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1950 Pontiac Chieftain convertible

It’s about who builds excitement

Joe Greeves - January 26, 2012 10:00 AM

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In a process best described as relentless refinement, this 1950 Pontiac Chieftain convertible has been transformed from a lumbering ’50s cruiser to a new millennium interstate screamer, living up to a heritage of style and performance that characterized Pontiac since the brand began.

The name was introduced as an alternative to the low-priced Chevrolet and the higher-priced Oldsmobile. When flimsy fabric tops were in vogue, Pontiac’s closed body was warmly received by customers who usually had little protection from the elements and road debris. It was the right car at the right time. The brand went on to create a loyal fan base with legendary names like Star Chief, Chieftain, Catalina, Grand Sport, Bonneville, Trans Am, Firebird, and more, living up to their slogan of “We build excitement!”

John and Jay Pruitt from John’s Rod Shop in Abbeville, South Carolina, share the same sentiment, building excitement into every car they’ve created since 1995. The family-owned business became a father-and-son team when Jay began in the shop in 1997. Thanks to modern technology, the shop’s website became the connection between this Chieftain convertible and New York real estate developer Bernie Gans. Gans has an amazing collection of high-dollar cars. After seeing the quality of the Rod Shop’s work, he contacted them about creating a unique ’50s convertible.

With some initial guidance, the search began for a suitable project vehicle. John and Jay found this Chieftain convertible in Indiana, a nice original car that could have easily been a daily driver, needing just a few repairs and with virtually no rust. The three men got together, considering many approaches until finally defining a plan. Bernie wanted vintage looks with modern reliability and performance. By the time the second conference was through, they had decided on the engine, transmission and suspension; Bernie had even picked out the colors for the paint and interior. With a clear vision of the final goal, John and Jay set to work.

Modernizing a 60-year-old car always begins with a firm foundation. The Rod Shop crew reinforced the original chassis, raising the frame for transmission clearance and shortening the rear rails to accommodate the RideTech four-link suspension and Ford nine-inch rear. Up front, they added a new Fatman Fabrications front end with double A-arms, MBM dropped spindles, and NASCAR-style torsion bars functioning as anti-sway bars. Wilwood front disc brakes were combined with Ford Explorer discs in the rear, then ShockWaves from RideTech were combined with an Accuair air management system to create adjustable altitude at the touch of a button. Twin Viair 480 compressors were mounted in the rear fenders and a five-gallon reserve tank was positioned behind the rear seat, along with the rest of the air management controls. A custom 14-gallon tank by Kustom Tanks replaced the original. Once everything was in place, the team got the chassis rolling with 18 x 8 Billet Specialties Outlaw rims and Michelin 225/45-ZR18 rubber up front, with 235/50-ZR18s in the rear.

It takes horsepower to move a heavy 1950s convertible. Fortunately, with crate motors and the unlimited horsepower upgrades available from the aftermarket, it was a problem easily solved. Under the hood is a GM Performance Parts LS1 crate motor with a Magnuson MP112 supercharger, Street and Performance brackets, painted-to-match coil covers, stainless Sanderson block hugger headers feeding Flowmaster mufflers, and a 4L60E four-speed automatic transmission. The motor was an easy fit in the engine room and all the chassis upgrades guaranteed sports car performance and handling.

Chris Ryan accomplished the bodywork on the car, beginning by reshaping the rear wheel wells to eliminate the fender skirts and showcase the new, bigger wheels. The rear end was cleaned up by eliminating the tag lights and adding new LED taillights. Exercising a bit of creative genius, the team incorporated a unique center brake light inside the original Pontiac emblem. Factory over riders on the front and rear bumpers add a nostalgic touch, as does the massive grille and famous Silver Streaks on the hood. Headlights are Lucas Tri-Bar sealed beams. The final exterior step was color, and Barry Whitworth handled the paint gun, spraying the distinctive Cadillac Firemist Red.

The biscuit and cranberry interior sounds tasty and looks even better, thanks to the expert stitch work of Chuck Hanna and the team from Hot Rod Interiors in Lake Norman, North Carolina. They retained the stock seats, rejuvenating them with new internals, padding, and glove soft leather. The subtle center console is an elegant touch, as are the custom door and kick panels, which hold the separated five-inch Sony component sets. The stereo system uses a stock-appearing head unit fitted with an FM conversion and CD changer.

Classic Instruments updated the original gauges, now boasting an electric speedometer and clock. In a masterpiece of subtlety, the former center speaker grille was transformed into an air conditioning vent and additional vents were molded into each side of the dash. The trunk was upholstered with the same cranberry/biscuit motif as the interior, with lots of the car’s mechanicals hidden behind the rear wall.

When we saw the car, it was essentially complete with just a few tweaks remaining before it was delivered to its proud new owner. The car is going to be the perfect choice for cruising the roads during summers in the Hamptons.

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