1975 Pontiac Catalina Safari: When Wagons Ruled

1975 Pontiac Catalina Safari: When Wagons Ruled
1975 Pontiac Catalina Safari: When Wagons Ruled

Once upon a time in the 1970s, most moms hauled their kids around, not in silver silvermist combover pseudo-lux conveyances, but in large, ornate and oftentimes wood-sided station wagons. V8, rear wheel driven, glorious station wagons.

The 1971-76 GM ‘clamshell’ station wagons were the biggest around when they debuted in Autumn 1970.

So called due to their ‘disappearing’ tailgate and rear window glass, they were available in the expected Chevy, Pontiac, Olds and Buick versions. And as usual, were available in higher-trimmed versions with Di-Noc woodgrain appliques along the sides, further accentuating their road-going Chris-Craft image.

And they, along with their Big Three brethren, were seen on countless interstates, grocery store parking lots, marinas and schoolyards. Grand Safaris. Sport Suburbans. Town & Countrys. Colony Parks. To know them was to know suburbia. To know middle class freedom and peace.

Every car had a specific purpose. Trucks were for hauling. Vans were for hauling people, if they had windows, and stuff out of the rain, if they were a panel job. Sedans were for Dad. Wagons were for Mom. And personal luxury coupes were for swinging singles who wanted to stand out a little-or maybe just a middle manager who wanted a little more cosseting on the way home from the office. Luxury cars were for his boss.

Yep, none of that ‘I must have a car that can do everything, albeit poorly, instead of one thing very, very well.’ You know, crossovers. But I digress. Let’s take a closer look at this Pontiac. Pontiac. I still can’t believe they don’t make them anymore…

I first saw today’s featured car around five years ago on the electronic bay. A ’75 model, it was the next to the last year for the truly large Pontiac station wagon. I was a little surprised to see the lower-level Catalina wagon with woodgrain.

Though it was technically available, you generally saw the Catalina with painted sides and the full-on lux Grand Safari, with its Bonneville grille and quad rectangular headlights, with the simulated tree trim. But you could get a slick-side Grand Safari too. There was so much more appearance and dress-up items on cars back then.

At any rate, the woodgrain flanks contrasted nicely with the deep metallic red paint and matching red Morrokide (Pontiac’s name for vinyl) interior.

These also boasted excellent glass area. Dig those wraparound quarter windows! High style and great visibility, all in one Broughamtastic conveyance.

Yes, that is a seriously RED interior.

This color is not screwing around. We spend most of our time inside our cars, so why are there more OUTSIDE colors than INSIDE colors?

I guess someone wanted most of the look of the top Pontiac wagon, but without the higher cost of it. These wagons had a forward-facing third-row seat too. The far side of the middle bench folded up and out for access to the third row as well.

The old eBay auction link is still accessible (1975 Pontiac Catalina Safari) and more recently it turned up again on CL for a far higher price. Seems to be a common thread these days. Someone gets a car cheap, thinks he can triple his money, doesn’t back down, then the car haunts the online classifieds for the next fifteen years. Oh well!


  1. Would this be Peak Brougham, or a nadir of packaging? Remember…this body followed the successful Coke-Bottle B bodies of 1965-70; and this generation drove the General scrambling to the sketch-pad to downsize for 1977.

    As rare survivors, and a symbol of those times – a deceiving symbol, since those times also included Earth Day, the arrival of the Subcompact, gasoline shortages and price spikes…political upheaval, organized-labor strife, poor workmanship, and the results of poorly-conceived government regulation – as a Happy-Days symbol, it works.

    The cars AS cars, were less successful. IIRC, those were the maximum physical size to be allowed without commercial-vehicle telltales (“clearance lights”) The stories of clamshell-gate failures were legion – especially as the years wore on. Eight miles a gallon, on 75-cent-a-gallon gasoline ($3.50 adjusted) is not the stuff of good memories.

    A well-preserved artifact of times that are gone – the best of times, the worst of times. Kudos to the owners, past and present, who resisted the urge to either sell it for pennies years ago, or park it, semiabandoned, behind a garage in the weather.

    1. I got stuffed in the back of a few of these as a kid. I remember them being really short on legroom and headroom, but really really wide. It was great if you wanted to cram some elementary-school kids 4-across in the backseat. But if you wanted to put adults back there, they didn’t get the limousine-like comfort you might expect from a 22-foot-long vehicle. A current VW Passat has a roomier backseat by a large margin.

      The low roof made the long cargo area into a bit of a tunnel. It would hold a lot of stuff, but probably many a suburban dad got backstrain trying to retrieve the cooler / golf clubs / kids’ crap from the depths of that cavern.

      I also remember that the salt and slush of Midwestern winters would perforate the quarter panels with rust by the time these cars were three years old. The rust would stain the edges of the interior carpet and the vinyl of the door panels, giving them kind a steampunk patina, without even a little bit of the romance. The engines and transmissions were plenty stout, though. By the mid 1980s my (white trash) neighborhood was full of Catalinas, Caprices, and Vista Cruisers with daylight showing into the trunks and through the bottoms of the doors, still wheezing and rattling their way back and forth to the steel mill parking lot. If you couldn’t swing the payment on a new Cutlass Ciera wagon or a B-Body Impala because your first wife’s alimony payments and child support were eating your whole paycheck, there was a good chance you were driving one of these.

      1. Good observation on the legroom, which as noted was not NEARLY as much as expected.

        This is a 1975. Remember what 1975 brought us? The Rabbit. A car three-fifths this size, and able to seat adults – in comfort, at chair height. The back hatch had about half the room of the back of a station wagon – but deeper room, usable room.

        The Rabbit multiplied on the streets…like rabbits. Chrysler copied, almost exactly, at frantic speed. The Chevette, which was supposed to satisfy those silly buyers who wanted small cars…well, it wasn’t nearly as big a seller, or as space-utilizing. Only low design cost (an existing platform) made it work for the General.

        So, as we saw…big cars were out. Ten years, and Lido’s Mini/Max would be out, as a Chrysler, to transform the market until silliness returned in the form of SUV-love.

        1. Let me interrupt this regularly scheduled slam session to chime in as someone that has had 2 of these, and still owns one, a Buick Estate Wagon, 1975, the center seat is roomy these ride on a longer wheelbase compared to the sedans, the 3rd row is about the same or better than an F-body of the same generation, the rear end breaks up the 3rd row so its not a complete bench but 2 cushions.

          I’ve had both of mine loaded to their full passenger capacity and had no complaints from any of the passengers. I have no idea why the Rabbit is being brought up in comparison to a 8 passenger station wagon, these things are practically trucks with a 7000lb tow rating.

      2. Makes you wonder why the white trash neighborhood wasn’t driving 75 Rabbits so they could enjoy could enjoy all that chair high seating. Oh yea, they weren’t durable. Bet the neighborhood had a few early Chevettes. Even something the General throws together for our Brazilian friends was endowed with more durability.

        1. Part of it might be that the German-built Rabbits only came in for three years. The Westmoreland Rabbits were, indeed, crap – and de-spec’d for American buyers, too. Buyers weren’t impressed with the Westmoreland version, and of course, the plant closed after seven years.

          Some of the German-built ones were kept by their owners – not everyone buys a car to advertise their wealth or politics. Yes, many more rusted. Toyota, not VW, led the way in rust-resistance technology.

          I didn’t see many older Chevettes, anywhere, except a few BHPH lots. Oh, and I once saw three alongside my own, with blown engines. Connecting-rod-journal failure was common with them. Know what Mister Goodwrench told me? “They all do that. You shoulda bought an Impala.”

          1. The German built ones were no picnic either, see the Road & Track Long Term test next time Needledick reruns it on Curbside Reruns……..it’ll come around again.

        2. Oh, no my friend. The reason there were no Rabbits in my neighborhood was because it was a steel mill town. American cars only.

          If you drove any foreign cars, they would slash your tires or take a dump on your hood. (Conveniently, *my* Rabbit was turd brown from the factory – I bought it for $100 to learn how to drive stick, and I hid it from my parents, who would have been furious if they’d known. It was a short bike ride to the truck stop down the road where I’d parked it.)

          And no, the average USW guy was not well-informed enough to know that the Rabbits were made in Westmoreland, PA.

          1. In the early 1970’s, one of our neighbors bought a Datsun (Nissan) 210? 510? – one of the little sedans. That was a big no-no in Steel Country. First the tires were slashed. All of the tires. Repeatedly. Then the windows were broken out. All of them. After the second time that happened, the insurance company dropped them. Then, one night, apparently two or three men came by with sledgehammers.

            I was terribly ashamed of my other neighbors. But, lots of them worked for the mills, or the GM or Chrysler plant. I’m not saying it was right, but I understood what they were doing. Too bad it didn’t work.

          2. Interesting, seems like the young rebels and the older reactionaries making sure there was a price to pay both understood what a political act the foreign car was. I wonder at what percentage of the car market held by imports was the threat realized.

  2. I can personally attest to the fact that a 72 Chevy wagon with the 400 small block could peg the 120 MPH speedo and still keep accelerating. All the way to the beach, with the car full of teenagers and beer. Back in the day when it was fun to borrow Mom’s car.

    When my Dad traded that in for a Ford wagon with a small block 302 that could barely crack 80 MPH, we were all upset. Including my Mom. At least that Ford came with an 8-track.

    1. I can’t believe some of the crap I survived on cheap bias ply tires and only a nodding acquaintance with proper tire pressure.

  3. In the mid-1970s I had a Bonneville version. It was a deep burgundy color; I cannot remember interior color.
    My everyday car was a Fiat 124 Spyder and the Bonne was used almost exclusively for away rugby matches. Carried nine guys and a few soft-sided coolers with ease. Was a great cruiser on the Interstate, though it really didn’t have to work very hard once the speed limit was dropped to 55. I have one picture of it – not on a rugby run, but loaded from the front seat back, including a couple on the roof rack, with cases of Molson Ale headed for a long holiday weekend beach party.

    Man, this post has generated some great memories. Thanks.

  4. Car looks good until you see the missing radio knob and the better-than-50/50 shot at having to replace the ignition switch because of the weight of that keychain that appears to go to the floor with keys and other stuff!

    I wonder if this car would shut off in traffic if you hit the brakes hard?! One swing of that keychain forward, and that poor ignition switch would probably skip “LOCK” and end up right in the “ACC” position!

  5. I always hated how they created instrument panels that made it obvious you cheaped out by not buying the full gauge cluster. Seemed like 90% of the Big 3 cars of the time had just a big speedo flanked by a huge gas gauge and dummy lights, where clearly there was supposed to be a tach or a clock or combination of temp, oil pressure, and volt gauge. It became even more obvious when cheap Japanese cars started to provide a full gauge set on even their base models, which looked far more impressive than this “upscale” Pontiac’s gauge cluster.

    1. I doubt the Toyota Crown 3 row wagon that Toyota had stopped bothering to sell in the USA had a tach to go with it’s small four or small six, even though many had four speeds. A Volvo wagon from the time sure didn’t. Nor Peugeot.

    2. The big 71-76 Pontiac offered the best gauge package option of any of the 71-76 big cars, you could have had everything but a tach, but you really didn’t need it. It was extra, but all the goodies usually are….it had a full oil, temp, volts and there was an optional vacuum “economy” gauge too. Buick and Olds only offered a vacuum gauge for their cluster and Chevrolet had an optional temp and vac gauge combo, Cadillac offered nothing.

      Pontiac continued to have the best gauge cluster option on the 1977 and up B b-bodies too.

      1. True enough on not needing a tach. Today everything has one, and almost everything has an automatic transmission, too. I think I had eight cars before I had a tach – and they all had manual transmissions.

        First car I had access to with a tach, was my mother’s Camry. Early 1990s. First time I saw it, I wondered what the hell it was for. It just pulled into the 2000s, and held there, doing not much, telling the elderly female driver nothing.

        The only time I needed it was when my old Metro broke the alternator bracket – at night, coming in from work. I was on the railroad, based out of another town, and her town was my away-from-home terminal. I’d overnight in my old bedroom – helped she and I keep tabs on one another, and railroad hotels are nasty.

        But the thing broke, and I wasn’t going to pay for a tow. So we went to get it, and to charge the battery for the final 15 miles, I jumped it to the Camry for half an hour. Telling my mother to hold the tach needle THERE (2800 rpm) for charging.

        I guess the pointless tach is better than the useless-idiot-lights generation.

        1. I had an 89 Camry and it had no tach, I think they added one standard with the next generation, it made sense though even in a Camry since there still was a manual option, something that was gone from most big cars around 1970-73. True that everything has one today and they are even more useless in todays rev-limited cars, most newer auto cars with a tach I’ve noticed don’t even have a redline marked anymore, there really is no point to the gauge.

  6. This is the second oddball 70’s tailgate system that you have mentioned that I have had to go to Youtube to see in action. The manual Glide-Away tailgate seemed much faster and more durable, but I guess power was the luxury feature for the female market.

    1. I’ve owned 2 and I’ve never had any issues with the power tailgate, the one on my Buick refused to go down for a little while but that was just from dirty contacts on one of the relays.

  7. These were used (and used up) cars by the time I was old enough to drive in the late 1970’s. A buddy’s family had one of this generation of Chevy station wagon back then. I really don’t recall a lot about it other than the fact it was not the most expensive one and that it rode much better than my dad’s Mercury Montego, even when burdened with five or more kids. Unlike the featured car, that Chevy wagon was that awful pistachio green that GM offered in the 70’s, which was on the inside also.

    It’s great to see one now, to remind us of how things were in the Pleistocene era…

  8. John Wayne drove a ’71 and later a ’75 Grand Safari (no woodgrain on the sides) customized by George Barris with a higher roof so Wayne (who was about 6’4″ tall) could drive in comfort. http://www.barris.com/carsgallery/kurrentprojects/johnwayne.php https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/john-wayne-birthplace-museum-180954679/

    I saw him all over town in them when I was growing up, so they weren’t an extra car. They were his daily driver. I believe his youngest son, Ethan would have been about 13 when his father bought the ’75.

    (These were not the only vehicles that George Barris did for John Wayne. There’s also this little number: http://justacarguy.blogspot.com/2017/07/in-1971-bob-hope-wanted-to-present.html )

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