Pontiac Catalina Generation 2

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Pontiac Catalina

Pontiac Catalina Gen 2

1961 - 1964
389ci / 421ci
3 spd man / 4 spd. auto
Top Speed:
Number Built:
4 star
Pontiac Catalina Gen 2
Reviewed by Unique Cars and Parts
Our Rating: 4


The 1961 full-sized Pontiacs were completely restyled with more squared-off bodylines, the reintroduction of the split grille first seen in 1959 and dropped for 1960 and an all-new Torque-Box perimeter frame with side rails replacing the "X" frame chassis used since 1958. The new frame not only provided greater side-impact protection than the "X" design but also improved interior roominess.

Rooflines were more squared off on four-door models with the six-window styling dropped on pillared sedans and wider C-pillars with flat rear windows on four-door hardtops. A revised version of the 1959-1960 "bubbletop" roof was used on two-door hardtops. Wrap-around windshields were dropped in favor of flatter glass work for improved entry and exit to the front seat.

The new body was somewhat smaller and lighter than the 1960 model with wheelbase down three inches (76 mm) to 119, overall length reduced by the same to 210 in (5,300 mm) and width dropping nearly two inches to 78.2 from 80 in (2,032.0 mm) 1960. The front and rear track of the '61-62 Pontiac was reduced to 62.5 in (1,590 mm) front and rear. The new 1961 Pontiac was advertised as "All Pontiac...On a New Wide Track."

All engines were again 389 cu in (6.4 litre) V8s as in previous years. Standard engines were two-barrel units rated at 215 hp (160 kW) with the three-speed manual transmission or 267 hp (199 kW) with the optional Hydramatic, with a 230 hp (170 kW) regular-fuel economy V8 offered as a no-cost option with the Hydramatic. Offered as extra-cost options were more powerful versions of the 389 including a 303 hp (226 kW) version with four-barrel carburetor or 318 hp (237 kW) Tri-Power option.

New to the option list were two higher performance versions of the 389, including a four-barrel 333 hp (248 kW) unit and a 348 hp (260 kW) Tri-Power option, both with higher 10.75:1 compression ratios. A 363 hp (271 kW) engine was offered to drag racers. Late in the '61 season the 421 cu in (6.9 litre) Super Duty was released for sale.

A new three-speed Roto Hydramatic automatic transmission replaced the previous four-speed unit for 1961. The new transmission was slimmer and lighter than the older four-speed Hydramatic, which was continued on the larger Star Chief and Bonneville models. Also new for 1961 was a four-speed manual transmission with Hurst floor shifter, available on special order. The 1962 Pontiacs received a heavy facelift of the 1961 design with more rounded body contours and new rooflines on two-door hardtops featuring convertible-like bows. Catalina sedans and coupes got a 1-inch (25 mm) wheelbase increase, after spending 1961 on a 119-inch (3,000 mm) length shared with full-sized Chevys (Safari wagons retained the 119-inch (3,000 mm) wheelbase through 1964).

Most regular engine/transmission offerings were carried over from 1961 with the 389 cu in (6.4 litre) Trophy V8, ranging in power ratings from 215 hp (160 kW) to 348 hp (260 kW). A small number of 1962 Catalinas and other Pontiacs were built with a "non-streetable" 421 cu in (6.9 litre) Super Duty V8 with two four-barrel carburetors and 405 hp (302 kW), as a US$2,250 option (when the base Catalina listed at US$2,725), along with various "over the counter" performance options offered by Pontiac including aluminum bumpers and even lighter frames with drilled holes (which were dubbed the "Swiss Cheese" frames).

For 1963, Catalinas and other full-sized Pontiacs featured cleaner, squared-off bodylines and vertical headlights flanking the split grille, but retained the same dimensions and basic bodyshell of 1961-62. Engine offerings were revised as the 333 hp (248 kW) and 348 hp (260 kW) versions of the 389 V8 were dropped in favor of "production" versions of the larger 421 cu in (6.9 litre) rated at 338 horsepower (252 kW) with four-barrel carburetor, 353 hp (263 kW) with Tri-Power, or a 370 hp (280 kW) "HO" with Tri-Power . The 405 hp (302 kW) Super Duty 421 was still offered to racing teams during the early portion of the model year but discontinued after General Motors ordered Pontiac (and Chevrolet) to "cease and desist" from factory-supported racing efforts in February 1963. New options for 1963 included a tilt steering wheel that could be adjusted to six different positions, AM/FM radio and cruise control.

The 1964 Catalina

By 1964 the Pontiac nameplate no longer stormed around Americas high-banked ovals with greats like Roberts, Foyt, Weatherly, or Goldsmith behind the wheel. But they did until early 1963, and they set some enviable records on stock circuits as well as drag strips. They were almost unbeatable in most forms of competition. By 1964 Pontiac still made and sold some very fast sheet metal for the person who demanded the utmost performance from their street machine. But it was also true that most of the ’64 Pontiac models were made for the family man. Fourteen models were offered in the '64 line-up, with seven in the bread-and-butter Catalina series on 120-inch wheelbases, two on the longer, 123-inch-wheelbase Star Chief, and four available in the Bonneville series. Pontiac's Grand Prix luxury personal car shared the 120-inch wheel-base with the Catalina.

Mild facelifting including new grilles and taillights highlighted the 1964 full-sized Pontiacs. Engine/transmission offerings were unchanged from 1963 except for a new GM-built Muncie four-speed manual replacing the Borg-Warner T-10 unit. Also new for 1964, was the 2+2 option package available on Catalina two-door hardtops and convertibles that included bucket seats, heavy-duty suspension and other performance equipment, along with the same selection of 389 cu in (6.4 litre) and 421 cu in (6.9 litre) V8s found in other Catalinas.

The Catalina was an ideal car for the average American family of five and their luggage for a cross-country trip, and whichever engine you opted for, it was suitable for taking the kids to school or a quick trip to the supermarket. Standard was the 389 inch V8 – and a popular option for the performance minded was the four-barrel carb that upped the standard 267 hp to 303 hp. Although the bench seats didn’t give as much support as buckets, the standard seats were comfortable enough. All four fenders could be easily seen, making close-quarter work fairly simple, thanks mainly to power steering. The Catalina’s soft boulevard ride was the sort normally associated with all-coil suspension. In normal driving, the car was comfortable and easy to control. Sharp dips caused the front end to bounce up and down as many as four times before it settled back to level again.

With its standard 2.56-to-1 rear axle, long-range cruising was the Catalina's forte. At a speed of 113 mph, the "389" would be turning only 4000 rpm and wouldn’t be straining. You could wind it out to around 120 mph. Acceleration was more than adequate for a 4100-pound car with power-robbing accessories. The Catalina could manage zero to 30, 45, and 60 mph in 3.7, 6.5, and 10.0 seconds respectively, turning the quarter in 17.2 seconds and hitting a top speed of 80 mph. The team of Hydra-Matic and the 2.56 rear axle wasn't ideal for top acceleration, since each shift dropped rpm by as much as 2500. Most road testers of the time did not believe this to be the ideal combination, because intermediate range didn't keep revs up, and low was too low for best response on corners in the 35-60-mph speed ranges.

For normal family use, this Catalina was a good choice, but when pushed hard, its soft suspension allowed more body lean than was ideal. There was pronounced understeer during fast cornering, even if you opted for higher-than-usual tyre pressures. The standard cast-iron-drum brakes would soon fade into nothingness under hard use. Panic stops from 30 and 60 mph measured 35 and 176 feet, but the brakes wouldn't complete even one stop from an honest 90 mph before they faded almost entirely. Once cooled down, they were adequate for normal driving. But this was the family Pontiac, built with the uses and needs of the normal driver in mind. Under standard driving conditions, it performed perfectly well and, as any past Pontiac owner will tell you – they were built to last and had a good reputation for built-in durability.

One interesting thing about Pontiacs from this time was the wide range of options offered on all series. You could choose performance, economy, or any level in between. At the top end was the Catalina "2 + 2" hardtop with a big 421-cubic-inch V-8 and fed by Tri-Power carburetion (three two-barrels) and the four-speed floor-shift transmission. This new option for 1964 ($290.52), "2 + 2" meant vinyl-covered bucket seats, special steering wheel, distinctive ornamentation, wheel discs, and a centre console. The car's performance package came to $410.17 for the H-0 (high-output) engine, plus $231.34 for the four-speed gearbox and $122.13 for Pontiac's excellent aluminium hub-and-drum brake assembly.

The car had one other important option. For the amazing price of $3.82, Pontiac offered a heavy-duty suspension package. This consisted of springs, shocks, and a thicker front anti-roll bar. The package changed a softly sprung car into one that clung to the road, didn't oscillate on dips, and didn't lean to an alarming degree in fast corners. In the USA these cars had a base price of $2869. The options outlined above brought the price to $4570.74. But it was worth the money – any performance oriented driver would have immediately noticed the stiffer ride, stiffer steering, and stiffer braking over the “soft” family version, making it more controllable and providing much more confidence when storming winding roads and fast corners. It had a sure-footed, taut feeling and impressive response. Fast, hard driving became a pleasure instead of a chore.

Although pedal pressures were much higher than those of the power-braked car, the optional brakes were much stronger. They gave stop after gruelling stop from as high as 120 mph without appreciable fade or lock-up and were always powerful and sure during fast mountain driving. Panic stops from 30 and 60 mph resulted in distances of 32 and 158 feet – a marked improvement over the standard brakes. Not only did the car handle well and have strong stoppers, it also went like a scalded cat when called upon to really move. There was always a tremendous surge of power whenever you cut in the other two carbs for instant passing (only the centre one was in use most of the time - until it was opened 60 per cent). You would feel only a slight pause, and then the horses came on strong. You could clock 0-70 and -80 mph in 8.6 and 11.4 seconds respectively, while the quarter-mile would come up in 15.8 seconds and 93 mph. The hot Catalina would climb right on up to an honest 120 mph with ease – and could continue on to 130 mph provided you had enough tarmac. The 3.42 rear axle gave a good balance of acceleration and high-speed cruising.

Pontiac pioneered the trend toward bucket seats back in 1957 with one of their special Bonneville convertibles. Eighteen per cent of all American cars had buckets in 1963, and 21 percent by 1964. They also introduced the trailer-towing package. Trailer options include a beefed-up frame, Heavy Duty springs and shocks, finned drums, and an extra frame cross-member for the hitch. A H-D battery and Delcotron, seven-blade clutch fan and shroud, plus special oil-pressure and temperature gauges were all parts of the trailer-towing and heavy-duty-driving package. Add to that an option list that took three days to read and you could turn the stock Catalina into one of the hottest cars then going in the USA.

Throughout most of the 1960s when Pontiac annually captured third place in industry sales, behind Chevrolet and Ford, the Catalina was also often the industry's third best-selling full-sized car behind the first-place Chevrolet Impala and second-place Ford Galaxie 500. The Catalina's success in the low-medium priced field led many competitors to respond with similar products such as the 1961 Chrysler Newport, a less-expensive Chrysler that was priced lower than base models bearing the Chrysler nameplate in recent previous years; and the 1962 Dodge Custom 880 and 1963 Mercury Monterey, both of which were introduced as full-fledged low-medium priced full-sized cars in size and power that followed unsuccessful efforts by Mercury and Dodge to bring out downsized full-sized cars.

In 1964, even Pontiac's mid-priced rivals within General Motors responded to the Catalina's success in the marketplace as well as to capture Chevy Impala owners "trading up" to cars from upscale GM divisions. Buick took its lowest-priced big car, the LeSabre, and lowered the base sticker price further by substituting a smaller 300 cu in (4.9 litre) V8 engine and two-speed automatic transmission from its intermediate-sized cars in place of the 401 cu in (6.6 litre) V8 and three-speed automatic used in other big Buicks. Oldsmobile went even further by creating a whole new full-sized series, the Jetstar 88, which was $75 lower than the Dynamic 88 series (but still a few dollars higher than comparable Pontiac Catalina models) and also got a smaller engine - a 330 cu in (5.4 litre) V8 and two-speed automatic transmission from the intermediate F-85/Cutlass line, along with smaller 9.5 in (240 mm) brake drums (also from the GM intermediates) compared to the 11–12 in (280–300 mm) drums still found on all other GM full-sized cars from the bare-bones six-cylinder Chevrolet Biscayne to the Cadillac 75 limousine.

And since the Catalina was still priced lower than the Jetstar and LeSabre, the lowest-priced full-sized Pontiac was often perceived by buyers as a better value in the marketplace due to its larger standard V8 engine and three-speed automatic transmission, and (in comparison to the Jetstar 88) bigger brakes.
Pontiac Catalina

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