My Classic Car: Malcolm’s 1972 Pontiac Catalina Safari wagon

A stop along historic Route 66 | Malcolm Graham photos
A stop along historic Route 66 | Malcolm Graham photos

My buddy and I drove 18,000 miles round the USA last summer, 4000 miles of it in a 1972 Pontiac Catalina Safari station wagon I bought on eBay from a dealer in Peru, Illinois.

Peter and I learned very quickly that the byways were much more interesting than the interstate, but we were quite taken aback to find that so many of small town America’s main streets had just fallen into disuse through the move to strip malls on the main highways out of town. This saddened us and made me realize the same thing is happening in my hometown. Of course the major earthquakes we suffered four and five years ago (and smaller ones since) haven’t helped any because a lot of the old buildings, put up a hundred years ago by British architects and builders who simply didn’t know what an earthquake is, just fell over.

We stayed in Ma ‘n Pa motels almost everywhere we went but there was one day we drove for miles along what had obviously once been a pretty major highway, through many small towns, none of which had a motel. I can’t remember where it was exactly but we wound up staying in a chain motel in a town with an interstate running through it. Exactly the kind of place we were trying to avoid.

We needed to do a "ewe" turn
We needed to do a “ewe” turn

My Pontiac (which is sitting outside my office right now) was a one-owner Nevada car and came to be in Illinois because the dealer we bought it from made regular trips to Nevada auctions to buy rust-free used pickup trucks (which was his main stock in trade) and he still had a space on the car carrier at this particular auction when there were no more pickups to buy.

When I bought it, the dealer wanted to ship it to LA but I asked him to just lock it in a local storage unit, reasoning that going to pick it up would be much more interesting than having it shipped. I didn’t bother with insurance because it was going to cost $500 for three months cover. What could possibly happen to it locked in an anonymous shed with the battery disconnected? If just one person had used the word tornado, I might’ve had it shipped.

About a month before we left home for our trip, an Illinois town made the TV news here when a bit of a breeze turned it into a very large number of very small pieces and spread it all over Wisconsin. I idly took a look at Google Maps — 50 miles! Man, that was way too close for comfort.

Pete and I booked into a Peru motel and the first thing I did was go take a look at the car. Finding it in the storage lot was a bit of a task at 10:30 p.m. when there didn’t seem to be any rhyme nor reason to the numbering system. but when I opened the door all was exactly like I’d hoped.

Malcolm (left) and Pete and their Pontiac and its trophy
Malcolm (left) and Pete and their Pontiac and its trophy

Three days later there was a big Pontiac show in Chicago run by the Cruisin’ Tigers GTO Club. We figured that if someone’s giving a party just for us, it’d be rude not to go, right? There were 500 cars there and only seven of them station wagons.

Literally, all we’d done was wipe the dust off the Catalina and black the tires and they gave us a trophy which sits on the shelf in my office right behind me.

Of course 1972 wagons are pretty thin on the ground in Illinois these days. They started rusting before they left the factory and by 1980 the demolition derbies finished off the remains.

Our route to LA took us down Route 66 (where you can still find any number of “old school” Ma ‘n Pa motels — but only because of the demand from mostly overseas tourists ticking off their bucket list) to Albuquerque, from there up to Reno and across to San Francisco and down California Highway 1 to LA where we dropped the wagon off to the freight forwarders for the trip home to New Zealand.

As our trip took us through Reno, we looked up the only previous owners of the wagon. George and Jane Magee had bought the car new from Winkel Pontiac in 1972 and Jane still lives in the same house. George is dead just now and Jane was unable to see us because she was in bed recovering from an operation but the news that the old Pontiac was in the street again spread pretty quick. We had a fascinating conversation with a chap from across the road who remembered the car arriving in the street the day it was new.

The Pontiac at home in New Zealand
The Pontiac visits its former home in Reno

The Magee’s grandson arrived, too, and joined the chat. I’ve been in touch with the Magee’s daughters since and they have professed themselves happy that the car they grew up with has gone to New Zealand to be looked after and enjoyed.

I had it registered here under the only registration number the car ever carried.

— Malcolm Graham, Christchurch, New Zealand

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4 thoughts on “My Classic Car: Malcolm’s 1972 Pontiac Catalina Safari wagon”

  1. I learned to drive on a 72 Catalina Safari. 400CID 4-barrel. With four siblings and some of the worst winters ever in the northeast, we drove the life out of that car in 6 years. Went way past what was then the magical 100,000 mile mark, and sold it to a guy who used it for deliveries for 3 more years. There were days when we filled the tank on Saturday morning and had to refill it on Saturday night just for local usage. Wish I would have seen you on tour when you were in the states. Been looking for years for one. I think that 72 Catalina is one of the most classic front ends that GM ever put on a vehicle. Great lines on the wagon and best looking without the ugly wood grain sides! Let me know when you’re ready to sell.

  2. Hi Chuck, I thought I’d missed out on this car. The seller cancelled the deal because he couldn’t be bothered with the hassles of dealing with an international buyer so I had to bid again. There were lots of ‘buyers’ talking the talk but couldn’t (or wouldn’t) walk the walk. Between times I’d taken a look at some ’73s that were available but I reckon they were Buick styling rejects.
    If you’re serious about buying it, then I’m ready to sell. I love the wagon but the fact of the matter is I’m a single guy and I just don’t need a car that seats eight. I’ve had it full a couple of times and the attention it gets in a world where most people have never seen a car with three rows of seats is amazing. You’d need to be prepared to spend NZ$30k (about US$21k). You can get me at stay@sherbornemotorlodge.co.nz Are you still in the north east? If you’re not far away and want to meet I’m flying into New York 25th September and out again 29th.

  3. Great story – I’d love to hear the kind of reaction this car gets from the locals at it’s new home.

  4. New Pontiacs haven’t been sold in New Zealand since the mid-sixties (apart from a Korean made economy car in the mid-nineties) so nobody knows what they’re looking at. The first conversation with anyone usually includes the word ‘hearse’ as most hearses here are US station wagons or extended Australian ones. New Zealand trends usually follow US ones so it’ll be a while before station wagons gather a following here. Wagons are increasingly becoming known as ‘long-roofs’ so maybe it’s coming? In the meantime, at shows nobody looks twice at anything that isn’t a convertible, coupe or hardtop – until we put eight people in it. Watch the heads swivel then.

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