Cars We Remember: 1961 Pontiac Catalina

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Advertisement for the 1961 Pontiac Bonneville bubble-top, offering many different 389 V8 engines. (Courtesy General Motors)

Reader looking to buy a nice 1961 Pontiac Catalina

Q: Greg, I bought a 1961 Pontiac Catalina two-door sport hardtop brand new, and was the coolest car I owned. I want to buy another ‘61 Catalina in good condition or in need of minor restoration. I want one in fairly good to good condition.

The Catalina I owned had the biggest engine that you could have with an automatic transmission. I think at the time GM billed it as “the lowest weight per horsepower automatic in production.” What should I expect to pay for this car and where can I find the best buys? Jim H., Idaho.

A: Glad to help, Jim, as one of my best friends in Vineland, New Jersey, had a neat ’60 Catalina 389 bubble-top automatic, and it ran great.

First, there were numerous 389 V8 engines available in the Pontiac line in 1961. Ranging from 267 horses with a two barrel to 348 horses with the 3×2 tri-power, the 389 was a potent, multi-task Pontiac engine. Be it a Star Chief, Bonneville, Catalina or Ventura, there was a 389 lurking under the hood. Thus, for the sake of clarity, I will begin my answer based on the 348 with one four barrel and 318 horses as our price point.

Expect to pay for a decent 348/318 ’61 Catalina $8,850 and up for the 2-door sedan (that’s the one with a B-pillar post and a lip on the rear of the top), or up to $17,500 for the (bubble-top) two-door sport hardtop.

The Pontiac “bubble-top” debuted in 1959, and caught on with the high performance crowd immediately. Here’s Jim Wangers winning a national drag racing event in his 1960 Pontiac Catalina out of Ace Wilson’s Royal Pontiac dealership in Royal Oak, Michigan. (Courtesy Jim Wangers collection).

However, the more powerful 389 engines up the price substantially, even to out of sight categories. Since we’re already talking the 389/318 four barrel, if a ’61 Catalina you find has a 389 with the three two barrel “Tri-Power” putting out 348 horses, add at least 40-percent to the cost. If it’s a 335-horse four-barrel version, add 30-percent. You mention the automatic transmission, and that’s OK, but if you choose one with a three-speed manual, deduct 10-percent from the cost. Also, if you find a Catalina with the beautiful eight-lug wheels, add 10-percent. If you can find a four-speed, add another seven to 10-percent.

These are prices based on average retail to a high retail for a good condition Catalina. If by some crazy chance you come across the extremely rare Super Duty 421-inch, 405-horse V8 ’61 Catalina, jump the price by at least 400-percent and expect to pay $130,000 and up for a bubble-top or $90,000 for a lip-top two-door sedan.

My recommendation is don’t walk away from a nice two-door post lip-top  as these were popular cars on the dragways. They also cost quite a bit less than the bubble-tops.

Good luck in your quest to buy a second ‘61 Catalina. I’d check the noted car magazines like Auto Roundup (I write for them) and Hemmings Motor News, both of which available on newsstands everywhere and have nice websites. Also, don’t forget to check the local classified section in your newspaper as you may just find a diamond in the rough at a great price.

In ending, if you love Pontiacs, check out Jim Wangers “Glory Days” book about all those great years of Pontiac high performance. He is the legendary Pontiac drag racer and publicist from 1960 and up, running numerous Catalinas out of Ace Wilson’s Royal Pontiac dealership in Royal Oak, Michigan.

(Greg Zyla writes weekly for more Content Now, and other GateHouse Media publications. He welcomes reader questions on collector cars, muscle cars or old-time racing at 116 Main St., Towanda, Pa. 18848 or emails at

Greg Zyla

Greg Zyla