Curbside Classic: 1959 Pontiac Catalina Sport Coupe – Lessons In Aging

(first posted 3/27/2017)    For so many years, 1959 seemed like such a normal year.  Moreso for me than for others perhaps, because that was my birth year.  I have been writing “1959” for practically a lifetime.  Well, I guess not quite yet.  I hope.  And was it coincidence that my first CC was on a 1959 car during a 1959 theme week?.  But back to my point.  I have been noticing something lately:  When I write “1959” it doesn’t look quite so normal anymore.

Maybe it is that we are closing in on the end of two decades since the great Y2K shift in which all normal years now begin with a “20” instead of a “19”.  But this is not completely it.  “1996” or “1987” still look like normal years when I write them out.  But “1959”, not so much.

I think the first time I noticed something odd about 1959 was around the mid 1990s.  I am an attorney in my daytime life and I drove to Terre Haute, Indiana to take the deposition of an injured heavy equipment operator in the course of defending a personal injury suit.  I sat down across the table from this rough looking overweight fellow who had clearly lived a long and difficult life.  “Please state your name, address and birthdate” was my opening question.  When he finished off with “1959” I nearly choked.  Was I really just about the same age as this guy?  Holy Crap, time to start taking better care of myself, because the bell curve was starting to do some nasty work.

“So” you might be asking, “what on earth does any of this mental meandering this have to do with this ’59 Catalina that you promised us you were going to write about?”  This would be a very good question.  And my answer gets going right about here.

I have been writing for CC for what, about six years?  In that time I have practiced the fine art of scanning the horizon for interesting cars to photograph.  As time has passed I have found my standards getting higher.  There was a time when I would walk out of my way to shoot an Isuzu I-Mark or an Acura Integra.  But those days are mostly gone.  There are younger writers here who have more to say about these cars than I do and I am happy to cede that part of what we do here to some others.  But something like this?

I saw this car parked in a Sam’s Club parking lot in Lafayette, Indiana while on the way to visit my mother.  I passed by an 80s Pontiac 6000 wagon and a 50s Chevy pickup with a modern paint job and wheels.  I was actually second guessing myself about the 6000 wagon when I saw this huuuge expanse of copper about 50 yards away.  Mrs. JPC was with me and I told her to hold on because we were making an emergency trip to Sam’s.

As I pulled up closer I could tell that this was a really, really clean original car.  I turned up my nose at the blue pickup because of the wheels but I would not do so for this one.  As I started snapping pictures the sheer scale of this thing just kept smacking me in the face.  Every single dimension, every single line was exaggerated.  There was simply nothing “normal” about this car.  Just as Dorothy reached a time when it was clear that she was no longer in Kansas, It was another wake-up moment to me that 1959 was a ridiculously long time ago.

I grew up around cars like these.  My Aunt Norma and Uncle John had a ’60 Catalina sedan in a similar shade of copper.  By the time I was ten or so the crazy-busy surfaces and the overdecorated nature of cars from this period were starting to look a little odd, but the proportions were as fresh and modern as any big car still made.  But now?  This thing just looks weird.  A good weird, but weird nonetheless.

The nameplates are weird.

The taillights are weird.

The twin V fins are definitely weird.  And fascinating.

Then there are the colors.  Is there a more “1959” color combination than Cameo Ivory over Canyon Copper?  Copper was really the “it” color that year.  My CC Avatar comes from the cover shot of the 1959 Plymouth brochure which featured a copper Sport Fury.  While golds and silvers have had really long runs over the decades, copper (alone among the precious metal derived colors) has never been a long-term success.  But it was sure hot in 1959.  And boy was that roof panel teeny-tiny.  It makes me think of the Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini that was a big hit song in 1960.

There were a couple of things that detracted from the glorious weirdness of this car.  First were the wheels.  Their dimensions seem to fight the rest of the car’s design.  They are at the same time both too wide and too low in profile, making them look too small.  While they might make for a nice driving experience they are just so not-1959.

There is also the interior.  That white interior is all 1969 to me, not 1959.  Car interiors were not noted for their durability in the late ’50s so perhaps someone did the best they could in making a nice driver-quality interior to replace a ratty one that used unobtainable fabrics and patterns.

It’s a nice job and definitely not weird.  Because the actual 1959 Catalina interiors were weird.  But on this car, not-weird is kind of, well, weird.

Many of the cars I photograph look great from the street but pretty substandard from close up.  Frankly, when I saw the wheels and the solid white interior on this one, I was preparing to be disappointed.  But the paint, chrome and dash were all amazing on this car, and all original if my guess is accurate.  Still, how is is possible to not be just a little bit disappointed when the actual car doesn’t quite live up to the famous Fitzpatrick and Van Kaufman artwork.

The sun was in a challenging place as I took my photos and I had somewhere to be, so I did not linger.  As I was getting into my car I saw the owner approach, open the door and slide in.  I cracked my window to hear what I presumed would be the mighty 389 fire to life and was not disappointed.  The owner’s route and mine coincided for about a mile and through a couple of traffic lights.  This gave me the rare chance to watch this big, suave Poncho undulate along the asphalt as little clouds of unfiltered greenhouse gasses chuffed from the twin exhausts.  Yes, 1959 was a long, long time ago.

I guess coming to grips with the passage of time happens to all of us at one point or another.  Some have undoubtedly come to this point in their own lives well before now and the rest of you will soon enough.  So to repeat: 1959 was a very, very long time ago.  And at the same time it was (and remains) very, very cool.


Further Reading:

1959 Pontiac Catalina Vista Sedan (Paul Niedermeyer)

1959 Pontiac Catalina (Aaron65)

1960 Pontiac Ventura Hardtop (Paul Niedermeyer)

1960 Pontiac Catalina and Bonneville Outtakes (Paul Niedermeyer)