Dream Time





It’s 1959 – the pinnacle of the big fin and lavish chrome era.

Elvis Presley was serving in the military in Germany, Eisenhower was USA President and Menzies was Australian Prime Minister.

Over in Detroit, General Motors and Chrysler seemed to be running a competion to see who could produce the most flamboyant car and they were pretty evenly matched.

Join us for part one (of two) of our Fins Tribute, where we pick the top four GM offerings. Next issue, we’ll have the Chryslers. Enjoy...


Something had to be done, and quickly. By the mid 1956 Pontiac’s image was that of grand old dowager of the General Motors stable – nice enough, but a little stuffy and certainly not prone to foolishness like performance. Seeing they were in trouble, management went for the unsurprising tactic of bringing in new talent. At the head was Semon E. Knudsen, a second-generation car industry bod who had spent time with the company’s Allison division, plus Detroit Diesel.

As new bosses often do, Knudsen started putting together his own team. First job was to poach senior engineer Elliot M Estes from Oldsmobile.

Apparently Estes was a little uncertain about the switch – Pontiac was already ‘on the nose’ by

this stage – so the move represented a risk. Still there must have been some glimmer of hope in there. Third and, these days, by far the most significant appointment was John Z DeLorean. Yep, that DeLorean. The man who climbed to the top of the corporate ladder in the American auto industry, who built a controversial car (accidental star of Back to the Future) with his name on the side and whose career ended in disgrace.

He came across after a promising early career at Chrysler and Packard.

The crew didn’t take long to make their mark on the company. At the suggestion of another engineer/designer, Charles M Jordan, the firm toyed with the idea of radically changing the look of their offerings, for a more aggressive and eye-catching stance. This became known as the ‘wide track’ series and the changes were substantial. We’re talking a front track that went from 1492mm to 1618mm and a rear that jumped from 1509mm to 1625. That was enough to visually change the proportions of the car and probably helped just a little with stability.

Mate that to a long 124 inch (3150mm) wheelbase and you end up with a vehicle that looks lower, wider and longer.

Clearly the talent pool was working. In an interview for Collectible Automobile, Jordan commented: “These three guys (Knudsen, Estes and DeLorean) made a great team and really, between them, they reinvented Pontiac, gave it a lot more personality and vitality than it





FAIR $14,000

GOOD $24,000


(Note: concours cars will demand more)

had in the old Silver Streak days.” So by the 1959 model year, barely 18 months after they’d taken over, the team has succeeded.

Perhaps the biggest catalyst for this change was some low-level sleuthing. Jordan went driving past a Chrysler holding pen and saw a herd of the new offerings for 1957. In his words: “They looked so clean and lean, with that thin roof, those nice proprtions, and the fins; just the opposite of what we were working on at GM at that time.”

So the car you see here, the 1959 Star Chief, is hugely significant in Pontiac history, as it represents what was seen as a make-or-break year for the company.

Under the panelwork is a forerunner to the GTO running gear, namely a 389 V8 with Hydramatic transmission.

Pontiac backed the relaunch with a serious motor-racing program, which paid dividends.

It won the Daytona 500, the Darlington 500 and Pikes Peak that year. Plus, Pontiac was nominated Car of the Year by Motor Trend magazine, helping the brand reach number four in the sales charts.

The Sunset Glow colour scheme is a rare one these days and it’s nice to see little details such as the specked carpet and the big stars on the corners of the seat backs.

Closely related to the Catalina and Bonneville ranges of the day, the Star Chiefs were sold as two-door, four-door and Vista hardtop variants.



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I BOUGHT that car out of Florida from a dealer (Golden Classics) down there. It had 40,000 genuine miles and a full rotisserie restoration.

Being a 59 is the pinnacle of the fin years – and it’s very hard to find a Star Chief as good as this one.

It was another purchase by remote (over the internet and phone). I only ever went to America once, to buy a couple of motorhomes – and we wasted so much time looking for things that weren’t there or overdescribed, nobody turned up, or a long way further than they said. I find with everything I buy, you can do your homework from here, it’s easier.

The target market for this car was probably the sportsminded person, someone who likes something with a bit of GM style with performance.

Someone who might have gone on to a muscle car in the 60s.

It’s very quiet and smooth, Unfortunately the rag-type tyres mean it just dives all over the road every time it sees a shadow! If I was using it more regularly I’d put radials on it.


BODY: Two-door coupe by Fisher on GM B platform WEIGHT: 1780kg ENGINE: 6.4lt (389ci) OHV V8 TRANSMISSION: Hydramatic 3-speed auto SUSPENSION: Independent – wishbones with coils, tele shocks (f) Live axle with semi-elliptic springs, tele shocks (r) BRAKES: 280mm hydraulic drums (f/r) POWER & TORQUE: 185kW @ 4200rpm, 531Nm @ 2000rpm


Okay. here’s a question for your next trivia night: Who is the most famous Australian to have owned a 1959 Buick Electra? If you answered former prime minister John ‘Black Jack’ McEwen, you can claim the prize. So says Bob Bond, the owner of this car. And that seems about right. If you were a politician, a union leader, or someone with a few quid behind you, the Electra was a good choice.

Expensive and luxurious by local standards, but not as far up the scale as a Cadillac, which might be more appropriate for rock stars or captains of industry who had serious money to play with.

In case you were wondering (we were) the choice of name has a very simple explanation: former Buick President Harlow C Curtice had a favoured

sister-inlaw, named Electra Waggoner Briggs. That’s a hell of a handle to go through life with!

While the final body style of the Electra wasn’t a complete surprise – 1958 had seen similar lines for the Invicta – there were some significant changes underneath the sheet metal as the engineers tried to tidy up the sometimes wayward handling.

First up, we saw a new chassis called a K-type, with boxed siderails, that also had the car riding on a longer 126.3in (3210mm) wheelbase. Add some subtleties like a beefed-up front stabiliser bar, the addition of a track bar to the rear and a bit more rubber on the road.

And it’s about now we start to look at a relationship with Cadillac. You could order the Electra with coil springs all round (itself quite an advanced feature) or coil front and air rear. It’s safe to assume the latter was borrowed from Cadillac, which had been considering licensing out its in-house air suspension.

Speaking of Caddy, does that roofline look familiar? It should, as it was shared by the four-door sedan variants of the upmarket brand.

Under the hood you scored the 401ci (6.6lt) ‘Nailhead’ V8, branded the Wildcat and claiming a healthy 325 horses.

Those engines have developed a bit of a following over the years, and there are several hot-up groups.

Getting the power to the ground was a two-speed Dynaflow auto, though you



REMEMBER we’re talking of very different times and different standards.

So try not to be too shocked at the thought of an American maker selling a couple of tons of rampaging V8 without power brakes. But that was the norm back in 1959. So it was pretty exciting stuff when the Electra had them as standard, and even sorted the pedals so you could reach them with ease. What will they think of next?!

Our favourite Buick party trick is the gas pedal starter – floor the accelerator and it operates a vacuum switch on the carburettor which in turn fires it up.

Not a bad anti-theft device, eh?


1959 BUICK

FAIR $16,500

GOOD $30,000


(Note: concours cars will demand more)

could opt for a three-speed. An optional Positive- Traction limited-slip diff rounded out the drive options. Power brakes were standard.

For Buick nuts, this car was seen as picking up where the old Roadmaster series left off, as the big luxoliner of the Buick range, where the changes were far more than skin deep.

A contemporary road test in Motor Trend magazine had this to offer: “For years ‘new’ cars have hit the streets with re-arranged chrome and advertising claims that would have you believe that this new model was the greatest thing since night baseball. Underneath we’d find the same old chunk of iron. But Buick is a car of understaement this year, with a potful of changes under those sharp body lines.

“Such sweeping changes began when GM completed a survey. Management wanted to know what kind of use people are planning the purchase of a Buick. The answer was what you may have suspected. The greatest number of potential buyers are people who drove a lot of hard miles...

“This approach led one kibitzer to comment, ‘They quit making Buicks when 1958 production stopped. Now they’re building automobiles.’”

A bit harsh? WIthout stepping back the best part of 60 years, it’s hard to know. But you have to say the Electra has the makings of an impressive bit of kit. A more than adequate engine, plus a high degree of comfort, particularly if you ordered the optional air. Sounds alright, yes?



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THIS CAR really didn’t need a lot of work. We refreshed the power steering and brakes and it’s had a cosmetic restoration under the bonnet and boot, some reco work.

It drives like it was out of the showroom.

The car came from New York, I bought it sight-unseen, but got a lot of good photos.

You’ve got to have close-up shots of certain things, such as a close-up shot of the speedo (which gives you an idea of the condition of the instrument surrounds) a closeup of the ID plate, which gives you an idea of the door pillars and look at the paint work around there.

Most cars look nice looking down the bonnet, as soon as you get a close-up you can see paint work that’s terrible around the ID plate, rust around screws and pitting around the chrome on the dash. This thing was as clean as a whistle.

They went pretty well – no slouch.

They’re beautiful to drive. Fisher built the body (they also did Cadillac, Pontiac, Chev and Buick) and are renowned for their quality.


BODY: Four-door sedan WEIGHT: 2200kg ENGINE: 6.6lt (401ci) OHV V8 TRANSMISSION: 2 or 3-speed torque converter SUSPENSION: Coils all round or coil/air combo BRAKES: power-assisted drums (f/r) POWER & TORQUE: 242kW @ 4400rpm, 603Nm @ 2800rpm


Wev’e seen our fair share of these things before, but you never really get accustomed to the full scale of a ’59 Cadillac. Ever. When young Mauro, owner of the stunning Eldorado Seville you see here, wafted into view, you couldn’t help thinking we needed a bigger horizon. It seemed to take up the entire space where were planning to put four cars for a photo.

My all-time favourite observation of this 50s Cadillac phenomenon is from Dan Proudfoot, in the The Globe & Mail (USA): “Like a whale easing past a deep-sea diver, the 1959 Cadillac Eldorado Seville cannot be taken in in a single glance.” Yep, that’s exactly what it’s like.

Though legendary designer Harley Earl had concluded his career by the time these cars were launched, you’d have no difficulty in seeing a fair degree of his influence in them. Fins and enough chrome to blind you at half a mile, plus quad headlamps, was typical Earl.

This was the year that marked the high-point of fins and the Cadillac range arguably took it further than anyone else. Its quad ‘rocket tails’ and the incredibly tall peaks left you in no doubt over what it was. To say it was flamboyant would be a gross understatement. Some say it was this very car which led to a change of tastes as the 60s rolled into view, with far more conservative lines.

Under the skin, the Eldorado was running the last of the old 75 chassis, with a massive 130-inch (3302mm) wheelbase shared with many others in the range and longer than many upmarket four-doors from other brands in the GM stable. The fact you wanted a two-door coupe was seen as no reason for reducing the size of the car!

Powering the beast was a new (for that year) 390 V8 that came in various states of tune from 325 to 345 horsepower – enough to ensure a Caddy could shuffle along at a decent pace, despite its size.

That was backed up by a premium transmission, a four-speed Hydra-Matic.

If you happened to wander into a showroom in 1959, thinking it would be a fairly straightforward task to choice



WE CAN only hope your average Caddy dealer not only had good coffee on tap, but offered a bar.

Because wading through the extensive catalogue would have required a stiff drink at some point, particularly when you were presented with the bill.

Our favourite Caddy gadget is the one you see above, the Autronic Eye, which promised to ‘read’ the situation ahead (including oncoming cars at night) and automatically switch your headlights between high and low beam.

Clever, eh?

Of course power everything and acres of leather were also offered.



FAIR $20,000

GOOD $44,000


(Note: concours cars will demand more)

you favourite flavour of Cadillac, think again.

The prices ranged from $4892 up to a staggering $13,075, depending on what you wanted. A car like the Seville you see here was somewhere in the middle, with a price north of $7400.

What’s unusual about this particular car is that the air suspension is still in place. The system (actually air springing, that allowed a significant variations in ride height) was reaching the end of production by this stage.

In fact many cars that started life with air were retrofitted with coils – so it’s nice to see one with the original gear.

This year, 1959, also represented very good times for Cadillac. Harley Earl’s styling ideas may have been under challenge – and it was Bill Mitchell who took over the reins for 1960 and on – but the company built an incredible 142,000 cars that year. It was a spectacular result.

Speaking of luxury, you were well and truly coddled in these cars. Cruise control had been fitted standard from 1958 and there was an options list that would make your head spin.

For someone in the market for a Caddy, there is a lot of value in finding something that’s already a good running car. While standard gear like the motor and transmission will outlast all of us, there is a fair degree of complexity in the body. The bumpers and chrome alone are a major undertaking for the restorer. However the rewards are high. These cars make an indelible impression and there’s a big feel-good factor.



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I FELL in love with the 1959 Cadillacs the moment I set my eyes on one. I must have only been in high-school when I first saw one, I thought they were the coolest thing on the road.

Even once I became an adult, I still felt the same way about them, so I got some money together and went looking. It took me six years before I found the right one, so when I saw it, I was committed to getting it.

It’s completely unrestored, just as it left the factory, and in terms of comfort, it is still impressive to this day.

It drives just like a Cadillac should, very boat-like. It’s not the best in the twisties, but on an open road it’s spectacular.

We use it for weekend runs with the family, it’s something to have a bit of fun with.

I’ve now owned the car for 11 years, and they seem to have gone up in value in that time. But it’s really tricky to put a figure on it as there are just so few on the market. It looks as though people – like me – tend to hang on to them once they find a good one!


BODY Two-door coupe WEIGHT 2300kg ENGINE 6.4lt pushrod OHV V8, 3 Rochester carbs TRANSMISSION 4-speed manual auto SUSPENSION air or coil (f/r) BRAKES power-assisted drums (f/r) POWER & TORQUE 242kW @ 4800rpm, 590Nm @ 3400rpm

Chevrolet BEL AIR

Chevrolet had a bit of catching up to do by the time the late 50s rolled along – at least when it came to styling. It had built some tremendously popular cars. Just look at the current prices of tri-year (or tri-5) two-doors – aka 1955-56-57 Bel Air coupes.

However when you stand one of them next to what some of the competition was up to, you could see there was still a lot of 1940s DNA in the design. That changed in 1959 and the car you see here – which looked lower, wider, longer and much more flamboyant.

Chevrolet was changing models at an incredible pace at the time. The tri-year cars lasted 1955-57, there was an interim model for 1958, and then this fourth-generation Bel Air popped on the market

for 1959-60. From 1957 to 1959, the wheelbase for this series had grown just over four inches (104mm) while the overall length had shot up over 15 inches (388mm) – well over a foot by the old measure.

Based on the corporate B platform, the Bel Air shared much of its underpinnings with a dizzying array of models, including the Biscayne, Impala, Brookwood, Parkwood, Kingswood (a nine-seat wagon and a name soon to be used in Australia), Nomad and El Camino.

Styling kind of kept with the current fashion for fins, but the Chevrolet variation was unusual with the folded-down ‘gull-wing’ look. The rear deck was big enough – as one wag pointed out at the time – to land a Piper Cub. (To save you looking it up, a Piper Cub is a two-seater aircraft.) The cats-eye tail-lights got your attention, too.

As for power packs, you had a choice between the 235ci (3.9lt) Blue Flame straight six, a 283ci (4.6lt) V8 and a 348ci (5.7lt) V8. Those were matched to three- or four-speed manuals, or a two-speed Powerglide or three-speed Turboglide auto. None of this sounds like a ball of fire, really, does it? And that was intentional. With the Bel Air and the Impala, Chevrolet was swinging its aim away (for this part of the range) from performance and more to families looking for comfort above anything else.

Really, if you wanted a serious



LOCALLY it took until the HQ (Holden) and XE (Ford) for us to end our love affair with cart springs on passenger cars but Bel Air had coils all round in 1959.

You could also order (in the USA) a complete air suspension set-up, developed by the good folk over at Cadillac.

The X-shape chassis was new, too, but was controversial as critics pointed out it offered little side-intrusion protection.

Power brakes and steering were an extra, and you could really ramp things up with power windows and even six-way power seats.


1959 BEL AIR

FAIR $11,500

GOOD $22,00


(Note: concours cars will demand more)

performance car, they did have this thing called a Corvette. However if Sir or Madam insisted on something with a bit more clout in a Bel Air, you could get a hardtop Sport which, to my eye, was a good-looking thing.

In its ultimate optioned-up form it was called a “Chevrolet Bel Air Sport Sedan 348 V-8 Special Super Turbo-Thrust 4-speed close”.

What a mouthful! As the label suggests, it ran a close-ratio four-speed manual transmission, and was powered by a 315hp version of the 348ci engine. Just a guess, but they’re probably as rare as the proverbial.

Let’s get our feet back down on the ground at the moment and have a look at the car shown here. For us it had a lot of appeal for a few reasons: First, it’s locally assembled (yep we screwed together a lot of American GM cars here –see ozgm.com online); Second, it’s actually used regularly to get its owner to work; And third, it still has the original six in the snout, when most of things have had a 350 crate motor dropped in.

Peter Kelly, its owner, is underwhelmed with the performance of the six with a Powerglide behind it, pointing out the car is just too big and heavy for that combination. Nevertheless he does allow it gets him to work on time and reliably.

With an eight in the snout, you’d have a big and airy 50s cruiser that would be pretty good company rolling down the highway. Tempted?



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I’VE HAD a fair bit to do with Bel Airs in my time. I’ve owned six so far, so it’s fair to say I love them.

I bought my first one in 1984, I knew nothing about them other than that I thought they looked fantastic.

So I had a look in the Saturday Age classifieds for one, and came across one that I really liked. I followed the ad to Warburton and after 10 minutes of looking at the car, I bought it. Back then no one really wanted them, so you could get them pretty cheap.

It’s a different story now though.

They are getting really light on their feet. My brother sourced this one from Bendigo, it was an amazing find.

It’s had never been unregistered — but it needed a fair bit of work.

My brother got sick of restoring the car, so I bought it off him. I cut out all the rust and had all the mechanicals restored. It’s got a six in it, but it would be better with a V8.

For the size of the car, the 235 is a bit sluggish especially considering it has only got a 2-speed Powerglide, which is abysmal.

But it’s lovely to cruise in, I’m out in it all the time, it’s my daily driver.


BODY: Four-door sedan WEIGHT 1730kg ENGINE: 3.8lt six or 4.6 or 5.7lt pushrod OHV V8 TRANSMISSION: 2or 3-speed auto or 3 or 4-speed manual with close ratio option SUSPENSION: Independent – wishbones with coils, tele shocks (f) Live axle with coil springs, tele shocks (r) BRAKES: drums (f/r) POWER & TORQUE: 100-235kW 294-483Nm


It’s easy to imagine stylists in General Motors’ buildings scattered throughout Motor City, all attempting to outdo their rivals and pen the most radical design for the year that fins were King.

Cadillac was the undisputed winner and its 1959 cars still hold the record for the most extreme extensions in US automotive history. Models from the 1959 range consistently sell for more than subsequent models and have a staunch international following. Except for the scarce and specialised Eldorados, it isn’t difficult to source a usable ‘59 car and pay $45-55,000.

Local Buick assembly stopped in 1948 and Buicks didn’t return to Australia in any quantity until the 1960s. Finding a finned Fifties model will be difficult and those desperate for one of these cars might need to head Stateside.

Four-door Electras when they do appear locally cost only $5000 more than a decent Bel-Air yet are more powerful and much better equipped. Looking offshore, a two-door Electra with show trophies brought just US$40,000 at a recent auction.

Four-door versions of the Chev and Pontiac are pretty much unique to our market, having been assembled right-hand drive in Holden factories. The Bel Air with its brooding looks and ‘bat-wing’ fins was the more distinctive and finding one in collectible condition shouldn’t be too onerous.

However the same can’t be said of the scarce Pontiac.

Estimates put local Pontiac sales for 1959 at around 250 cars, whereas Chevrolet managed almost 2000.

Four-door Australian-assembled Chevs with original engines or a V8 transplant are available from $15,000 and top out at around twice that price. The fully-imported two-door Impala is very popular and can get close to Cadillac money.

Even the four-door pillarless version can manage $40,000. y




The debate will rage over whether it is best to have a car with its chassis separate from the body or integral. All four of our featured cars have separate chassis yet none share the same chassis. Buick with its ‘perimeter’ frame is different from the other ‘X’ frame cars but none have significant deficiencies over the others. Rust is a common problem and they all need to be put on a hoist prior to purchase to check for damage to suspension mounts and around body attachment points. Squeaks and creaks when the cars are moving suggests the body mounts have had their chips. Cars that look fine on the outside may never have had the body lifted and need plenty spent under their shiny skins. Replacement mounts are cheap but replacing them is a job best entrusted to a professional. Heavy doors chew through hinge components and can even crack the welds so be wary of a door that needs to be lifted in order to close.

Chipped or scratched glass will probably need to be replaced with imported parts, however specialist local suppliers do stock windscreens.


All of our featured cars will have been built with V8 engines, although not all came to Australia with V8s. Parts for any GM engine remain available and that includes the oddsized 261 cubic inch Chevrolet motor used in the Pontiac. Full kits of six-cylinder rebuild parts cost round $1200 including international freight.

Buicks from 1959 will most likely have 401 cubic inch (6.7-litre) ‘nailhead’ V8s which suffered a raft of problems when new.

Engine killers included blown head gaskets and porous blocks that allowed coolant to contaminate oil. They would also let petrol overfill the sump due to pump seal failures.

The later 425 version is considered more reliable. Cadillac’s 390 V8 arrived in 1959 and stayed until 1964.

Plenty of parts are available, oil leaks and low pressure being the main reported problems. Overheating is endemic in older V8s that haven’t been regularly had their cooling system maintained yet complete new radiators for Bel Airs cost $495 locally.

Imported units can be even cheaper but freight can alarmingly increase the landed cost.


Aussie-assembled Pontiacs are a very different car to the similar-looking models sold by GM in the United States and owners need to scour the local Chevrolet parts listing when looking to replace suspension or brake parts. Good news is that most of what wears out under a local Chev or Pontiac can still be replaced and not at massive expense. Complete sets of new coil springs cost $800- 1200 depending on quality, with kits of new front-end bushes at under $200. The Buick and Cadillac are more sophisticated and may need their air-assisted suspension replaced. Be wary of cars that sit low even with the engine running or aren’t level.

Parts are available to completely overhaul the system but at a cost of around $5000. Brand new power steering pumps suited to a variety of GM models cost US$600. GM fitted only drum brakes to its 1950s models, sometimes finned to dissipate heat and usually power assisted.

If authenticity isn’t a big deal for you then retro-fitted discs at $1000 plus installation will vastly improve brake performance.


The differences between these four models become glaringly apparent the moment a door swings open. All of them feature a lot of painted metal and varying amounts of chromed embellishment but while Chevrolet and Pontiac look basic they use parts that can be harder to replace than the same items for a Buick or Cadillac. The more luxurious cars will likely include electric window ‘lifts’ and seat adjustment, perhaps even air-conditioning.

All of these units, unless recently replaced, are ancient and very likely unreliable so test all the switchable components a few times to make sure they don’t give up under frequent use.

Regulators for older power windows seem to be among the new parts not available; a tatty looking used pair for a two-door Buick advertised at US$1000.

Also available was a complete ‘new old stock’ heating and defrost system offered by a Buick dealer for US$1295. Seat coverings, door trims, headlining and carpets for the US cars are being remade but can still be expensive. When pricing a Cadillac or Buick with trashed trim, allow up to $15,000 to replace it. Correct leather seat trim for Australian-cars might be too expensive in the context of a ‘budget’ restoration but there are some good, leather-look vinyls around.

NUMBER BUILT: Chevrolet 1.462m, Pontiac 383,320, Buick, 285,089, Cadillac 142,272 (all US sales 1959) BODY: separate/chassis four-door sedan, two-door coupe & convertible ENGINE: various V8 with overhead valves, single or triple downdraft carburettors POWER & TORQUE: 241.5kW @ 4800rpm, 580Nm @ 3200rpm (Cadillac 62) PERFORMANCE: 0-96km/h: 9.6 seconds, 0-400 metres 17.2 seconds (Cadillac 62) TRANSMISSION: 3-speed manual, 2, 3 or 4-speed automatic SUSPENSION: Independent with coil springs (air-bags in some), telescopic shock absorbers & anti-roll bar (f); live axle with coil springs or air-bags, locating links & telescopic shock absorbers (r) BRAKES: Drum (f) drum (r) some with power assistance TYRES: various sizes cross or bias ply

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