That Time Pontiac Made a Corvette With Gullwing Doors and a Space Age Rear End

It was the 1950s, and American car companies were busy transitioning from dated post-WW2 designs to styling cues inspired by everyone's new obsession, the Space Age. In 1953, GM's Motorama auto show began to travel around the U.S., and the company's brands started rolling out wild "dream cars." It was around ths time that the Pontiac Bonneville Special was born.
1954 Pontiac Bonneville Special concept 11 photos
Photo: Barrett-Jackson
1954 Pontiac Bonneville Special concept1954 Pontiac Bonneville Special concept1954 Pontiac Bonneville Special concept1954 Pontiac Bonneville Special concept1954 Pontiac Bonneville Special concept1954 Pontiac Bonneville Special concept1954 Pontiac Bonneville Special concept1954 Pontiac Bonneville Special concept1954 Pontiac Bonneville Special concept1958 Pontiac Bonneville
The General Motors Motorama debuted in 1949, but the show didn't gain traction until 1953. With more than 1.4 million visitors, the 1953 edition marked the debut of the first-generation Chevrolet Corvette but also saw concept cars like the Buick Wildcat, Oldsmobile Starfire, and Cadillac Orleans hit the spotlight.

Pontiac introduced the La Parisienne. Its landau-style roof made it unique among the Pontiacs of the era, but the concept looked too similar to the Chieftain production car, so it didn't make a big splash. But the company returned in 1954 with a much wilder show car, the Bonneville Special.

The vehicle was conceived by renowned designer Harley J. Earl, who oversaw the creation of the Buick Y-Job, the industry's first concept car. Earl was also the main man behind GM's first sports car, which arrived in 1953 as the iconic Chevrolet Corvette.

1954 Pontiac Bonneville Special concept
Photo: Pontiac
Just like the Corvette, the Bonneville Special was also a two-seat sports car. And also the first Pontiac with this layout. The story goes that Earl got the idea after a trip he had taken to the Bonneville Salt Flats to watch world speed record runs.

With GM desperate to give the Pontiac brand a sportier, more exciting image that would attract younger buyers to showrooms, Earl put a two-seat sports car on the drawing board.

With the Chevrolet Corvette already underway, the Bonneville Special was based around the same platform. It was penned with a low-slung body with muscular wheel arches, and, just like the Corvette, it featured a fiberglass body.

Coincidentally, the Bonneville Special debuted with a front fascia that looked a lot like the Corvette.

1954 Pontiac Bonneville Special concept
Photo: Barrett-Jackson
Granted, the big oval opening under the nose didn't have the Corvette's chrome grille and the headlamps were smaller, but the similarity was there.

On the other hand, a pair of silver streaks running across the hood, a feature Pontiac introduced in the 1930s, gave the front fascia a unique character.

But needless to say, the Bonneville Special was a completely different car toward the rear. Not only the fenders were shaped differently than the Corvette's, but it also featured a different roof. While Chevy's sports car was born as a roadster, the Bonneville came with a bubble-shaped, canopy-style top.

Not only it included a dramatically curved rear window, but the top also incorporated gullwing-style side windows. Granted, the idea wasn't very practical since the doors were regular, front-hinged panels, but it was seen as exotic in 1954.

1954 Pontiac Bonneville Special concept
Photo: Barrett-Jackson
That's the same year when the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL, the production car that made gullwing doors famous, made its global debut.

The Bonneville's rear end was even more dramatic, mostly due to its heavy use of Space Age-inspired cues. The recessed spare tire enclosure was the main highlight. Flanked by vertical fins that extended from the top to the bottom of each fender, it looked like the rear of a jet engine.

Paired with the unusually short decklid and the canopy-style roof, the spare tire made the Bonneville Special look like a rocket-powered car.

And that was enough to drive people attending GM's Motorama crazy. And, of course, fantasize about future performance cars with a "Pontiac" badge.

1954 Pontiac Bonneville Special concept
Photo: Barrett-Jackson
But while it looked wilder than the average 1950s production car, the Bonneville Special was a bit mundane under the hood.

Even though Pontiac had a brand-new V8 in the works and the unit would have been ready in time to debut in the Bonneville, GM management ordered the brand to keep under wraps until its consumer debut the following model year.

As a result, Pontiac dropped its old "Silver Streak" inline-eight atop the front axle. The design was some 20 years old in 1954, but several upgrades pushed the 268-cubic-inch (4.4-liter) to 230 horsepower.

On the flip side, it wasn't all that bad given that the Corvette had a 150-horsepower inline-six in 1954.

1954 Pontiac Bonneville Special concept
Photo: Barrett-Jackson
Pontiac built not one but two Bonneville Specials, which were unveiled simultaneously at the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf hotel in New York and the Pan Pacific Auditorium in Los Angeles. One was painted metallic bronze, and the other one emerald greed.

Even though the concept didn't spawn a production model, several design features made it into Pontiac's next-generation cars, which debuted the following year.

The silver streaks appeared on both the Chieftain and Star Chief, as did softened versions of the tail fins. The dashboard's stainless-heavy look eventually made it into the 1958 Bonneville.

And, of course, the Bonneville Special gave birth to one of Pontiac's most iconic and longest-running nameplates. Introduced in 1958, the Bonneville soldiered on for 10 generations until 2005.

1958 Pontiac Bonneville
Photo: Mecum Auctions
Amazingly enough, both Bonneville Special prototypes still exist. The bronze car has been with the same owner for decades, and it's still all-original, while the green concept was restored and flipped a couple of times. The car changed hands for $2.8 million in 2006 and again for $3.3 million in 2015.

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About the author: Ciprian Florea
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Ask Ciprian about cars and he'll reveal an obsession with classics and an annoyance with modern design cues. Read his articles and you'll understand why his ideal SUV is the 1969 Chevrolet K5 Blazer.
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