1959 PONTIAC Catalina- Gary Wichhart Print
Written by Double Dragon
Friday, 08 August 2014 10:50

1959 PONTIAC Catalina- Gary Wichhart


Writing and photography copyright D. S. Brown

Cars remain while we move through changes or momentous events. Life changes associated with a particular car imbues that car with more meaning than mere 'transportation'. This 1959 Pontiac Catalina has been tainted by tragedy, but for Gary Wichhart it also resonates back to earlier happy times.

59 catalina gary side

Gary has fond memories of double dating with the original owner of the Pontiac Catalina and was classmates with the son of the owner of the dealership where it was sold. The history of this car is intertwined with Gary's life.

In November, 1958 Gary was a high school student living on a farm in Keosauqua, Iowa near the big bend in the Des Moines River. Gary's neighbor Calvin Huff lived on a farm 4 miles away where his family raised sheep and corn beans. Calvin had saved his money. Calvin walked into Anderson Implement Company which was a Pontiac and John Deere franchise in Keosauqua, Iowa to buy a brand new car. See a story on Anderson's filed under IOWA in the DEALERSHIP section of this website.

Gary and Calvin both knew Ron Anderson from school. Ron's dad owned Anderson's Pontiac which must have made the buying experience a little easier for Calvin. Within minutes of the purchase the big news in town was out about Calvin's hot new Catalina.

Unknown to anyone at the time, the Catalina was also pretty rare. Gary states that only 12 'three on the tree' 2 door hard top Catalina's were built that year and to the best of his knowledge this is the only known surviving example. Calvin had a lot of power to shift through the awkward column mounted shifter. 1959 was the first year that Pontiac really turned their image around.

Division head Bunkie Knudsen had been pushing performance for a few years and scored a hit with the fuel injected Bonneville in 1957 but 1959 was the first year Pontiac sales really took off. In 1959 the Catalina was its own separate model. The name was first used by Pontiac to denote a hardtop version of the Chieftain in 1950. When the Bonneville specialty car started to gather momentum Pontiac reshuffled the names of their lineup. Bonneville was made the top model, and the former top dog Star Chief was demoted to second rank. Entry level Chieftain was replaced by the name Catalina.

The use of the name Catalina for an entire model was done to deliberately erase the old 'Chief' marketing which equated with old grannies and dependable cars. 1959 was the first year for 'Wide Track' and the split front grille. The big Pontiac 389 4 barrel was a significant step up from the biggest Chevy 348 engine. Calvin's 389 never leaked oil, gave no problems at all and even delivered 16 MPG on the highway.


59 catalina gary 389 driver side

Ar first glance the Catalina seems so huge that it's seemingly immovable bulk would overwhelm the 389. The Catalina rides on a 122 inch long wheelbase and stretches 213.7 inches long. Despite the size of this car, the shipping weight was only 3,900 pounds. The exceptionally light option load on Calvin's Cat enabled the 389 to move out pretty quickly.

The VIN 159Kxxxx decodes:

1= Catalina

59= 1959 model year

K= Kansas City, Kansas final assembly plant.

The final digits of the VIN are not shown here to protect owner privacy. The data plate fills in some more details:

Style 59- 2137= 1959 model year 2 door hardtop

Paint LC= L is Roman Red and C is Cameo Ivory

The Catalina is not an easy car to drive at low speeds. It lacks power steering or brakes. Precise shifts with a column mounted manual 3 speed are not achieved without care. The Catalina wasn't available with a floor shifted 3 or 4 speed until the 1960 model year so many owners learned to do their best with the tricky column shifter. At high speeds manual steering on Calvin's car is a welcome factor in controlling the car easily without steering wander.

The only option on Calvin's new Catalina was a radio. However some of the basic amenities present in this car were 'extras' and only available as options on many basic cars offered by the competition at this time period. The Catalina glovebox door has 2 slots which serve as cup holders when the door is opened and allowed to lay flat. 30 years before cupholders became a big deal in SUVs Pontiac had already done it and named it the 'snackbar'. The heater and defroster was standard in this car but often an option in others. The standard full carpeting was also an option in lesser cars of this era as were the Catalina's lights in the glove box and trunk.

59 catalina gary radio

The Wonderbar radio is an AM unit with tubes that take a few minutes to warm up before you get full sound. Once warm, the radio has enhanced sound via a rear speaker which was as close to stereo as you could get back in those days. One speaker was located in the front dash and the second one in the rear creating a 'sort of' stereo effect, but the actual set up was 'mono'. What you get is a doubling up of the same signals which does create a fuller sound than what you could expect from a single speaker.

59 catalina gary r speaker

The rear speaker is located in the middle of the rear package tray above the two tone rear seat. The radio played its AM soundtrack to the expected pattern of cruising and of course, girls. Calvin and Gary double dated in the Catalina taking the girls to local burger joints in Keosauqua. Gary's date from those idyllic days eventually lost patience with him when he wasn't ready to get married to her at an age that he felt was too young.

59 catalina gary nose

The front nose of the Catalina features the Pontiac signature design cue: the split grill. The grill endured decades of styling changes as a Pontiac trademark. 1959 was in many ways a big turning point for Pontiac. Aside from being the first year for the split grill it was also the first year of 'Wide Track'. When the wheels were moved out to the edges of the car in a styling exercise it was discovered that the handling was vastly improved. Pontiac launched a successful ad campaign built around the unique stance of the cars.

59 catalina gary front tire

Viewed up close the ornate styling appears massive but standing back from the car the well integrated lines create a sleek, wide low looking car. The full wheel covers on this car were not part of the factory equipment. The basic Catalina came with 'poverty caps'. The full wheel covers were part of the 'Decor Group' which also provided for metal trim on the pedals and a deluxe steering wheel.

59 catalina gary rear fin

This 1959 is a bit of a sneak peak at the coming 1960s motif: long, low and wide. Prior 1950s cars were quite tall and narrow when contrasted to 1960s models. The Wide Track was the final ingredient for making this bodystyle work so well. This 2 door hardtop was a 'sporty' style which combined with the big 389 ensured that Calvin would encounter challengers.

59 catalina gary dash

The interior is just as elaborate and ornate as the exterior. The flashy design distracts you from at first noticing that this is a bare bones, virtually no option car. Just a radio and that is the end of the story. Because of the dearth of optional equipment the Catalina was light and quick. After being repeatedly challenged by one of the locals in a 1956 Chevrolet convertible with a Corvette engine, Calvin announced,

"I'm getting tired of hearing about this. You take a friend and go as fast as you can."

Calvin did the same. The Catalina passed the Chevy in second gear. The Chevy had extra weight due to the convertible body while the Catalina is essentially a 'stripped' car and is quite light despite its imposing bulk. Royal Pontiac did quite well campaigning a 1959 Catalina on the NHRA dragstrips and it didn't have heater delete so it was probably within a few pounds of Calvin's car.

Gary recalls jumping hills in the Catalina. Old country roads with undulating hills provided take off points at the crest of each hill which the Catalina used for repeated launches. The Catalina easily exceeded 120 MPH with its highway gearing.

The Catalina was stable at 120+ MPH and never displayed the scary float so often encountered in 1950s and 1960s cars at high speeds. Part of the feeling of security is traceable to the manual steering while the rest of it may be attributed to the 'Wide Track'. However, it may be a matter of perception. Gary recalls later cars that floated on those same highways: a late 1960s GTX and GTO which both had wide tracks and heavy duty suspension. The GTO and GTX were scary at those speeds on the same roads. This was ten years after the Catalina days. Perhaps Gary's wisdom as an older person was kicking in and attuning him more closely to danger. But Gary is certain that was there just 'something' about the way that Catalina was set up that kept it flat on the road.

59 catalina gary heater

Note the jukebox style controls on the heater which is located to the left of the ignition. Way before the steering interlock at the close of the 1960s, Pontiac located the ignition key to the far left of the steering wheel where passengers would have no access to it.

59 catalina gary driver door panel

The door panel carries on the two tone paint theme with manual cranks for the vent and main window. Below a close up of the pedals indicates that there was very little wear on this car. The modern aftermarket grey mat keeps the replacement carpet clean.

59 catalina gary pedals

Calvin and Gary cruised and dated girls with the car until the U.S. government drafted them. Gary was the first to go in 1961 despite being 2 years younger than Calvin. Calvin was needed on the farm which delayed his entry into the service. Calvin was drafted a few months after Gary. Life changed for both of them. Suddenly they were far away from home living an entirely different lifestyle. The only link to the past carefree days came with leave when the boys continued to date local girls.

Calvin was stationed in Fort Stewart, Georgia which is 1,000 miles south east of Milton, Iowa. Milton is the largest city near to Keosauqua, Iowa. After a visit in Milton from his girlfriend Calvin received some shocking news. His girlfriend was pregnant. At this time and place in USA this was much more of a bombshell announcement than it would be nowadays. Calvin was home on leave in December, 1963 at his parents place sitting on the couch. Unable to face the shame he killed himself with a gun. Calvin was only 22 years old. The family was in shock and left Calvin's Catalina sitting for awhile.

Eventually life moves on and the family licensed the Catalina in 1964 to try to sell it. The car didn't sell. Since it was licensed it saw some use during the remainder of the 1960s. Essentially the car was too tragic a reminder for the family and it sat in storage.

Years later when the farm was sold and things were being cleared away Gary stepped forward to buy the Catalina. In 1982 when Gary took possession, the Catalina showed 70,000 miles on the odometer all of it logged during the 1950s and 1960s. Due to its limited use this was not the second time around the dial. Gary used a bulldozer to haul the non running Catalina off the farm.

When Gary pulled the car out of the farm all the glass, chrome trim, door seals and body panels were in great shape. The car sat under a tarp for quite some time awaiting restoration.

When Gary helped a friend Louis set up his new shop this kick started the process of revival for the Catalina. In return for Gary helping with the shop, Louis assisted with the restoration of the Catalina. The repaint in the original color was accomplished without the need for any patches. All the original panels were retained. Gary upgraded the car from the original poverty caps that it came from the factory with to the full wheelcovers. Gary found some appropriate looking new P225 75R14 tires that work fairly well with the car. The tubeless nylon 8.00x14 spare in the trunk is an original General brand tire from all those years ago.

59 catalina spare tire

The number 6 cylinder ring was frozen from sitting so long. If not for that the engine wouldn't have needed rings despite 70,000 miles of driving. Frequently back in the day of non detergent single weight oils an engine was due for a rebuild as early as 60,000 miles. The tough old 389 wasn't even close to needing attention. If not for the enforced inactivity it could have been left alone. The engine still uses the original crank and pistons in conjunction with a new cam.

The interior was somewhat rough from sitting for so long. Gary was able to save the original cloth in the seats but new vinyl was needed in the interior. The cardboard in the doorpanels had rolled up with moisture. Calvin's original speaker in the rear package tray was reconed. Gary has taken the Catalina to some car shows and enjoys cruising again in the car that he grew up in all those years ago. He hasn't forgotten the tragedy associated with the car, but he does prefer to remember the good times he and Calvin shared.

59 catalina gary calvins hat

Calvin's army hat sits on the driver's seat when the car is displayed at shows as a reminder of the years of carefree youth and as a tribute to the car's first owner. The Catalina presently has 75,368 original miles.

Last Updated ( Wednesday, 20 August 2014 20:55 )