CC’s Best of 2023: Curbside Classic: 1975 Pontiac Catalina Limousine – Not All Limos Were Fancy

1975 Pontiac Catalina Armbruster Stageway Limousine right front

“What’s the point?”  If you mention the phrase “Pontiac limousine” to many people today, you’ll likely get that type of comment.  After all, a limousine was – as the New York Times once put it – “the archetypical symbol of success in America.”  So why make one out of an ordinary, thrifty sedan?  Since this rare limo is now spending its time promoting a coffee shop, perhaps a coffee analogy may be appropriate.  In fact, after taking these photos, I patronized this shop and ordered a regular coffee.  Why not a fancier product?  Because all I wanted was a good-tasting, hot, caffeinated drink – nothing more… both for practicality and cost reasons.  And that was the appeal of Pontiac limos.  If your company needed a comfortable nine-passenger vehicle, but you didn’t want to splurge for fancy extras, then a Pontiac was your best choice.

Most limousines weren’t produced as limos, but rather converted by independent coachbuilders.  This particular Pontiac was converted by Armbruster/Stageway, a firm with a long and interesting history of creating custom vehicles.  In fact, Armbruster’s history predates the automotive age.

1890 Armbruster & Kruel ad

The firm’s direct ancestry dates to 1887, when German native Adam Armbruster, then living in St. Charles, Missouri and working for a carriage shop, moved with a business partner 400 miles southwest to Fort Smith, Arkansas.  A settlement of 10,000 on the border of Indian Territory, Fort Smith had no carriage manufacturer at the time, so Armbruster and partner John Kruel found plenty of work.  Befitting a business in a fast-growing town with a somewhat rough reputation, Armbruster let it be known that he would make “anything from a baby buggy to an omnibus.”

1901 Armbruster & Kruel ad

Over the next several years, Armbruster & Kruel grew their business by both manufacturing and repairing carriages.  Adam Armbruster died in 1903 from a shop floor injury, at which point Kruel took over the business.

A decade later, in 1912, Adam’s son Alfred K. (Tom) Armbruster, along with two associates, formed Armbruster & Co., which focused on the then-burgeoning business of automobile repair.  It’s unclear whether these three men purchased Kruel’s business or formed their own, but regardless, they were soon established as the premier auto repair shop in western Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma.  Providing an indication of how quickly cars deteriorated in those days, a 1919 newspaper article noted that the firm had “a specialty of re-topping and ‘dolling up’ cars which are in good mechanical condition but show the vintage of 1915 or so.”  1915 was only four years in the past.

By the 1920s, the firm expanded its work into custom-built auto bodies.  Armbruster & Co. stretched cars into ambulances, funeral vehicles, and small buses, and their customer list included some unique clients.  In the late 1920s, the firm built a custom bus for “Singer’s Midget Band” – a group of traveling midget musicians.  The bus’s interior was built to a scale to fit the performers’ diminutive statures.  In 1928, Armbruster also made an early example of a motor home.  This business model – custom bodies as well as general auto body repair – continued for the next two decades.

By the 1950s, the firm found a niche – stretching vehicles into limousines or shuttles.  Instead of focusing on limousines for the very wealthy (though they did that work too), Armbruster’s main products involved stretching cars like Chryslers, Chevrolets or Pontiacs for clients such as hotels or tour operators that needed to carry more than a typical passenger car could manage.  In those days, limousine versions of suburbans and non-prestige cars were common, as many buyers simply needed the practicality of high passenger capacities without the flashiness of something like a Cadillac.

All American Red Heads Pontiac Limousine

In addition to businesses, athletes and entertainers were also among Armbruster’s regular customers.  Above is the All-American Red Heads women’s basketball team, who traveled in an Armbruster Pontiac wagon stretch.  Other notable customers over the years included Willie Nelson, Elvis Presley and Dean Martin.

Many Armbruster sales were handled by a Cincinnati company called Stageway Coaches, which began as a bus and coach sales division of Queen City Chevrolet, and eventually became Armbruster’s de facto distributor.  Stageway handled such a significant proportion of Armbruster’s corporate sales that the two firms merged in 1966, and the company became known as Armbruster/Stageway.

1970 Armbruster Stageway ad

And that brings us to the 1970s, by which time Armbruster/Stageway stretched over 500 vehicles annually at its Fort Smith facility.  Offerings included several lines of multi-door limousines marketed to companies, as well as some increasingly specialized luxury limos made to order for wealthy clients.  It’s the corporate limousines that we’re looking at today, and Armbruster made these in a variety of makes: Cadillacs, Chryslers, Buicks… and Pontiacs.  Pontiacs were the cheapest, hence the appeal.

1975 Pontiac Catalina Armbruster Stageway Limousine left front

Our featured limo started life as a Catalina, Pontiac’s entry-level full-size car.  Armbruster’s choice of a Catalina, rather than the plusher Bonneville or Grand Ville, is revealing.  Starting at around $4,000, Catalinas undercut their full-size Pontiac siblings by several hundred dollars, offering plainer trim and fewer accoutrements.  This car left GM’s Pontiac, Michigan factory with an unusual assortment of features for a base Catalina – equipped with the optional 455 cu. in. V-8, as well as air conditioning, power windows and a few other nicities.

Armbruster Stageway Production 1970s

Once at Armbruster/Stageway’s Arkansas facility, workers would cut cars in half, and then fabricate roofing and floor pan material, add the extra doors, drivetrain and brake components, complete the bodywork and add the extra interior appointments.  Armbruster/Stageway’s marketing vice president noted in a 1985 interview that “anybody with a two-car garage and a hacksaw can get in this business; the trick is staying in it.”  As a leader in its field since the 1950s, Armbruster clearly had the “staying in it” part figured out.

1975 Pontiac Catalina Armbruster Stageway Limousine right rear

The end result just about doubled the original Catalina’s price, with Armbruster’s nine-passenger Pontiac limos starting at around $8,000.  While costly (that’s Cadillac Fleetwood price territory), it was – as Armbruster/Stageway marketing materials made known – “priced thousands of dollars below any other limousine.”  And in the 1970s, for companies needing to transport groups of people in comfort, a limousine was one of the few available choices.

Armbruster specialized in multi-door limos – this one has six doors and seated nine.  The company also offered a twelve-passenger (8-door) version, in both sedan and wagon body styles.

1975 Pontiac Catalina Armbruster Stageway Limousine interior

Inside, we see a standard Catalina, with a cloth and Morrokide one-piece bench seat, the standard (well, “deluxe” in Pontiac lingo) un-padded steering wheel, and a scarcity of luxury upgrades.  From this angle, this looks like any one of the 90,000 Catalinas that rolled off Pontiac’s assembly line in 1975.  It’s one row back where things get interesting.

1975 Pontiac Catalina Armbruster Stageway Limousine interior

The car just keeps going.  Rear row #1 shows once again, standard Catalina decor, but obviously with a twist.  Instead of a rear window, passengers sitting here would have more people behind them.  Armbruster obviously ordered matching seats and doors to go with their limo conversions, and it all fit together in a way that seems perfectly natural.  The second row doors seem not to have operable windows, with the power window switch plugged.  Since Armbruster offered these cars with standard front and rear air conditioning, few people probably missed wind-in-hair motoring back here, and considering the door frame was custom-made for this car, a fixed window was much more practical.

1975 Pontiac Catalina Armbruster Stageway Limousine interior

Legroom looks plentiful way back in the third row, and these folks could roll their windows down.

1975 Pontiac Catalina Armbruster Stageway Limousine left rear

Pontiac’s 17.7 cu. ft. trunk was spacious, though a full load of passengers and luggage could get a bit cramped.  Users with extensive luggage needs often ordered the larger (12-passenger) wagon limousine, plus a roof rack.

1975 Pontiac Catalina Armbruster Stageway Limousine left side

In today’s automotive landscape full of chubby, tall vehicles, this one strikes the opposite profile.  With a silhouette more representative of river barges than anything on the road today, even without the coffee shop advertisement, this would be an eye-catching vehicle.  I have not read any accounts on how these limos drove, so we can leave that to our imagination.

1975 Pontiac Catalina Armbruster Stageway Limousine front

So just who purchased these types of vehicles in their day?  Armbruster/Stageway’s president noted in 1977 that about 20% of his firm’s production constituted private limos for executives or celebrities, 40% for funeral service, and 40% to other companies that shuttled people – mostly airports and hotels, but also schools, churches and businesses.  Celebrities usually opted for high trim levels and luxury makes – it was the shuttle and funeral businesses that gravitated towards lower-priced limousines like this Pontiac.

The limousine market, however, would change substantially in the coming decade meaning that limos like this frugal Pontiac would get increasingly rarer as the 1970s progressed.  By the 1980s, they all but disappeared.

Within a decade after our featured car was built, corporate clients such as hotels, who comprised the bulk of low-end limousine sales, shifted to passenger vans or shuttle vans instead, which were cheaper and could handle more combined passenger and luggage loads.

The limo market didn’t disappear though – it actually surged in the 1980s due to the increased popularity of for-hire livery services (where customers could rent a limousine for short periods).  Such services, however, emphasized luxury as part of their appeal, and generally favored Cadillacs or Lincolns.  The market for low-cost limos dried up quickly.

1975, in fact, was Armbruster/Stageway’s last year for marketing a Pontiac limo.  Buicks continued in their lineup for a while longer, but eventually, the submarket of “affordable” limousines faded into history.  It’s unclear how many of these cars were made, but their survival rate is very low – this is, in fact, the only one I ever recall seeing.

As for Armbruster-Stageway, the company continued to navigate the crests and troughs of the professional car market.  Although the firm has experienced several changes of ownership since our featured Pontiac was built, it is still an active participant in the field, particularly for the funeral services industry.

1975 Pontiac Catalina Armbruster Stageway Limousine right front

I’m glad I came across this limousine, since I find both the long history of Armbruster/Stageway, and the overall topic of non-luxury limos to be fascinating.  As I mentioned earlier, after photographing this rare survivor, I demonstrated that advertising with a rare car works, so I used the coffee shop drive-through for which this Pontiac now serves as signage.  And a regular coffee just seemed to go with the car.


Photographed in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin in July 2023.