Longroof Lowlife

Writing: Dave Smith

Photos: Matt Woods

Proving that Cruise Muscle can come with five doors and three bench seats, this Pontiac is airy but definitely not fairy.

Ever looked at those photos of American cars in Sixties Britain and wondered what became of them all? Those books of Steve Miles’s photos are a trap – you can’t just take a glance; you’ll end up reading the whole thing. And when you do, you’ll just spend hours pontificating on what became of them all. Lendrum & Hartmann’s showrooms were full of beautiful machinery, and you can usually spot them because they seemed to have a deal with the DVLA that meant that their cars were issued with number plates short enough to fit into the standard 12×6” licence plate recess. Many came via Canada, many in right- hand drive. So where are they all?

There are a few clues in there. First was the fact that spares availability was never great, so there were some lash-ups to be found. Then, very few UK-spec garages could fit an American land-yacht, meaning that most of them would have lived outside. Given American cars’ less than stellar ability at keeping the rain out, coupled with the UK’s fondness for heaping salt on the roads for six months of the year, many of them would have been not so much cars as Isopon sculptures within 10 years. Then there was the oil crisis of the early Seventies that would have slashed their values, then they’d have become organ donors for drag racers, stock cars and the like. Then, much later, those short number plates that were issued to L&H were suddenly worth several times the value of the car they were issued to…

Some still managed to survive, thankfully. Like this one. It belongs to Richard Baldwin, from Essex, and here’s the story.

“My brother Rob and I were brought up with American cars,” says Richard. “Our dad had a Model A, a ’55 Bel Air, and so on. Rob and I started up a Yank fund, and together we bought a ’64 Pontiac Bonneville. A little way down the line, we ended up selling it, and that’s when someone told me about a Pontiac station wagon just a few miles down the road. I went along to check it out, found it and knocked on the door. The owner was a shift worker, and I’d woken him up and he didn’t seem best pleased! He told me he’d been considering getting rid of it, and said everything’s for sale at the right price, so I made him an offer and the deal was done. I liked it, but Rob didn’t, so I ended up buying it out of my own money”.

“That was about a year and a half ago. It’s a 1964 Pontiac Parisienne Safari, a right-hand drive Canadian version that’s actually just a ’64 Chevrolet Impala underneath. The car was totally stock, and in good, running order – I could have jumped in and driven it anywhere. Apparently, it had been found in a garage where it had been hidden for 20 years, and was supposedly once owned by the author Barry Hines, who wrote ‘Kes’. It had a few patches of rust, which I attended to, and on the first day I drove it I went to work, picked up seven mates and took them out for a drive!”

“After that, I got a bit carried away. It started with the wheels and tyres, 18” at the front and 19” at the back, with staggered offsets. Then I fitted a front disc brake conversion, as the drums were pretty awful, but as it’s all ’64 Chevy underneath there are disc conversions available off the shelf. Next I had a stainless exhaust made by Pipecraft, and bought some tubular headers from CM Frost, where I get most of my parts. Surprisingly, they fitted straight on without any interference from the steering column, but everything else on the right-hand side, like the starter motor, is a pain to get to. The engine was a stock 283 Chevy with a single-barrel Rochester carburettor and was horrifically slow, so I fitted an aluminium intake and four-barrel carb along with dress-up rocker covers and air filter. I converted the headlamps to HID units – they had to be decent lights to work with the headlamp covers.”

“On the first day I drove it I went to work, picked up seven mates and took them out for a drive!”

“Next came the full AirRide kit. It was a nightmare to fit, as I didn’t want people to know it was on air, so had to hide everything. The compressor, tank and manifold are all installed in the boot while the credit-card-sized controller is installed in the ashtray. Now it can do any combination of lift and drop on all four corners, and will sit right down on the floor. I hit very lucky there, because the Chevrolet chassis and huge wheel tubs mean it’ll drop onto its bumpstops without anything rubbing, and will roll even when completely aired out. The airbags just fit in place of the springs, and I originally ran it without shock absorbers, but it was atrocious. Cruising along the motorway, if you hit even the slightest dip in the road it wouldn’t level – it’d be all over the road! I had Gaz make me a set of adjustable dampers and fitted them, and now it rides beautifully; it even corners well, and it’s only the low- profile tyres that spoil the ride. I have titanium blocks on the chassis that send up a shower of sparks when they touch the road, but I don’t use them that much since I set fire to someone’s hedge and had to beat a hasty retreat…”

“The car isn’t painted; it’s been vinyl wrapped with custom embossing, spray- on wrap and pinstriping. Vinyl wrapping is what my company, Ravan Graphics, does, but it’s such a huge car that even wrapping cost a fortune in materials! We used 3M 1080 matt aluminium for the body, and charcoal for the roof with pinstriping, and embossed logos on the doors. A lot of the chrome has been spray-wrapped.
“The engine doesn’t have hardened valve seats, so I have to run it on super unleaded with octane booster and lead replacement. I did once look at replacing it with a 383 stroker, but decided it’d never be that sort of ‘fast’ car so why waste money and an engine? I bought a bug-catcher scoop for it, and offered it up to the carb, all ready to cut the hole in the bonnet, but again decided that it just wasn’t that sort of car. I just settled for the mods I’d already done, plus the air filter and rocker covers have been replaced with finned Edelbrock pieces since these photos were taken.”

“Chevrolet chassis and huge wheel tubs mean it’ll drop onto its bumpstops without anything rubbing”

“The car only has 47,000 miles on the clock and the interior is all completely standard. I did consider painting it black, but it’s just too honest as it is. The roof lining has a tiny, quarter-inch tear in it but I’ll live with it. The rear window winds down manually, but you can’t drive with it open as it sucks the exhaust gas into the car. I thought I was being clever having the new exhausts built with side exits, but it’s just as bad!”

“I drive it all the time, everywhere. I drive it to work, I’ve stuffed it full of ladders to go on jobs, gone to shows, gone to the pub, everywhere. I don’t mind taking it out in the rain, but it’s too long for multi-storey car parks. I throw all my kite-surfing gear and the dog and the missus in and go to the beach. I wouldn’t say I’m not precious about it – I don’t like people touching it – but it’s always full of sand! It was built to be a surf wagon, but ended up more sinister than surf.”

“If I have somewhere to go and enough money for fuel, I’ll take the Pontiac; I’d happily jump in it and drive to Scotland. But you have to be in the right frame of mind – pull up anywhere and people will come and talk to you about it for at least half an hour. I’ve done everything on it myself, and it does get driven, it’s not just a show- pony. I use Gibbs Brand spray underneath and to clean the vinyl wrap, and that’s it. It’s getting noticed a lot more now. At the start, I don’t think people understood what I saw in the car, but now, being big, long, sinister and dropped on its arse, they do.”

“If I have somewhere to go and enough money for fuel, I’ll take the Pontiac”