Curbside Classic: 1968 Pontiac Catalina – Let’s Go Wide-Tracking

(first posted 9/23/2011)   When I was growing up, there were more Oldsmobiles in my extended family than anything else.  But if we go to second place, it would have to be Pontiac.  And truthfully, the Pontiacs were my favorites out of all of the General Motors cars from the 1960s.  And what do you know – one of them found me a few weeks ago.

Pontiac must have been an exciting place in the 1960s.  In the early 1950s, the Division was a struggling also-ran maker of cars for conservative old folks who wore hats and suspenders.  There had even been rumors that the unit was in danger of being dropped by GM upper management.  But in a familiar story, fresh blood came on the scene, and Pontiac became the most happening motor division within the General Motors family.

When Semon E. (Bunkie) Knudsen took over the job of running Pontiac in the mid 1950s, the place was pretty ossified.  But Knudsen, along with his new Chief Engineer Elliot (Pete) Estes, decided that youth and performance were a demographic that nobody else within GM was adequately serving. A young  man by the name of John Z. DeLorean hired into the Division’s engineering staff from Packard about this time as well.  Those three men would take turns running the Pontiac Motor Division through the late 60s, with leadership handoffs as smooth as any championship relay ream.

The new 1955 V8 engine and the 1957 Bonneville got things started.  Then came the Wide Track, the LeMans, the GTO.  It was one win after another, and soon, Pontiac was the third-best selling brand in America, behind Chevrolet and Ford.

But as important as the sports and performance models were to Pontiac’s image, you don’t get to number 3 by selling GTOs.  In the mid 1960s, the volume market was still the standard sized sedan, and Pontiac sold a series of them that were both pretty and pretty good.

It is hard to comprehend in this age of badge engineering and trim jobs, but in the 1960s, there was a huge difference between a Chevrolet and a Pontiac.  The cars used different engines, different transmissions, and looked nothing alike anywhere the owner could see or touch.

In its exterior styling, the big Pontiac had an almost unbroken run of really attractive cars, even in the workaday Catalina series.  We recently discussed the demotion of cars named after exciting and exotic faraway places like the Mercury Monterey (CC here).  Well, the Catalina was another place-name that eventually settled into its slot as the lowest priced big Pontiac.  But unlike over at Mercury, Pontiac did all it could to keep a little magic in the Catalina.

By 1968, medium priced big cars were starting to trend towards luxury and an older demographic, but the Pontiac Catalina still maintained a little more dash and flair than was usually found in the segment.

Pontiac had some uncommonly talented stylists in those years, and this shows up in this Catalina.  The car has a flow to its lines that make it appear longer, lower and wider than any contemporary Mercury or Dodge.  The car certainly looks longer than its 122 inch wheelbase would suggest.  Is there a bad line on this car anywhere?  OK, maybe the nose treatment was a little over the top, but isn’t it is a testament to the designers that they could incorporate that Edsel-like nose and bring it off even this well?

Did you know (or remember) that the ’67 big Pontiac was the first in the industry to bring us concealed windshield wipers?  As nice as they look, those of us who live around falling leaves and snow were never crazy about them and were happy to see them go away.

Inside, the little touches continued.  The translucent plastic steering wheel, the unique heater controls that mimicked the radio, and other little touches made sure that you knew that you were in a Pontiac.  And who can forget the little red profile cameo of Chief Pontiac in the speedometer that illuminated with your high beams?  Truthfully, that may have been my favorite part of the cars when I was a kid.

For those who were fans of the 389 and 421 Pontiac V8s, the 1967 models brought us the 400 and the 428 to replace them.  Also, even in 1968, Pontiac would provide the Catalina buyer with an unusually wide choice of transmissions and axle ratios.  In addition to the Turbo Hydramatic (with either a column or floor shifter) you could get a 3 speed (with column or floor shifting) or two different 4 speeds (regular and close ratio), some with Hurst linkages.  You could also choose from as many as ten axle ratios in your big chief, ranging from a librarian’s 2:29 to a pavement-rippling 4:11.  You can see that the Pontiac boys catered to the performance crowd like nobody else at GM.

You all know by now that I am a fan of big American convertibles from the 1960s.  In 1968, Pontiac offered quite a selection of them, in the high end Bonneville, midrange Ventura, or base level Catalina lines.  But is there anywhere on this Catalina that makes it look like a budget version?  This car, like most Pontiacs of the era, were seductive even in their lower trim levels.  I would argue that this is one of John DeLorean’s legacies from his Pontiac years – he was one of the few GM Divisional heads who had that sixth sense of the sweet spots in the market and what kind of car would hit them.

Paul Niedermeyer has written about Pontiac’s wonderful advertising by Fitzpatrick and Kaufman (here).  The duo was still at work selling the big cars in 1968.  Look at these vintage ads, and tell me – who would not want one of these cars?  Good cars and good advertising don’t always come together, but they did at Pontiac in the 1960s, letting us know that the Wide-Track Pontiac was still alive and well.

To me, 1968 marks the last year of the U.S. car industry as a whole when the person who liked his cars with full size and full performance still had a wide selection to choose from.  By 1969, the broughamification of the big cars was well underway, and those of us who liked some sport with their size would find their choices dwindling, even at Pontiac.  I have written here before that my Grandmother’s ’69 Catalina was about as exciting as a day-old pizza.  Many of the little touches that had made Pontiacs so endearing to me were gone by then, and the car was generic GM.  Thankfully, the Chief Pontiac high beam light remained, or the car could have been a total washout.  So, this ’68 is the last of the big Pontiacs that really floats my boat.

Here in the midwest, we are entering into maybe the best season to own a convertible.  The days are still warm enough in September to get out with the top down, and that is just what the owner of this car was doing when he pulled into the supermarket for some groceries.  What a great life – do you need a loaf of bread?  Hop in the big red Catalina, drop the top and cruise on down to the grocery.

I saw the car pull into the lot as I was walking out of the store.  By the time I put my bags into my car and found the big red Pontiac, the owner had already gotten away.   I did chat with a store employee on his break who put a little damper on my day by telling me that I had missed a four-door Lincoln convertible that was there a little earlier that morning.  Top down, too.  Drat.  But for a consolation prize, I could have done a lot worse than this big Poncho.