Car of the Week: 1959 Pontiac Catalina

Story and photos by Brian Earnest

Looking at it today, it’s hard to believe that Jeff Duranso’s beautiful 1959 Pontiac Catalina coupe was once viewed as a bit of a bargain-basement stripper. Dressed in stunning red with matching red rims, chrome-laden high-rise fins in back, a Tri-Power 389 under the hood and gorgeous red-and-white upholstery inside, the big hardtop is handsome from head to toe and seems equipped to hold its own in any crowd.

Times change, though, and what is someone’s trophy machine today may have been just another car back in the day — even for a teenager who apparently didn’t fully appreciate his lovely Catalina until much later in life.

“This car didn’t even come with what they called the décor package, that’s why it’s got the small caps and the blackwalls,” said Duranso, a resident of Wausau, Wis. “It was a very plain car. The [original owner] was 19 years old and he didn’t have a lot of money. He wanted a cheap car that was fast, that could go fast on the highway, and really cruise. And there weren’t a lot of choices at the time. This was the cheapest car out there that would cruise at the speeds he wanted and that he could still afford. This was the cheapest model Pontiac made. It was the smallest, lightest car they built and he put the biggest motor in it.

He said, ‘It was just a car when I bought it.’”

The original owner was looking for big car that could move and eat the open road in a hurry, and the Catalina certainly filled the bill. As Duranso found not long after he bought the car as a restoration project back in 1990, the tall-geared Tri-Power Catalina was a rare combination of size and straight-line speed.

“Yeah, it really drives nice,” he said. “The biggest problem with tall gear is that [the] Tri-Power doesn’t kick in until 75 mph. So, I have to slow it down and punch the gas just to keep the carburetors wet.”

As luck would have it, Duranso was able to find out a lot about his Pontiac’s early life when the original owner tracked him down and called him out of the blue back in the mid 1990s. By then, Duranso had facelifted the Catalina with paint and bodywork and carefully replaced the red-and-white interior, correctly restoring it back to factory-fresh condition.

“The original owner contacted me and we had an interesting discussion,” Duranso recalled. “He bought the car new when he was 19 years old in South Dakota. He was a construction worker. And the first thing I asked him, ‘That car is geared extremely high; why is it geared so tall?’ He said, ‘Well, I was a construction worker and we rode on highway systems in South Dakota and it would be hundreds of miles between job sites. There were no speed limits back then. Me and my crew would jump in that car and drive to that next job site,’ he said. ‘That car will go 125 miles an hour!’  I said, ‘I believe it will!’

“It’s got like a 2.70 gear in it. It’s a really high highway gear. So we chatted about it and he had it until 1968 and traded it in on a 1968 Chevy, and he lost track of it. We really don’t know a lot about what happened to it in between. He had tracked it down, he wanted to buy it back! I said I would sell it, but when I gave him a price he didn’t really want it that bad. We stayed in touch for a while, and I believe he’s passed on since then. It was very interesting to talk with him. We had long talks many times.

“It was his first new car, and he had fond memories of it, and even at that time he realized it was a pretty unusual car.”

The 1959 model year was a bit of a turning point for Catalina nameplate, which had been around since 1950 as the pillarless hardtop model in the Chieftain lineup. For ’59, The old Chieftain line was renamed, with Catalina becoming the new series name. Major styling changes for 1959 Pontiacs backed up the “Wide Track” theme, which included better-handling cars with lower, longer bodies; more interior room; a new twin grille theme; twin-fin rear fenders; ‘V’ contour hoods; more glass and flat, rear overhanging roofs on four-door Vista hardtops.

Standard equipment included directional signals; electric wipers; dual sun visors; dome lamps; cigarette lighter; dual headlamps; front and rear ashtrays; coat hooks; dual horns; tubeless tires; bumper jack; and wheel lug wrench.

Under the expansive hood is where the Catalinas separated themselves from much of the crowd. The 389-cid V-8 was rated at a more-than-respectable 245 hp with the basic two-barrel Rochester carburetor mated to manual transmission, and 280 hp with the Hydra-Matic. For just 81 greenbacks more, though, buyers could get Tri-Power and 315 horses. This Tri-Power 389 was the Catalina’s ace in the hole when it came to competition within its own GM family. The Chevrolet Impala, the only full-size two-door hardtop Chevrolet offered in the United States, could only counter with expensive fuel-injected 283-cid V-8s or its own triple-carbureted 348-cid V-8. However, Chevrolet still used the two-speed Powerglide, while the Catalinas employed a four-speed Hydra-Matic.  Similarly equipped Olds 88s or Buick LeSabres from the same General Motors family tree were both steps up the GM ladder from Catalinas, and both carried price tags roughly $200 higher than the entry-level Pontiac.

Over time, though, the 1959 Catalinas seem to have gotten their due. The fact that they turned out to be excellent race cars on both the national and small-time level certainly didn’t hurt their appeal. Pontiacs won some of the country’s biggest stock car races with Fireball Roberts behind the wheel. They turned out to be good cars for weekend warriors, too. “When I was restoring this car I had a gentleman walk in my shop and he looked at it and said, ‘You know, I used to short-track race in Iowa in the ’60s,’” Duranso said. “‘There were times in early ’60s, mid-60s, when the whole field was ’59 Pontiacs. These made fabulous race cars.’ I said, ‘That’s probably why you don’t see them around anymore.’”

Duranso’s Catalina was tired and showed 22,000 miles on the odometer — “I can only assume that was 122,000″ — when he bought the car from the Iola Old Car Show swap meet 21 years ago. He had been looking for a 1950s Pontiac to restore, and the Catalina seemed to have plenty of potential. “It was a nice car. It had most of its original paint on it, but the paint was baked right off,” he said. “It was originally a Mandalay Red car. It was unrestored, but it needed everything. I took the chrome off the body, straightened all the chrome, re-chromed everything, straightened the bumpers, of course painted the body. And we re-did the interior a few years later. It did run and drive when I got it, but the Tri-Power was off. So that was another project down the road.

“The motor ran good when I got it. We left the motor alone. We did some exhaust work. It wasn’t a body-off restoration, it was just a cosmetic restoration. The car was never completely apart. I never had the front end off it. It wasn’t really in that bad of shape, it was just a used-up car.”

Locating replacement parts for the Catalina was a huge challenge during the restoration process, Duranso added. He found bone yard ’59 Catalinas to be few and far between. Fortunately, he found a now-defunct Wisconsin parts and salvage business that supplied him with many of the trim pieces and hard-to-find items that he needed. “It didn’t need a lot, but it was dinged and dented all over,” he said. “It took a long time to find these moldings because they were from 1959 Pontiacs only. And not a lot of these cars got saved for some reason.”

Duranso has put a modest 7,500 miles on the Catalina since he’s owned it. He’s had a few all-afternoon road trips to the Twin Cities for the Back to the 50’s show and plenty of other car show appearances, too. When it comes to joyriding and Sunday drives, though, Duranso says he usually leaves the big hardtop at home. “We normally try to take it to car shows and to breakfast, but I don’t use it as a normal car. It’s not the car we jump in and go get ice cream with. First of all, it’s got no seat belts, so I’m a little nervous about the kids being in it,” he said. “And I spent a lot of money on that interior in ’95 to make that factory correct, and I’m just a little [protective]. The interior to me is really the big drawing point of this car, because it’s such a unique pattern. The car was off the road for several years while that was done.”

Duranso certainly doesn’t hide his affinity for Poncho products. He has a 1968 GTO at home “that I’ve had since I was in high school,” and he’s currently restoring a 1978 Grand Prix. Neither is as scarce as the eye-popping red Catalina coupe, however, and that’s one of the reasons Duranso is so attached to the car.

“This has been a fun car and you certainly don’t see a lot of them,” he noted. “It’s very seldom that I run across another ’59 Pontiac at a car show.”

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