`56 Safari a rare beauty

03/15/2014 7:53 AM

03/15/2014 7:53 AM

Ray Hall’s love affair with classic Pontiacs goes back a long way.

“I’ve still got the ’55 Pontiac at home that I took my driver’s test in when I was 14,” he says. “It was my mom’s car. I’ve been doing cars since the 1960s.”

Hall and his son, Jim, have amassed a small fleet of the now-defunct brand ranging from mid-’50s models to the sought-after GTOs of the 1960s.

Ironically, it’s a station wagon that now commands center stage for Ray Hall. The silver-and-charcoal beauty is a rare 1956 Pontiac Custom Safari, a corporate cousin to the better-known Chevy Nomad wagon.

“There were not nearly as many Safaris built as Nomads,” Jim Hall said. Both cars, which began production in 1955, were built at the same Fisher Body plant in Euclid, Ohio; in 1956, 7,886 Nomads were manufactured, compared to only 4,042 Safaris.

According to the younger Hall, the latest statistics show just over 300 of the ’56 Safaris still exist.

“There are a lot of body parts on a Nomad and a Safari that will interchange. A lot of people don’t know that,” said his dad. In fact, he said, many people have no idea what they are looking at when they see his Safari.

“I drove it to lunch a while ago and an older couple spent 15 minutes walking around it. A guy at The Chill car show said he never knew they even made them,” Ray said.

He found this car listed in an online auction in Washington.

“I had always liked these cars. We went on the Hot Rod Power Tour last year and I thought it would be nice to have a wagon, so we could all ride along together comfortably,” Ray said.

So he contacted the seller and had him send him photos of the car. A half-dozen phone calls followed between the two. Hall, who had earlier made a fruitless trip to Las Vegas to look at a car that turned out to be much rougher than the photos he had seen, was reluctant to take another chance.

“I would really like to have seen it before I bought it,” he said. But he eventually convinced himself and the deal was made. When the auto transporter showed up a couple of weeks later, the Safari was all that he hoped it would be.

“It is straight. It was undercoated … not a rust bucket. I have been underneath it and it hasn’t been patched on,” he said. “I am happy with it. I did find a few things it needs. The chrome is decent, but eventually I will redo it. I fixed the heater and put a speedometer in and I am going to put an original steering wheel back on it,” he said.

The factory-installed 316 cubic inch V-8 and Strato-Flight transmission had already been replaced with a 400 cubic inch, 250 horsepower Pontiac Firebird V-8 with matching automatic transmission, making the car much more roadworthy. The original ’56 Safari rear end remains in place, though.

A set of classic Cragar 5-spoke chrome mag wheels fitted with Toyo 205 /65 /15 blackwall radial tires, with power drum brakes, was used in the restoration of the car. Underneath the chassis, a set of dual glasspack mufflers gives the Safari the deep rumble correct for the era.

“It sounds healthy and it runs pretty good,” Ray said.

Surfboard decals on the windows and a removable top-mounted surfboard rack seem to indicate the Safari may have seen some West Coast duty as a surf wagon.

Inside, the split bench front seat and the solid rear bench seat have been treated to fresh, factory-style woven vinyl upholstery. A dealer-installed air conditioning unit hangs beneath the dash, for future road trip comfort.

“We’re talking about going to the Black Hills on vacation and if we do, we’re taking this,” said Ray Hall.

“I’ve been a Pontiac man all my life. It’s a beautiful wagon and I just love it.”

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