Curbside Classic: 1964 Pontiac Tempest Custom Safari – In Defense Of The Barn Cat

About seven years ago I was a fresh, new CC contributor/editor and was athrill with the state of the world.  New and interesting curbside subjects were simply everywhere, and the only question was not if I would stop and photograph an unusual car, but for how long.  Time has gone by and I have become jaded into not stopping all that often any more.  And why would I need to when I still sit on a stash of cars that I have never gotten around to writing up.  Like this one.

I remember most of them.  Actually, I was reminded of this one when we re-ran a piece on a similar sedan.  I remembered exactly when I took the pictures, October of 2011 during a trip to Evansville, Indiana for a family wedding.  I remember the wedding, of course, but also remember that the trip turned into a Child’s Garden of Pontiac.  I have already written up three Pontiacs from that trip (here here and here), and this is the poor laggard that has sat and waited for so long for its turn at the electronic curbside.  Well little Safari, your patience shall not go unrewarded.

1964 was a big car-year in my extended family.  My parents bought a new Cutlass Holiday hardtop that year.  A few years later my Uncle Bob bought a used ’64 Galaxie 500 four door hardtop.  That same year (1967) my grandma bought a ’64 Pontiac Catalina sedan.  My best friend at the time had a ’64 Avanti that lived at his house and neighbors across the street drove a silver-blue ’64 Impala convertible.  You could say that 1964 was sort of my automotive home for several years, at least until 1972 kicked it from its perch.

I lived in a mostly GM-centered world then, and that world was mostly made up of Oldsmobiles and Pontiacs.  Chevrolet sold a lot of cars in those years but we were not Chevrolet kind of people.  Were we “too good” for Chevys?  I don’t know, but in that era it was not uncommon to “move up” if you could afford to and it seems that most of the folks in my clan were able to do just that, if only a little.

In fact, this Pontiac is interesting to me in the way it was so close but so distant from the flashy Cutlass my parents chose.  In the world I inhabited, 2 door hardtops were cool but wagons were dullsville.  My folks had ditched a wagon when the 61 F-85 hauler got traded for the Cutlass, and so now I guess we had joined the cool crowd.  Also, things like bucket seats, consoles and floor shifts were where it was at and we had them all.  Wagon buyers had to, of course, do without any of those things.  Because wagons were about utility and what damnfool needs bucket seats in a station wagon?

The mid 60s was also the heyday of colorful cars.  A golden era, if you will.  Our Cutlass was a beautiful, rich shade of dark metallic green – both in and out.  Being the top model there was plenty of brightwork that popped like crazy against that deep, dark paint finish.  But some colors were, well, popular for reasons I could never comprehend.  This “Saddle Bronze” was something I never understood.  Why, I wondered, did people feel the need to buy cars that were the color of dirt?  I later learned that dirt-colored cars have their benefits, but good looks was never one of them in my eyes.  A bigger mystery was why Pontiac felt the need to show both Tempest wagons in its brochure in this very (lack of) color.

And in their advertising.  The next big thing that turned out to be not the next big thing?  Whatever the reason, finding 1964 GM A body cars in this color is turning into one of my sub-specialties.  Saddle bronze (in and out) for those who care.  And for what it’s worth, Fitz & Van’s artwork  was nowhere to be seen when it came to selling the Tempest in ’64.  Tempest advertising was all about seeing the cars in the scenes of everyday life with everyday people.  Or the best looking versions of everyday people, but whatever.

But where my folks were seeking a little sizzle and status, someone elsewhere went into a local Pontiac dealer for pure practicality.  And came out with a pretty good car.  A 2 bbl Pontiac 326 may not have had the flash of our “Ultra High Compression” 4 bbl Rocket 330, but then the owner probably saved a good bit of coin by getting to repeat over and over “Fill ‘er up with Reg’lur”.  Although the lack of a front fender callout may indicate that this one came with the base six instead.  At least it was a Pontiac built 215 cubic inch version of the smooth Chevrolet six and not the unpleasant “paint shaker” V6 that powered the skinflint versions of Olds and Buick’s versions of this car.

And GM may have been late to the world of three-gear automatics in this class of car, but its oodles of customers never seemed to care.  Sure, you could get a Torqueflite or a Cruise-O-Matic but then you would have to settle for a Ford, or even worse, something from Chrysler.  “Ferkryinoutloud, why would ya do that?  My cousin Vern bought one.  Nuthin’ but trouble.”  Nope, the two speed automatic behind that 2 bbl V8 was all anyone needed.  “GM builds the best cars, they would never sell us anything that wasn’t good.”  Folks would eventually learn the fallacy in that logic, but real-life experience in 1964 made that a not-unreasonable proposition.

Oldsmobile and Buick buyers could get a long wheelbase “Vista” wagon which would be the cool way to tote the kids around.  But the buyer of this Tempest Safari needed no such nonsense.  “If the kids don’t want to ride in it, then that’s jest too bad.”  “And we have a perfectly good Japanese transistor radio to sit up on the dash if you really need to listen to something.”

I thought about writing this car up as some kind of spoof on a bad Craigslist ad with a dense and dishonest seller hawking this as a GTO wagon.  But I decided that I respect this car too much to make it the butt of a joke.  This was the kind of good, honest car that everyday, ordinary folks trusted to take them and their families where they needed to go.  But it doesn’t look like this one has done that kind of work for a very long time.  And don’t bother to call the dealer, as I said up front these pictures were taken in 2011.

Pontiac’s advertising for the GTO likened that car to a tiger, a theme they developed over several years.  And what a great image it was.  But tigers are not for practical people.  I started to think about this car as more of a housecat, but that analogy didn’t work for me.  First off, I am not a cat person.  Which may be why I don’t see housecats as all that useful for anything besides shooing away company.  It is the rural midwestern idea of the barn cat that finally hit me.  Barn cats live outside and are rarely seen around the house.  Their job is to feast on the mice that like to feast on the feed for the other animals.  The barn cat is not really a pet so much as it is a working member of the farm family.  Where the GTO was a tiger, the Tempest wagon was all barn cat.  That this particular one looks to have been hauled out of a barn makes the comparison even better.  It’s even the color of a lot of barn cats I have seen.

It is easy to take these cars for granted these days as just another in the great sea of dirt-colored middle-sized cars that roamed the earth in that pre-Camryan era.  But the 1964 A body cars from The General really were a segment-buster.  Think about it, this segment really didn’t exist at all as late as 1961, at least in any meaningful way.  Sure, Rambler and Studebaker were bumbling into a size that was neither this nor that, neither compact nor full sized.  Ford picked up on that and brought out the 1962 Fairlane, but it had the bones of the smaller Falcon and seemed not all that much unlike one, despite its slightly larger dimensions.  Chrysler made a bad move in making their big 1962 cars too small and would sort of turn that one into an “intermediate” as the segment would be called then, though it was really an intermediate in the way that the kid who failed 4th grade a couple of times became the biggest 4th grader in the history of the school.

General Motors designed these with a 115 inch wheelbase to slot neatly between the Chevy II and the big B body cars and suddenly found themselves setting the standard for the segment.  That these A body cars from GM would not really see any significant competition in sales until the 1972 Gran Torino tells us all we need to know.

I can only imagine the poor kid who went with his parents to the Pontiac dealer in 1964.  There would undoubtedly have been a hot GTO on the showroom floor, along with a big Bonneville or Grand Prix.  To ride home in this instead must have been a difficult ride home indeed.  “We just bought a brand new car and you’re complainin’ about it?  Didn’t see you offerin’ ta pay fer it back there.”  And the parents would have been right, of course.  Paul Niedermeyer has written about his early attempts to steer his father towards a Pontiac dealership.  It no doubt eases his disappointment to realize that he would surely have ridden home in something more like this than in one of the popular cars with which he was smitten.  I think that the gulf between a Fairlane and a Galaxie in 1962 was not so large as that between a Bonneville or GTO and one of these.

These Tempest wagons did not turn out to be the big sellers one might imagine, though.  Although Pontiac moved over 120,000 Tempests that year, (plus another 80,000 LeMans and 32,000 GTOs) neither the six or V8 version of the Tempest Custom wagon made it out of the mid four digits.  In fact, Tempest Custom Safaris numbered only about twice as many as Studebaker V8 Wagonaires in 1964.  Compare this with the over 33,000 Catalina wagons that drove out of dealers and you can see that Pontiac wagon buyers valued that extra room and luxury.  I guess there are only so many people who really need a barn cat.

So in addition to a car that was both attractive and competent, we can add that it has some degree of rarity too.  And so this concludes my Great Pontiac Dig of 2011.  I think we can say that this car has traveled quite a distance.  From one of the most boring new car purchases of 1964 to a respected and rarely seen elder here at CC.  The Tiger is the Pontiac that normally gets all the love at the car shows as people of all ages oooh and ahhh over every GTO in attendance.  But barn cats deserve a little recognition too.



Further Reading:

1964 Pontiac Tempest Custom – You Bet It Hauls (Jason Shafer)

1964 Buick Special – Nothing Special (J P Cavanaugh)

1965 Pontiac LeMans – The BMW 3 Series Of Its Day (Paul Niedermeyer)

1965 Pontiac GTO – How To Create A Legend And Build A Brand (Paul Niedermeyer)