In the early 1950s, GM was desperate to portray its Pontiac brand as sporty and exciting, in order to attract a younger demographic to showrooms. Reportedly inspired by the cars he saw vying for speed records on Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats, Harley Earl tasked designers Homer LaGasse and Paul Gilland with building a car worthy of the Bonneville name, one that would give the rival Chevrolet Corvette a run for its money. The result was the Pontiac Bonneville Special concept, of which only two were ever built. Next January, Bonneville Special number two, which sold at auction in 2006 for $3.08 million, returns to the block in Scottsdale, Arizona, as part of Barrett-Jackson’s Ron Pratte Collection sale.
Like the production Chevrolet Corvette on which it was based, the Pontiac Bonneville Special concept was a low-slung sports car with a fiberglass body. Unlike the original Corvette, however, the Pontiac concept featured an enclosed bubble cockpit with flip-up side windows, along with eight cylinders beneath its long hood.
Though rumors of a V-8 from GM had been building since 1953, company executives feared that showing such an engine in the Bonneville Special, even in dummy form, would potentially delay already sagging Pontiac sales. Instead, the Pontiac concept carried a 268-cu.in. inline eight-cylinder engine fitted with four side-draft carburetors, good for a claimed 230 horsepower.
Inside, the first Bonneville Special borrowed heavily from aviation-inspired design cues. Floors weren’t carpeted, but instead used brushed aluminum with rubber ridges for traction; the shifter for the Hydra-Matic automatic transmission resembled a lever to raise and lower landing gear, and the full instrumentation included a clock, compass and manifold temperature gauge (all reportedly purchased from an aircraft salvage company to save time).
Outside, the concept wore a coat of metallic copper paint, and even its Utah license plate was meant to evoke images of speed. Among its most noticeable features, however, were faux oil coolers, machined from aluminum stock and mounted to each front fender, along with the functional Continental kit that intentionally resembled the exhaust outlet of a fighter jet.
Launched at the January 1954 New York City Motorama, held at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, the Bonneville Special proved to be a crowd favorite, and construction began on a second example. This debuted at the March 1954 Motorama, held at the Pan Pacific Auditorium in Los Angeles, California. Painted in metallic green, Bonneville Special number two carried a simpler interior with fewer gauges and minor design changes, but was a fully functional driver, equipped with the same inline-eight engine as its predecessor.
Following its time on the Motorama show circuit, number two was sent on a nationwide dealership tour before heading into retirement.
As David W. Temple points out in his book GM’s Motorama, the Bonneville Specials were supposed to be destroyed when their days on tour were over, but (luckily) that’s not what happened. It isn’t clear exactly who saved the cars from the crusher, but at one point, car number two was owned by Joe Bortz, who currently owns Bonneville Special number one. Joe sold Bonneville Special number two to Denver collector Roger Willbanks, who in turn funded a ground-up restoration completed in time for the 2000 Meadow Brook Concours d’Elegance. In 2006, Bonneville Special number two was acquired by Ron Pratte at Barrett-Jackson’s Scottsdale, Arizona, sale.
While the Pontiac Bonneville concept never saw production, it did accomplish its mission of helping to paint Pontiac in a slightly less stodgy light. A decade later, the Pontiac GTO would help to solidify the youthful image of the brand, one that would last nearly until the brand’s demise in 2010. Oddly enough, the Pontiac Solstice, a two-seat convertible (and later, coupe) produced from 2005-2010 carried styling traits from the Bonneville Special, including a long hood and pontoon-style front fenders, scaled back for contemporary tastes. It’s fitting that Pontiac’s last two-seat sports car would pay homage, even in a small way, to the two-seat concept that helped to usher in a new era for the GM division.
The Pontiac Bonneville Special will cross the stage in Scottsdale, Arizona, next January, as part of the Ron Pratte Collection. For additional details, visit Barrett-Jackson.com.
Article courtesy of Hemmings Daily, written by Kurt Ernst.