(This article originally appeared in Hemmings Classic Car #125, February 2015)
Two automotive personalities – the performance car and the luxury car – fuse into one…an exciting new car is born.
Do you know what car was announced to the public with such promise? The car was the 1958 Pontiac Bonneville and it was Pontiac’s contribution to General Motors’ Golden Jubilee Celebration. In 1958 the Bonneville would become its own series at the top of Pontiac’s pricing structure. It offered power and sport-car thrill right alongside precision and elegance.
The sales literature for the ’58 Bonneville highlights the two personalities in wonderfully descriptive ways. Power and mechanics were highlighted in several catalogs and dealer albums with extensive use of graphics. The heart of the Bonneville was the new Tempest 395 V-8 engine and a full page is dedicated to the powerplant in one 10 ½” X 12 ½” full-line catalog. A 285-HP configuration of the Tempest 395 came standard on the Bonneville and it produced a torque rating of 395 lb-ft at 2800 rpm. With a tri-power or fuel injection option, the Tempest 395 could crank out 300 or 310 horsepower respectively. The same catalog also highlights the Bonneville’s Circles-of-Steel reinforced body, safety plate glass, X-frame construction and Quadra-Poise Suspension with the option to upgrade to Ever-Level air suspension.
Pontiac effectively used sales literature to display the luxurious side of the Bonneville’s personality by complementing their pictures with quality writing. An example from a catalog reads “The custom styled interior is roomy…foam cushioned. Color and luxury are coordinated throughout, from the hand assist rail on the padded instrument panel to the choice of automatic tops.” Another sentence reads “Superb leathers furbish the Sport Convertible to a man’s taste in fine interiors.”
Of course for even more luxury the Bonneville, like all cars from the 1950s, could be heavily customized with factory provided accessories. A large 16-page accessory catalog measuring 14” X 5 ¼” highlighted a nearly endless supply of these accessories for the Bonneville. Accessories could be purchased individually or, for more savings, by the group. These accessories included plenty of mundane items like oil filters, courtesy lamps and defroster and more exciting options such as the Safeguard Speedometer, inside sliding sun visor and Sportable Radio.
The Safeguard Speedometer “provides a buzzer and caution-light when you reach your own pre-selected speed limit” while the inside sliding sun visor “slides down in front of windshield…slides up out of way when it isn’t needed”. For me, the most interesting accessory offered was the new Sportable Radio that served as the car’s fixed radio but it could also be pulled out of the dash to become portable and run on batteries. Theft wasn’t a concern for this radio since a “special glove-compartment lock keeps your Sportable thief-proof!”
While the advertising and writing was excellent for the Bonneville, the high-price point was a bit too much for the American public to handle during the ’58 recession. The entire auto industry saw sales drop in 1958 by more than 30%. Pontiac was only able to sell 217,303 cars that year– its lowest output since 1946. Of the total number of Pontiacs sold in 1958, only 12,000 were Bonneville’s.