We Rebuild Excitement: 1954 Pontiac Chieftain vs 1989 Trans Am GTA

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Welcome to another edition of Shitbox Showdown! It’s Wednesday, “hump day” if you’re into that sort of thing, and we’re going to take a look at a couple of cars from General Motors’s former performance-car division: Pontiac. First, let’s find out what the final tally on yesterday’s Plymouths was:

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That’s what I thought. Despite having a catchy jingle (thanks to Autopian reader Beasy Mist for the reminder), [Editor’s Note: Holy crap is that a cocaine factory they shot this in? – JT] the Duster just didn’t have what it took to overcome that Valiant. But really, if you’re going to have an automatic, it should have a cool way to select gears, and they don’t get much cooler than push-buttons.

Today, we don’t have any push-button shifters, but we do have lots of buttons on a steering wheel. And a straight-eight. And crates of records that may or may not be playable still.

Back in the 1980s, Pontiac had a mighty catchy jingle of their own. (If you’re at work, turn the volume up good and loud for this one, and make ’em wonder.) I suppose we have John DeLorean to thank for all this Pontiac Excitement; it was largely his influence, including the GTO – his middle finger to the GM brass back in 1964 – that gave Pontiac their reputation as GM’s bad boys. And Pontiac did have some barn-burners over the years, not to mention the tiny wedge of wonderful that was the Fiero.

So let’s take a look at a pair of Pontiacs now: one from well before the “We Build Excitement” era, and one from smack-dab in the middle of it.

1954 Pontiac Chieftain – $2,150

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Engine/drivetrain: 268 cubic inch flathead inline 8, 4 speed automatic, RWD

Location: Torrance, CA

Odometer reading: unknown

Runs/drives? Probably not in decades

A Car For Every Purse And Purpose” was GM’s slogan under former boss Alfred P. Sloan. A rigid hierarchy between the divisions put Pontiac a notch above Chevrolet and a notch below Oldsmobile. As a result, this 1954 Pontiac Chieftain still used the same old flathead inline eight that had been used since the 1930s, because Buick, a couple of rungs up the ladder, wanted to debut their overhead-valve V8 first.

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This Pontiac was also built just before a huge turning point in automotive styling kicked off in 1955. Longer, lower, wider cars were on the horizon, Jet Age styling cues like tailfins and turbines came into vogue, and overhead-valve V8s finally swept away the last remnants of the flathead era. By contrast, this tall, rounded 1954 model looks almost Art Deco. Look at that glorious hood ornament above. It’s facing forward, but gazing into a past that was rapidly disappearing.

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This car is being sold in as-found condition, after having sat neglected for who knows how many years. It’s almost completely intact, but rough. The interior looks surprisingly nice, and may have already had some work done to it, but outside, and we have to assume mechanically, it’s quite the project.

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There are also a couple crates of what look like LP records in it. No word on whether they come with the car, but you could probably get the seller to leave them in there. The music hound in me is dying to know what those records are, and whether years sitting in a closed car has left any of them playable. Gotta have something to listen to while you wrench on it, after all.

1989 Pontiac Trans Am GTA – $2,000

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Engine/drivetrain: 5.7 liter V8, 4 speed automatic, RWD

Location: Berkeley, CA

Odometer reading: ad says “777333,” which sounds like a placeholder, so we’ll say unknown

Runs/drives? Nope

Thirty-five years later, Pontiac was second fiddle to no one. The GTO had come and gone, but the Firebird was going strong, and the Trans Am GTA was the top of the line. Or nearly; the Turbo Trans Am of 1989 was faster and quicker than this V8 version, but also a lot rarer.

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But that was a long time ago, and like a lot of us, this GTA is not what it was back in 1989. Its paint is shot, its engine is in pieces, and the whole car is covered in a layer of dust and neglect. Not a very dignified state for a car that once prowled the streets fearlessly, glossy black paint gleaming, 350 V8 engine making a menacing rumble.

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The seller makes no bones about the car’s condition, saying that “it’s going to be tough” to bring it back. From the looks of it, they’re not kidding, but it does look doable. If you’re not a stickler for originality, engines and engine parts are easy to come by, and the bodywork looks straight under all that fried paint. It does have a salvage title from a long-ago accident; it shouldn’t matter much on a car this age, but you should make sure your insurance agent agrees.

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But whenever you’re talking about a car with major components of its engine removed and sitting in the trunk, you’re into serious wrenching territory. Some of us enjoy that, though, and I for one would have a ball putting this car back together. And it would be magical to take that first drive after it’s done.

So that’s where we’ll leave it for Pontiac. You’ve got a choice to make: Fifties style, or Eighties performance? They’re both a ton of work, but either one could be very rewarding.



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59 Responses

  1. give me that chieftain. keep that outside patina with some kind of clearcoat and throw the engine from a ct4V blackwing into it with a manual. keep the wheels and put some decent tires on it.

  2. This is one of the rare shitbox showdowns where I think both vehicles are worthless. The Chieftain is cool, but this one is too far gone. It is best used as a lawn ornament.

    The Trans Am could be a decent restoration candidate, but I don’t think think an ’89 Trans Am is worth the effort. It isn’t a particularly special vehicle. A Trans Am was more fun to drive than most other vehicles sold in 1989, but objectively, they were mediocre. That inherent mediocrity is why so many are now in terrible condition. Owners treated them as expendable machines as opposed to vehicles they truly cared about. I guess it might be worth saving for the rare individual who loves these things, but to me, this vehicle has about as much appeal as an ’89 Tercel.

    But if I have to choose one of these things, I’ll take the lawn ornament.

    1. Having spent a lot of time around very old cars, my take on the Cheiftan is the polar opposite. It looks like an amazing restoration candidate to me; no apparent through-rust in any of the photos, a surprisingly intact (though dirty) interior that would clean up well with new carpet and a scrubbing, decent chrome that needs a polish, and no obvious missing parts beyond two broken windows, hubcaps, and one headlight trim ring. The old flathead engines are simple enough that I’ve seen ones that were completely seized revived, so the drivetrain is likely workable as well.

  3. Obviously the Chieftain will require more of an investment to get running again. How readily can you get parts for a 70 year old straight 8? You could make it simple and drop in a 350 or something like that, but saving the original motor would make you a wrenching god amongst mortals.

    You could probably get the mullet magnet running again after a decent trip to the junkyard. The end result would still be a an unremarkable F body with a salvage title though. I also suspect the seller will be a royal pain in the ass to deal with based on the ad. Nope. The Chieftain will be worth the extra effort.

  4. I’m not against the patina look if it’s the right patina look, but this one just looks bad. Given that the interior looks refreshed I’m guessing it ran in the last 30… 40 years at most, which says: somebody cared about this car, if they couldn’t keep it on the road, I don’t want that project either – just finding glass is liable to SUCK. Maybe, if the engine turns…

    And the Trans Am? Lol no.

  5. Chieftain and it’s not even close. I’ve seen enough VGG to think that this thing could be running with some plugs, wires, and maybe a weekend of wrenching!

    Seriously though, it’s the better pick. Both are projects and at the end of the day the Chieftain is at least cool/interesting once running. All the Trans-am will be is a rednecks wet dream mobile with a salvaged title.

    1. Edit: Also good luck to the owner of the Trans-am getting their “floor” price of $2k. It’s got a salvage title and the engine is currently in boxes. It should be going to a scrap yard and priced accordingly. My guess is this is a case of the significant other said they had to sell it so they priced it high to say “sorry honey there’s no interest!”

  6. I am mostly worried about what’s underneath, and a salvage title is a deal killer for me. the unibody and rust are almost as bad. The Chieftan is not yet all valuable, and I think maybe the 50’s model cars are starting to die out with the car crowd, but for that price with a title, it might be fun to try out that EV engine swap. lord knows there is plenty of space in the rear seat and trunk to place batteries. Nobody wants to deal with the stock 6v systems anyway.

    1. Agreed about the “patina look” needing to go away. I’m fine with the “Roadkill” presentation of a car, those guys will happily tell you it looks like junk because it is junk! But to totally restomod a car and spend big bucks under the skin, then purposely clear coating that rusty crap, maybe it’s me but I don’t get it.

  7. mmm Trans Am GTA. I put a nasty dent in the fender of one when in 1989 I fell off my skateboard and it rolled into the street. Dude in the GTA brakes for the board but still ran over the tail, flipping the board a good 6-10 feet into the sky and landing down on the front fender. If he would have kept going at speed the board would have flipped up and landed long after he was already past. My mom wasn’t happy about that bill.

  8. I’m having a hard time getting excited for an automatic Trans Am with no T-Tops.

    Having a restored Chieftain would be much cooler, no matter if you try to stay original or drop in a small block and give it some modern bits.

  9. I’d never thought I would say this, but I think GM made the right call by killing the brand. Nothing redeeming here. Maybe, just maybe, turn that Chieftain (despicable naming aside) into a work of EV art, but no, just no.

    I mean, I could root for the Fiero, if they had ever screwed one together right, but alas.

    1. I’d never thought I would say this, but I think GM made the right call by killing the brand. Nothing redeeming here. Maybe, just maybe, turn that Chieftain (despicable naming aside) into a work of EV art, but no, just no.

      I mean, I could root for the Fiero, if they had ever screwed one together right, but alas.

      Effin’ no edit. I mean root for A Fiero. Definitely not Firepit listed here.

  10. I went with the Cheiftrain because the styling better (even when roached), but It was hard for me to decide. The Trans Am Steering Wheel has a button layout similar to my moms 1989 Bonneville SSEi. That car made me feel like speed racer.

  11. I find it easier to imagine someone else having the emotional connection required to fix the Chieftain so it got my vote. Maybe I’m just in a mood, but I’d rather restore a frigging camcord than either of these. I should like the Chieftain, right?

  12. Man, a bunch of you kids are weird. That Chieftain is great. And “too far gone”? Whaddaya talking about? That windshield will be a pain to source, but otherwise most of the hard-to-find bits are present and in surprisingly usable shape. I’m used to seeing these things with no glass, no upholstery on the seat springs, a few rodent skeletons, and no drivetrain at this price. I might keep the straight 8, I might put in something else, the world’s my oyster. I thought we were all here because we liked spinning wrenches on cars!

    But the Trans Am is a turd. Sooo much plastic, craptastic engine, not even the fun styling of the 2nd or 4th generations, both of which are among my favorite cars ever. Not being that huge a fan of KITT, I have no emotional connection to the Gen 3 Firebirds at all, and this one is a particularly crappy representative. Not even a stick shift to redeem it. I don’t mind putting things together, but the product better be worth the effort, and the whole time I’d be wishing it were a ’77 or a ’97.

  13. Not a huge fan of either but it would be the Chieftan all day every day.. it even has a box of records in the front seat!

    Never heard a straight-8 (that’s fun to say) run in person but I bet it’s pretty sweet.

  14. This is definitely the opposite of that fiat/saab matchup the other day. I think 50s and 80s cars are, with some notable exceptions, my least favorite design eras but if I have to pick an unwanted rabbit hole to go down here, it’s gotta be Trans am.

  15. I don’t want either of them, especially not at those prices. I can’t see buying them to do anything other than part out, and at $2000 for some seriously broken and neglected cars it’s gonna be tough to make your nut on either one. I’m not interested. At scrap value, we could talk.

  16. Chieftain. More old cars like that need to be saved. An EV swap would be great since it’s a cruiser. And the straight 8 could go live in a museum as a piece of automotive history. Or gut it to house the electric motor. That would be hilarious to have it fully dressed but housing the motor.

  17. I daily drive a 1989 Firebird and I really, really want to vote for that GTA, but even in today’s market, $2,000 is too much for a Firebird with a salvage title in non-running condition. Frankly, if I bought it, it would just be to turn my Firebird into a GTA clone, which I don’t want to do anyway. It’s an original 305 5-speed car.
    It’s a shame. I love the GTA and all of it’s ridiculous cladding, and possibly the best set of wheels to grace a Trans Am.
    The Chieftain wins because all the cylinders are in a row and it would be fun to have even if it never runs again.

  18. Love the TA… I was 14 in ’89, so this hits my car-crush years hard… But that looks like a mess. Certainly you could spend a little more on a little nicer example that isn’t salvaged…
    Chieftain for sure… Seems easy enough to work on… some parts may be tough to source…

  19. Both are overpriced. Having to choose, I’d take the Chieftain. It’s more interesting than the Trans Am. To me at least. The Trans Am is going to take a lot of work getting that engine back. Then I’d have to do a transmission swap because what good is a sports car with and auto? I’d probably be more interested in turning the Chieftain into an art project more than a full on restoration. Working on the Trans Am would probably just anger me.

  20. There is no “right” answer today. I second the comments on the Chief being an expensive lawn ornament and the TA seller being someone I don’t want to deal with. You couldn’t find something with a 3800 in it? Come on!

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