Curbside Classic: 1963 Pontiac Bonneville Convertible- Sexier Than a Catalina 4-Door


(first posted 1/11/2014)     The streets of Los Angeles just keep delivering lovely Curbside Classics! Heading out to lunch on a Saturday, I spotted this pristine 1963 Bonneville Convertible sitting in the parking lot of Paddy O’s, a local bar and grille. You may recall that the ’63 Pontiac has received positive press here in the past – Paul wrote a loving ode to a 1963 big Pontiac four door (in Catalina guise) back in July of last year.

In his article, Paul called the Pontiac four door “The Sexiest Big Sedan of Its Time,” and I’d be hard-pressed to disagree with him. Mind you, if the four door sedan is sexy, it goes without saying that the convertible is off the charts. I suppose if Buick offered a Riviera convertible in 1964, the Catalina might have had some competition, but GM never made one. Of course, given the reach of the internet, perhaps we can find one for comparison…

riviera convertible

Yep, someone out there did build one, and we’ve got a picture. It’s quite sexy, but as this Buick is a home built “phantom” one-off, our Bonneville remains the champ by default.


Even at rest, the body’s form produces an impression of motion, a characteristic shared by all these big Pontiacs. The forward thrust of the headlight bucket, the rearward flow of the side spear, and the angled cut of the bumper all combine to create the effect. The car’s owner need not waste any money on gas, he only has to drop the top at the local drive-in burger joint, slide into the front seat, and lean back. No need to turn the wheels, the car takes flight standing still.


In this picture, we see a glow from above. Perhaps angels have come from heaven for a viewing, offering their voices in a rapturous hymn as they gaze upon its perfect flanks. The light use of chrome accents the sculptured sheet metal, staying well clear of that overdone, cheap look so common a few years earlier. Without a doubt, this is the best angle from which to admire the car, top down.


And while the top is down, let’s step up and admire that magnificent dashboard. A child of the seventies, I missed out on yearly model changes. Manufacturers changed front and rear clips in my day, but left much of their cars’ bones intact. Hoods were used for multiple model years, and door skins almost never changed. I remember the same dashboard being used in the Pinto from 1971 to 1980. But when researching this car, I found that in addition to yearly sheet metal changes, dashboards also saw major revisions from year to year!

That’s part of the magic of what sets these cars apart from those made of today. While Pontiac was building this car, legislators in DC and Sacramento were drafting laws that would divert designers’ and engineers’ attention from making yearly changes. In addition, the manufacturers themselves were adding compacts and intermediates to their lines, further diluting resources. Following VW’s and Studebaker’s lead, the days of yearly model changes were numbered and that number was coming up fast.


But enough nostalgia, let’s talk more Bonneville. I’m not sure which engine this Poncho is packing, but I know all Bonnevilles arrived with at least 389 cubic inches of V-8 power, enough to make this the most common view for other motorists. In addition to engines which offered “adequate” power, this top line Pontiac also came a four-speed Hydramatic. This transmission provided stout service and superior fuel economy (according to my father), which is a win-win in my book.


Earlier this week I railed against stacked rectangular headlights, but I’m perfectly satisfied with these stacked round units. Perhaps it’s because a round shape makes more sense for a parabolic reflector, or maybe it’s just their outboard location, but they perfectly frame the classic Pontiac split grille. It seems to me that most cars of this era strive for an imposing presence as they pull up to the office, church, or neighbor’s house, and this Bonneville delivers by the boatload.


Finally, let’s take a look at these 8-lug wheels. Although you may see them mounted on other cars of this era, they were an exclusive Pontiac option from 1960 to ’68. It’s hard to say, but it’s likely they are original to the car. Commonly thought to be aluminum wheels, they are actually made of steel and bolted to finned aluminum brake drums. This design provided improved cooling and reduced brake fade. The drums had an iron liner, with eight lugs around the outside which then bolted to the steel wheel.


Here’s a picture of the front and rear drums off the car, with the wheels in place (and trim rings removed). While they look quite different from the standard wheels, you can see that the hubs of the front brake drums mounted to spindles, while the rear drums bolted to axle flanges like a normal wheel. Once these brake drums were mounted, the 8-lug wheels could just bolt on to the eight lugs, front or rear.

That’s all I have to say about this big American beast, only two years younger than I am. It’s up to all of you to weigh in with memories that may be more personal, or even derived from direct experience. Have at it!