1951 Pontiac Chieftain: Stuck Valves on a Silver Streak

John L. Stein

Sometime in 1976, after rehabbing a pair of swoopy Thunderbirds, overconfidence overwhelmed my fledgling car skills and good sense, and I fell for this dingy 1951 Pontiac Chieftain Deluxe sedan.

Flamboyant midcentury styling hadn’t yet reached GM’s value division, so despite being billed as “new and beautiful,” in reality, the Chieftain wore milquetoast body forms and a sofa-like broadcloth interior, which in this case smelled like a wet dog.

The owner was quite senior, and a quick calculation suggested she’d been in high school when the Model T debuted, then witnessed World War I, the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, World War II, Beatlemania, and the moon landings. I sure do wish now that I’d asked her about it all. Anyway, she called the weathered Pontiac “Turtleback,” perhaps in reference to its roofline. No matter—her driving days were over, and a windfall $150 in the cookie jar trumped keeping that tired lump in the driveway any longer than she needed to. And it was a lump. Unlike sister division Cadillac, there was no V-8 under the Pontiac’s long hood. Instead lurked a straight-eight Silver Streak flathead displacing 268 cubic inches and producing 116 horsepower.

1951 Pontiac Chieftain profile
John L. Stein

Of course, that straight-eight motor didn’t run, nor did the brakes work. Lacking useful prefrontal cortexes, a buddy and I thus concocted a “brilliant” scheme to roll the car to the brink of a steep hill near the seller’s house and then lower it into town using his ’64 Olds and a tow cable as a brake. Then we would push it home. All the plan needed was a useful idiot to steer the car. The process was both stupid and frightening, yet we survived.

Once in safe harbor, we set about resuscitating the Chieftain, starting with a brake fluid flush. The 6-volt starter cranked the engine slower than an ancient butter churn, and once running, the Chieftain would barely crawl to useful speed, whereafter the temperature gauge pegged and steam twirled through the grille. Eventually, I pulled the massive iron head to reveal stuck exhaust valves. Way out of my depth, and unable to comprehend a solution, I fussed and fretted, pried and pounded, twisted and twirled the valves until the springs finally closed them.

The old Turtleback ran better after that, and I took immense satisfaction from my ham-fisted tinkering skills to get it there, but the car remained forever on the brink of overheating. More happily, the tube radio worked, and so did the magnificent illuminated Chief Pontiac hood ornament.

Calling this one a draw, I lived, I learned, and then … I walked away. I sold it for $250, give or take, and put the money into my next project.

1951 Pontiac Chieftain close up door John L. Stein
John L. Stein




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    My neighbor had a 48 Packard with stuck valves. I spent the time to free them all up, then told him to drive it. Of course he didn’t, and a year later… I guess it’s a common thing on flatheads

    Looks like my grandparents ’52 Pontiac Chieftain ! They purchased that car new , but as it aged they began having trouble with it . Common problems : Starting problems , burned alot of oil after 80,000 miles , stalling , overheated at times , valve issues . I don’t think they were the best engines back then compared with today’s automobiles . The V-8 was a far better engine in my books , thus longer lasting . Most of those old Pontiacs were scrapped years ago ! Happy Motoring !

    This a 1952 Pontiac grill in your 51 Pontiac you show in this picture—I owned a 1952 a you look them up you will see te difference in the 51 vs 52??

    Oh God! The tube radio still worked! LOVE that!! My mom had a SPITshined all-black 52 Chieftan back in …58′..when I was a lil 7yr old punk. I was mystified by that HUGE, dark, big ol’Straight-8, but that heUUUGAH 6 volt battery!! That took the cake!! She ditched it for starting problems..& me..trying hard as I cld.. to push the clutch in to shift it..BROKE a link piece somewhere..we stuck+ But we just a block from the house.. She good nurse, but mechanicing niether ONE of us knew a thing then. Was sorry..& sorry it went away!! Steve B.

    Those Ponti’s just needed understanding! Good cruisers..like the stodgey looking Dodge sedans my baby sitter couple rode me around in. Seemed pretty solid as well. Couldnt here the motor in the ol’ Dodge so dont know if hemi!! Now I miss my 71’Duster! STILL got 73′ Dodge B-300 MaxiVan,& gotta patch huge gaping hole behind driver’s Torn motor mount let oil pan get sliced on crossmember..=..oil starve..=..scorched rod bearings to replace!!!// SteveB.

    Probably smart to have walked away. Still the straight 8 would have been interesting to see it running again.

    My second car in my life was a 1947 black Silver Streak 8. It was a great road car for the time. It had 125K trouble free miles on Havoline 30wt oil. Never had engine apart it did have noise from the differential carrier bearings though.

    I think that, somewhere in the whole wide world, there is a mid-century Pontiac that does NOT have a windshield visor.

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