1960 Pontiac Review: Aussie Original

By: Joe Kenwright, Photography by: UC & Wheels magazine archives

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Aussie original: 1960 Pontiac Aussie original: 1960 Pontiac Aussie original: 1960 Pontiac
Aussie original: 1960 Pontiac Aussie original: 1960 Pontiac Aussie original: 1960 Pontiac
Aussie original: 1960 Pontiac Aussie original: 1960 Pontiac Aussie original: 1960 Pontiac

Not every Aussie variation improved on the original, as GM-H’s downgraded and bastardised 1960 Canadian Pontiac proved.

1960 Pontiac Review: Aussie Original
Aussie original: 1960 Pontiac

 

1960 Pontiac 

Although most Australian-assembled or manufactured cars came out ahead of their home market counterparts, usually with better paint and trim, or improved dust sealing and tougher suspension, not all turned out that way.

One of the worst downgrades of any overseas model was what Holden and Pontiac in Canada did to the 1960 Pontiac Laurentian. A production line and showroom partner to the 1960 Chevrolet Bel Air, the so-called Pontiac lost out far more than the Chevrolet gained in the journey to Aussie GM-H showrooms.

In the US, GM faced an unwanted and embarrassing class action in the 1970s for installing Chevrolet 350 V8 engines under Oldsmobile bonnets after supplies of a similar engine built by Oldsmobile couldn't match demand for the cars. As owners discovered that genuine Oldsmobile parts would not fit these engines, they took exception to the fact that their Oldsmobiles were not all Oldsmobile.

Under today's consumer laws, buyers of most Pontiacs sold here after 1958 would be justified in taking action on the basis that they did not bring home a Pontiac. The Australian Pontiac imposter was literally no more than a shell of what it was in the US - an inconvenient truth not widely exposed at the time and a far more cynical badge-engineering attempt than BMCs of the era. The 1959-60 Laurentian probably suffered more than most Pontiacs after this landmark series helped set the styling and wide-track handling agenda for Detroit.

The Pontiac badge had earlier enjoyed a strong reputation in Australia as a sensible, well-engineered upgrade over a Chevrolet. Rare 1955-57 local models sent here from the US via Canada gave the marque a real boost, especially the 1957 model. Not as flamboyant as the '57 Chevrolet, the local Super Chief with its massive 347ci (5.7-litre) V8 and four-speed automatic, extra size, luxurious two-tone leather, corded woollen carpet, and RHD Pontiac dash, was a huge (if expensive) lift over the relatively plain local six-cylinder Chevrolet.

Before the few US Dodge/DeSoto/Plymouth CKD packs arrived in 1958 with basic factory RHD conversions, the '57 Pontiac was the first and only local V8 and auto-gearbox combination that matched what Americans were being offered. Only the earlier right-hook Pontiac dash differed.

The 1958 Pontiac, which by now was almost indistinguishable from the '58 Chevrolet to most eyes, came directly from Canada. For Australia, it was mated to a shared RHD dash and a slightly bigger version of the Chevrolet six. Power was cut from the V8's healthy 227hp (169kW) to an undernourished 150hp (112kW).

Even in the US, Pontiac had to act swiftly to address the 1958 model's lack of differentiation. For 1959, Pontiac introduced its signature split grille, along with a huge track increase of five inches (127mm) and a wheelbase at entry Catalina level boosted to 122 inches (3099mm). It was powered by Pontiac's benchmark 389ci (6.4-litre) V8. Sales doubled over 1958 as the '59's new 'wide-track' footprint made it the US release of the year.

In Australia, the stylish new shell was simply dumped onto the narrow-tracked, shorter-wheelbase Chevrolet chassis (as per Canadian cars), and slugged with the same old six. After the distinctive 1959 US Pontiac dash was swapped for a right-hook Chevrolet item, our Pontiac was cynically rebadged as a Laurentian, not Catalina.

AUSTRALIA'S 1960 CHEVROLET/PONTIAC DUO

The April 1960 arrival of the next local Pontiac Laurentian downgrade launched it straight into a credit squeeze designed to peg the purchasing power of buyers. As Chevrolet's parallel facelift transformed the 1959 'bat-wing' into a dominant force in the US market with almost 1.4 million sales in 1960, the exact same Bel Air reached the Australian market with further upgrades.

The Aussie Bel Air became the most compelling reason not to stretch to a Laurentian. The 1960 Chevrolet styling was a variation of the ground-breaking 1959 Pontiac look, shared with the first Ford Falcon. This all-new 'slim-line' look reduced the gap between the front bumper and bonnet, and the diameter of the headlights sitting inside the grille.

By dropping the divided grille for 1960, Pontiac could draw more attention to its new, signature 'wide-track' look. The 1960 Pontiac in the US was gifted with an even sleeker, more stable stance than the '59, and it became the envy of the industry.

Compared to the 1960 Chevrolet, Pontiac stylists lifted the taillights and gave the bonnet a lip that flowed into the grille, neatly balancing the Pontiac's much wider track. But it left the Australian version looking like it had been wheeled into local showrooms on a hospital bed.

Although the 1960 Chevrolet retained the previous narrow track and shorter wheelbase chassis, the clever simplification of Chevrolet's grille, with full-width horizontal bars level with its quad headlights, gave the local Bel Air a head start over its ageing 'tank' Fairlane rival.

It was also the first local Chevrolet to feature the small-block V8. Even though it was the 'economy' version of the 283ci (4.6-litre) Turbo-Fire V8, its 170bhp (127kW) was a significant advance over the 261-cube (4.3-litre) straight six in the 1959 Pontiac. It was coupled to GM's two-speed Powerglide automatic as standard. Because this powertrain was shared with the 1960 Pontiac, Australian Pontiac buyers were no longer offered an on-road advantage over a cheaper Chevrolet.

The Aussie 1960 Chevrolet then had its dash colour-coded to the trim for the first and only time during this period, even if the steering wheel and column remained grey. Local Chevrolets and Pontiacs shared the same quality leather, along with plush new 'cut-pile' wool carpet. The Chev's armrests on all doors, rear passenger grab straps, two-speed electric wipers and standard washers left little room for the Pontiac version to make a statement. Power steering, power brakes, a radio and heater-demister were now Chevrolet options. Inside, a badge, a tiny clock and differences in the indicator repeater lights were all that separated the Chevrolet dash used in the Pontiac.

This was at a time when the base US Pontiac Catalina's V8 was the two-barrel 389ci (6.4-litre) 'Tempest 425', delivering 283hp (211kW) and a full third more torque (560Nm) than the Aussie Laurentian's Chevrolet V8. More importantly, it still featured GM's four-speed Hydra-Matic auto, not the slovenly two-speed Powerglide.

Any local Pontiac loyalist who knew what the US dimensions were must have been outraged. The 1960 Chevrolet had a 60.3-inch (1532mm) front track and a 59.3-inch (1507mm) rear track on a wheelbase of 119 inches (3023mm). On standard 14-inch wheels, even the Bel Air's wide new look left too much empty space inside the wheelarches.

The base 'wide-track' 1960 US Pontiac had front and rear track widths of 64 inches (1626mm) and a wheelbase of 122 inches (3099mm). Mounting the same bodyshell on the Chev's smaller chassis meant the local Pontiac suffered a huge deficit in track - 3.7 inches (93mm) up front, 4.7 inches (119mm) in the rear.

The Chevrolet chassis also positioned the rear wheels further forward, robbing the Pontiac of its benchmark long wheelbase. The 1960 Pontiac's higher visual height generated by the raised taillights and bonnet brow then conspired to make the narrow-gutted chassis look relatively unstable - the exact opposite to the standard-setting US version.

Local Chevrolet buyers recall that if you dared ask for a specific colour choice on either, you would be told to put your money down and take your chances on what arrived, and when. It might explain why so many were sold in grim single-tone colours when the everyday 1960 FB Holden Special was known for its bright two-tone colour schemes. The 1960 Pontiac reflected the same thinking.

Even if Chevrolet's narrow track and shorter wheelbase might have been better suited to our high-crowned rural roads, these Pontiacs were consigned to the shadows in desirability and resale from day one compared to their US counterparts. Strange as it may seem, the dilution of the Pontiac brand that led to its recent demise may well have started here.

 

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