By on November 2, 2010

The 1963 Pontiac was the very crest of the wave that swept the Excitement brand to glorious heights in the sixties. The upwelling first appeared out of seemingly nowhere in 1959. It continued to build momentum, year by year, but no one could have imagined how high it would peak in 1963. Anyone alive between the ages of five and eighty-five at the time remembers it well: the Pontiac waves seized the land, and one after another followed the ’63 until it died down again. The choice was to surf it, or be inundated. The latter mainly applied to the competition.

For the designers in the competition’s studios, the ’63 Pontiac was a deadly tsunami that washed up their handiwork on the beach like flotsam and jetsam. They all scurried to higher ground to redesign their cars in the Pontiac’s image, but killer waves can’t be created by so easily. It takes a seismic shift, and Pontiac somehow set one off.

Admittedly, the ’63 Pontiac wasn’t the most radically new car that GM’s divisions had to offer that year. The 1963 Buick Riviera and Corvette Sting Ray pushed the envelope further, but these were halo cars: a ’63 LeSabre or Impala had nothing in common with them. But at Pontiac, it was a different story.

Pontiac’s own 1963 halo car was the exquisite Grand Prix, and it’s all too apparent that the GP and lowest level Catalina share more than good intentions. There’s much more in common than not, right down to many of the details of that superbly handsome new face, the first to use the Pontiac trademark stacked headlights. That was the genius of Pontiac: for the price of a Chevy Impala, Ford Galaxie or Dodge 880, you could have a four door Grand Prix. Brilliant.

As is all too obvious, those bland alternative choices couldn’t touch the Pontiac’s deeply sculpted and original front end, never mind the rest of its handsome details. The ’63 Catalina exuded a poised confidence and sophistication that belied its price, which was exactly $100 more than a comparable Impala. What a deal, considering what else that one Ben Franklin bought: an additional one hundred cubic inches (389 vs 283), an inch longer wheelbase, and a million dollars’ worth of looks from the girls.

I know this from personal experience, despite being only ten at the time. My teachers were a couple of high school hot rodders across the street, who had a friend with access to a navy blue ’63 Pontiac rag top. When Saturday night came around, their perpetually half-finished greasy flat head Fords were abandoned for a good scrub and a night out in the Poncho. And I saw the results of their trolling when they drove by a few hours later packed to the gunwales with cheerleaders. The ’63 Pontiac was the consummate chick magnet; even a sedan would do in a pinch.

Although a four door hardtop like this improved the odds over the sedan still. God, what would I have given for my old man to come home with this instead of a stupid Fairlane. And for a measly $500 more, he could have. All right, that’s $3500 bucks in today’s money, but sheesh, just think how far that investment would have gone toward his children’s self esteem.

So who gets credit for the Pontiac’s million bucks/one hundred dollar face? One Jack Humbert, who joined Pontiac in 1959 and was in his mid-thirties. It’s hard to fake a youthful face, or know what will appeal to the younger set. Whatever it was, Jack had the magic. And he successfully transferred it to the mid-sized Tempest/LeMans in 1965, giving honest hard-working young Americans an even more cost-effective tool in the pursuit of their preferred sex.

That $100 premium over a Chevy also bought you genuine Morrokide, Pontiac’s trademarked and patented genetically modified vinyl upholstery that exuded irresistible male pheromones as well as resisted staining from…whatever. God forbid your parents got a sedan with the cloth upholstery; you were screwed doubly. This owner is carefully protecting his aging Morrokide for when he really needs it. A wise decision; the secret formula was lost long ago.

Or maybe it just petered out somewhere around 1970, by which time Pontiac had obviously lost its mojo. The big Pontiacs got increasingly flabby after 1965, and quickly lost their sex appeal. That got passed on to the junior Ponchos, and finally to the beaked and winged ’69 Grand Prix, which gave the ’63 GP a run for the money.

Let’s take another look at the ’63 and lose our objectivity in its seductive details. It isn’t just the brilliant front end that made it a classic. It’s imitators learned that to their peril. There was also that subtle but not insignificant bulging at the hips, both vertically and horizontally.

That first appeared in more vestigial form on the ’61s (above), a feature that set them apart and above from the rest of the GM brood. By 1963, the swelling was a bit more pronounced, and lent the Pontiac a dynamic quality that was utterly absent in the ruler-straight lines of almost every other car of the era.

It was a prescient feature, and one that GM would embrace with a passion in 1965: big hips were the Big New Thing. It had the unfortunate affect of making the big ’65 Pontiacs that much less unique, and contributed to their relative decline. All true new things must pass, but am I glad this particularly ’63 Catalina showed up one day, seemingly out of nowhere.

By 1965, the streetcape had changed in other ways too. After the ’63 Pontiacs appeared, the competition’s designers rushed back to their drawing tables and crumpled up whatever they had been working on for 1965 and started over – with one mental picture hovering in their imitative minds. The results were predictable, and most blatant with the ’65 Plymouth (top) and big Fords (bottom). Certain charms they may have (for some), but they failed to capture the poise, dynamism and elegance of their inspiration.

Pontiac rode its waves to ever increasing industry heights. After capturing the #5 sales position in 1959, it took number 4 in ’61, and the bronze in ’62. Sales continued to swell, reaching a heft one million in 1968.

Pontiacs exhibited signs of being mere cars from time to time, such as in their fragile Roto-Flow Hydramatics. But who cared about that anyway, especially then, as long as it got everyone home again before sunrise on Sunday? The ’63 Pontiac lived in the era of the Big Crush, one that Americans passed around to certain designated beneficiaries, like the Beatles and the Mustang. Like all emotions, the high of Excitement is intrinsically ephemeral. We savor it while we have it, remember the golden glow fondly, but let’s not speak ill of the vehicles of choice that got us there.

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51 Comments on “Curbside Classic: 1963 Pontiac Catalina – The Sexiest Big Car Of Its Time...”

  • avatar

    I understand that there is more to the ’63 Pontiac’s styling than just the vertical headlights but that feature appeared some 6 years earlier on the ’57 Nash.  (And it’s interesting that Nash would try something new and daring on what it knew would be its last hurrah.)
    Still, nice piece on the ’63 Pontiac.

  • avatar

    Wow, such a beautiful car.  I remember very well when these came out; I was too young to drive at the time.  Pontiac was really on a roll starting with the ’59s and basically continuing into the ’69 model year.  Glory days for sure.

  • avatar

    An upward-striving young couple, friends of ours, bought a new 1963 Catalina exactly like that one, right down to the dark blue color. Their marriage didn’t last and the Pontiac was gone soon after. The one shown is a remarkably straight and apparently rust-free example that still has its original license plates from new, clearly a long-time Oregonian.
    That little bulge at the hips became completely crazy on the 1965-1967 Pontiacs, and while it spread to quite a few other makes and models, plenty of others left it alone.

  • avatar

    Nice story on the Poncho. I still remember all the legendary stories of “swiss cheese” Catalina’s decked out with 421 cu in tri power motors tearin up the track.

  • avatar

    “…Pontiac’s trademarked and patented genetically modified vinyl upholstery that exuded irresistible male pheromones as well as resisted staining from…whatever.” Haha

  • avatar

    Mid 1970’s my neighbor had not one, but two of these beauties.  Like the CC they were mere 4 door HT’s but I was quite taken by their imposing size, yet they didn’t look ponderous at all.  Don’t know what they were like to drive, I was only 10.
    I still appreciate a great set of hips..  Oh, the car looks good too, nice choice.

  • avatar

    In my opinion the 1963 Ford fastback was the styling leader in the full sized catagory.  It was “go-fast” just sitting.  (I would suggest your picture selections of the Fords was stacking the deck)  

    The full size fast-backed Fords look and NASCAR wins took the shine off Pontiac in 63.  
    Win on Sunday, sell on Monday was all Ford in 1963.   

    That said, we all know that Pontiac grabbed the spotlight in 1964 as the GTO rang in the new musclecar era.      

    • 0 avatar

      I like the 1963 Ford “slantback” models, but there is no denying that Ford, Plymouth and Dodge spent the next few years chasing Pontiac when it came to styling.

      I still like the 1965 Ford, but someone once called it the box the 1963 Pontiac came in, which is accurate.

  • avatar

    Wow, does that bring back memories.  My best friend in college had a black 4 door version when we were in college (late 70’s).  It was the ultimate make out car, even though it was a 15 year old rust bucket.  Of course, the trans wouldn’t always engage and we had to push start it many times but that was part of the charm.  Good times…

  • avatar

    Growing up, we had a neighbor who had the two door Bonneville version of this car. He was a tall, dark good looking guy, with a good job at the Westinghouse plant, very pretty wife, the nicest house on the block and a 5-window 32 Ford with a 283 Chevy stuffed away in the garage. When I was a boy, I wanted to be like him.
    That Bonnie had the real Pontiac ‘pirate’ attitude, painted a gold that wasn’t that far away from the orange that was used on Pontiac models in the mid-2000’s; eight lug wheels, and a pair of glass pack mufflers. He would occasionally take me along with his nieces and nephews to the ice cream stand down the road (you could fit about 15 six-year old kids in that thing), sometimes if it was just the boys, he’d open that thing up; the sound and acceleration left an indelible imprint in my brain.
    To this day, when I see one of those Pontiacs, I’m immediately reminded of my old neighbor. Too cool.

  • avatar

    My favorite Pontiac is the ’62 Grand Prix!

  • avatar

    In about 1967, my grandma traded her 55 DeSoto in on a used 64 Catalina sedan.  I really liked that 64, but it was not as good looking as the 63.  Unfortunately, Grandma’s was a tan sedan, but even a Catalina sedan had a lot of personality.  The clear plastic sections of steering wheel and the high beam indicator shaped like the indian chief’s head.  Also, the heater control that looked like a second radio.  Turn the right side knob and the red ribbon went farther across the face of the display.  On air conditioned cars, turn it the other way and the ribbon becomes blue from right to left.

    I never owned one of these, but thought that Pontiac had avoided the troublesome Roto-Hydramatic that plagued Oldsmobiles, sticking instead with the older Hydra Matic from the late 50s.  But I will defer here to others who know these cars better.

    This is the sadnes about GM.  Back when the car divisions were really separate divisions, you could get a brash young division head like John DeLorean who could build a culture of youth and excitement with unique products within the larger company.  Unfortunately, but the time he was moved to Chevrolet in the late 60s, GM was well on the way towards centralization which would eventually result in the divisions becoming nothing more than marketing entities.

  • avatar

    My aunt had a  black 63′ Catalina 4 door hardtop just like the one in this feature. I remember staring at it in the driveway. I love the dash. Great car, thanks for the feature brings back good memories!

  • avatar

    Thanks for the time traveling article, Paul …..

    We had a ’63 Bonneville 4 dr. hardtop with the 389 (303hp), duals, and 8 lug wheels.  All done up in saddle bronze metallic.  I learned how to drive in that car, and loved every minute of it.  The thing that always made me laugh was the 4 speed Super Hydra-Matic that when floored, shifted out of first gear at around 15 mph with the engine just screaming.  When we replaced the tires in about ’66, I asked my Dad if we could put red line tires on it.  He gave me a funny look, but when he saw how really nice they looked with the bronze exterior, he went for them!!  Even went with heavy duty Monroe shocks at all four corners.  It drove a bunch better, but my Mom was upset because the ride felt just a bit to firm for her. 

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      Your Dad was a whole lot cooler than mine!!

    • 0 avatar

      yeah…. no kidding.
      Sounds like your Dad was quite the piece of work- 

      PN, you’ve included a ’65 PLymouth Fury here that hits close to home. When we got to this county in 1972 (similar deal as yourself) Dad purchased a 1966 Plymouth VIP off a co-worker. Man… that car is my youth, three biggest things I remember from that car: the extremely comfy cloth seats, the shag carpet remnant someone put on the rear window area and the most awesome reading lights on either side of the rear bench.
      I’ve never seen one since. That car gave us 8 years of brillant service and while I’d never imagined it then, I find myself really missing these days as Dad and Mom are retired and slowing down in front of my very eyes. :(

  • avatar

    I had one…a convertible.
    I think it was this year, but cannot remember that long ago.
    It was awesome until a drunk rear ended it on the side of the road where it was parked.

    Look at the 63, however!
    Is there any way possible today you could get a roof line like that?
    Is it possible with today’s safety standards?

  • avatar

    Those were beautiful cars and I lusted for one throughout the 60’s.  I recall a 65 Bonneville held Car and Driver’s 0-60 record of 3.7 seconds for many years.  Must have been a ringer set up by GM.

    • 0 avatar

      Given that most off-the-lot muscle cars were hard pressed to get into the sevens, I’d say so.

      Plus, even if the engine and gearbox could generate the shove, I find it hard to believe that skinny, crap bias ply tires could even provide the grip for that kind of acceleration. Or were there ringer tires, too?

    • 0 avatar

      Back in the day, the hot setup was Atlas Bucron Tires in the 9.50 section width.
      They were available at your ESSO, Standard Oil, and Chevron stations.
      Google “Atlas Bucron Tires” if you’re curious.

  • avatar

    About the automatic transmissions in Pontiacs, I recall reading that the 1961-64 Catalinas and Star Chiefs used the 3-speed Roto-Hydramatic, which was shared with Oldsmobile.  The Bonnevilles, however, kept the older, more robust 4-speed Hydramatic.  I’m not sure what the Grand Prix used.

    *** Edit: I see Paul beat me to it while typing the above. ***

    All of the big GM cars, with the exception of Chevys using smaller engines, switched to the new 3-speed Turbo Hydramatic in 1965 (said Chevies were stuck with the 2-speed Powerglide).

  • avatar

    I think they called the hipsters the coke bottle body.
    The ’63 Cat was certainly one of the beauties of that period. My older brother’s best friend’s father, a Harvard Law prof, had a ’63 Grand Prix. I got a ride in that thing once, and it was very impressive.
    Interestingly, that was the first car I ever saw that had an instantaneous gas consumption meter. I can remember the needle sinking to 5 mpg as Bob, my brother’s friend, accelerated from a stop.

    • 0 avatar

      On the automatic GPs, they used a vacuum gage mounted at the top of the console that showed mpg instead of vacuum.  The 4-speed cars got an actual tachometer.

  • avatar

    Up here we didn’t have the Grand Prix or the GTO untill later on in the sixties. What we had was the American Pontiac with a Chevy drive train and 14″wheels.

     I remember being 10 years old with my dad, and his buddies, and my friends, all of us waiting for the dealer to take the cover off the 63 Parisienne in the showroom. A black 2 door hardtop. My dad said” that car will be gone tomorrow” it was.

    I started on the line at GM in 1972 and the “old guys” still talked fondly about 63 to 65 ,when you could make almost 10K with O.T.

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    (Lets out a “wolf whistle.”)  That is what a Pontiac should be.  Sexy and sporty.

  • avatar

    I’ve always liked the looks of fullsize Pontiacs from about 1960-65.  That one looks to be in very good condition.  Nice catch!

  • avatar

    As with so many things from this era, styling inspiration came from jet aircraft. The “coke bottle” fuselage comes from supersonic aircraft.
    Prior to the discovery of the “area rule”, jets had a very hard time overcoming the transonic drag.

    Convair’s F-102 (designed before area rule) was quickly redesigned once the area rule was discovered and became the F-106. The F-106 needed much less thrust to overcome the transonic drag. The area rule has to do with the keeping the area of the cross-section of the aircraft as constant as possible when viewed from the front.

  • avatar

    We’ll have to agree to disagree – for me, the best looking Pontiacs ever were the ’61 Pontiac full-size line (Catalina, Parisienne, Ventura). It was the best of the ’61 GM designs, which, after the garish excesses of the 59-60 line-up, were like a clean sheet of paper. The so-called “bubble tops”, especially the 2-door sport coupes, are some of the most beautiful cars to ever come out of a Detroit design studio. Pontiac’s treatment of the new corporate design was, by far, the best, with the Chevrolet version a distant second.

    What makes the design even more compelling is to compare Pontiac to any other make from that year. The only one that comes even close is Lincoln. The entire Chrysler line-up, from Plymouth through Dodge, DeSoto, Chrysler and Imperial is something out of a Salvador Dali nightmare, whilst Ford, Mercury and Edsel are a garish mash-up of slabs, and misplaced curves and cues.

    Pontiac styling was the best of the GM line-up in ’55, ’61 and ’63 – each of those years was the first year in a styling cycle; unfortunately, each successive year the styling tweaks worsened, not bettered the original design. Only in 1960 did Pontiac manage to improve on the original year of the cycle, which wouldn’t have been to difficult to do, considering the excess of the ’59 original.

    If I could find a local ’61 2-door hardtop Ventura or Bonneville, I would consider going into debt for the car and the new garage I would have to build to house it.

    Edit – I check out EBay, and look what i find! And it’s in the awesome red colour! The seller has even included two videos of the car.

  • avatar

    Nice, 2 icons. The Taurus in front of it looks very clean

  • avatar

    The ’59 thru ’64 Pontiacs were my favorites. 

    I had 2 Catalinas in the early ‘60s … both convertibles and both purchased when one year old from a neighbor who got a new car every year.  At that point in my life, I was always on the look out for my next ride … it’s always fun to look.  My girlfriend wanted me to get a convertible, so I bought the neighbors ’61 Catalina when he was ready for new. 

    The ’61 was a tame one … 389 with a single 2 barrel , RotoHydromatic, and 256 gears.  It was a great long distance runner … relaxed, composed, and not too thirsty.   We went everywhere … 70k miles in 2 years.  Top down in the rain through the redwoods,  top down in the snow showers at Lake Tahoe,  top down with a huge Christmas tree jammed in the back seat.  Great memories. 

    After a tour of San Francicso, the RotoHydro wouldn’t up-shift from second to third, but with 256 gears, highway speeds in second gear were not a problem on the way home.  A rebuild was in order.

    Next was a ’63 Catalina from the same neighbor … who was now getting some Tiger in his tank.  421 single 4 barrel,  4 speed with a Hurst shifter,  323 Positraction,  8 lug wheels,  red-line U.S. Royal Tiger Paws, (and a 24 gallon fuel tank!).   Red with a white top … the quintessential Pontiac … well, except for lacking TriPower.   Not the slingshot I expected it would be.  Not as composed on the highway either, but still a great ride.  It saw Canada in the autumn, New Orleans, much of the Great River Road, the Grand Canyon and wonderful National Parks in southern Utah.  In Utah in September, many of the visitors were from Germany, and they had big Mercedes busses like we’d never seen before.  Some were driving their own cars … with German plates.  Some were driving rentals … and all were definitely in a holiday mood.   More great memories. 

    The ’63 needed transmission work also.  You are only allowed so many speed shifts before you must pay the price.  I exceeded my allotment, and tore up second gear and the cluster gear.

    Other than gearbox problems (all my fault … I’m sure) both Pontiacs were very easy keepers.   They were high miles but still fairly young and trouble free when I sold them.   I still think that time causes at least as many problems as mileage.  People too ;-)

    There were fun, reliable, comfortable transport that we put to good use seeing lots of our beautiful Blue Highways.  Remembered fondly.


  • avatar

    My Dad had Pontiacs in the 1960’s (1957 to 1970, every three years).  More than the Riviera, they were the Mad Men’s cars. They led the way.

  • avatar

    Keep in mind the one other thing that that extra $100.00 over a Chevy Impala got you: The same interior fittings as a Chevy BelAir. Yep, for the extra money you got the fancier nameplate, etc., but the cheaper interior.

  • avatar

    I came home from the hospital in my Grandfathers black 63 Pontiac with blue interior, looked just like that one here.  Have lots of baby pics in that Pontiac.  I loved the heater control that looked like a second radio when i was a kid.  I used to drive my grandfather crazy with questions on that car when i was little.

  • avatar

    Wow, looking at that ’63 Pontiac Grand Prix reminded me of what a great period the early sixties were for automobile styling…The Buick Riviera, Corvette Sting Ray, the Studebaker Avanti and
    Hawk GT, the Jaguar E type and the Lincoln Continental. The Pontiac Grand Prix was understated
    and wonderful to look at, by comparison the models in the mid and late sixties look like a
    parody of the original concept.

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    I turned 16 in 1964, and my Father (may he rest in peace) bought 2 new 1964 Pontiacs, a Bonneville for himself, and a Tempest for my Mother. The Bonneville was dark blue and the Tempest was white. Not to be outdone, my Grandfather bought a blue Bonneville also. I drove them a lot as my job was to take them to the shop for maintenance and then take the bus home, or if my Father had dropped it off in the morning, to take the bus to the dealer, pick up the car, and and pick up my Father. They were sexy, but they were not reliable.

  • avatar

    They were BF ugly vis-s-vis their Cadillac contemporaries.
    Leaving out all the Euro-offerings of the day, who would really find the Pontiac prettier than its Caddy bretheren?
    Honestly, who?

  • avatar

    Our neighbors had a 64 catalina ragtop with the 8 lug wheels, but it had a bench seat with column shifter. It was pink (maybe salmon)? colored with black interior. It had the 389, and if i’m not mistaken it had the slim jim transmission.  They ended up having to replace the tranny.
    They also had a red 64 fullsize pontiac wagon with the 389 and had to replace the trans in it.

  • avatar

    I remember thinking that these cars were so cool, even though they were about 10 years old when I and my friends really started noticing different cars.

    Anybody remember the bright red Matchbox model of the 1964 Grand Prix? It was as common in sand boxes and train sets as this was on the road in real life.

  • avatar

    These cars do look nice, especially for a pontiac. But I’d take a 61-62 chrysler 300 over it any day. There’s one with a 413 cross ram in this month’s issue of hemmings for 299k

  • avatar

    I still miss my 1965 Pontiac Bonneville. Got it in 1976. Best first car ever.

  • avatar

    A friend of mine’s dad had one of these in the ’60’s and spent a sizeable sum putting brand-new metal-studded snow tires on it in preparation for the St. Louis winter – seemed the midwest had more snow back then – well, my buddy drove it a few blocks over to our high school, stopped, revved up the 383, power-braked it and cut it loose! Well, you know what happened next: after he drove home and after his dad drove the car and returned home, he asked his son what happened to all the studs? Yes, every one of them were gone! A very nice dual rubber trail on the street in front of the high school for several months served as a testament to the power of the big Ponchos! In the words of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper: “A spendid time was guaranteed for all!”

  • avatar

    Pontiac had the 389, the 383 was a chrysler engine. Lots of guys swapped out the big ponchos for big block chevies, because it was so much easier to make power with the rat than the pontiac motors.

  • avatar

    Great story as always, and I love those big Pontiacs. My ’64 Impala is also a four-door hardtop, and I love that crisp, well-proportioned roofline.

  • avatar
    also Tom

    I LOVE me some ’62 .

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