Cohort Classic: 1973 Pontiac Catalina 400 — Role Playing; From Lead Actor To Ensemble Player

Photos from the Cohort by Hyperpack.

Being in the public eye is tough. Celebrities, politicians and Youtubers know it. And then, product planners. After all, a product goes out there in the same fashion; to be tried, tested, and find love or scorn. And much like a celebrity, 1970s Pontiac was vying for a new public angle after its 1960s heyday receded. It was quite a turn, from 1960s sexy heartthrob to middle-aged Brougham actor.

Not that Pontiac face-planted in its newfound role. It did OK, actually. However, the discussion has remained, was it the best career move for the brand?

As many celebrities’ lives have shown, career turns are a risky -but inevitable- business. Some pull it off better than others. If during the 1960s Pontiac had been the equivalent of an automotive Steve McQueen (even if McQueen wasn’t a Pontiac kind of guy, at least in the ’60s), fashions had inevitably changed by the dawn of the new decade. It was time for a new role, but how to play it? Crowd pleaser or character actor?

Now, it’s hard for everyone to accept you’re no longer the hot number playing the lead role. For that certainly had been Pontiac’s place in GM’s lineup during the 1960s.

Ok, Cadillac was certainly on a roll at the time too. But that was a given. That old Cadillac prestige placed the brand in the rarefied realm of a stage veteran. Passing fads had nothing on it –yet. A Cary Grant of sorts, with decades passing but always managing to lead major productions. And despite age, looking ever dapper.

But back to Pontiac. As is well known, the brand had gone from an unnoticed cast member to a rock ‘n roll kind of reinvention. All thanks to some smarty pants management from Bunkie Knudsen and DeLorean, who added youth and verve to the ailing brand. From me-too Chevrolets to youthful, yet mature-looking vehicles filled with sophisticated masculine poise. A turnaround that has stuffed endless pages and is part of automotive lore.

But well, fashions pass and new trends come in. By the early ’70s, pop culture was moving away from fun-filled youthful escapades and everything was turning ever more serious. Oldsmobile took a good measure of the moment’s zeitgeist and moved to a leading role, becoming the 1970s megastar.

So; what should a slightly passé and overweight 1960s heartthrob turn into? Mark your own path or follow the leader?

As Pontiac’s career crisis began, some at CC have suggested the brand should have moved to the role of a character actor. Turn the brand’s cultured sporty virtues from the ’60s and adjust them to a new mold for the times. Offering “a snazzy, well-priced smaller car that was a cut above competitors (a redux of the original Tempest/LeMans strategy)… Pontiac could have served-up a nicely upscale, sporty compact offering to capture buyers”.

Something GM already pretty much offered with the Holden Monaro GTS in Australia.

Not the easiest and most obvious path. It was a move that no longer relied on charisma, brute force, and good looks, but required the hard work of a method actor. Kind of like turning Pontiac into a DeNiro or Nicholson (though neither quite fits the image); tough, dependable, and versatile enough to guarantee a long career. Not names –or qualities– that warrant a blockbuster, but that earn cred when mentioned.

But we know Pontiac stuck to the idea of remaining popular, in the way of following whatever it felt that was going to be so. Instead of a DeNiro or Nicholson, turning into a sort of Ryan O’Neal. Having the looks for the period, but somehow developing an erratic career and roaming into genres it probably shouldn’t have. All adding to a troubled life, filled with more misses than hits.

Of course, these career moves are an eternal source of discussion for the public. Sometimes they please, sometimes they don’t. On certain occasions, they just kill careers. And the Brougham Pontiac era is certainly among those divisive moves. There are fans and detractors.

So, I’ll leave it to you to decide if this Broughamified Catalina is Pontiac’s “Love Story” period… Or its “Oliver’s Story” era. Hit, or bust?

Those who know their Pontiacs are well aware the Catalina was the brand’s entry-level full-sizer. And the 1971-76 generation has a very devoted CC entry from a while back. If you want the mechanical specs and history of this generation of Catalinas, make sure to hit that link (further down).

Now, that older CC post featured a 1972 sedan. Today’s find is a ’73, and there wasn’t much new with Pontiac’s full-sizers from the previous year. Other than the obligatory styling updates, the biggest design news were the 5MPH mandatory bumpers.

Meanwhile, even if today’s find looks Broughamy enough, the officially-named Catalina Brougham had been dropped for ’73. As such, this Brougham-looking Pontiac is just a “plain” Catalina.

The model’s standard engine was a 350cid V-8, but today’s Cohort find carries the optional 400 cid V-8.

Starting in ’71, full-size Ponchos came with a wraparound cockpit. A period fad that was making its way around Detroit in those days. It appeared in its most extreme form in the ’69 LTD, and here we see it getting the Pontiac treatment.

Now, those seats seem to be wrapped in Pontiac’s own Morrokide fabric. Is this pristinely original, or painstakingly restored? Whatever the case, it’s quite the time warp to the early ’70s. I can see my 3-year-old self in my polyester shorts riding in this front bench with gusto.

As can be seen, today’s find has a partner; a sharp-looking Chevrolet Caprice. This time, we’re talking about an undisputed star who had a long career with staying power. It didn’t quite remain in the public’s eye throughout all those years, but it certainly knew how to earn its keep in what became a rather steady role.

To those of us of a certain age, who didn’t spend time in these? I certainly did. A few hours indeed, as a passenger in the rear seat (Yeap, taxi service!).

These cars were quite the lookers when launched in ’77. It’s true that once they became too common their design tautness lost some of its luster, but now that they’re rather scarce on the ground, their crisp lines can be appreciated anew.

The rear view of the coupe is certainly one of the car’s best angles. However, now that I think about it, I never rode on the nifty 2-door coupe with the cool rear glass window treatment.

And if you wonder about the photobombing Barracuda by the curb, it’s been featured at CC before.

However I feel about the Pontiacs of this period (looks like an Oldsmobile!), what can’t be argued is that by the 1970s GM was losing its touch as a manager of the stars. Pontiac may have had a few more hits here and there from this point on, but it was becoming ever more part of an ensemble cast. And playing ever less relevant roles.

But such is life for stars under the eye of a finicky public and poor management. From 1960s heartthrob to attending casting calls for Stallone’s The Expendables (2010), hoping to get one more role no matter how small. And in the end, realizing all your scenes ended up on the cutting room floor.


Related CC reading:

Curbside Classic: 1972 Pontiac Catalina – Getting More For Your Dollar