1953 Pontiac Chieftian Coupe

flickr 1953 Pontiac Chieftian
mage courtesy of: http://www.flickr.com/photos/autohistorian/4319049691/

1953 Pontiac Chieftian Coupe with a 1969 Pontiac 400 V8, TH-400 transmission

My brother and I built this up during our early college years back in 1999-2002, working on it during the summers.  I purchased the 1953 Pontiac as 1 of a package deal of 4, paid $100 each, 2 are 2-door cars, and 2 are 4-door parts cars.  This one had a 6-cylinder in it, and it was stuck, so it was a good candidate for an engine upgrade.  A few years later, and we found a 1969 Pontiac Catalina in town that had a 400 V8 in it.  Body was shot, and the motor didn’t run, but it turned over, and we got it for $40 or $100, I can’t remember for sure.  We pulled the motor, and got it running in the garage.

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Then we spent a lot of time shoe-horning that big motor into a little engine bay.  We also cut the frame to accommodate the power steering from the Catalina, and had to fabricate a custom draglink to make it all work.  We also took the steering column from the Catalina, and made all of that work.

Here’s a pic of the steering column in, and with a little shop helper!

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The front seats got salvaged too, and after some sheetmetal floorboard repair, we got those in too.  Meanwhile, we also wanted to upgrade the brakes, so we took off the big drum brakes from the Catalina, and cut out the middle of the backer plate, and welded it to the cut down brake backer plates from the ’53.  Then the power brake booster and pedal were massaged to fit up in the firewall of the ’53.  After getting it all together, we made some test runs with it, but the motor wasn’t working real great.

A short time later, we ran across another Pontiac car, a 1973 Grand Prix with a 455 and 4-barrel in a farmer’s junkyard.  After some negotiations, we scored it for $40 and hauled it home.  After a bit of work to the engine of cleaning the spark plugs, and getting some fresh gas to it, we got it running!  Now time for a quick swap of the motors!  Pulled the 400 2-barrel out of the ’53, then out came the 455 from the Grand Prix, and then into the ’53 it went!

Now for some fun, we took it out for a few test runs north of town, and that sure was fun……. until the 455 decided to spit a rod out the oil pan!!!  Pouring out oil and lots of smoke, it still drove home!

At this point we decided to do a full rebuild of the 400 motor, and upgrade from the stock 2-barrel carb to a 4-barrel with matched intake, cam and carb combo from Edelbrock in the Performer RPM series.  It also got 10.75 compression pistons, head rebuilt, and everything cleaned and painted.  With all the parts and machine work, the total bill for that engine overhaul came to around $3500….. all paid for with summer jobs in-between college.

Here’s some pics of the first time out and doing a burnout.  I was driving, and when I dropped it into Drive and stepped on it, and it didn’t really go right away!  I then looked back and saw the smoke rolling up!  Yup, it was roasting the tire!!!  It’s an open differential, so it’s a One Wheel Wonder!!!

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One thing that was a bit weak was the starter, it wouldn’t turn the engine over after it had been running for a bit, and in our early years we didn’t realize that windings internal to the starter could cause it to work part of the time.  So that put a bit of a damper on working on it further, then the rest of college and life got in the way, and this project got sidelined for many years….. like 10 years!!!!

Fast forward, and I decided to get this car running, so I picked up a rebuilt started for it from Napa, and then got sidelined by other projects, so a few more years went by.

Winter of 2013, and I decided it was time to get this vehicle back to running status…. first I tried to get the starter to crank over, and nothing doing, it wouldn’t even turn it when cold.  Then I put a big socket and ratchet on the crank bolt to turn it over by hand, and I could just barely move it a tiny bit.  Then I got in a hurry, and that’s when mistakes happen…. Yup, having just recently purchased a 3/4″ drive air impact, I decided to try that!!!! Bad decision on my part….. Wouldn’t you know it, as soon as I got down in there and on, and just started to get it to rotate, the doggone crank bolt twisted off!!!!  Not surprising, but frustrating nonetheless!!!    Time was up for that visit, and it was time to return to China for work.  Before doing so, I poured in a mixture of transmission fluid and acetone into each cylinder, as I’d heard that works as a good penetrate.

Summer of 2014, and I’d had 6 months to think about how I was going to fix my doozy of a screwup.  I knew that drilling a hole in the bolt to use an “EZ-out” wasn’t going to be easy…. I decided I needed to make a drill plate to make sure the drilled hole was perfectly inline and centered.

Before I did any of that, I wanted to rotate the motor to make sure it would actually turn before putting too much effort into it.  I removed the clutch fan, belts and pulleys, then I found a bit of flat bar, drilled 2 holes in it to match up to the harmonic balancer and bolted it on.  Lo and Behold, it turned a bit!  I was able to rotate it back and forth as much as the bar would allow, so at least I knew it was free.

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Now for the drill plate: after a bit of work with some 5/16″ plate, a large nut with a stud broken off in it, the welder, and the vertical mill, and I had the perfect drill plate and a way to rotate the motor.

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Now I was able to rotate the motor all the way around, and now I could justify getting that broken off bolt drilled out.  I made the pre-drill hole in the jig at 5/16″ and we started drilling with that.  The brother-in-law was out visiting, so he was able to help with this part.  Good thing, as it took both of us to be able to put enough pressure on the drill at that awkward angle to make some chips.  After a bit effort, we finally got fairly deep with the 5/16″ bit.  Then we took off the drill plate, and enlarged it to 3/8″.  I went to NAPA, and bought the biggest stud remover they had, which spec’d a 3/8″ hole.  I put that in a tap handle and eased it into the hole, and then carefully started applying pressure as I cranked it counter clockwise.  I’ve had these “easy outs” break off on me before, and then you’re really screwed as they’re made out of hardened steel, and almost impossible to drill.  But not so on this one, the stud remover grabbed and bolt started to come out without too much effort.  After a bit of rotating, I was able to get it completely out!!!!

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Now that that was done, I could finally replace the starter on it!  Out came the bumper-jack, up it went, then some jack stands for extra safety, and I got to work replacing the starter.  I made short work out of that, only about 30 mins for the replacement!

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Now time to see if I could get to actually run!  I didn’t have a new crank bolt yet, but I’d already researched and found a replacement on on Summitt Racing, I just needed to order it.  The B-i-L and I reassembled all of the parts on the motor and prepared to try to start it.  First attempt….. nothing!!!  I pulled a spark plug, and no spark.  Not too surprising, as this has points ignition, and while it has new parts in it, they were new 10+ years ago.  Sure enough, the points were corroded, so I pulled them out and filed them…  Put them back in and still nothing! I got the volt meter out and did some checking and turns out that the points weren’t properly breaking the circuit to charge the coil to make spark, I needed to file and sand them some more!!!!  After some aggressive sanding and filing, and then checking with the voltmeter, we finally had the points working correctly.  Then getting it reassembled, and now we had spark.  Now to get some gas and light the fire!

Now that the engine runs, I plan to do some further work to get this one back on the road and as a good driver.  The tires don’t hold air right now, so they’ll need a bit of work, but more important, the front wheel studs need to be replaced with longer ones as right now the lug nuts are only grabbing a few threads!  That’s because of the thicker brake drums from the 69 Catalina donor car.  Then as I recall from driving it many years ago, the front spindles will need to be rebuilt with new bushings, as the front end was a bit loose!  The back window is broken out, so that will need to be replaced, but should be able to be sourced from one of the 4-door cars.  The rear trunk lid has some pretty serious dents, so I can either practice my metal work or replace it with one from one of the 4-door cars.  I’m also thinking about putting in a Pertronix pointless ignition so I don’t have to hassle with the points again.  Any feedback from folks that have done this conversion?