The Spoon River Catalina

My Great Grandpa Nelson drove Pontiacs. He had a long line of them over the years, and my Mom recalls riding in the back seat of frumpy sedans with my aunt while playing with the robe cord on the front seat & bouncing on the back seat as if she were "riding a horsie." I'm sure the car smelled like cigars, but was kept clean and running tip-top thanks to his Swedish fastidiousness.

Lots of people remember Pontiac as the 'car their grandparents drove'. They had a certain appeal to folks who always had to watch their budget, but wanted to live like they didn't have to. Power, style, and creature comforts were all part of the Poncho package. As for not settling for cheap stuff, while remaining a cheapskate, I'm all about that. So its fitting that I like to hunt local swap meets and yard sales for antiques and treasures that I can get for peanuts.

One annual tradition in our is to fuel up one of the cars and hit the back roads during one of the Spoon River Scenic Drives. This fall event takes place the first two weekends in October throughout parts of Fulton, Knox, and Peoria county and it usually features tents and roadside stands that sell antiques, collectibles, local crafts, foods, and even a stray vintage automobile now and then.

Whenever we stop and shop in one of the towns, I'm always on the lookout for old iron. For example...

For the past few years we've come across a 1956 Pontiac Chieftain Catalina Coupe that has seemingly been left out in the elements. Its next to a repair shop, so I'm certain that there's a story behind it. Maybe its a project that somebody will 'get around to finishing someday'. We all have projects like those, right? Perhaps its a customer's car? A customer who still owes for repairs performed in the distant past. Or chances are its being used as bait during these regional yard sales in an attempt to get someone to open up their wallet and make a deal. If that's the case, a deal hasn't been struck.

Debuting as a second-year variant following a complete 1955 redesign, the 1956 Pontiac was a peppy and powerful car thanks to the new "Strato-Streak V8". The new 287 cubic inch overhead valve engine packed a decent punch. More on that later. Pontiac built 71,079 Chieftain Catalina Coupes in 1956 in two series; the 860 Special and 870 Deluxe. I'm not in the know, so I can't decipher which series this car fits into but it does have a fair amount of brightwork and options so I'm guessing its a Deluxe. Let's take a closer look.

Each time I notice the little black & red hardtop, there's a little more decay. More paint washed off the hood, or a little extra rust popping through the chrome. In spite of the elements, the car has held up fairly well through the years. The only real rust appears in the doors and bottom of the hood, and even those spots wouldn't take much to blast and repair. The quarters and rockers are genuine steel and I can't detect any filler in the car with a thorough lookie-loo.

Inside, the options list was checked off next to a few items. A 7-tube radio, Hydramatic transmission, and a compass (aftermarket perhaps?) were installed in the car, all items that make the miles melt away on a long trip. This Catalina did not come with a clock, as the delete plate in the lower passenger side of the dash shows. The interior of this car needs a little makeover but is complete and the door panels and dash were just a cleaning away from being presentable.

There's some signs that the car was well taken-care of early in its life, including the AAA Chicago Motor Club stickers, and some souvenir stickers on the glass denoting far-off places the old gal visited in her many years on the road.

One of the unique features this car has is the stainless hood and chrome tail lamp 'streaks' that adorn it. These hearken back to Pontiacs dating back to the 1930's.

With new leadership at the helm of Pontiac in '56, including General Manager Semon "Bunkie" Knudsen and a young engineering assitant named John DeLorean, the brand's image needed to change. The first order of business? Clean house. Old, frumpy design elements would be gone the following year in an effort to freshen up the cars and draw in younger buyers. 1956 would be the last year these gorgeous trim strips would appear on a Pontiac.

Another item on Pontiac's revised agenda for '56 was boosting horsepower. The engineers were tasked with taking the standard "Strat-O-Streak" V8 of 287 cubic inches and punching it out to make more power. The result was the "NASCAR" engine, a limited run of 200 specially-built 317 cubic inch street beasts with dual quads, 10 to 1 compression and a racing camshaft. Some could argue this move was Pontiac's entry into the horsepower wars and the genesis of cars like the GTO, a car John DeLorean ushered in just 8 years later while serving as the automaker's chief engineer. To say that 1956 was a pivotal year for Pontiac as a company would be an understatement. This car is a piece of living history in a way, even if its not living very well.

At any rate, this Pontiac's strat-o-streaking days are over. The rumble of its V8 hasn't likely been heard in a decade or two. Sure its cashed, and doesn't offer much. But what it continues to offer casual onlookers every year is a glimmer of hope. With a little elbow grease and some time its possible that this Catalina may run again one day. I'd rather see it driving along one of the scenic Fulton County back roads, but until that time I'll come back and visit it on the  next Spoon River Drive.


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