Drive along north Wells Street on any given day, and one will usually see a 1954 Pontiac Chieftain Deluxe Catalina parked near the guitar shop.
That's not something one normally sees in 2015. On closer inspection, it's not something one would “normally” have seen in 1954, either. This car has had some modifications by its owner, local musician Travis Brown, that make it unique. From the leopard-print paint job to the Mexican cow-hock gear-shift, it's a car like no other.
Brown said he had been looking for a '50s car for 10 years; four years ago, he found the Chieftain in New Haven and bought it.
The car, Brown said, has almost all of its original parts. It even had the old rubber floor mats in the front that were standard issue with the model. The old vinyl seat covers were original too. Those original seat covers were cracked and worn, so Brown made leopard-print slip covers for them. On the dash, above the cow hock shifter, a plastic hula girl surfs the dashboard. In the back window, a black skull has red LED eyes. On both sides of the truck lid, parts from a fender guitar work as the mounts for two flags. The only original part on the car that's misssing is a decal on the trunk.
“It hard to find an all-original car. The way this is now it's all original except for the paint,” Brown said.
Its has a six volt battery system, the engine is a flat head 6 with 136,000 miles on it. It's the original engine.
“It's a two-ton car with 115 horsepower, which means I'm not getting any speeding tickets,” Brown joked.
He gets about 20 miles to the gallon, and it's a manual transmission. When he bought the car he was told it had a bad fuel pump. There was a brand new replacement for it in the trunk, it was so old the price tag on box was $4.50. Once Brown installed it he realized the problem was bigger than the fuel pump. The gas lines were clogged and the gas tank had sediment in it. After a thorough flushing, he put Royal Purple synthetic oil in it, and that changed the entire car. He got 30 percent more horsepower and better mileage. The car runs only on high-octane fuel. This means his mileage isn't as good as it could be.
Most six- and eight-cylinder cars today have a V-shaped engine. This car has the flathead engine, which Brown said is similar to a tractor.
“It's more like just driving a big, fancy tractor,” Brown said with a laugh.
Don't tailgate Brown. One of the modifications he added is a flamethrower on the back. With a smile, he said when people get to close he occasionally fires off a burst.
“They drop back pretty quick,” Brown laughed.
In the front of the car on the floor there is a fire extinguisher. The car still has its original wiring, wrapped in cloth, and having had a car go up in flames earlier in his life, he is cautious. As long as there is no ice or snow on the roads, he uses it as his “daily driver”.
1954 was the first year Pontiac put power steering, power brakes, and air conditioning into its cars, he said, His car has none of those extras. That year, Brown said, Pontiac sold fewer then 20,000 of the model he owns now. Without power steering, Brown said, parking can be a challenge.
“ That's why I have the curb feelers, I only want to do it once,” Brown said with a chuckle.