Doubting the existence of a factory prototype.
Photos by the author
here was a lot of creative thinking going on at Pontiac Motor Division in the 1957-58 period after Bunkie Knudsen came aboard. In the showroom, buyers could find cars with fuel injection, air suspension, acrylic lacquer-finished nose clips, etc. Behind the scenes, Pontiac was experimenting with a 4-speed floor shift, rear-mounted transaxles (a '57 with one was pictured in Motor Trend) and supercharging (with Mickey Thompson and Briggs Cunningham).
Technical papers put out by PMD engineers at that time reflect the great emphasis placed on research and development by the new Knudsen/Estes/DeLorean team. My files contain reports made by G.A. Rock, Hulki Aldikacti and others for the product engineering department. They discuss various experimental concepts and systems. In fact, there was so much creative activity that, on Feb. 28, 1957, J.L.R. Bennett of Product Engineering presented a 33-page speech titled, "The Preparation and Reporting of Experimental Laboratory Test Data" at a PMD engineers' forum. (This presentation covered topics such as titling an engineering document, how to expand your vocabulary and the wisdom of avoiding dated words in a paper that could be referenced five or ten years down the road. It cited "configuration" as a word that engineers were abusing at the time.)
With so much experimentation going on, it seems perfectly logical that Pontiac built special cars at this time. Therefore, I should have believed a story I kept hearing over and over again.
It concerned the existence of a "half '57-half '58" Pontiac factory prototype in a small Wisconsin town. Unfortunately, this listener remained a "doubting Thomas" for too many years. I simply could not buy the idea that a factory prototype could wind up in Eagle River!
Eagle River, Wis., lies in the northeast quadrant of the state, not far from the Canadian border. It's an area renowned for its north-woods lumberjack breakfasts, winter sleigh riding and the world's "holiest" sport-ice fishing. It's best known, though, for the World Championship Snowmobile Derby, held there each year in mid-January. The town does have a collector car show every fall (before Halloween, of course) and two auto restoration shops. Everyone figures the shops wound up there because there's not much else to do in the winter but work.
It was probably one of tire restorers who first mentioned the hybrid Pontiac to me. He was sure that it had a '58 front end mated to a '57 tail. "And it's a special model, too," the car rebuilder insisted. "A Bonneville, or something like that, with fuel injection straight from the factory."
Naturally, when someone tells you about a factory prototype being in Eagle River, you just assume that the cold has frozen up their cerebral fluids. And when you try to picture a car that's one year on one end and a second year on the other, you figure that it's a "clip job." People used to do a lot of that 35 years ago--for example, fixing up a '55 Chevy convertible with front end damage by mating it with a '56 Chevy front clip.
This doubting Thomas had the story all figured out ... until I received a recent letter from Charles Berg.
He sent photos and information about a car that he owned--an unusual 1957 Pontiac Bonneville. He had purchased it from his father-in-law in 1987. Everything on it, except the FM radio, is origi-nal equipment. This includes the quad headlamps, color coordinat-ed bumper bullets, and the interior with front bucket seats and a center console.
The car (serial number P857H31975) was sold on Dec. 1, 1957, and invoiced as a used car 18 days later. A salesman named Williams, who worked at Peter Epsteen Pontiac of Skokie, Ill., handled the transaction. The selling price was $4,514.56, plus $135.44 sales tax for a total of $4,650. A trade-in allowance of $650 was issued for a 1951 Cadillac. This made the settlement balance for the Bonneville just $4,000. It was quite a deal, considering that a new Bonneville listed for $5,782.39 without tax.
Nothing in the used car paperwork mentions anything about the car being special, except to the extent that it's shown as a 1957 Pontiac Bonneville convertible. The special interior, headlamps and trim features aren't listed. There doesn't seem to be anything extraordinary about the VIN codes.
In fact, the deal was done in such ordinary fashion that sales manager Lou Schwartz sent out a follow-up letter on Jan. 3, 1958. It thanked the owner for his recent purchase. "I wanted you to know that I am personally interested in the performance of your car," it stated. "In dealing with our company, we feel you are entitled to the finest of service. It is my pleasure to see that you receive this."
According to one report, Epsteen Pontiac had the car displayed to show off features that Pontiac planned to introduce in 1958 and 1959. Like all Bonnevilles, it had power seats, brakes, windows and steering, a fuel-injected V8, leather upholstery, Hydra-matic Drive and special trim. However, it also has several fiberglass body panels, 1958-59 style bucket seats, a distinctive metal-trimmed console and 1958-style headlights.
The car's data plate shows: style number 57-2867-SDTX, body number P-272, trim nurnber 266-1, paint code PP 2 and accessory codes BGJXKYEXQXSX. The car also has a plate with SO (special order?) number 90299 and the build date, June 20, 1957. The first owner did hear a story that it was made for the president (Bunkie Knudsen was actually generat manager) of Pontiac, who then decided to award it to a Pontiac deater.
True or false? We don't know. However, after finding out that the Eagle River "connection" was real, we're going to stop playing the doubting Thomas!
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