Anyone born after 1960 may find this hard to believe, but there was a time when hardtops like the 1950-1952 Pontiac Catalina were quite exotic. That time, of course, harks back to 1949, when General Motors pioneered the pillarless idea with a trio of low-volume "hardtop convertibles."
To enhance their allure, product planners looked to faraway places with strange-sounding names. Thus did Buick offer a Riviera, named after the famed French and Italian coastlines, and Cadillac the Gallic-sounding Coupe de Ville. Oldsmobile, though a bit more prosaic with Holiday, managed to capture the spirit of the thing.
The 1949 model year also saw GM complete its first postwar restyle, issuing redesigned A- and B-bodies in the image of the new-for-1948 C-body Cadillacs and Oldsmobile 98. This mainly involved Chevrolet and Pontiac, both of which fared quite well stylistically. They fared well commercially, too, with record production that went up again for 1950, bolstered by their first hardtops.
But where Chevrolet fielded a single pillarless coupe, the natty Styleline DeLuxe Bel Air, Pontiac proffered no fewer than four Catalinas, named for the romantic island 26 miles off the Southern California shore. (Bel Air referred to that same area, though a little further inland: the exclusive residential district near Beverly Hills.)
DeLuxe and Super trim and six- and eight-cylinder engines accounted for the variations, all in the Chieftain lines composed of strictly notchback styles. Pontiac also offered Streamliner Six and Eight series, each with standard- and DeLuxe-trim fastback sedans and, oddly enough, a wagon.
Interestingly, at least one 1949 Catalina was built. Though strictly for show, it previewed the rakish production roofline with its modestly wrapped, three-element rear window.
Like Chevrolet's, Pontiac's successful 1949 package involved mainly a styling job, its basic engineering being of prewar origin, but it was good enough to last through 1952 with only evolutionary changes.
Learn about those changes on the next page.
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Styling and technological advances for the 1950, 1951, 1952 Pontiac Catalina were gradual. The 1950s wore a toothier grille, while the 1950-1951 sported a horizontal divider bar with a deep central vee cradling a large Pontiac crest. "Silver Streak" hood and rear deck stripes, a Pontiac fixture since the 1930s, remained much in evidence.
So did the stern countenance of Chief Pontiac as a mascot. Like all proper hood ornaments in those days, it glowed with the headlamps on.
Gimmicky feature names were de rigueur at the time, and Pontiac had its fair share. Interiors featured "Vision-Aire," at least partly because of a larger, slightly curved (but still divided) "Safe-T-View" windshield. Also touted were a "Carry-More" trunk, wider "Easy-Access" doors, dash-mounted "Finger-Tip" starter, and "Tru-Arc Safety Steering" (which was actually slower than before).
Pontiac's main mechanical developments for 1949 included adoption of a 120-inch wheelbase for all models (replacing the 119/122-inch split used since 1941), slimmer channel-section side rails for the X-member chassis, and telescopic shock absorbers all-round (which yielded a "Travelux Ride").
Pontiac's old L-head six and eight soldiered on, smooth running as ever and reliable as the tides. Respective horsepower for 1950 was 90 and 108. For 1951, the six was stepped up to 96 horsepower, the eight to 116. An optional high-compression head (necessitating premium fuel) added four horses to each. Respective 1952 ratings came in at 100/102 and 118/122.
Optional Hydra-Matic Drive gave Pontiac popularity a big boost during this period. First offered for 1948 at $185, it was reduced to $159 the following year and went into 78 percent of total production. Fastbacks were fading from favor, and Pontiac was even quicker to abandon those, dumping the Streamliner series for 1952 and putting wagons into the Chieftain lines.
The Catalinas were another story. Like hardtops everywhere, they sold strongly from the start, and went nowhere but up despite being less than $100 cheaper than Pontiac's true convertibles.
The division didn't record individual body-style production, but it's known that two out of every three Catalinas sold in this period were Eights. This suggested that buyers wanted hardtops with maximum power as well as maximum luxury.
Luxury they got. Like other early GM hardtops, Pontiacs came handsomely upholstered in vinyl and leather. Bright horizontal strips over the headliner seams added to the "convertible feel," an idea contributed by GM's legendary chief designer, Harley Earl.
In all, the first Catalinas stand as elegant symbols of Pontiac's postwar turn from "super Chevy" to a more luxurious car with its own identity. In time, that trend would prove as profitable as hardtops and automatics.
To check out specifications for the 1950-1952 Pontiac Catalina, continue to the next page.
For more information on cars, see:
1950, 1951, 1952 Pontiac Catalina Specifications
The 1950, 1951, 1952 Pontiac Catalina was built for luxury, as exemplified by its exotic name, and as such it adopted existing Pontiac engines.
Engines: L-head I-6, 239.2 cid (3.56 × 4.00) 90 bhp (1950) 96/100 bhp (1951) 100/102 bhp (1952); L-head I-8, 268.4 cid (3.38 × 3.75) 108 bhp (1950) 116/120 bhp (1951) 118/122 bhp (1952)
Transmission: 3-speed manual; 4-speed Hydra-Matic optional
Suspension front: upper and lower A-arms, coil springs
Suspension rear: live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs
Brakes: front/rear drums
Wheelbase (in.): 120.0
Weight (lbs.): 3,469-3,573
Top speed (mph): 80-95
0-60 mph (sec): 13-15.5