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Car of the Week: 1964 Pontiac Catalina convertible

It might have been difficult restoring this beautiful '64 Catalina with seven kids and a one-stall garage, but the end result was more than worth it.
Car of the Week 2020
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Jon Morrison probably had a few more obstacles than most guys when he decided he wanted to buy and restore a hobby car more than 30 years ago. For starters, he had six kids (and another kid on the way, eventually), a busy full-time job, and no real place to do a restoration.

Oh, and he had never restored a car, either.

Somehow, all that didn’t scare off the resident of Deerfield, Wis. It took him a while, but he did just fine rescuing his beautiful 1964 Pontiac Catalina convertible.

“We had a one-car garage under our house on the east end of Madison,” recalls Morrison. “So I’d get into that garage and work on it whenever I could. We had six kids then and by time I got it done we had our seventh kid!... I’d come home, have dinner and get the kids through the evening, and go downstairs and stay under the car, under the hood, until 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning in the summertime. I did that for years.”

What Morrison did have on his side in those days, however, was that he knew Pontiacs, and he was in the car business. Both of those factors worked to his benefit as he tackled his first restoration.

Morrison's Poncho is all about floating down the highway with the top down.

Morrison's Poncho is all about floating down the highway with the top down.

“Pontiac’s in my blood. I had to have a Pontiac. I put the word out, and I was in the business. I was a parts manager at a Pontiac/GMC dealer for many years,” he says. “You just get to know people and get to know how to do things, and if you can’t you ask questions and you can get answers. Having an outlet on New Old Stock parts, being in the business, I could get a lot of stuff that was still available at other dealerships around the country."

It was his connections in the local car scene that helped Morrison find the convertible in the first place.

“There was a guy that heard my cry on the north side of Madison... He got this car as collateral from a buddy of his. His buddy wanted 500 bucks, so he gave this guy the car and the title. He put it in a barn in DeForest [Wis.] and a year and a half went by and the guy never gave him his money back. So, I had the word out, and I heard I could buy this car for $500. He said ‘I just want my money back and you can have the car. I was going to crush it into a tiny cube and then send a picture to the guy.’”

Morrison says he was looking for a true “fixer-upper” at the time — a car that he could rebuild almost from the ground up. The ragtop Catalina proved to be just the ticket, after he figured out how to get it home.

Red with black interior is always the right choice.

Red with black interior is always the right choice.

“Luckily, the guy had a tow truck,” Morrison remembered. “It had no brakes, no brake lines, no fuel tank; the tank was all full of holes in the trunk. It still had a gas bottle under the hood. The engine ran well, the transmission ran well, and the interior wasn’t all chopped up. It was in as good a shape as it could be in. Even though it was rusted and had holes in it, it was pretty solid and all matching. It had the Roto Hydromatic transmission, and that was cool. Everything was there, it just needed to be redone."

“We had to tow it to my house and had to put a tire down to stop it when we rolled it into the driveway! Then I pushed it into my garage and that was the start of everything.”

The Pontiac nameplate was first unveiled in 1951 and originally was applied only to hardtop body styles, but eventually became the moniker for the company’s popular lineup of base-level offerings. In 1959, the Catalina became its own line of the entry-level base models.

In the early 1960s, the Catalina established itself as a fixture of Pontiac menu, holding its own behind the top two sellers in the full-sized market, the Chevrolet Impala and Ford’s Galaxie 500, and ahead of other competitors like the Mercury Monterey, Dodge Custom 800 and the Chrysler Newport. Within GM’s own ranks, the Catalina generally upstaged models such as the Chevrolet Biscayne and the Buick LeSabre when it came to popularity in showrooms.

The 389-cid V-8 mated with the Roto Hydromatic transmission

The 389-cid V-8 mated with the Roto Hydromatic transmission

For 1964, the Catalinas joined the other Pontiac models in receiving new grilles and tail light designs. The lineup included a four-door sedan and four-door hardtop, two-door sedan and hardtop, two-door convertible, and six- and nine-passenger station wagons, all affordably priced between $2,806 and $3,311. The four-door sedan was the least-expensive and, not surprisingly, the best seller with 84,457 assemblies.

Propulsion came from the 389-cid V-8 that was rated at 235 hp with a manual transmission or 267 hp with the HydraMatic. All drank through two-barrel Rochester carburetors and were offered with a generous menu of options, including air conditioning, power brakes and seats, luggage carriers, tachometers, and Ventura trim on the hardtops and convertible. A four-speed manual transmission was also optional, as was Tri-Power, which bumped the output to an estimated 330 hp. For the go-fast crowd, there was also a Tri-Power 421 V-8 that came in 350- and 370-hp versions.

The ’64 Catalinas were about an inch longer than the ‘63s. Trim identification features seen on Catalinas included three-quarter length side moldings running from the front wheel opening back, Catalina front fender scripts and series medallions on the rear fender.

The convertibles carried a base price of $3,181 and weighed in at 3,825 lbs. Model year production was reported at 18,693 units. In all, Pontiac built 715,261 cars for the model year, which was good for a solid third-place showing behind Chevrolet and Ford. Catalinas soldiered on and remained a stalwart on GM sales charts through the decade, thanks to the public’s belief that the cars were a great bang-for-your-buck choice with styling that aged well and plenty of gusto under the hood.

THE PERFECT PONTIAC PROJECT

For Morrison, the ’64 Catalina ragtop turned out to be the ideal project car. He was a Pontiac loyalist to begin with, and the model’s popularity and longevity meant there were ample parts around to restore a car. And Morrison new how to get them.

“I would suspect probably two or three years went by with me just putzing with it in the summer time,” he says. “Then our dealership had a bodyshop and this guy named El from our bodyshop took it on for five summers. I’d take it over there on Thursday nights, and he’d replace any metal that needed to be redone. Of course, Pontiacs rusted around the wheel openings and fender doglegs and stuff. But he replaced whatever it needed, fixed the floor pans, reinforced the rockers … He had the vision to take it back to factory. We had the same vision.”

The pair decided to go with the same red paint color the car was born with and keep the black interior. 

“It was red and black originally, but the car was so faded out and had a purple fender on it,” Morrison said. “We actually took the deck lid and used that to get an exact match on the paint. We painted it in 2000, and it’s looked this way for the past 21 [plus] years.”

Aside from the paint and bodywork, and the convertible top, Morrison tackled most of the restoration himself. Among the tasks were re-doing the seat trim, dash pad and door panels. He was pleased to find a fresh set of eight-lug wheels in town, and found items like a gas tank, bumpers and grille parts from Vintage Auto in Mountain Home, Idaho.

Morrison added that he never pulled the engine. The original 389 has yet to get a full rebuild, even after 130,000 miles. 

“It’s always run well,” he says. “[A rebuild] is something that could be done in the future. We’ll see. I actually drove it when we were restoring it [laughs]. People thought I was crazy, but I had to get in it."

“It really is a smooth-running car. It has still got the Roto HydraMatic transmission in it, which is nice. A lot of people pull those out and put 350s in them. You can’t squeak the tires, but it is sure smooth going down the road, and it’s got plenty of pep for a two-barrel. There’s no A/C. It’s got power brakes, power steering, manual windows and door locks. It’s got the black interior with the bench seat. I didn’t have seat belts originally, but we put them in so we can haul kids in the back seat!”

Ironically, having so many kids actually wound up helping Morrison with the car. He ended up with more than a few helpful presents from his brood over the years when they were looking for Christmas, birthday and Father’s Day ideas.

“The fun thing about this thing is over the years when my wife’s parents were still alive, my mother-in -law would say, ‘OK, give me the list,’ and they’d get me whatever parts I needed for the car. The parts were my gifts. And then my kids have chipped in and helped me out. ‘Dad, what kind of parts do you want for your car? We’ll pay for it."

At this point, Morrison has had the car so long and it has provided so many good memories that he can’t envision ever selling it. Fittingly, he figures it will wind up with one of his kids. 

“This one is too close to the family to [ever sell]. It’s been with us too long,” he says. “I suppose some day when I die maybe the kids will fight over it.”

Morrison in the captain's seat looking to hit the road

Morrison in the captain's seat looking to hit the road

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