There was no finer time to be an American than in the 1950s. Riding high on the spoils of a war that had made them the richest nation on earth, they were also sending rockets into space and would soon put a man on the moon.
Reflecting this new wave of optimism, car designers abandoned the black-painted hulks of the ‘40s and poured all their energies into creating a new wave of brightly painted land yachts, dripping with chrome and rocket-age details. Propelled by advertising and drunk on conspicuous consumption, Americans took to their new toys with glee, heading out on their vast highway network in droves of increasingly baroque machines, living the dream in dazzling style.
GM’s Pontiac division got in on the act with their full-size Catalina range, a large sedan that was cunningly styled to embody all the youthful freedom of an open car but with the practicality of a fixed steel roof. Marketed as a ‘hard-top convertible’, the Catalina used two-tone paint and a pillarless door and window design to create this airy illusion and the public loved it, sales soaring to make 1950 their best year yet.
Adorned with the trademark ‘flying Indian’ amber bonnet mascot, the Catalina was powered by either a 90bhp 239ci straight-six or a 118bhp 248ci straight-eight. In 1952 a more powerful high-compression straight-eight was made available with an optional Dual-Range Hydra-Matic four-speed auto ‘box which maximised performance depending on road conditions and could launch the big car to 60mph in 14.9 seconds, Motor Trend recording 25.4mpg at a steady 30mph and 17.1mpg at a steady 60mph.
This wonderful 1952 two-door hardtop Chieftain DeLuxe has the range-topping straight-eight and the desirable Dual-Range Hydra-Matic transmission. Looking every inch as if it has come straight from the streets of Cuba, you can almost hear the samba beat pumping from its pillarless windows as you picture it cruising past the crumbling tenements of downtown Havana.
At the risk of puncturing this exotic daydream, it actually came in from the American Midwest, the US Certificate of Title showing that it belonged to a Mr H Smith of Lecompton, Kansas, from whom the vendor acquired it in 2014.
We are told that on arrival in the UK it was treated to a light mechanical recommissioning to bring it up to roadworthy condition at a cost of some £1,500. Although there are no bills for this work, a cursory examination of the car shows that various parts have indeed been replaced. The Pontiac starts and runs but appeared somewhat reluctant to accelerate as we moved it around for these photos and would clearly benefit from a good tune-up following a period in storage.
The vendor had planned to respray the car and rechrome the brightwork but was greeted with such a chorus of disapproval whenever he raised the subject that he has wisely opted to leave it as it is. As the saying goes, ‘it’s only original once’ and it would be a crime to destroy that wonderful patina that has taken 65 years to evolve.
Okay, perhaps the interior could do with a bit of sympathetic refurbishment here and there, but we think your money would be much better spent on getting the mechanical side up to scratch and leaving the paintwork well alone.
Unrestored gems like this are few and far between: indeed some people spend vast amounts of time and money to artificially create this shabby chic ‘rat rod’ look whereas here all that hard work has already been done for you by Father Time himself, with a little help from Mother Nature and decades of Midwest sunshine. We love it!
AMENDMENT: Further to the description being written, we have discovered a fault that needs attending to with the starter. The vehicle will currently not start.