Curbside Classic: 1963 Pontiac Catalina Safari – How To Experience The Wild Life

If we are not permitted outside until August of 2023 it will be OK – I surely have enough shots of cars caught at the Curbside in my nearly endless stash to last until then.  Like this one.

In the 1960’s there would have been few things duller than this Pontiac station wagon.  Pontiac was selling a lot of cars, so they were pretty common in the suburbs of mid-60’s America.  And who wanted a wagon?  That body style was the height of un-cool.  Everyone’s Mom had a station wagon, at least for awhile.  This one would have been the worst – it was even beige.

But a funny thing can happen in the ensuing decades.  The commonplace becomes rare.  I have not seen a 1963 Pontiac on the streets in ages, so how cool that when I did it was a wagon!

The first thing that hit me about this car was the color combo.  It is identical to the paint and interior shades of my grandma’s 1964 Catalina sedan.  I wasn’t really a big fan of the color – it was far less appealing to young me than the pink and white ’55 DeSoto it replaced.  Beige – how ordinary.

At least the car made up for its ordinariness on the inside with the copious chrome plating slathered all over the dash and the heater control that looked like a radio, with the little red bars that filled the central display as you cranked that knob around and around.

Gray-haired readers may remember these, along with the high beam indicator light shaped like the silhouette of Chief Pontiac’s head.  I later discovered that air conditioned cars upped the ante with blue bars that started coming down from the other end when you twisted the knob in the other direction.

Can we all agree that there was never a better name for a station wagon than “Safari”?  The names on most station wagons of the 60’s reminded you of every suburban housing development or shopping center built after 1956, seemingly named by use of a roulette wheel with words like Park, Green, Wood, Briar, Country, Town, Squire, Village, Brook and Lake.  “After you go past Country Wood and Green Brook Village, hang a right at the entrance for Briar Lake.  We’re the first tri-level on the left.”  But nobody ever lived in a subdivision called “Safari”.

Everyone knew what a Safari was.  It was that wild place where you could see elephants and lions and English men wearing khaki and pith helmets as they piloted Land Rovers through the tall brown grass of the veldt.  Safari said exotic like no other station wagon name.  Which is probably how that name hung around for so long on some decidedly not-exotic vehicles.

Like this one.  In 1963 at least, because it is certainly exotic now.  This particular Safari comes with some mysteries.  Such as why there is a scoop on the hood.  And why it sports a Chevrolet steering wheel instead of the translucent plastic number that so captivated me on Grandma’s ’64.  [Update – A prior owner of the car solved this mystery in the comments – the original steering wheel was toast when he got the car and this was used as a replacement.]

It is even air conditioned, or at least got that way after getting out into the world.  I thought Safaris were supposed to be hot?  I think most of them were back then on sunny August days everywhere south of Maine.  And what’s that back there?  Aftermarket rear a/c?  Or perhaps just a spare in case the unit up front goes out as you are sprinting away from a thundering herd of elephants?

Actually the hood scoop question was answered when I happened to find this car online when I was looking for some artwork to use.  The car has been re-powered with a 1969 Pontiac 400 cid V8 with “Ram Air heads” (according to the description found here.)  It should be able to outrun even the hungriest cheetah with that mill.

The engine is probably not as big of an upgrade as the Turbo Hydra-Matic 350 would be over the original Roto (“slim jim”) Hydra Matic.  There would be nothing worse than becoming hyena-chow after your transmission takes a dump on you at an inopportune time and place.

1963 Pontiac Dash with Chevy steering wheel

Photo from this car’s feature


The Chevy steering wheel is still a mystery.  Maybe it is just there for the leaping antelope in the center hub?

Even with the stock 389 V8 under the sun-baked hood, a safari would be a task for which this Safari was well suited.  A Trophy V8, according to Pontiac.  After all, what fun is a Safari without a trophy?  That big, meaty 389 was one good reason for the gnu car shopper to make a stop down the block from the Chevrolet dealer who was offering lots of similar wagons with a hundred fewer cubic measures of basic V8 firepower.  Jumping up to an Oldsmobile only gained an extra 5 cubic inches, so why bother?  Pontiac was indeed in a sweet spot during this era, as demonstrated by its surging sales.

What a great California-style of patina – perfect for a car also named after a sunny SoCal island.  Or perhaps the patina could also be African style.  Because it certainly isn’t the native midwestern variety, which results in brown watering holes in the lower body often big enough to contain a small crocodile or two.  Which would really stand out with this light paint Pontiac called Yuma Beige.  This was a really popular color, available for several years through multiple Divisions.  How fitting that Cadillac would call this Sudan Beige in 1967-68.  A Safari in Yuma is a poor substitute for one in Sudan.  But enough talk about Sudans, lets get back to this wagon.

And enough talk of exotic Africa, because we all know that these wagons were mainly used to shuttle the neighborhood kids to the movies or the bowling alley.  It is likely that the closest this Safari ever came to going on a real safari was a family trip to the zoo on a Sunday afternoon.

I suppose that there might have been a tiger in the gas tank, which would help everyone get to the drive-in for ice cream extra quickly.  Was zebra-stripe a flavor in the 60’s?.

Is Pontiac the only one that really managed to put a little hippo in the hips of this really square body which it shared with its B body siblings?    Pontiac sold a lot of these, a bit over 30,000 between the six and nine passenger versions – which was somewhere between 10-15% of Catalina production.

The Bonneville versions were rare to the point of being endangered, with a bit more than 5,100 built.  And what’s with all the ships in the brochure art?  It’s not like this was called the Pontiac Cruiser or Schooner or some other nautical thing.  It was called a Safari, so where are the giraffes?  At least the guy on the left brought some Camels.

Like all Safaris, this one must come to an end, at least on these pages.  Although I would have preferred this one without the hood scoop, I am really quite smitten with it.  No lion.


Further Reading

1957 Pontiac Chieftain Safari – J P Cavanaugh

1964 Pontiac Tempest Safari – J P Cavanaugh

1970 Pontiac Executive Safari – Perry Shoar