Kirk Ives never wanted a Pontiac Chieftain, but that’s mostly because he’d never heard of the car.
Odds are neither have you. Pontiac manufactured the car from 1949 to 1958, and NASCAR proved its worthiness throughout 1957, but the Chieftain never quite rolled off the tongues of post-WWII hot rodders like, say, the ’57 Chevy did. Which is exactly why Ives was initially hunting for a Chevy 150 sedan.
Turns out it was Ives’ doctor who’d redirected his search toward automotive obscurity. “I’d never seen one, and I had no idea what they looked like,” Ives admits to following his doctor’s indication of the car’s potential sale. Days later and on the way to have a look at another car altogether and his doctor’s brother, who inherited the Chieftan from its original owner—his grandmother—sends Ives photos of the coupe. “I couldn’t get back in the truck fast enough and turn around,” he says about the car he’d never heard of that, all of a sudden, seemed like it ought to be his. “It was all original,” he says. “And when I saw the original plastic covers on the seats, holy cow!” A look at the odometer that revealed fewer miles than a present-day lease return (only 56,000) and a box full of documents revealing every oil change and battery and tire replacement and a deal was struck.
Ives may not have been familiar with the Chieftan at first, but his affinity for owning all manner of hot rods spans decades deep and transcends from a series of Corvettes, to a ’78 Firebird, to a ’67 Skylark with a 455 big-block, to a ’49 Ford thrown in for good measure. “I’ve always been interested in cars,” he says, “even as young as 15 years old.”
It’s that longtime interest that afforded Ives the sort of competence he’d need to update the Chieftain—a car that, today, its caretakers are bestowed little support for and even fewer parts—in the sort of way he saw fit. Like yanking the heads off of the 347-cubic-inch V8 with its two-barrel carburetor and installing hardened valve seats to accommodate modern-day fuels. Like stripping the era-specific bias-ply tires, which, according to Ives, “ran as smooth as can be,” for more contemporary and, not to mention, safer, radials.
It’s what Ives did to the two-door hardtop out back that you’ll notice first, though. Flame-spitting exhaust tips often do that. “The exhaust had an issue so I went with a MagnaFlow system,” Ives says about one of only a handful of non-OEM components that’ve made their way onto the Chieftain, allowing him to strike that careful balance between something that’s been mildly customized yet without sacrificing the car’s historical integrity.
In some ways, it’s what Ives didn’t do over the course of the past three years that draws the most attention. He didn’t repaint the body, and instead polished and preserved the original and, in some places, cracked-up and patina-clad finish. He didn’t modify the engine beyond what was needed to remove and reinstall the top end. He didn’t redo the interior; there’s still a couple of small tears inside that, admittedly, do bother him. “I’m pretty happy with keeping this car all original,” Ives says about the car he’d never heard of that now he hasn’t the heart to reinvent.