Today we feature a little Black Lives Matters automotive history alongside the trajectory of the Pontiac Motor Division in the late 1950’s. Our subject car has a story too precious to pass up in terms of our collective history. It follows the intersection of race, class, consumerism and pride all wrapped up in chrome dreams from Baghdad By The Bay.
With a photo a little out of format for our blog, we bring you one very special Pontiac Star Chief. Pride of multiple generations of San Franciscans both migrant and born, its a cherished family heirloom that moves along the streets nearly 60 years later.
The Pontiac Star Chief premiered in 1954, as Pontiac, like Dodge and Mercury, sought to expand its reach into more premium waters of the middle class market. With goodies like extra length, girth and leather upholstery, The Star Chief made points to rival Oldsmobile 88’s and Buick Centuries alongside stealing Ford Crestliner and Chevrolet Bel-Air buyers.
African American consumers with new economic power in the Post War era sought to exercise their increased consumer power as well. Flocking to urban centers North, East and West in yet another decade of The Great Migration, union jobs and a diversity of career fields allowed a bit more access to the American Dream than they or their ancestors had known in the American south.
That meant often to treat oneself to the finer goods pouring out of automotive factories coast to coast. In years past, most major manufacturers also had regional production plants to produce goods. The San Francisco Bay Area was home to a few plants from Ford (Richmond, then Milpitas) and General Motors (Chevrolet in Oakland, then the GM plant in Fremont).
The Pontiac Star Chief for 1958 proved to be a wonderful premium option. Lower, longer and wider than before, the wheelbase was up to 124 inches, . The still rather fresh Pontiac Strato-Streak V8 grew to 370 cubic inches, with outputs ranging from 255 to 330 horsepower. Amazingly well appointed inside, for more than a few it would be the ultimate automotive paradise to shield oneself from the concerns of the outside world with in 1958.
The father of this Star Chief’s current owner fell under the spell of marketing and metal in 1958 San Francisco. Recently out of the Military and able to purchase a home in the predominantly Black Bayview-Hunters Point district, he added a sparkling new 1958 Pontiac Star Chief Catalina 2 Door Hardtop to his list of luxuries in his new urban African American experience.
However, the Pontiac proved to be a linchpin in displaying that discrimination knows no boundaries in the United States. Whether interviewing for work, or driving outside of the Bayview after dark, the stunning Star Chief brought unwanted attention.
If seen driving up on Job Interviews, many a negative assumptions were made about how a Colored man could afford a brand new premium car, nevermind the near-flagship of the brand. Negative theories about “uppity negroes” that wouldn’t know their place, or be accommodating to white supervisors came with application after application for jobs throughout San Francisco.
Showing up to apply for jobs via public transit meant the Pontiac sat underutilized in the quest of becoming part of urban life, protected in a weird way by discrimination the normal wear and tear of being a rather large, 17+ foot car in a city long notorious for its navigation challenges.
When driven after dark, the Star Chief became a suspicious target for discriminatory policing practices that kept tight control of social mobility for African Americans in San Francisco. The owner often became targets of frequent police stops that at worst assumed the vehicle was stolen. Again, nefarious assumptions about a person of color who , in irony, served in the armed forces during war and peace, could possibly come into possession of a car a bit too premium prevented the owner of the car from truly enjoying their purchase.
The Star Chief would see extended garage time, only seeing outings on social visits during the day and weekends, becoming a delightful place to conduct household errands and temporarily delight in the conspicuous consumerism of American life. As a totem to success and segregation, the Star Chief eventually got tucked away in the garage by the Mid 60’s as other motor vehicles came and went within the family vehicular pool. As time passed and stories solidified, it became a “history book” document of one families successes and dashed hopes in one of the United States’s so-called bastions of progressive thought.
Nearly 60 years later this pretty Pontiac carries one Black family’s story of San Francisco as a bittersweet paradise as the region remarkably changes. San Francisco of 2016 sees its African American Population at a mere 3% as concerns around lack of community resources, high incarceration rates and gentrification forces to sweep the nuances and complexities of the Black Urban experience out of the consciousness of many, especially in the San Francisco Bay Area.
What does one learn, what does one hope to understand when the narratives of motoring mingle with the actual stories owners might tell us? For me, meeting the current owner of this monument to the struggle and successes of a multiple generational San Francisco family tugged on my mind until I could find the right words, motivation and combination to make metal meet memories. Hopefully this story in steel will motivate you to consider the implications of our history as we move forward and make decisions about our communities near and far in 2016.