When 19-year-old Mary Beth White told her father she'd seen a rusted-out two-door Pontiac station wagon with no engine or trans sitting in a friend's garage, he was up on his feet before she could finish the sentence. "It's ugly," she reported.
"Excuse me ... did you say two-door Pontiac wagon?" he asked. "Call him and tell him your dad wants the car!"
If that episode leads you to believe Dave White is an impulsive guy, you need to hear the rest of the story. After Dave bought the weather-beaten '56 Safari, it sat in his shed for 18 years while he mentally wrestled between restoring it or turning it into a mild custom. Finally, a few years ago, he came to a decision. You can see for yourself which way he went.
Once Dave made up his mind, he went after the project like a man with a car to finish. The "rusty and rotten" blue and white wagon was pulled out of the shed, and the body was pulled off the frame and completely disassembled. Virtually every piece was sandblasted and primered with epoxy.
Dave turned to his longtime friend, rod and custom builder and fabricator Bob Balkow, for assistance and advice during the buildup of the Safari. Bob turned an expanse of rusted steel into a like-new body.
"I kept the eyebrows, hood stripes, side trim, and rear fender chrome stripes to make sure it was distinguishable as a Safari," Dave tells us, "but that massive bulk of pitted and dented chrome in front had to go." The replacement is a '54 Corvette grille, flanked by Harley-Davidson turn signals, with a split and flipped '55 Chevy bumper mounted to the rolled pan.
You can't pick the paint for this much sheetmetal based on a sample swatch, so he and his wife decided to visit a few new-car lots to find the right color for the car. Dave was looking for something out of the ordinary, but not odd; contemporary, but something that would not go out of date. Mary Jean spotted the perfect paint, Radience Red, right away at a Jaguar dealership. After six hours of driving to every other dealership in central Connecticut, Dave-impulsive guy that he is-agreed that she was right. That joint decision was confirmed by Rick Tennan's outstanding paint job.
A Chevy small-block made the most sense for powering a car intended for plenty of street duty, so Dave filled the engine compartment with a TPI L98 from a '91 Corvette ("with as much chrome as I care to polish"), hooked to a Turbo 350 transmission.
The Safari was finished just in time for an event at a nearby Pontiac dealer, where it won Best in Show. A week later, it was an award winner at another show. We picked the wagon as an R&C Top 10 winner at the Goodguys East Coast Nats in Rhinebeck. But Dave didn't pull his Safari out of the shed to collect a bunch of trophies. He built it to put it on the street. Look for it there.
Rod & Custom Feature Car
'56 Pontiac Safari
The 51-year-old frame has been treated to some nice upgrades, starting with a Fatman Fabrications IFS, which brings the nose down 5 inches. Rear springs from Eaton Detroit Spring drop the rear 4 inches. Rack-and-pinion steering was added and the stock brakes were replaced with discs. The rearend is a 12-bolt from a '71 Chevy, spinning 3.08:1 gears with Positraction.
A stock '91 Corvette TPI small-block is right at home under the hood. Dave runs the stock exhaust headers, feeding into a pair of Flowmaster mufflers, and exiting through side pipes. He added a B&M converter with 1,800-rpm stall speed to the TH350 automatic, operated by a Lokar shifter.
Wheels & Tires
BFGoodrich whitewall radials, measuring P255/70R15 and 225/70R15, roll on 15x7 and 15x6 steelies, dressed up with single-bar Hollywood flipper discs.
Body & Paint
The stock Pontiacs were loaded with chrome. David retained the forward side trim, hood strips, rear fender strips and tailgate pieces, headlight eyebrows, and all top trim, removing what was left of the rest. The gargantuan front bumper and grille piece was replaced with '54 Corvette grille teeth, turn signals from a Harley, and modified '55 Chevy bumpers-all of which radically cleans up the front of the car. The headlights were replaced with frenched tri-bars and the clunky stock taillights were swapped for '59 Caddy lights. A '55 Pontiac rear bumper was flipped and split. Bob Balkow repaired the rusted sheetmetal and radiused the rear wheelwells to show off the whitewalls. Rick Tennan applied the two-tone paint in the booth at Kenny's Auto Body, shooting PPG '04 Jaguar Radience Red with Vanilla Shake off-white on the top.
Walt at A1 Upholstery (Stratford, Connecticut) covered the split bench front seat, rear bench, and door panels in beige Leatherette. The center of the dash was filled and now houses a Classic Instruments speedometer, matched by a full range of other CI gauges. The Billet Specialites steering wheel turns on an '87 Chevy tilt column. Lokar provided the shifter and pedals. A/C is from Vintage Air. A Panasonic AM/FM/CD changer hidden under the rear seat is controlled remotely.