Curbside Classic: 1959 Pontiac Catalina Vista Sedan – Wide-Tracking To Success

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Pontiac’s existence had always been a bit tenuous. It was by far the youngest of the GM brands, dating to 1926, when it was introduced as a companion brand to Oakland, one of the original GM brands. Pontiac barely survived the Great Depression, and had a rather bumpy ride through the 1940s and into the 1950s. By the middle of the fifties, there was serious consideration on the 14th floor as to whether the Silver Streak division still had a future. Pontiac was losing sales to Buick and Olds from above, and Chevrolet from below. Its rung on the now-rotting Sloanian ladder was precarious.

But then three scrappy guys showed up in 1956 and turned Pontiac into the hottest GM brand of the sixties. The 1959 Pontiac was the first of that exciting Pontiac decade, before its future once again became murky. How did they do it?

 

Knudsen Bunkie

Semon E. “Bunky” Knudsen was the son of legendary William “Big Bill” Knudsen, who had masterminded much of Henry Ford’s pioneering mass production success in the teens, and then did the same for GM when he moved there in 1921, and eventually ended up as President of GM. Bunky earned his stripes at GM, with a stint at Pontiac in the thirties and then Detroit Diesel. In 1955, he was made GM of Pontiac, and he quickly hired Pete Estes from Oldsmobile to be his Chief Engineer, and a young John DeLorean from Packard to be his assistant. Knudsen saw performance as one of the keys to success; but not just purely straight-line performance, but the whole package. The future of Pontiac rested in better than average engineering, as well as youthful styling. And a good sales job.

Pontiac 1957 Bonneville_DV-06_MBRM_01

Knudsen’s first shot over the bow was the 1957 Bonneville, a limited-production (630 units) and Cadillac-priced fuel convertible, with a 310 hp fuel injected version of the Pontiac 347 CID V8. Its purpose was primarily to get the dealers excited again about Pontiac’s future, at a time when sales were in the cellar. In 1957, Pontiac sold a mere 288k units, just a bit ahead of Mercury, and was in sales spot #6, behind both Olds and Buick. It was going to be a hard slog.

Pontiac 1932 coupe

One of Pontiac’s big problems was getting out of Chevrolet’s shadow. In 1932, when Pontiac looked like it was going under, GM President Alfred Sloan saved it by turning it into a badge-engineered ’32 Chevrolet, sharing the same body and built right along side each other. It was a first, on many levels.

It wasn’t the first use of shared bodies, as one of Sloan’s biggest breakthroughs in lowering costs at GM had been to have basic Fisher body shells shared by the upper divisions, starting in 1926. But there was still a lot of differentiation of styling between them. The 1932 Pontiac was literally a tarted-up ’32 Chevy, but it saved the brand, for the time being.

Pontiac 1959 Bonneville_001_0214

But through 1958, Pontiac was stuck with sharing the A-Body with Chevrolet, with mixed results; the ’57 being a low point for the most part. The 1958 Bonneville (above) was clearly an Impala coupe, with more Harley Earl-approved chrome slathered on.

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That all changed with the 1959s, as all five divisions now shared the same basic body shell, first locked in by Buick. Each division had the less-than enviable job of carving out a distinctive look from the Buick, and the results are endlessly debated. While a number of the Pontiac’s styling gags are typical of the era, especially at the rear, the distinctive front end with its divided grille and nose would become a very enduring Pontiac face, despite taking a one-year time-out for 1960.

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It’s wide-set headlights accentuated the wide look that Pontiac was after, and not just purely for looks alone.

Pontiac 1959 wide track-01

Already starting with the wide new 58’s, the bodies of GM cars were hanging out over the wheels, which created a decidedly un-dynamic look. Pete Estes made the brilliant decision to widen the front and rear track of the ’59 Pontiac, all the way to some 64″ inches, front and rear.

Pontiac 1959 br bonneville vista

Pontiac 1959 engineering

But it hardly ended with wheels pushed out a few inches. Pontiac made a big deal about its engineering prowess in 1959, and there were a number of aspects to their cars that put them in a leading position within GM, despite the long-time rep that Oldsmobile had for being GM’s “Experimental Division”.

The slogan for 1959 was “America’s Number 1 Road Car”, and Pontiac backed that up, within the limitations of what they had to work with. Some of the names, like “Wonder-Touch” power steering is typical for the times. But the Pontiac’s wider stance did improve stability, handling, steering response, although it probably was still not quite as good as a ’59 Chrysler.

Pontiac 1959 ride

The ’59 Pontiacs used GM’s X-Frame, which was not intrinsically as bad as folks often assume, since the body was strengthened at the sills and the floor was ribbed to compensate. But whether the ride was truly “Gyro-Level” is debatable.

Pontiac 1959 air ride

The optional air suspension was probably scrapped before it went into production, as that had already turned into a disaster on the ’58 GM cars. GM’s pioneering air suspension on its buses a few years earlier was a breakthrough in ride quality, and was reliable. The hype for the automotive air suspension was quickly deflated, and many were converted to steel springs at the dealers.

Pontiac 1959 brakes

But Pontiac claimed its brakes superior, although all brakes are intrinsically “air cooled”, and the famous finned brake drum/hubs were still a year away.

Pontiac 1959 420E

In addition to a range of power outputs for its 389 CID V8, from 245 hp to 345 for the Tri-Power, Pontiac also offered a high-efficiency package with a specially-tuned 215 hp version teamed with the four-speed Hydramatic and a very low (numerical) rear axle ratio, giving overdrive-like engine rpm on the highway. This became something of a Pontiac specialty, and was a preview of things to come 15 years later.

Pontiac 1959 _Star_Chief_by_AF-VK_01

There was another special ingredient in Pontiac’s success for 1959: the dreamy renderings of Art Fitzpatrick and Van Kaufman. This was the first year for the team on a major campaign, and the results have become icons of that era.

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Needless to say, their rendered versions of the ’59 Pontiac was exceptionally wide-tracked.

F K 1959 pontiac times square

It’s not easy to decide, but I think this is my favorite, titled “Times Square”. Art did the cars, and Van did the scene and figures, a brilliant pairing.

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The settings were often highly improbable.

FK 1959 pontiac yellow

But they inevitably left a deep impression. As soon as I arrived in the US in 1960, I cut out everyone I could find, and wallpapered my bedroom with them.

FK 1959 pontiac bonne

It was great eye candy with which to fall asleep. And it undoubtedly primed me for the psychedelic era to come. Bunkie Knudsen gave them the credit they deserved: “Your efforts played a great part in bringing us to third place in the industry. Without them our job of moving Pontiac up the ladder would have been impossible”.

So what was it? Styling, engineering, or great ads? How about the near-perfect combination of all three, which came to be Pontiac’s (not-so) secret sauce as it climbed ever higher in the coming years.

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Pontiac’s sales in 1958 were a mere 217k; in 1959 they exploded 76%, to 383k, which vaulted them right over Olds and Buick into fourth place. By 1962, Pontiac was selling over half a million units and passed Rambler and Plymouth for the coveted third place behind Chevrolet and Ford, that sweet spot it held through 1969, after which things started to fall apart for them. By that time, all three of the dynamic trio that had made the Pontiac excitemnt happen had moved on, and Pontiac again became a somewhat troubled brand.

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Let’s take a look at this splendid Catalina Vista four door hardtop that I spotted some distance ahead tooling a long at a brisk clip, but managed to follow into the parking lot of this Siemens office on the outskirts of Eugene, where its owner Tom works. Yes, this is a semi-regular driver, owned since 1989, and has been lovingly upgraded some to make that more feasible. Needless to say, it stands out in this parking lot of typical contemporary vehicles.

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It’s “air-cooled” drum brakes have been replaced with disc brakes up front, and 15″ vented steel wheels with tasteful hub caps and trim rings.

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This is as glassy as a greenhouse as was ever made, short of a Messerschmidt bubble car. The huge windshield wraps around the sides as well as into the roof.

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The “flying wing” roof penned by Carl Renner at least gives some shade in the back, unlike the sloping giant rear window used on the coupes and regular sedans.

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The accessory air conditioner is undoubtedly a welcome addition on hot days, although it’s not currently functional. That explains why all the windows were down, which made shooting very easy.

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The Pontiac had a big and bold instrument panel, although not nearly as far out as many Chrysler products of the time.

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The steering wheel hub is a perfect encapsulation of the (googie) times. The quadrant for the Hydramatic still has R on the far right, which would be changed in a few years to reduce unintended activation of reverse in a forced manual downshift.

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Presumably the after-market turn signal stalk/switch is to replace the defective original. Maybe parts for it are hard to source anymore?

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The rear seat is of course commodious, although these lower cars can never compare for seating comfort with the taller sofas that were used some years earlier. Note the asymmetrical upholstery pattern on the upper seat back, which goes the opposite way on the front seat.

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Let’s take a look at what’s behind the trademark nose.

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We know it’s a 389 (6.5 L), as that was the only size offered. But there were no less than nine versions available. Manual shift (three-speed) cars had standard engines with a regular-gas 8.6:1 compression ratio, with 245 hp and a two barrel carb for Catalina and Star Chief models, and 280 hp with a four barrel for Bonnevilles.

All Hydramatic-equipped Pontiacs had a higher 10.0:1 CR, and 280 hp and still a two-barrel for Catalina and Star Chief, and 300 hp with a four barrel for the Bonneville. The exception was the 215hp 420-E, which had the low compression and specially-tuned two-barrel carb along with the HM and extra low rear axle ratio. The “420” designation refers to the 389’s torque rating, but only on the 300 hp version.

 

Pontiac 1959 tri power

For extra performance, Pontiac offered a 315 hp Tri-Power (three two-barrel carbs) version for normal street use. There were also HD versions of the four barrel and Tri-Power 389, with 303 and 345 hp, intended primarily for racing use.

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Since we’re lifting lids, let’s take a look under the rear one too.

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It’s ample sized, obviously, but these GM car trunks were rather shallow, given the big gas tank directly underneath. And then there’s a spare tire to deal with too.

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Tom showed me a jacket with his car on the back. This is a long-term love affair.

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It’s a bit hard to really talk about the styling of these cars with a serious tone of voice. Let’s face it, they’re ridiculous and over the top, especially the rear ends. The ’59 Pontiac’s rear end is not among the best from GM that year, and doesn’t do its quite handsome face justice. If one fin per side is good, two must be better, right?

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It looks like a motel or fast food marquee; just needs a kitty cat face to go along with the ears. I much prefer the 1960’s cleaner tail end.

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The Catalina series was the volume seller of the ’59 Pontiac family, with 231k, or 60% of the total. The starting price of this Vista sedan was $2844, or just $62 more than a Chevy Impala four door hardtop V8. The Catalina’s engine had 106 more cubic inches, the wheelbase had three more inches, and the optional automatic had two more gears. The track was several inches wider. But the Impala’s interior trim might have been a wee bit nicer; at least it had longer arm rests. The Catalina-level trim was more like a cross between the Bel Air and Impala. Still, it’s easy to see the appeal.

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Needless to say, build quality back in the good old days, especially on all-new models, was not at the level we’ve become accustomed to.

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Anyway, a big and wide car like this requires stepping back some to take it all in. With a somewhat more restrained rear end, the ’59 Pontiac could/would have been something quite exceptional, for the times and for GM; a synergistic combination of style, engineering and advertising that was unprecedented at the time. Chrysler had the engineering, but by 1959, its styling was starting to get  stale, or strange. And they certainly couldn’t touch the Fitzpatrick and Kaufman renderings.

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America’s Number 1 Road Car? In 1959, that honor would probably go to a Chrysler 300 or Studebaker Hawk. But for a line of popular-priced cars, the Pontiac gets a B+ for effort. even with the rear quad finlets.

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But who would want to re-write history and leave out those crazy ’59 GM rear ends? They’re a testimony to that one brief moment in time when the designers were sent home with Dr. Seuss books for their bed-time reading and given OJ spiked with LSD in the morning, and told to let it all hang out. At least Pontiac let the wheels hang out too.