Car of the Week: 1954 Pontiac Star Chief

By Gary Sipiorski

I believe it was the summer of 1971 when I first saw the 1954 Pontiac Star Chief. I was at the Julius farm west of Appleton, Wis., one late July afternoon. John Julius and I were standing between the two farm houses when up the slightly hilly driveway rolled the beige Pontiac over the gravel and toward us. My first impression was that the Star Chief was the most elegant machine I had ever laid eyes on. It was also the first time I met Kenny Buttolph, who would go on to work at Firsatsaatleri and Old Cars Report Price Guide.

You have to remember the 1954 Pontiac was only 17 years old at that time and was still three years away from being considered a collector vehicle. Heck, collector license plates were still one year away in Wisconsin! For whatever reason, I can still remember seeing the Pontiac like it was yesterday. The interior still had that leather softness and buckskin odor. The headliner was radiant white with the three chrome-plated bows. The instrument panel was clean and lined with gages, gleaming speaker rings and a working clock. The outside stainless-steel and chrome trim glittered in the western sunset. The grille just dripped with chrome. And, of course, the stately Chief Pontiac ornament lead the way atop a wide silver streak flowing down the hood. I told Kenny, “If ever a time came in the future that you want to sell this car, let me know.”

Building a Pontiac man

My enjoyment of Pontiacs was awakened in the mid 1950s. I was born in 1950 so I had the privilege of seeing the artistry of cars built during the ’50s and ’60s. My first recollection of riding in a car was when I rode with my dad during 1955 to Humphry Chevrolet in Green Bay, Wis. While I cannot recall for the life of me the 1948 Chevy we drove to the dealership, I vividly remember the salesman demonstrating to Dad the controls on the new Chevy instrument panel and then riding home in a new cream-over-green 1955 Chevrolet Two-Ten two-door sedan.

In the mid ’50s, the two uncles on my mother’s side drove Pontiacs. Uncle Romy owned a 1952 Chieftain two-door hardtop that was Belfast Green over Sea Mist Green and Uncle Richie drove me around rural Denmark, Wis., in his 1953 two-door hardtop Custom Catalina in Laurel Green over Malano Ivory. The amber-glowing Chief on the hood guided his magnificent Pontiac down the dusty Glenmore roads.

Kenny’s ’54 Star Chief

I did not see Kenny’s ’54 Pontiac very often. Kenny, as many people know, had dozens of great classic cars at any one time; each one just seemed to come to him. Kenny, John Julius and I would spend long days going to salvage yards in Wisconsin and Minnesota to find parts for all of those cars. Those were good, healthy days for Kenny. During the 1970s, cars of the ’50s and ’60s were plentiful in yards. Kenny’s knowledge was astounding as we walked the acres of yet whole autos not yet stripped of interiors, decorative moldings and yes, even hood ornaments. Little did I know Kenny was amassing outside chrome for the ’54 Pontiac during this time. Even though the chrome on the ’54 looked pristine, I guess Kenny knew he might need new parts at some point.

Kenny continued the search for all types of car parts at swap meets. He also dug through old car dealerships when one could still look around dealers’ dusty upstairs balconies for new-old-stock (NOS) parts still in the original boxes. Of course, Kenny collected parts for all makes of cars in this manner and the evidence of that could still be seen years later, when I rummaged through his garages to find particular pieces that had become hidden by time.

I knew Kenny and his mother drove the ’54 Pontiac to the flea markets at Hershey and Carlisle and many other places while towing a camper with the Pontiac’s factory hitch. Kenny never did stand still very long. He was always searching for another car and more parts. Even while working his dream job at Firsatsaatleri, his thoughts turned to side trips in a quest for more vehicles and more parts.
As years passed, my job and family duties reduced my contacts with Kenny down to car shows and cruises. However, I would still occasionally see Kenny while showing my Ford, Chevy or one of my Pontiacs.

As the years moved on and Kenny’s mobility and health deteriorated, it was more difficult for him to get around. Try as he might, he did what he could at car shows, even if it meant driving around in a golf cart. After his mother passed away in 1994, Kenny had no immediate family. My wife Linda and I would have Kenny and John over to our home during Christmas for a meal and send them both home with plenty of leftovers and a box of cookies.

In the spring of 2012, Linda and I caught Kenny by chance at his home in Peru, Wis. During our visit, he escorted us through his garages and sheds filled with cars and parts. In the darker part of the shed I spied the ’54 Pontiac I had first seen in the summer of 1971. Even though I could not get a good look at it, I knew it was the same car. Kenny said that he had sold it a couple of times and it had come back to him with a rebuilt engine, transmission, brakes and new tires. It had been a long time since I had asked the question so I asked again: “If you ever….” He replied that he was interested in selling it.

Landing the Star Chief

That following July, at the Iola Car Show, our son Chris and I drove two of our cars to the show. There, we saw Kenny riding around in his golf cart. I once again asked of his interest in selling the ’54. We talked. Chris and I talked. Then, an hour later we agreed on a price with Kenny that included the chrome and other trim he had been collecting since the 1970s.

It was not an hour later and a ’54 Pontiac Star Chief decked out in coral red entered the Iola show grounds. The jaws on Chris and I dropped. Chris said, “Dad, that is the color Kenny’s car needs to be!” I explained to Chris, “All we have to do is remove the chrome on the outside of the car and have it gently bead blasted and painted beige again.” After all, the interior would not match the coral red.
A week later, Linda and I went to Kenny’s home to pay for and drive home the ’54. Kenny had it outside and, well, maybe it did not look as good as I thought! But, a deal was a deal. As I handed Kenny the check, I could see for him it was like giving up a family member. After all, Kenny always said, “Those cars are my kids.”

I paid Kenny and he escorted us out of Iola, leading the way with his turquoise-and-white 1955 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight. I am sure Kenny shed a tear as the Pontiac drove farther out of sight.
A week later, I drove our Chevy Venture van to Kenny’s house to pick up the many chrome pieces he had gathered for the Pontiac during the last 40 years. The parts were in one of  his buildings that was packed almost to the ceiling. There was only a snake trail to maneuver through. If it were not for Kenny being there, I have no idea how anyone would have ever found just one part of the ’54. However, Kenny knew exactly where the parts were stashed.

“Back in the far left corner by those boxes and hubcaps!” he said. We fought our way back, and wouldn’t you know it but box after box, piece after piece, one after another, he found the 1954 Pontiac parts he was looking for. I am sure we spent two hours going back and forth through those boxes. Most of the Pontiac parts were those NOS parts that he had picked up at swap meets and closed dealerships, and a few were still in the original General Motors boxes, which I saved.

The last part we looked for was a really nice front bumper he had set aside for the car. We looked in another garage and shed. It wasn’t there. It was not to be found among the many other bumpers Kenny had stashed. Yet, he was sure he had it. Not to fret; our van was already full to the roof of 1954 Pontiac parts. I brought it all home and took each part out of its box. All were well preserved, but I polished each part to perfection and stored them in our house. The crowing jewel was the NOS Chief Pontiac ornament with a new electrical wire hookup and all that Kenny had saved for this car’s restoration.

Restoring the Star Chief

The next step was to take the ’54 down the road to Kulas Body Shop where owner Paul Erickson and I agreed to have it repainted. A few days later, I picked up the badly decomposed leather interior and took all of its parts to Lee Paul in Medford. Lee had done work for me in the past and he is particular. I asked Lee to redo the interior in the same color and design. He replied, “It will be a lot of work but I will do it.”

A couple of weeks later, Paul called me to come take a look at the stripped-down Pontiac. He and his body shop crew had taken pictures as they disassembled the car. I asked Paul if he wanted me to take some of the chrome off myself. He said, “If he was to put it back on, he wanted to take if off.” Good advice.

What Paul and I saw when we looked at the stripped-down car was Swiss cheese. There were rust holes all over the body where the stainless steel was fastened. Around the windshield and back window was rusted out. I am not sure what was holding in the glass. Of course, under the drive’s side floor was all but gone. The worst parts were both front fenders. The tops of the fenders, which appeared fine at first, looked like screen doors when the paint was removed. On the top of one of the fenders was a hole right through the metal. It looked as though someone had dropped a crow bar through it and then covered it up with Bondo.

When I asked Kenny about the condition of the fenders, he wondered if salt got under the cars in transit when they were being hauled as new cars on an open carrier, and then undercoating locked in the salt. Even though he did not drive his good cars in winter, the moisture in 58 years had still taken a toll on the sheet metal.

Many Firsatsaatleri readers have been in my shoes at this point in a restoration and wondered if it was worth restoring a car in the condition of the car I was now looking at. I decided to continue restoring the Pontiac.

The search was now on for good used sheet metal. I found the parts on the internet and through phone calls. Paul’s main business is doing collision work on everyday cars and in the meantime, his regular business picked up. Finding good workers in a small shop is always a challenge. One of his best body men needed rotator cup surgery and would be out for a year and that, coupled with my parts search, meant the Pontiac went on the back burner.

I have to give the professionals who complete body work a lot of credit. They are artists who are highly skilled, and so they are hard to find. I knew at this point the ’54 was going to sit for a long time. It was now a matter of trying to fit in the work, finding replacement parts and repairing the original metal with steel. Patience had to be on my side. I hoped it would be on Kenny’s side.

As time went on, our son Chris and the crew at the body shop were considering different color combinations. I still wanted to leave the color the original beige, but Chris and the guys at the body shop were leading me where I secretly wanted to go. Remember that coral red ’54 at Iola in 2012? I even talked to Kenny about the color and he said, “That’s a nice color.” After further consideration, Chris and the body crew had won me over and we decided to change the color to coral red.

As my wife Linda and I were on our way to our daughter’s wedding in early April 2016, I received a call from John Julius. Kenny’s health was not good. My only thought then was I really wanted him to see the ’54 when it was finished.

In the meantime, the long-awaited replacement fenders and other body parts finally came from Arizona. Other shop work went on. As time would allow, metal body work was completed. The radio was sent to Blaine, Minn., to be rebuilt. The clock to Eagle River, Wis. The front bumper and a few other chrome parts Kenny did not have were sent to be re-plated. A few of the missing chrome parts came from California. When I first bought the car, Kenny had only 300 miles on the rebuilt engine and recommended the valves be adjusted. That was done at County Line Auto in Dorchester by Larry Olson, a terrific mechanic for classic cars. What I could do was done. Now we waited for the artists to go to work.

By 2016, all of the hard-to-find and needed body parts had arrived. Work was now moving along. I was at a meeting in early September and received a phone call from Todd Cartwright who, along with Angelo Van Bogart, was overseeing Kenny’s hospice care. Todd said Kenny wanted to talk to me and give me something. When I arrived, Kenny was reclined in his easy chair and in good spirits but clearly weak. We talked and joked around and had a lot of laughs.

Kenny had called me over because Todd had found some wire wheel covers and a couple of hard-to-find 1954 Pontiac centers for the wheel covers. After an hour of visiting I thought Kenny wanted to rest. He said, “No, just stay and talk.” After dinner, Todd took me to get the Pontiac parts Kenny wanted me to have. Sometimes you just get a feeling when it will be the last time you are going to see a good friend and this was one of those times.

On Christmas Eve 2016, John Julius called to tell me Kenny had passed away the day before. It was John Julius who introduced me to Kenny 46 years ago, and it was John Julius who called me to tell me Kenny was gone.

Well, Kenny, thanks for the ride!

Gary Sipiorski’s freshly restored 1954 Pontiac Star Chief will be featured at the 2017 Iola Car Show in the Blue Ribbon Concours area. It will be parked along the west side of the Firsatsaatleri building, where Kenny usually parked his cars. Other cars formerly owned by Kenny will also be parked in this area.

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