Building a rare Pontiac Catalina Royal Bobcat piece by piece
Hardcore car lovers know that some of the most interesting vehicles in the world are those singularly special machines that were produced in miniscule numbers yet became favorites of enthusiasts the world over. Among them are both multi-million-dollar exotics and some automobiles that might be had for a price that doesn’t quite reach the six-digit mark—if only they weren’t so darn scarce and hard to find.
In that latter group, one would have to include the Super Duty Pontiac Catalinas of the early ’60s. Those storied Ponchos were created in small numbers solely to pump some life into a dying brand. Championed by auto executive Bunkie Knudsen, ad guy Jim Wangers, and dealership owner Asa “Ace” Wilson, they were engineered and built to win races and generate support for the brand. Hero cars, they were small in number but big in performance.
Today, many die-hard Pontiac fans would love to have a Super Duty Catalina, if only they could find one. For close to half a century, Dennis Koss has been counted among those who covet just such a machine. But he wanted something even more desirable and considerably scarcer than a standard Super Duty Pontiac. He wanted a Royal Bobcat, the rarest of the rare high-performance Pontiacs. Much like the Yenko Camaros that would come later, the Bobcat Ponchos were factory built and then prepped at the dealership to be something truly wicked. The dealership, of course, was Ace Wilson’s Royal Pontiac in Royal Oak, Michigan.
As a well-paid 18-year-old helper on a beer truck, Koss had come close to owning just such a car in September 1962. Driven by automotive lust and blessed with a bank account that was quite healthy for a young man, he traveled to Royal Oak to put some dollars down on a Super Duty 1962 Pontiac Catalina. With the potent 405-horsepower 421-cu-in V-8 under the hood, the car was a powerhouse as equipped, but Koss wanted Royal to turn it into a monster machine. Upon delivery from the factory, the dealership mechanics would dig in and turn the already potent Catalina into a Royal Bobcat, a car that was said to generate close to 500 horsepower, all of which would be put to good use about a mile west of the Royal showroom in Woodward Avenue acceleration contests.
But there would be no Bobcat for Koss. By the time he had the cash in hand, the factory had stopped shipping ’62 Super Duty Catalinas, and although the ’63s were coming, it was the styling of the ’62 and the special Bobcat accessories Royal Pontiac offered only that year that had won Koss’s heart. He eventually settled for a Royal-modified ’63 Grand Prix with a four-speed transmission and 421 engine, but it wasn’t the car he had pined for.
The years flew by and Koss cruised Woodward in a variety of hot Pontiacs, but he never forgot his first love. So in 2002, when he stumbled across a ’62 Catalina that had been loaded up with a variety of Super Duty mechanicals during a frame-off restoration, he knew it was time to make good on his dream. The car wasn’t a Royal Bobcat, and when it rolled out of the factory 40 years prior it wasn’t a Super Duty machine, but it had been restored to be at least the equal of those old Poncho warriors. Under the hood was a 1970 455-cu-in V-8 that had been extensively modified and overbored to 469 cubic inches. In other words, an engine that could easily equal the performance of the original 421. Behind the engine were a Muncie four-speed and a set of 4.10 cogs on a limited-slip differential. Unlike the most potent of the ’62 Super Duty Ponchos, it didn’t have a lightened Swiss-cheese frame and aluminum bodywork, but it had the look and performance potential Koss had craved.
Koss bought the car and put it back up on the rotisserie for yet another restoration. This time, it was painted in period-correct Belmar Red and finished to concours-level condition. Koss and his wife Mary showed the car for several years and garnered numerous awards. But one element was glaringly missing: the Royal Bobcat modifications that would take the Pontiac to another level. Koss knew that Supercar Specialties’ Scott Tiemann, a Pontiac expert of many years’ experience, could handle the Bobcat mods, just as the mechanics at Royal Pontiac had done so long ago. All the necessary trim pieces were available, and much of the mechanical work had already been done, but four vital parts—the wheel spinners that were a Bobcat trademark—were nowhere to be found. Koss wasn’t going to go Bobcat unless he could go all the way.
Fast forward to the 2007 Meadow Brook Concours d’Elegance. Koss and his wife were there with the stunning Catalina and took a Lion Award in their class. More importantly, their Pontiac caught the eye of an old-time Royal Pontiac employee named Ken Conrad, who pegged the car as a great candidate for the full Bobcat treatment. Koss concurred, of course, but told Conrad he didn’t want to do it unless it could be done in full, complete with those unobtanium wheel spinners. “No problem,” Conrad said. “I have a set.”
Well, he had a set alright, a badly pitted and scarred set that couldn’t be repaired. But they were whole and complete, so they could serve as models for casting new ones in bronze, and then chrome-plating them to look just like the originals. Thousands of dollars and hundreds of man hours later, Koss had a brand new set of the scarce spinners. So he engaged Tiemann to bring his Catalina up to full Bobcat specs, as outlined in a May 1962 Car Life magazine article titled “How to Build a Bobcat,” and build a Bobcat they did.
I recently photographed Koss’s very special Royal Bobcat at a park in Michigan, being careful not to drool on it. As we were leaving, Koss made a point of telling me that the car isn’t a clone or tribute car. To his mind, since the original Bobcats were dealer modified, a Catalina equipped with Super Duty mechanicals that is subjected to the full Bobcat makeover, is in fact, a real Bobcat. I’ll buy that. Why not?