The 1955 Pontiac V8 was not that division’s first venture into a V-style eight-cylinder engine configuration. In 1932 a one-year-only version of the Oakland L-head V8 was produced for the newly minted Pontiac Motor Division. Bad timing in the depths of the Great Depression forced the option into retirement after only one year and 6,281 cars were produced.
Right after World War Two work on a modern, overhead-valve V-8 engine was approved by GM. The engine design had begun in 1949 under the Division’s general manager Harry J. Klingler, but development proceeded slowly at first due to Klingler’s lack of enthusiasm for a new power plant. Klingler was proving to be too conservative and GM brass saw him as inappropriate for the growth of this mid-price brand — especially after the take off of Oldsmobile with their new V-8. It wasn’t long before he was moved over to corporate headquarters as Vice-President of Vehicle Production.
To light a fire under the lagging sales of the mid-price Pontiac, GM appointed Alan Lenz to lead the brand. The dynamic Lenz was expected to institute rapid modernization in the Division, but as fate would have it, Lenz died in a car/train crash the following year. As a result, one of his key initiatives, the V-8 program, again was held off.
Robert M. Critchfield succeeded Lenz, in 1954 and, while not as energetic as Lenz, pressure from above convinced him to get the engine modernization program rolling again. As we know now, it wasn’t until 1955 that the new Pontiac OHV V-8 engine hit the market. But when it did, model-year sales took an immediate jump to 554,000 units — up from 287,744 the year before. This huge increase signified to all at Pontiac that a high-performing V-8 was going to be essential to success.
Significant in the introduction of the V-8 was that Critchfield recognized, that like Oldsmobile who had abandoned any six-cylinder power plant and had huge success with only OHV V-8 power, decreed that there would no longer be any 6-cylinder engine offerings by Pontiac. The die was cast, OHV V-8s would be the backbone of all GM divisions — and horsepower would be the key to sales success.