In the late 1950's, Pontiac introduced the Catalina. Due to its sporty appearance, powerful engine offerings, and affordable price, the vehicle was an instant success for the Pontiac Motors Division. When introduced, the name 'Catalina' meant it was a hardtop body style manufactured by Pontiac. In 1959 the name 'Catalina' became its own separate model and had its own line-up.
The Pontiac Catalina was a lightweight, fullsize vehicle outfitted with powerful engines offered in coupe and convertible form. Throughout its production lifespan, the mechanics and aesthetics varied. In the early 1960's the base engine was a 2-barrel 389 cubic-inch eight-cylinder engine that produced nearly 270 horsepower. The four-barrel version raised the rating to 333 horsepower while the three two-barrel version produced almost 350 horsepower. The Super Duty 'SD' 389 cubic-inch engine raised the performance to over 360 horsepower. With a Borg Warner four-speed or Hurst three-speed manual gearbox, the Pontiac Catalina was a serious machine. Depending on the configuration the Catalina was capable of going from zero-to-sixty in around eight seconds with the quarter-mile run accomplished in just over 15 seconds.
As early as 1961, Pontiac was offering a 421 cubic-inch engine intended for drag-strip performance runs. In 1962, to comply with NHRA rules, Pontiac made the Super Duty 421 available on the Catalina, albeit at a hefty price. Less than 180 examples were produced with the 421 option in 1962. Even with over 400 horsepower and heavy modifications to the engine and suspension, the Catalina was still a street-legal machine. Only the manual transaxles were offered since the automatic versions were incapable of handling the excessive power. With the 421 engine, the car could race from zero-to-sixty in around 5.2 seconds with a quarter mile time in the mid 13 seconds.
The styling the Catalina was updated for 1963 the most notable change was the stacked headlights. The base engine was the 389 V8 producing nearly 290 horsepower. A High Output 421 cubic-inch engine complete with triple Rochester two-barrel carburetors producing 370 horsepower joined the engine line-up. A limited production run of Catalina's were offered in 'Super Stock Lightweight' trim which featured aluminum used throughout the chassis, bumpers, and body. The vehicle had a 'Swiss-cheese' frame which menat holes had been drilled into the chassis rails, thus eliminating weight but also weaking the structure. This was not the first time this technique had been used. The 1928 Mercedes SSK, also referred to the 'Might Mercedes', employed the same technique in an attempt to stay competitive against the new Alfa Romeo models.
The Super Stock Catalina's weighed nearly 300 pounds less than a regular Catalina which resulted in a quarter-mile time of around 12 seconds. The Super Stock was only offered in 1963.
The restyling continued in 1964 with a 2+2 bodystyle joining the line-up. The purpose was to continue to offer a sporty, lightweight option on the Catalina model. With nearly 8000 examples produced in 1964, it was not a tremendous success when compared with the nearly 260,000 Catalina's produced, but it did give performance enthusiasts a viable performance option. For 1965 the chassis was lowered which helped give the Catalina a better center of gravity. The body was restyled which gave the Catalina an even sportier appearance. A Turbo Hydra-matic automatic transmission was introduced, replacing the Hydra-matic option.
Throughout the 1960's the Catalina continued its reputation as a performance car and a favorite among sports enthusiasts. The trend continued through the 1970's but its decline in sales was a result of Pontiac's higher costing, luxury automobile, the Bonneville. Due to the increasing government regulations and safety concerns of the early 1970's, the engines were detuned and the muscle car era of the 1960's came to a close. An oil embargo sent the public racing for fuel-efficient vehicles. These were a few of the other reasons for the decline in interest in the Catalina.
1981 was the final year for the Pontiac Catalina, a name that began in the early 1950's. The 1960's was by far its most illustrious year with hundred's of thousands of examples being produced each year throughout most of that era. The aftermarket parts were easily available, offered by the dealer, and greatly improved the performance.By Daniel Vaughan | Aug 2006