exception of a few top-ups, is the same air from 1954.

On January 24, 2006, one of the two Specials sold at a Barrett-Jackson auction for US $2.6 million.