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

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.

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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

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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

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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.

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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.

 

QuizMaker

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FUCK YOU
FUCK YOU
1 year ago

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.

William Domer
William Domer
1 year ago

Pontiantc: We Build Excrement

Ward William
Ward William
1 year ago

Is this a joke ???

Drive By Commenter
Drive By Commenter
1 year ago

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.

Sid Bridge
Sid Bridge
1 year ago

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.

KillinTime
KillinTime
1 year ago

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…

Jason Douglas
Jason Douglas
1 year ago

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.

Jeff Gillio
Jeff Gillio
1 year ago

The Chieftain for the hood ornament alone.

Mr.Asa
Mr.Asa
1 year ago

Price sucks on both.
Trans Am + LSx + T56

StillPlaysWithCars
StillPlaysWithCars
1 year ago

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.

StillPlaysWithCars
StillPlaysWithCars
1 year ago

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!”

KITT222 aka The Vibe Guy aka Nick
KITT222 aka The Vibe Guy aka Nick
1 year ago

I see the perfect candidate for a KITT build. Get the bumper and a dash and get to work!

Stig's Cousin
Stig's Cousin
1 year ago

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.

Man_of_wool
Man_of_wool
1 year ago
Reply to  Stig's Cousin

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.

RoRoTheGreat
RoRoTheGreat
1 year ago

I’m all in on the GTA because those rims are the best of the era.

Jack Trade
Jack Trade
1 year ago
Reply to  RoRoTheGreat

Totally…that was my big reason too. The Pontiac black with gold wheels bit is like the U.S. version of the John Player livery.

Dodsworth
Dodsworth
1 year ago
Reply to  RoRoTheGreat

I agree. When you decide not to pump any more money into it, those wheels will bring a dollar or two.

CatMan
CatMan
1 year ago

Honestly, neither one. However, I went on a very enjoyable 2 minute 51 second trip down memory lane with that Pontiac commercial so they get the vote

IRegertNothing, Esq.
IRegertNothing, Esq.
1 year ago

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.

Donald Petersen
Donald Petersen
1 year ago

Well, the “Silver Streak” Pontiac straight eight had a 21-year run, so it isn’t exactly rare. Rings, gaskets, and bearings seem to be readily available. I wouldn’t be daunted.

Icouldntfindaclevername
Icouldntfindaclevername
1 year ago

Both are total time/$$$ killing projects. So in that vain, I’m going with the Chieftain.

Man With A Reliable Jeep
Man With A Reliable Jeep
1 year ago

To paraphrase dad in the National Lampoon’s Chrismas Vacation, “It’s a beaut.”

The Chieftain, that is. I’ve got no interest in that Mullet Machine.

James Mitchell
James Mitchell
1 year ago

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.

Mark
Mark
1 year ago

Even if it’s a weak flathead, inline > V.
And the hood ornament seals the deal.

Citrus
Citrus
1 year ago

The “Ride Pontiac Ride” video has way more people in arguments than I’d expect for slick ’80s a car ad.

JDE
JDE
1 year ago

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.

Frodo
Frodo
1 year ago
Reply to  JDE

It has a cast iron inline 8. theres plenty of room for batteries under the hood too.

Geoff Buchholz
Geoff Buchholz
1 year ago

Strictly for ease of finding parts, it’s the GTA. In other news, these prices are wack.

DubblewhopperInDubblejeopardy
DubblewhopperInDubblejeopardy
1 year ago

Since both Pontiac’s do not run, I will take the Chieftain. I would buy it now before some lazy, dipshit restorer keeps the rusty patina. That fad needs to die.

Stig's Cousin
Stig's Cousin
1 year ago

Personally, I like the patina style. I don’t think this particular vehicle looks good as is, though, so I would fix the rust and paint it.

Lew Schiller
Lew Schiller
1 year ago

I blame them picker guys for it but you have to admire their ginning up a market for stuff they just drag out of a field and hose off.

Mike S
Mike S
1 year ago

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.

DubblewhopperInDubblejeopardy
DubblewhopperInDubblejeopardy
1 year ago
Reply to  Mike S

Its not you, if I am paying close to 6 figures on a car to restore, I sure as shit want a really good paint job. Now if I want a rat rod, that’s a totally different ballgame.

V10omous
V10omous
1 year ago

Let’s be honest, neither one of these is worth the effort to restore unless you have some sentimental attachment to them.

Since I don’t, I’m saving my $2K today.

marathag
marathag
1 year ago

Chieftain.
Screw that Patina movement, this needs a nice two tone paint.
And a 389 and four speed.

DubblewhopperInDubblejeopardy
DubblewhopperInDubblejeopardy
1 year ago
Reply to  marathag

Pink and black two-tone. Or cherry red and black.

MATTinMKE
MATTinMKE
1 year ago

Teal blue and cream.

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
1 year ago

Bronze & pink. Sounds odd, but looks sharp on a car like this

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