Pontiac Styling Changed With Passage Of Years

TORRINGTON, CT – It wasn’t until the two classic Pontiacs were parked side by side at Laurie and David Canty’s house in Torrington that it became instantly apparent just how quickly car styling and technology advanced in the mid-20th century. Only 15 years separate the two models, but the gap in their profiles and finish is cavernous.

The puffy, two-tone blue 1951 Pontiac Chieftain sedan harkens back to what cars looked like pre-World War II, while the sleeker red 1966 Pontiac GTO convertible reflects the aggressive muscle car era of the 1960s and 1970s.

Add in a white 1975 Volkswagen Beetle into the mix and the Canty household has “a good combination of things to drive,” according to David, who got hooked on classic cars as a youngster growing up in East Litchfield in the 1960s. 

Laurie and David Canty and the 1951 Pontiac Chieftain

His wife, Laurie, came to classic cars later on. She’s the designated driver of the four-door Chieftain that was purchased in 2018. It only got back on the road in 2022 and it has presented her with a driving challenge. 

“It’s very hard to see over the steering wheel that’s this big,” she said, holding her hands nearly two feet apart. “It’s a very different drive because it’s so big; you have to plan your corners. It hasn’t become a fun ride yet, but maybe someday. I get very nervous driving it.”

Pontiac built the Chieftain from 1949 through the 1957 model year. David found the couple’s Chieftain in a warehouse in Middletown, N.Y. and bought it as a project car. It belonged to a collector who owned upwards of a hundred fire trucks. 

The rear of the 1951 Pontiac Chieftain

“It was very stock. Not much work done to it at all,” he said. The Chieftain needed cosmetic improvement. “I really had to dress up everything. Interior was old. Everything was 70 years old. Did a lot of work on it. Underneath. Stripped it down. All the paint. Windows came out. Did a lot of clean-up work. Mechanically, it was pretty sound.”

While its fresh paint job looks nice, the Chieftain suffered from a balky Hydra-Matic automatic transmission in early October. It refused to shift into third gear, which hampered Laurie in getting used to driving it. It has since been repaired. The tranny is attached to a 268-cubic-inch, inline eight-cylinder engine. 

“We’ve been working on it. But it hasn’t been on the road much, so I don’t know her idiosyncrasies,” said Laurie, noting the transmission issue. “It’s a little nerve-wracking. OK, how’s she going to act? How’s it going to be? How much traffic is there? Am I going to fit through there?”

The 1951 Pontiac Chieftain has a 268-cubic-inch inline eight-cylinder engine
The dashboard of the 1951 Pontiac Chieftain

That there would be a learning curve to operating the Chieftain didn’t surprise Laurie. “I expected it to be a weird drive because it is so old. There’s no power steering. You push a button to start the car, you don’t turn a key. So, I don’t think anything surprised me about it, other than people’s reactions to it,” she said.

The car gets a predictable reaction from spectators at shows. “They love this car. They love the color. They love the chrome. They love the Indian (hood ornament) on the front. Then they find it lights up and they get so excited. They see a lot of muscle cars, but they don’t often see a lot of cars like this,” Laurie reported.

The 1966 Pontiac GTO

It’s the two-door GTO muscle car, a model Pontiac built from 1963 through 1974, that David nonetheless prefers. The 1966 version is his “favorite car of all time.” He acquired it in 2020 from an owner in Falls Village. The body was sound, but it needed work.  

“I did a lot of cleanup on the engine. Had a lot of oil leaks. New interior. Different wiring. Had to do more work on the wiring.  The wiring was functional but not correct, so I stripped it down pretty well,” he said. The GTO has a 400-cubic-inch V8 with four-speed manual transmission and Hurst shifter. 

The 1966 Pontiac GTO has a 400-cubic-inch V8 engine
The interior of the 1966 Pontiac GTO

The couple’s third classic car – the VW – has been with them a lot longer than the GTO or the Chieftain. It was purchased in 1984 as a project. A house purchase and the arrival of two kids delayed getting it assembled and running.

“Did a lot of work on that top to bottom. Put is back together. It’s a nice, clean little Volkswagen,” said David, while Laurie confided it has much more sentimental value than the other two cars.

“It was in pieces years ago when the kids were little and it was a family project when the kids were two and four, so that one is never leaving the family. Our kids would disown us,” she said.

The two Pontiacs owned by Laurie and David Canty

The VW has been on the road for 20 years and is probably driven the most of the three cars. The Cantys have reached their limit, though, when it comes to accumulating classic cars.

“I have what I like,” said David. “A good combination of things to drive, so, yeah, I’m done, and I’m getting a little too old to work on them, too. Getting up and down on the ground it not as easy as it used to be.” 

See the Pontiacs in action in this YouTube video…

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About Bud Wilkinson

Bud Wilkinson writes the "RIDE-CT" motorcycle column and the "My Ride" classic car feature in the "Republican-American" newspaper in Waterbury, CT. A graduate of Vermont Academy prep school, he holds a B.A. degree journalism from Ohio Wesleyan University. He is the recipient of a Scripps Howard Foundation National Journalism Award in 1992 and a 1991-92 regional Emmy Award for commentary. He currently rides a 1987 BMW R 80 RT and a 2014 Triumph Bonneville and drives a 2010 Mazda MX-5 Miata.

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