COAL: 1970 Pontiac Catalina – Last Exit To Brooklyn

Have you ever owned a car so horrible that the first beater you come across begins to look like salvation? Under normal circumstances, one would realize that any such car is bound to be trouble. But on that day in the early spring of 1993, I didn’t care. The Olds From Hell had depleted both my savings account and my sanity. All I had left was a desperate gamble.

I had been looking at the classifieds for some weeks, but having continuously thrown money into a black hole for almost two years to keep the Olds running, I had none left for its replacement. That day, on my way home after work, I drove past something green with a For Sale sign in its window. I pulled over and dejectedly beheld a dented old Pontiac with rust streaks and a bad case of vinyl roof dandruff. And I laughed, because that rusty hulk looked absolutely ridiculous. Ha! Imagine owning something like that. I’ll bet that as ugly as it looks, it cannot possibly be any worse than the Olds. Ha! A Wide-Track Pontiac! In high school, I dreamed of those GTOs and Bonnevilles, well, look at my dream now. But how about I take a look anyway, just for laughs?


“… I drive a ’69 Pontiac Catalina,

The ugliest car you’ve ever seen-a…”


Up close, the car looked even worse. This was no Bonneville, but a plain-Jane Catalina four-door. A hardtop at least, rather than a sedan. But a ’70. Ugh. Like someone once cool but now a bloated, miserable shadow of their former self. Wrong year, wrong model, wrong condition, wrong number of doors. That awkward transitional face, destined to look even worse next year. What happened, Chief? Look at you, down on your luck. Busted shocks and dented corners. But the interior’s pretty clean. Hmmm, it’s registered and inspected. What’s that price on the sign there? $150? Oh, hell, why not? I had wasted more than that on any one of a zillion repairs on the Olds. If I spend just a little bit on this one instead, I can probably fix it up pretty nice, and it’ll be much more fun to own. I always liked older cars. Two more years and it’ll be 25 years old, that’s a bona-fide vintage classic… yeah, OK, I’m gonna do it!


“… Twenty feet long with a big 350

And the rust forms a pattern that’s pretty nifty…”


I copied the number and called it once I got home. Mom tried to talk me out of it. Why replace a problematic car with one that’s much older and likely to be even more problematic? I know I’m doing something impulsive and stupid, Mom. But I had bought that Olds because I was trying to be all responsible and adult, and look where that got me. For $150, I can afford some impulsive stupidity!

Next day, cash in hand, I stood in the driveway of a neat little house on one of Brooklyn’s tree-lined streets, across from where the car was parked, waiting for the little old lady to come out. She was the Pontiac’s original owner. “It’s a ‘69”, she insisted. Her memory was very clear on buying that car in 1969 and she was not about to be contradicted by facts. She took good care of it over the years, always had the oil changed regularly and all that. But twenty years of driving in New York City took its toll. Parking a big car on the streets resulted in numerous scrapes and dents, and age had crept up on both the car and the owner. She was selling because she could no longer drive.

The car started right up and went around the block without complaint. The interior was absolutely mint, literally spotless. The rear seat looked like it had never been sat on. The only sign of use was two decades’ worth of candy wrappers stuffed under the front seat. The lady liked her caramels. I popped the hood. The engine was clean, all the fluids at their proper levels. The trunk was full of all sorts of stuff – dishes, knick-knacks, books, lamps, toasters, some extra wiper blades and hubcaps and other small parts. The lady took a couple of random items from the top of the pile and told me I could discard the rest at my leisure. Normally, I would have taken a prospective car to be checked out by my mechanic, but it all looked really good, so I didn’t bother. I tend to bond with cars from the inside out. I’m a sucker for a clean original interior, and this one, in nice vintage green cloth-and-Morrokide, totally suckered me in. Would you accept $100 cash, ma’am? Sold!


“…Some old lady was selling it for one-fifty,

I got it for a hundred ‘cause I’m so thrifty…”


The first thing I did after driving the car home was to scrape the remaining crusty shreds of peeling vinyl off the roof. Two hours later, the car’s appearance… improved slightly. I decided that once the bodywork was done, it would get painted without replacing the vinyl. What bodywork? I didn’t have any money! But I was already thinking in terms of a gradual rolling restoration, fixing the car up as I drove it. The engine was nice, the interior was super-nice. Just some bodywork, and I would have a very cool car. Oh, sure, it would need a few things, but it was so well-maintained that I was pretty confident it would not take much. I vacuumed out the candy wrappers and started on the trunk. Much of it went into the trash, but there were quite a few useful or saleable items as well. The next time Mom held a yard sale, I cleared about fifty bucks.


 “… It had a trunk full of junk, broken toasters and such,

Eighteen old umbrellas, man, just too much…”


The next evening, I tried to turn the headlights on for the first time, and the foot switch went right through the floor. A week later it rained, and I discovered that the rear window leaked badly. There were rust holes in the trunk floor under all the junk. And yep, it would definitely need those shocks. While my initial enthusiasm dimmed somewhat upon closer inspection, I still loved that beautiful green interior, cruising around pillarless with all four windows down, guided by the tiny glowing Chief Pontiac on the instrument panel (Who put in his final appearance that year). Behind the wheel, I could forget about the car’s pitiful exterior and if I squinted just right, I could almost imagine myself in a Fitzpatrick and Kaufman ad, piloting the Wide-Track beauty that haunted my dreams in high school.

Oh, those diminished expectations. This was the dream:

This was reality:

Note: this one above is the only photo of my actual car. All the others were found online. My mechanic, standing next to it, is quite amused to see what I brought in.

My most fervent dream just then was to finally get rid of the Olds, but I needed both cars because they were never completely operable at the same time. Still, between the two, I could now usually manage to get to work with a minimum of drama. The plan was to save some money to fix up the Pontiac and then sell the Olds, but something always happened. Eventually, the Olds went away following an episode of fear and loathing in New Jersey – I was too disgusted to fix it up yet again when it failed for the umpteenth time, and junked it. Transportation duties now fell solely to Mr. Catalina, whether or not he was ready for prime time.

Incidentally, while most people, including myself, tend to anthropomorphize machinery in the feminine, this car, in my mind, was never a “she”. Despite its feminine name, it always had the personality of a grumpy old man. “You want me to start in this weather, you putz? What, you can’t wait for my ignition to dry? Fuhgeddaboutit!” If it could actually speak, I imagine the Chief would have sounded like Walter Matthau.

At the time, I had a punk band called The Hazmats. We played all the clubs in Manhattan for about five years in the mid-1990s and had a bit of a following, but, like most bands, eventually imploded without getting anywhere. Going against every popular trend of the day didn’t help. In the immediate post-Nirvana era, we were probably the only ones that refused to have anything to do with grunge. I was feeling totally alienated from that whole cookie-cutter Pearl Temple Alice wannabe flannel thing. Nobody seemed to be playing music that had any kind of fun, rebellious energy anymore; it was all serious, depressing and depressingly predictable. Once it became clear that Nirvana spearheaded a whole new genre that had little to do with the indie punk that I loved, I realized that this simply wasn’t my g-g-generation anymore. So The Hazmats remained an alternative to alternative music, sticking with the MC5 and Eddie & The Hot Rods type stuff that we did best.

In other words, my music was as retrograde and unhip as my ride, though the Pontiac fit the punk aesthetic much better than the Olds ever did. At 2 a.m., loading out gear after a gig, the nice clean Olds was an interloper on the grimy, garbage-strewn streets of lower Manhattan. But the ugly old Pontiac owned them. It looked intimidating enough to get respect from other drivers, because the biggest, oldest, cheapest and most beat-up car always wins. It had presence and an appearance that sneered utter contempt at anyone who might disapprove. I never had to worry about some crackhead trying to break into it or steal it, and any additional scrapes and dents simply didn’t matter. Beater ownership can be totally liberating.

Parking the big green barge in the Village was a pain, of course. But like most New Yorkers, I could fit into just about any space, by pushing other cars apart if necessary. You backed in until you hit the car behind you, and if your front bumper cleared the car in front by even a quarter of an inch, you were in. Today one sees parked cars with rubber bumper protector thingies hanging down like a saggy diaper to prevent scuffs from such maneuvers, but to me, that’s such a cheap cop-out. Nobody who owned a car in NYC since before Williamsburg got invaded by hipsters would be caught dead with one of those. Your street cred would be just as forfeited as if you had called Houston Street “Hews-ton” instead of “House-ton”. You expected a few scrapes on New York streets, and you didn’t whine about it. Bumper protectors. Sheesh. Fuhgeddaboutit!

Little by little, I was sorting the car out as I drove it. I put in those shocks, fixed the footswitch, had my mechanic give it a good tune up, caulked up the leaky rear window, did some Bondo repairs in preparation for its eventual repaint, replaced a few things with junkyard parts, including a nearly new pair of those orange Sparkomatic speakers. In retrospect, my experience somewhat paralleled Murilee Martin’s, whose ’65 Impala project was happening concurrently on the opposite coast. I lacked Martin’s level of mechanical skill and didn’t set out trying to make some sort of post-apocalyptic art car statement. But the overall trajectory of incremental low-budget upgrades to a beat-up old car while navigating crappy jobs and other realities of Gen-X post-college life during the recession 1990s was about the same. It was the same basic car, too, the 1965 – 1970 GM B-body. Martin’s Chevy was a first year model of that generation, while my Pontiac represented the last of them.


“…Busted shock absorbers all around,

Ridin’ ‘bout two inches off the ground…”



After two years of Oldsmobile-induced despair, I was finally beginning to enjoy myself behind the wheel again. But it couldn’t last. You just go on with your life, all busy with whatever preoccupies you at the moment, until one day you turn around, and it’s not there anymore. Spiral, Lion’s Den, CBGB, Rodeo Bar, all the clubs I used to play – all gone. Record stores, little mom-and-pop shops and other favorite spots where we used to hang out, the band, that old guitar, that new girlfriend, that New York full of grime and crime that belonged to us and not to all those bright young kids taking selfies everywhere – all gone. That sense of infinite possibilities in your early twenties – gone. The days when you could buy a decently running car from its original owner for $100 – gone. And the car itself, gone, too.

In late fall of that year, I was taking the Pennsylvania Avenue exit off the Belt Parkway, the last exit to Brooklyn before the Queens border, as I did a zillion times before. Coming off the exit, I heard a loud metallic noise and the Pontiac grounded to a halt. I walked around the car, then opened the hood. The engine appeared to be sitting lower in its bay than before. My mechanic arrived with a jack and a two-by-four, having confirmed my diagnosis over the phone. We jacked up the engine, put the board under it, and the car started right back up. The frame under the engine had rusted out completely. I knew the car had some rust issues, but I didn’t realize that I had been driving on borrowed time all along. I thought I’d deal with that stuff once I had some money for bodywork. The end arrived before the money did.


 “… I’ll fix it up some day, without a doubt,

I just hope the engine don’t fall out…”


There aren’t too many options when you live in an apartment building with alternate-side street parking, winter is coming on and your stepfather absolutely refuses to let you park a car with a broken frame in his driveway until spring. I could not even keep it long enough to sell it or part it out before it would get ticketed and towed. An old car gathers no moss on the streets of New York, once it stops rolling. A few years later, with the benefit of off-street parking and the Internet, I have operated as a temporary, single-car, used auto parts dismantler on several occasions. But that came much too late for the Catalina.

With a heavy heart, I drove it to the nearest junkyard under its own power, that beautiful super clean interior and good low-mileage 350 and all. I hope somebody got them before the car was crushed. The Sparkomatics, rescued from one junkyard, ended up at another. For junk thou art, and unto junk shalt thou return. End of the road, Chief. They paid me fifty bucks, for many years the standard price one could expect for any junked car in New York. So between the yard sale proceeds and the scrap price, the car basically ended up being free and after almost a year of service owed me absolutely nothing.

There were no regrets about taking this impulsive detour into beater ownership and crossing Wide-Track Pontiacs off my bucket list. But the experience taught me that while I can handle some simple repairs on an old car, I’m really no restorer. I realized that I lack the skills, the time and the means to fix up old cars, with far too many other interests and responsibilities to distract me. I’m much better at dreaming about it. It was a discouraging but valuable lesson. When buying my next old car some years later, I had far more realistic expectations. I made sure to buy one in the best condition that I could find, have a garage ready to receive it, and a reliable daily driver to take the pressure off.

I have also learned not to judge too hastily those dreamers who still see innate virtue and potential in an old car that exists on a desperate edge between survival and oblivion, held together only by hope and force of habit. I know how that dream feels.

Does someone still see the beauty below in the beater above, still hope for a someday that will never come? Is it just some smug satisfaction with owning a car that presents a big middle finger to the world? Or a bit of both? It takes a certain defiance to stick up for a no-future underdog like that, and that defiance is as punk as it gets.

But for me, that dream is over. To date, I have restored a bunch of vintage guitars and drums as well as some bikes and Victrolas and antique briar smoking pipes, but not a single automobile. At least my wife can tolerate my smaller projects. A 1966 Sonor drum set in pieces taking over the living room is manageable to her, but if I were to bring home a car like the Catalina today, I’d be sleeping in it. I have learned to choose my battles, too.


 “…Catalina, Catalina,

Catalina, Catalina…”


Shortly after junking the Catalina, I found myself on the same street where I had bought it. The house was deserted, with plywood over the windows and trash in the driveway that looked like it had been there for months. Selling me her car must have been one of the last things that little old lady did.

The Hazmats never released a record. But in 1995, we recorded a demo cassette. One of the songs on it was “Catalina”.

Today’s Curbside Retro Punk Rock Jukebox selection has been brought to you by:

The Hazmats – Catalina


Related CC reading:

Curbside Classic: 1968 Pontiac Catalina – Let’s Go Wide Tracking