A car to be seen in

Shotgun-inspired headlights a trademark

Shotgun-inspired full-sized 1963 Pontiacs are universally hailed as the designs that defined the company’s youthful and exuberant image in the 1960s.

These long and low cars combined a deeply sculptured split grille, stacked headlights, subtle bulging “coke bottle” hips and a value for money offering proved irresistible to buyers.

Work on the 1963s started in 1960.

For cost saving reasons the Pontiacs would share their centre body and roof structure with the other GM brands.

Heading up the Pontiac design studio was Jack Humbert.

His team included a newly hired David North.

Humbert was looking for a way to differentiate Pontiacs from other GM brands and enhance the youth image that the division’s boss, Semon “Bunkie” Knudsen was reaching for.

It was on his Christmas vacation in 1960 that David happened on a design idea that set the process in motion.

David spoke to Cars4starters about his idea.

“I’d gone back to my home town, Billings, Montana, for Christmas in 1960, and my Dad gave me an over-and-under shotgun as a Christmas gift,” he said.

“I thought the ends of the stacked barrels resembled headlights, so when I got back to work I sketched a red car with stacked headlights, and that’s where the idea originated.”

Stacked lights were not a new idea.

American Motors used stacked lights on its 1957 Nash Ambassador and they also appeared on the 1957 Lincoln, 1960 Chrysler Royal, 1958 Mercedes 300SL Roadster and 1960 Nissan Cedric.

At first North’s “shotgun” idea was not a sure thing.

Humbert evaluated clay and fibreglass models that featured both a vertical and horizontal arrangement.

After seeing what the other GM divisions were planning for 1963 Humbert knew the stacked lights would create the youthful the point of difference Knudsen and he envisioned.

The 1963 Pontiacs set a design template that was copied by Ford, Chrysler and other GM divisions, including Cadillac.

Stacked headlights became an industry-wide trend and despite their previous use by other car makers it is Pontiac that gets the credit.

Ironically, Pontiac reverted to horizontal lights in 1967.

Other car makers still use the vertical idea in the 21st Century.

David Burrell is the editor of

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  1. The stacked headlights weren’t used on the 1958 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Roadster (W198 II), appearing first on the 1959 W111 sedans (220SEb etc). The stacked design was adopted for the US market because, as a form of industry protection, US regulations demanded circular, sealed beam units and, all states having amended their rules to permit four headlights, they were a good fit. The assembly was a world-wide option when the 300SEL 6.3 (W109) was introduced in 1968 and proved so popular the factory offered it also on the W108, W109 & W111 (coupé & cabriolet) models then in production.

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