(first posted 7/20/2013) The 1963 Pontiac was the very crest of the wave that swept the Excitement brand to glorious heights in the sixties. The upwelling first appeared out of seemingly nowhere in 1959. It continued to build momentum, year by year, but no one could have imagined how high it would peak in 1963. Anyone alive between the ages of five and eighty-five at the time remembers it well: the Pontiac waves seized the land, and one after another followed the ’63 until it died down again. The choice was to surf it, or be inundated. The latter mainly applied to the competition.
For the designers in the competition’s studios, the ’63 Pontiac was a deadly tsunami that washed up their handiwork on the beach like flotsam and jetsam. They all scurried to higher ground to redesign their cars in the Pontiac’s image, but killer waves can’t be created by so easily. It takes a seismic shift, and Pontiac somehow set one off.
Admittedly, the ’63 Pontiac wasn’t the most radically new car that GM’s divisions had to offer that year. The 1963 Buick Riviera and Corvette Sting Ray pushed the envelope further, but these were halo cars: a ’63 LeSabre or Impala had nothing in common with them. But at Pontiac, it was a different story.
Pontiac’s own 1963 halo car was the exquisite Grand Prix, and it’s all too apparent that the GP and lowest level Catalina share more than good intentions. There’s much more in common than not, right down to many of the details of that superbly handsome new face, the first to use the Pontiac trademark stacked headlights. That was the genius of Pontiac: for the price of a Chevy Impala, Ford Galaxie or Dodge 880, you could have a four door Grand Prix. Brilliant.
As is all too obvious, those bland alternative choices couldn’t touch the Pontiac’s deeply sculpted and original front end, never mind the rest of its handsome details. The ’63 Catalina exuded a poised confidence and sophistication that belied its price, which was exactly $100 more than a comparable Impala. What a deal, considering what else that one Ben Franklin bought: an additional one hundred cubic inches (389 vs 283), an inch longer wheelbase, and a million dollars’ worth of looks from the girls.
I know this from personal experience, despite being only ten at the time. My teachers were a couple of high school hot rodders across the street, who had a friend with access to a navy blue ’63 Pontiac rag top. When Saturday night came around, their perpetually half-finished greasy flat head Fords were abandoned for a good scrub and a night out in the Poncho. And I saw the results of their trolling when they drove by a few hours later packed to the gunwales with cheerleaders. The ’63 Pontiac was the consummate chick magnet; even a sedan would do in a pinch.
Although a four door hardtop like this improved the odds over the sedan still. God, what would I have given for my old man to come home with this instead of a stupid Fairlane. And for a measly $500 more, he could have. All right, that’s $3500 bucks in today’s money, but sheesh, just think how far that investment would have gone toward his children’s self esteem.
So who gets credit for the Pontiac’s million bucks/one hundred dollar face? One Jack Humbert, who joined Pontiac in 1959 and was in his mid-thirties. It’s hard to fake a youthful face, or know what will appeal to the younger set. Whatever it was, Jack had the magic. And he successfully transferred it to the mid-sized Tempest/LeMans in 1965, giving honest hard-working young Americans an even more cost-effective tool in the pursuit of their preferred sex.
That $100 premium over a Chevy also bought you genuine Morrokide, Pontiac’s trademarked and patented genetically modified vinyl upholstery that exuded irresistible male pheromones as well as resisted staining from…whatever. God forbid your parents got a sedan with the cloth upholstery; you were screwed doubly. This owner is carefully protecting his aging Morrokide for when he really needs it. A wise decision; the secret formula was lost long ago.
Or maybe it just petered out somewhere around 1970, by which time Pontiac had obviously lost its mojo. The big Pontiacs got increasingly flabby after 1965, and quickly lost their sex appeal. That got passed on to the junior Ponchos, and finally to the beaked and winged ’69 Grand Prix, which gave the ’63 GP a run for the money.
Let’s take another look at the ’63 and lose our objectivity in its seductive details. It isn’t just the brilliant front end that made it a classic. It’s imitators learned that to their peril. There was also that subtle but not insignificant bulging at the hips, both vertically and horizontally.
That first appeared in more vestigial form on the’61s (above), a feature that set them apart and above from the rest of the GM brood. By 1963, the swelling was a bit more pronounced, and lent the Pontiac a dynamic quality that was utterly absent in the ruler-straight lines of almost every other car of the era.
It was a prescient feature, and one that GM would embrace with a passion in 1965: big hips were the Big New Thing. And no one did them better in 1965 than Pontiac. But it was perhaps the beginning of the long slow decline too, as the unique qualities of the ’63 began to be copied, and bloat set in. All true new things must pass, but am I glad this particularly ’63 Catalina showed up one day, seemingly out of nowhere.
By 1965, the streetcape had changed in other ways too. After the ’63 Pontiacs appeared, the competition’s designers rushed back to their drawing tables and crumpled up whatever they had been working on for 1965 and started over – with one mental picture hovering in their imitative minds. The results were predictable, and most blatant with the ’65 Plymouth (top) and big Fords (bottom). Certain charms they may have (for some), but they failed to capture the poise, dynamism and elegance of their inspiration.
Pontiac rode its waves to ever increasing industry heights. After capturing the #5 sales position in 1959, it took number 4 in ’61, and the bronze in ’62. Sales continued to swell, reaching a heft one million in 1968.
Pontiacs exhibited signs of being mere cars from time to time, such as in their fragile Roto-Flow Hydramatics, as used in the Catalina and Ventura. But who cared about that anyway, especially then, as long as it got everyone home again before sunrise on Sunday? The ’63 Pontiac lived in the era of the Big Crush, one that Americans passed around to certain designated beneficiaries, like the Beatles and the Mustang. The 1963 Pontiac was the last big car from Detroit that could capture the excitement of the whole spectrum of Americans; sixteen to sixty. Once the Mustang appeared, the market became increasingly fragmented, and the young and young at heart came to see big cars as old folk’s mobiles.
Like all emotions, the high of excitement is intrinsically ephemeral. We savored the ’63 Pontiac briefly, but remember the golden glow forever.