1968 Pontiac Catalina
For 63-year-old Stuart Holmes, his fascination for unusual American cars began back in his childhood. “I built up a huge collection of toy cars made by Corgi, Dinky, Matchbox and Spot On,” he recalls. “All these oncefamous manufacturers made scaled-down American cars that to me looked just like their full-sized cousins.” The radical US styling and attention to detail also caught Stuart’s eye and he still keeps his prized collection in a safe place to this day.
As we grow up, the idea of owning not just a scaled-down model, but the real thing, can sometimes become a reality. For Stuart, that goal was achieved when he found himself in a position to buy a ’72 Mustang convertible. “It was a beautiful car and I really enjoyed driving it,” Stuart remembers. “Unfortunately, my wife isn’t a fan of wind-in-the-hair motoring so I began looking for a more suitable car we could both enjoy.” Stuart and his wife managed to enter a string of shows with their Mustang; among them was Tatton Park’s June 2017 Classic Car Show. “I spotted this ’68 Pontiac Catalina on that day,” Stuart remembers. “I had a good look around the car, but never got to meet the owner. I wasn’t surprised when it won the Best American Car Award later that day.” A few months passed, and while Stuart was scouring the classifieds he came across an ad for the same Catalina he’d recently seen at Tatton Park. “I recognised it straight away, but the listing for the car had expired,” he remembers. “Luckily, the vendor had included a mobile number, so I sent a text.” Even better, the car was still available, so Stuart mentioned he’d be in touch to talk figures once his own car had sold. “What car are you selling?” came the reply. Stuart then promptly sent the ad for his Mustang to the vendor of the Pontiac. “Once he’d looked at my own advert, he asked if he could come and see my car that day,” Stuart smiles. “A few hours later the Catalina was parked outside my house and the Mustang was on the drive.”
The pair drove each other’s cars and returned to Stuart’s house for a cup of tea. “Both cars were advertised for the same price, neither of them needed a lot of money spending on them, so all we had to do was make a decision,” Stuart laughs. “I knew I was dealing with a decent bloke, a genuine enthusiast, and I hope he felt the same.” After a long chat and more tea and biscuits the pair shook hands across the table and opted for a straight swap! A few days later, Stuart delivered his cherished Mustang to its new home in beautiful rural Wales and drove the Pontiac home. “The first thing that struck me was the difference in refinement,” Stuart recalls. “The Mustang had been a very quiet car with its standard factory exhaust while the Pontiac growled from its twin-exit stainless steel exhaust; the performance from the 400cu in/6.6-litre engine hinted it shared the same powerplant as the GTO.” The straight swap had gone perfectly and avoided the arduous process of obtaining and counting piles of cash: “I never regretted buying the Mustang as it was a truly fabulous car and I know the new owner has gone on to add a few of his own tasteful mods,” Stuart adds.
325bhp 400cu in V8 Catalina`s engine
The Catalina came with a huge history file and its last American owner had spent a fortune keeping the car up to scratch. “One example is a bill for almost $2000 just to cure a small oil leak,” Stuart points out. “My daughter managed to find its American home on the internet; a lovely house in Discovery Bay, California, which had a boathouse at the bottom of the back garden leading to a lake. Photographed there on the driveway was the very same Catalina.” Stuart was also pleased to discover this was a genuine matching-numbers car and is probably the only 1968 Pontiac Catalina two-door coupe currently in the UK, so it’s as rare as they come. “It had been imported from California to North Wales in 2016, where its fastidious new owner had spent a lot of time ensuring everything was working properly,” Stuart tells us. “He’d even managed to get the 50-year-old clocks, switches and radio all working.” Originating from a dry state, this car appears brand-new underneath, but the hot California sunshine had done the interior no favours. Fortunately, the seats, door trims, dash top, carpets and roof lining had all been professionally retrimmed recently, while a fresh vinyl roof has been fitted to the exterior.
Speaking of that imposing exterior, Stuart loves the huge, sharp chrome nose on the grille, the way the swage line runs through the rear arch on to the door and how the trunk lid is hinged right back from the rear window. “I just think 1968 was a fantastic year for GM’s styling department and I’d love to have met the person who designed this car,” Stuart smiles. There are a few modern twists to this Catalina, including the Bentley-turquoise metallic paintwork with an added larger flake, which looks amazing in strong sunlight and suits the shape perfectly. The black and chrome Boss wheels are also non-original, but they certainly look right at home, while the front grille has been painted matt black too for a more imposing look. Less noticeable are those brass bullet cartridges which replace the original interior plastic door locks. Driving this car is what Stuart likes best of all and it seems to attract more attention in one mile than all his previous cars put together. “I’ve never taken it above 60mph, I just love the gentle burble bouncing into the back of the car with the windows wound down on a summer’s day even at cruising speed,” he grins. “The fact it’s pillarless is a huge bonus in summer too.” It’s not short of grunt either, the 400cu in V8 pushing out a more than adequate 325bhp with a little help from that huge Edelbrock carb. Shifting is super smooth too, thanks to the TH 400 Turbo-Hydra-Matic gearbox as found in many big GM cars of the era. Stuart has gone on to show his Catalina as he did his previous Mustang, but has found his latest purchase creates much more of a buzz around it than his Mustang ever did. “I don’t regret buying the Mustang. We had a fabulous full season showing it and taking long drives out on summer days,” he smiles, “but now we can all go out in the car as a family and there’s no complaining about the top being down.” It appears everything worked out well for all involved in the end.
While Pontiac’s legendary GTO and Firebird models of the late Sixties may have become household names, relatively few people would instantly recognise a Catalina from the same era. Stuart’s ’68 coupe is quite possibly the only one of its kind currently in the UK, making it a very rare car indeed. Perhaps the Catalina has become overlooked on these shores, being the entry model full-size car in the Pontiac range, rather than the plush, top-of-the-line full-size Bonneville or full-on muscle car like the GTO, but with that protruding beak nose and attractive Coke-bottle styling, the coupe is an imposing eye-catcher for sure. For the ’68 model year, the Catalina range benefited from a minor facelift of the ’67 design with that beak nose, split grille and horizontal headlights, along with those striking swage lines. The Catalina was available as a two-door hard top, sedan, coupe, convertible and station wagon, and more than 3.8 million models were sold from 1959 until the name was discontinued in 1981.