“The Chief” – Frank Howard’s 1956 Pontiac Starchief
Some custom car projects take an original vehicle and use it as a springboard to go off in an entirely new design direction. Others go for a more subtle approach by taking a pleasing original design and refining it to levels that make everyone stand up and take notice. Frank Howard’s beautiful 1956 Pontiac Starchief convertible takes the latter approach and the result has been an unprecedented number of jaw-dropping reactions since the sleek and stunning car was unveiled at the 2018 SEMA Show.
Given the target for this project, it made sense for Tim Kilkeary and his team at Customs by Kilkeary to start with a nice restored original car. Though the factory lines were more or less retained, virtually every portion of the body was touched and tweaked, starting by chopping the windshield a subtle 7/8-inch. They also tucked the front and rear bumpers, built custom headlamp doors, relocated the fuel filler, and finessed all the gaps and panels to perfection. The long flanks were eventually coated in a brilliant custom metallic blue finish using BASF Glasurit materials.
The classic top side was contrasted with contemporary underpinnings, starting with a Roadster Shop chassis riding on air springs with a four-bar rear suspension suspending a 9-inch rearend. Wilwood disc brakes were covered up with gorgeous EVOD 20×9- and 22×12-inch wheels custom machined to evoke a vintage hubcap design.
Howard selected an equally contemporary drivetrain – a Whipple-supercharged Don Hardy-built LS engine displacing 418c.i. and dressed to the nines with custom-carved valve covers from EVOD, a dual-feed air inlet, and fabricated inner fenders and firewall. It’s backed by a TCI 4L80E transmission and offers a perfect rumble courtesy of custom-built headers and a Magnaflow exhaust.
Inside, modern craftsmanship and flair were mixed with classic ’50s elements. The glove box was moved to the center of the dash and custom dash trim was machined by CCTek, while Dakota Digital filled the original gauge bezels with new instruments. A modified original front seat and custom rear seat – along with custom door and side panels – were stitched in custom-dyed caramel-colored Relicate leather by Shusta Interiors. The tilt column was topped with a one-off aluminum steering wheel whittled by CCTek and modeled after the original.
Dubbed “The Chief,” Howard’s 1956 Pontiac Starchief nabbed a Goodguys Gold Award upon its debut at the SEMA Show, then went on to earn Best Custom and first place Radical Custom Convertible at the 2019 Detroit Autorama before becoming a Goodguys 2019 Vintage Air Custom Rod of the Year finalist in Nashville. In 2019 “The Chief” also spent time at the Rodeo Drive Concours d’Elegance and the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. Given the refinement seen in this Pontiac, those sorts of accolades and attention are no surprise.
Photos by John Jackson