Courtesy of Mecum Auctions
  • Pontiac salesman’s demo car from Freeport, IL
  • Two months invested in race preparation
  • Entered in a 150-mile event at the Milwaukee Mile in July 1958, where it qualified fourth-fastest against factory-backed teams
  • Raced at Rockford, IL, 1960–62
  • Retired from competition in 1962
  • Discovered in 2005
  • Restoration completed in July 2012
  • 370/300-hp V8 engine
  • Harmon Collins roller camshaft
  • Venolia pistons
  • Dual point distributor
  • 3-speed manual transmission
  • Aluminum flywheel and clutch
  • 3.90 rear axle
  • Cadillac front drum brakes
  • Front and rear brake cooling ducts
  • Milwaukee Masterpiece Class Award
  • NPOC award
  • Meadowdale Raceway award

SCM Analysis


Vehicle:1958 Pontiac Chieftain USAC race car
Years Produced:1958
Number Produced:121,460
Original List Price:$2,573
SCM Valuation:$18,150
Tune Up Cost:$200
Chassis Number Location:Tag in driver’s door
Engine Number Location:Top rear of the engine block
Club Info:Oakland-Pontiac Worldwide
Alternatives:1958 Chevrolet Del Ray, 1958–59 Ford Fairlane, 1957–59 Dodge Coronet
Investment Grade:C

This car, Lot F136.1, sold for $18,150, including buyer’s premium, at Mecum’s Houston, TX, auction on April 6, 2018.

Selling a vintage race car is a tricky business. Sometimes they command top prices well above a comparable street version of the same car, but that usually has more to do with who drove the car and whether they won any important races in it. The vast majority of race cars that did not win notable races typically sell for less than an average unmodified example of the same vehicle.

That’s not good news for people who spend big money and years of effort to restore old racing machines, but it’s great for the collector who wants to put some affordable speedway panache into the garage.

USAC stock cars

AAA abandoned auto racing in 1955, driven out by a series of tragic crashes that rocked the racing world. To fill the gap, Tony Hulman formed USAC in that year to sanction open-wheel and stock-car races.

Bill France had founded NASCAR seven years previously, but at that time NASCAR was primarily a Southern series, and USAC more or less owned big-time stock-car racing from Wisconsin to New Jersey, and out west in California, Arizona, and Nevada. Along the way, anyone who aspired to top-tier racing drove USAC stock cars at one time or another.

Local drivers in the Midwest saw the USAC series as the road to Indianapolis, and built cars to compete. Among those drivers was Joe Noeske, a Korean War veteran who worked at his family’s Pontiac dealership in Freeport, IL.

Noeske had been dabbling in racing for a few years and saw the opportunity to take a step toward Indy in the 1958 USAC series, so he turned the dealership’s test-drive car into a stocker and gave it his best shot.

Racing the 1958 Pontiac Chieftain

1958 was an important year for Pontiac, as the company adopted the new X-frame design developed for Cadillac a few years earlier. This frame allowed the new cars to be lower, sleeker and theoretically faster than before. Pontiac also enlarged its standard V8 engine to 370 cubic inches, with power ratings ranging from 240 to 310 horsepower. A 3-speed column-shifted manual transmission was standard. 1958 was also the final year for the Chieftain nameplate, making this model year a one-off generation.

The ride Noeske chose was a base-trim 2-door sedan, and while the auction listing has it as a 370/300, USAC rules did not allow the Tri-Power carburetor setup that got the engine to 300 horsepower. A single 4-barrel carburetor was the only induction allowed. However, Noeske’s builder Bill Earnest pushed the engine to 10:1 compression and installed a roller cam, aluminum flywheel and brought the Chieftain into competitive shape. USAC rules also allowed Noeske to upgrade to larger Cadillac drum brakes and to put an extra shock absorber on each corner of the suspension.

Noeske had a good run with the Pontiac, competing in seven recorded USAC stock-car races in 1958 and 1959. He was a consistent top-10 qualifier, but records show he never finished higher than 15th. A crash at the Milwaukee Mile in August of 1959 ended his USAC career. Indy car driver Dick Rathmann then drove the car at one race in Langhorne, PA, on September 13, 1959, finishing 5th.

After that, Noeske retired from racing and the car was sold. The Chieftain was campaigned locally in Illinois for another three years.

A major restoration

After its racing career ended in 1962, the veteran Pontiac was left behind in someone’s barn in northern Illinois for over 40 years. The results were sadly predictable.

Then in 2005, racing enthusiast Richard Wagner heard about the old Pontiac and realized it was the same car that he had seen racing in Milwaukee in the late ’50s. He obtained the Chieftain and began an ambitious restoration project to bring it back.

“Race cars get battered to oblivion,” Wagner observed in a 2012 documentary film made about the car. “There’s not much left of them to get thrown away and there’s no trail left. So finding the car was exciting. The fact that it hadn’t been crushed, that it had survived.”

After purchasing a donor car with salvageable metal, Wagner went to work to put the old Pontiac back to its original 1958 look and performance.

“Our goal ultimately was to build what looks like a brand-new car,” he said.

That’s exactly what he did. The car has won several awards and was used as a pace car at the Milwaukee Mile from 2011 to 2013.

Affordable speedway panache

Wagner offered the Chieftain for sale as early as 2012, and the car got a great deal of attention, even rating notice as the Hemmings Find of the Day in November of that year.

More recently, the car was offered for sale at two Mecum auctions in 2017. In May at Indianapolis, the Chieftain was not sold on a high bid of $22,000 (ACC# 6838644) and then in September at Louisville, KY, the car did not sell on a bid of $15,000 (ACC# 6850925).

The Chieftain finally sold in April of this year on a bid of $18,150, which is crazy-low money when you consider the time, effort and expense that went into this restoration. It’s also a remarkably affordable price for an important piece of American racing history.

“It’s nice to focus on how simple it was at one point in time and appreciate what it was like,” Wagner said in 2012. “These were cars that with only the addition of a few extra shock absorbers and a little bit of extra steel welded in a few places, were raced just the way they were built by the factories. If you had the time, money and interest, you could paint a number on the car, put your name on the roof and go to town.”

(Introductory description courtesy of Mecum Auctions.)

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