Car Show Classic: 1959 Pontiac Catalina–Options? I Hate Options.


Tempus fugit.  The classic Pontiac arrowhead hasn’t graced a motor vehicle in roughly five years now. Considering its ignominious end, it may be unbelievable to some that Pontiac was perhaps the most successful American automotive brand from 1959 to 1970.  Sure, it might have technically ranked third in sales, but Chevrolet and Ford have historically run on their own inertia, like boulders rolling down a hill.  Pontiac, on the other hand, excelled for a number of reasons, but it all really started with the “Wide-Track” advertising campaign and this jet-age Catalina.

1959 Pontiac Ad-01

Pontiac’s success depended largely on three car-loving executives: Bunkie Knudsen, Pete Estes, and John DeLorean.  Bunkie Knudsen, of course, was the man who drastically changed Pontiac’s image in the 1950s, and the “wide-track” moniker may or may not be directly attributable to him.  Perhaps apocryphally, Bunkie Knudsen told stylists to widen the track of the prototype ’59s because they looked like “football players wearing ballet slippers.”  In his article titled “Wide Track: Bunkie Knudsen, Pete Estes, and the Pontiac Renaissance,” however, Aaron Severson of “Ate up with Motor” explains that it was Chuck Jordan of GM Styling that initiated the “wide-track” stance, and Knudsen in particular latched on to the look.

1959 Pontiac Ad-04

Regardless, the “Wide-Track Pontiac” became a successful advertising campaign that led to a successful car. Pontiac’s gracefully illustrated advertisements by Art Fitzpatrick and Van Kaufman were no less responsible for the new image than the “wide-track” wording.  Pontiac portrayed a youthful, vigorous image at just the right time, thanks to its forward-thinking executives.


With that being said, not all ’59 Pontiacs were glamour queens.  For all the new publicity Pontiacs were receiving (and were about to receive), it was still possible to order an el-strippo from the Pontiac dealer.  Even though stripper Catalinas were soon to be crossing dragstrip finish lines first in Stock and Super Stock classes all across the nation, this specific example was more likely ordered for trips to the supermarket at a sedate pace.  This “Sport Sedan” even wore base dog dish hubcaps (which are actually super-cool).


The two-door sedan was, not surprisingly, one of the worst-sellers in the Pontiac lineup in ’59, with 26,102 sold; after all, the 1950s and 1960s belonged to the hardtop bodystyle.  Meant for budget-conscious buyers and drag racers, this post coupe would have left the dealership at close to the base price of $2633, with the only visible option being the Hydramatic.  This low-optioned Catalina, therefore, raises an interesting point about the GM hierarchy in the 1950s and 1960s.

1959 Chevrolet Ad-12

One could order a basic ’59 Impala Sport Coupe, with its hardtop roofline and a 283, for $2717.  At that price, the Impala simply looked more expensive than the base Catalina, even though it cost only 86 dollars more.  Therefore, whoever ordered the Catalina likely did so for one of a few reasons: the Pontiac nameplate had more “cachet” than the Chevrolet nameplate, the Pontiac’s base 389 was significantly more powerful than a Chevy 283, or s/he favored the Pontiac’s styling and this is what fit the budget.


At any rate, it’s a happy occurrence for car buffs that the original owner made that decision.  In a world where the term “rare” is bandied about with merry abandon, this Catalina deserves the modifier.  Can it be the only example with a factory radio-delete plate?  A lack of heater-controls and underdash ducts means that this is also a heater-delete car.  Save for a base synchromesh transmission, this is undoubtedly the lowest-optioned 1959 Pontiac Catalina on earth.


Judging by the slight wear on the paint, chrome, and carpet, this car might be a unicorn amongst automobiles: the rare all-original, “how does that thing exist?” car.  All Pontiacs in 1959 had plenty of chrome and intricate detailing, like this back-up light that parks between double-peaked tailfins.  As brazen as it is, this design may be more subdued than Chevy’s “batwing,” and could have led to the original owner’s decision to buy this car instead of an Impala.


The split-grille and ironing board hood also made their debut for 1959, only to disappear in 1960, and reappear for 1961.  Pontiac was apparently caught off guard by their popularity, and the 1960 models were already finalized by the time that was apparent. Of course, both became Pontiac styling staples for many years (maybe too many).


The license plate leaves us with perhaps the most accurate sentiment: “Find 1.”  1959 Pontiacs aren’t on every street corner anymore, and finding one as interestingly decontented as this example may be a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. Although Pontiac’s tale has a sad ending, few nameplates ever rose to the heights that Pontiac did during their glory years, and perhaps that makes this story a bittersweet one.