COAL: 1965 Pontiac Catalina and 1973 VW Super Beetle – Unhappy Downsizing

Pontiac 1965 catalina 4 door f hdtp

This edition of COAL is going to be a two-fer, because the next two cars after the 1963 Plymouth were (1) not that memorable, or (2) not kept all that long. When the Belvedere finally reached the point where it had to be replaced, the car that I ended up with was a 1965 Pontiac Catalina four door hardtop. This was not the car I really wanted but as a poor college student I could not afford the lightly used Roadrunner of my dreams. I was in no position at that point to finance any vehicle so I was limited to whatever ride I could pay cash for. I purchased the “Cat” off the back row at the local Pontiac dealer; I want to say that I paid $400 dollars for it but it could have been a little more or a little less.

Pontiac 1965 4 dr hdtop

The Pontiac was certainly in better condition than my used up Plymouth. It had the 389 CID V8 and THM; while it was too big and too heavy to provide the same level of acceleration as its predecessor, it was certainly a fine car for the open road. This was before the national 55 MPH speed limit of the mid-seventies and the Cat would maintain 75-80 MPH without even breathing hard. You would want to dial it back some for any real turns but on the Interstate you could make good time.

I acquired the Pontiac not long before I moved away from my hometown in order to continue my college education. I had attended the local community college for my first couple of years and was able to live at home. This resulted in me putting lots of miles on the car as I travelled back and forth to class, going to work, etc. Things were quite different once I moved to Lexington to attend the University of Kentucky. My first year there I lived on campus and there were times when I didn’t use the car for a week or more. The campus itself was fairly compact and there were many restaurants and bars right on the periphery; it was often easier to just walk rather than having to deal with finding a parking spot or possibly being hassled by the gendarmes.

Pontiac 1965 Catalina int

I don’t know how many miles I put on the Cat during the year and a half I owned it but I’m sure it wasn’t much more than 15,000 miles (compared to the 45k+ I put on the Plymouth). I didn’t know how many miles I put on the Pontiac because the odometer, when it tried to roll over to 50,000, broke. An interesting side note, my family purchased three different well-used Pontiacs from the back row of the local dealer within a year or so. All had 49XXX miles when purchased and the odometer on all three broke when trying to roll over to 50,000. A cynical person might think that the dealer was rolling back the odometers in order to make these cars more appealing to the bargain shoppers.

Pontiac 1965 catalina 4 door rq hdtp 600

I have only one semi-interesting story involving the Pontiac and it is less about the car than me and some friends. Cincinnati is about an hour’s drive north of Lexington so it was within easy reach for cultural excursions and recreational opportunities. At that time one could legally drink 3.2% beer in Ohio at age 18, while you needed to be 21 to drink “real” beer or liquor. As countless people had discovered before us, if you looked reasonably close to 21 and had money to spend, it was not hard to find places that would serve you liquor. One Saturday night myself and a couple of friends made the trek northward to see if the women in Cincinnati were any more receptive to our advances than were the ones in Lexington (they were not). I parked the car on the street in downtown Cincinnati and we then spent the next several hours visiting local watering holes. Around midnight we decided it was time to leave and go back to Lexington; unfortunately none of us could remember exactly where I had parked the car. We walked up and down streets for at least an hour without any luck; fortunately it was not cold and the exercise and passage of time did help us sober up, at least a little. Finally, around 1:30 or so we managed to stumble across the Cat, presumably where I left it. In the 40+ years since then I have never once came as close to misplacing my car as that night; I suppose we can call that progress, of a sort.

Time moved on, as it will, and early in the second semester of my fourth year of college I realized that I was not going to graduate that spring. I had changed majors a couple of times and was not going to have enough credits for a degree in anything. As I was tired of never having any money I decided to withdraw from school and get a full-time job. I ended up working for a fourth rate loan company as the outside bill collector; this was the type of company one went to for money after your grandma had turned you down. One of the things I remember is that we had customers who had borrowed $500 to buy a car and that their total payback was in the neighborhood of $1200. Most of these people had plenty of experience in dodging bill collectors and knew how to make themselves scarce. Working in town was bad enough but at least you had a street address to rely on. Many of the customers lived in the surrounding counties and their only address might be “RR#2, East Outhouse, Kentucky”. It was almost impossible to find these people if they didn’t want to be found. This job was certainly an eye-opener, perhaps we need to start a series called “Jobs of a Lifetime”.

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Now that I was gainfully employed I decided that I deserved a new car. Although I really, really wanted a Datsun 240Z, my finances dictated something at the entry level. After some research and cross shopping I narrowed my search down to a Toyota Corolla and a VW Super Beetle, each of these was around $2300 equipped with an AM radio and little else. I felt that the Corolla was the better car but I just could not make myself pull the trigger on the purchase. Instead I purchased a 1973 VW Super Beetle, light blue like the pictures here. A close friend had driven a ’61 Beetle from our junior year of high school up until a couple of months before he graduated from college in 1973.

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This car was certainly slow, any kind of rise on the highway meant downshifting to 3rd gear, but it was thrifty (30 MPG) and was fun to drive in that row hard to keep up with traffic sort of way. I hoped to capture that with my Super Beetle but no luck; not only was my VW terribly slow, it wasn’t even very economical. I didn’t get more than 21-22 MPG out of the car, probably because you had to drive it like you stole it to keep from getting run over. It wasn’t even much fun to drive, if anything it felt ponderous and was not responsive at all. I knew this purchase was a mistake within a couple of weeks of making it.

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After six or seven months of VW ownership I had bailed on bill collecting and was working as a kitchen manager for a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchisee. These folks were in the process of building two new KFC stores in the Lexington area and, in the interim, were running another KFC restaurant located in a somewhat marginal section of town. I worked there for several months before the new stores opened and I was sort of hoping that someone would steal the VW so I could collect on the insurance. Of course no else wanted a Super Beetle either so every night after work it was still where I had parked it.

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But then, in the spring of 1974 the OPEC oil embargo hit the U.S. in a huge way. Suddenly, small cars were the hot ticket as people rushed to replace their full-sized boats with something, anything, more economical to operate. Without much effort at all I was able to sell the Super Beetle for several hundred dollars more than I had paid for it when it was new. I had been looking for a different car and I took this as a sign that I should purchase something more interesting. Did I succeed? Stay tuned for our next installment on COAL.