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Reminiscing: A journey shared with a Catalina

Published in blog.hemmings.com

[Editor’s note: This “Reminiscing” story, edited by Richard Lentinello, comes to us from reader Emmett Soloman of Fort McCoy, Florida.]

It was late spring 1969. This teenage farm boy had just experienced an event that was almost the equivalent of losing his virginity. School was out and I was helping a neighbor put up a fence across his pasture. That’s when I spotted her. Abandoned, she squatted behind a corn crib; it was a 1962 Pontiac Catalina, two-door hardtop. Although partially hidden by tall grass, it was obvious that it had some serious rust issues. Dirt and bird crap covered most of her. Yet the maroon paint still had a few shiny spots and I could sense the life still in the car.

After a quick look over, I convinced my neighbor to sell it to me for $50 and a handshake. The deal was that, whether it ran or not, it was now my job to get it off of his property. This was momentous. Everyone that has bought their first car knows the feeling of satisfaction and freedom. Yet this early ‘60s Pontiac had led a hard life.

For several days a friend and I worked on it every chance we got. We skipped meals and ducked chores to bring this Catalina back to life. We replaced the battery, breaker points and spark plugs. We checked all the fluids and removed the four-barrel carburetor. A rebuilt kit and a cleaning put the carb back in order. Then we flushed the fuel system and added fresh gas. With great anticipation, my friend hit the key as I stood by the open hood with a fire extinguisher. We whopped in joy as that baby fired right up. The next hurdle was to see if it would move. It had an automatic transmission, and if it was bad, then I had wasted all my money and time. We let it warm up as we inflated the weather-cracked tires. I got behind the wheel and took a deep breath. Then I slipped the shifter into Drive. The revs dropped like they should as the Pontiac seemed to be gathering itself up. Next, I gave a stab of the throttle. She responded instantly and hauled herself right out of her own grave. In that moment the Catalina and I had bonded. I proudly drove her the couple miles to our farm.

Like an adopted stray dog with fleas, the first thing you have to do with a car like this is wash it. Some of the water passed straight through the softball size holes in the fenders behind the tires. We were careful not to dislodge any of the fragile salt-rusted sections. Still, it actually came out okay. All the plastic and the glass were good. Luckily the previous owner had rolled up the windows before he deserted it behind the corn crib. Apparently, someone had religiously used seat covers; I’m betting it was those clear plastic covers with the dimples. Full floor mats had been used because the carpet was decent as well. The car had six ashtrays, and the gauges, wipers, radio and even the defroster worked. I was thrilled! It was like two separate cars. From the outside it was a rusted-out beater, but from the inside, you were immersed in a good-looking comfort cocoon.

Upon further inspection, the suspension and drivetrain showed plenty of wear. The car had turned over its odometer, still, there was nothing crucially dangerous, except the tires. Of course, my concern for safety and a shortage of legal documentation, kept me out of the big city and off main highways. Still, where I lived there were plenty of gravel roads, blacktop back roads and tiny towns to explore. I found a current license tag lying beside the road and I bolted it on. In my mind, this gave me some semblance of legality.

The Pontiac reveled in its rebirth. The 389-cu.in. V-8 ran strong and barely smoked. The transmission never uttered a complaint.
Through that summer, my friends and I went everywhere in that Catalina. We went off road to hidden lakes, and we cranked doughnuts in empty parking lots. Three people would fit in the trunk as I smuggled them into the local drive-in. It was okay to sit on the hood and recline against the windshield on balmy nights. Even better, girls approved of the pleasant, spacious interior.

Alas, all good things must come to an end. By the middle of August, all the components that had not been crucially dangerous when I first bought the car were starting to demand attention. Brakes, ball joints, exhaust, a leaky radiator and steering components were starting to make the car a little scary. As much as I loved that Catalina, it was just too tired to warrant putting big money into it.
Yet she had one last hurrah left in her; the Fair had come to town. This meant tractor pulls, a stock car race and a Demolition Derby. The Pontiac was a big heavy car. A rather slow-witted friend helped me prep her for the Derby. On the big day, he followed me in his car as we took back roads to the fairgrounds. One of the rules was that you could only have five gallons of gas with us in my friend’s car. I told my friend to “put gas in the car”, as I went and signed in.

At last all the cars were lined up I two rows, directly across from each other. With the trunks and taillamps facing each other, the signal was given. It was on! My God, what a blast! It is the way you have always wanted to drive angry in traffic, but never could. The Catalina was doing great. The back end was smashed all the way up to the rear tires, but the front end was practically untouched. My tires were still up, the radiator was still intact and even the power steering was still working. Soon it was down to just three of us left running. Each of us was stalking the other. We were looking for that killer, disabling, front-end hit. One of the drivers, in a Ford station wagon, had mistakenly backed into a dead-end corridor. Now I had him! I was already in reverse and headed his way. I aimed for his radiator as I floored the Pontiac. She charged backwards as she sensed the kill. Then she just shut off and rolled to a stop. I cranked the engine until the battery went down, but she just would not fire back up. I exhausted my entire vocabulary of swear words.

After the car had been drug back into the infield, I started to investigate. To my puzzlement I discovered that I had run out of gas. How could this possibly be? I called my dim-witted friend over and said, “I thought I told you to put gas in the car.” He looked at me with a baffled expression and said, “I thought you meant in my car.” Good grief; what can you say to that?

In a way it was a fitting final memory of the Pontiac. That was the only time she ever let me down and it was not her fault. Of all the great cars I have owned over the years that old Pontiac Catalina holds a special place. To me it represents the foolishness and the optimism of youth. It brings back memories of warm summer nights and the camaraderie of friends.