1951 Pontiac Chieftain: Stuck Valves on a Silver Streak
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.
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.