When restoring a classic Pontiac, hobbyists often argue over the terms "original" vs. "period correct." Is it better to return a Pontiac to how it was delivered from the factory or restore it to how it potentially could have been optioned and modified by an original owner to compete in drag racing? This is the question that confronts many Pontiac hobbyists as they choose the right theme for their vehicle's restoration.

Ultimately, it comes down to what you want. For Ralph Ronzello, one of the district managers of the Harris Teeter food chain located in Charlotte, North Carolina, the decision on how to restore his '61 Catalina "Batwing" sedan was easy-he knew he desired a Pontiac that would remind him of Super Stock drag racing in Detroit at such legendary quarter-mile tracks as Martin Dragway, Motor City Dragway, Milan Dragway, McBride Dragway, and Detroit Dragway.

"To me, it seems that 90 percent of the restored Pontiacs in the hobby today are done to factory-stock specifications," Ronzello says. "I came out of mid-'60s Detroit when you bought a hot car from the factory, brought it home, and changed it to fit your personality. You'd drive it to work all week and race it at the track on the weekend. I'm partial to that era. That's why I went with the theme of a Super Stock re-creation."

Batwing Vs. Bubbletop
In 1961, Pontiac built 24,370 two-door Catalinas. Production was split between two models: a sport coupe and a sport sedan. Before long, both models had been given informal names by enthusiasts-the Bubbletop (referring to the pillarless sport coupe) and the Batwing (referring to the pillared-sedan). Pontiac production records show 14,524 and 9,846 of each were produced, respectively.

The Bubbletop was the preferred model for NASCAR drivers because of its aerodynamics, but some quarter-mile racers believed the two-door sedan was lighter, making it the better choice for the strip. A look at Pontiac's original specifications proves the Batwing was lighter, but just barely. According to Jim Mattison of PHS Automotive Services, "The Bubbletop has a curb weight of 3,865 pounds and the Batwing sedan weighs 3,835 pounds. That's only 30 pounds lighter, but to a drag racer, 30 pounds can make all the difference in the world."

The Batwing's reputation as a classic Super Stocker has remained strong to this day. "The '61 Pontiac two-door sedan has 'vintage race car' written all over it," Ronzello says. "When I see a Bubbletop, I see the early NASCAR racer of Fireball Roberts, but when I see a Batwing, I see a factory drag car."

Creating A Show-Stopper
Ronzello turned for advice to Pontiac restoration specialist Scott Tiemann of Supercar Specialties in Portland, Michigan. "In the summer of 2006," Ronzello says, "I mentioned to Scott that I had an interest in obtaining a '61 or '62 Pontiac, and asked if he knew of one for sale. He mentioned a '61 Catalina two-door post sedan that had been in his neighborhood for 25 years. It was built at the South Gate plant in South Gate, California, and delivered new to Westward Pontiac in Phoenix, Arizona."

After purchasing the sedan for his customer, Tiemann agreed that Ronzello's proposed Super Stock theme would be a winner. "We wanted the Catalina to look like someone had bought it in 1965 and set it up to go drag racing," Tiemann says.

Unlike many of Tiemann's completed restorations that have required 2,000 or more man-hours, this project was completed in only 700. "It was one of my faster restorations," he says. "We wanted a car that Ronzello would feel comfortable with on the track, instead of having to keep always in an enclosed trailer."

Here's how the 700 hours panned out. "I stripped the vehicle of its original Cameo White exterior, blue interior, 389 engine, automatic trans, and highway gears, and prepared to convert it into a concours nostalgia race/show car," Tiemann says.

After determining the Catalina had only minimal rust, he welded new metal in the lower rear quarters and along the back of the roof. Bodywork followed, beginning with spraying the naked metal with PPG DP40 epoxy primer, filling the high and low spots, and sandwiching the filler with a second layer of DP40. In preparation for paint, Tiemann applied polyester high-build primer, followed by more blocking, and finally, several coats of PPG K38 High Build primer surfacer.

Next came the color. Ronzello takes the credit for choosing the Catalina's vintage-cool Coronado Red that Tiemann sprayed using five coats of PPG DBC basecoat and five coats of PPG DCU 2002 clear. "I think the color was special to that period," Ronzello says. "So many of the cars were either white or blue back then, and I wanted the color on my nostalgia Super Stocker to be different from all the rest."

For a swirl-free finish, Tiemann wet-sanded the Catalina using progressive grits of 600-2,500 sandpaper, and, adding a vintage touch, he applied period-correct graphics: NHRA "S/SS" class designation and Royal Racing decals.

The interior was restored vintage-style, too, with a one-off "deluxe" interior that was never offered by Pontiac. It was designed by Ralph's wife, Lynn, using N.O.S. cloth and vinyl, and sewn and installed by LA Trim of Lowell, Michigan. To accentuate the Super Stock theme, radio and heater deletes; a Sun tachometer; and period Stewart-Warner water temp, amp, and oil pressure gauges were added to the cabin.

Drivetrain
The original 389 had been rebuilt but never fired up before Ronzello bought his Catalina, so he chose to limit the engine work to new rings and gaskets. It also came with both four-barrel and Tri-Power setups. "The choice was obvious," Ronzello says. "Scott installed the Tri-Power, replacing the original vacuum-activated linkage with a '65 GTO-style progressive linkage in the process."

Other engine necessities include a factory-style ignition system with a Pontiac points-type distributor, Packard solid-core Super-Duty 7mm wires, and AC 44S plugs. To give the exhaust gases a unique twist [literally], Tiemann installed Firebird long-branch exhaust manifolds mated to custom-bent 2.5-inch aluminized head pipes, an x-style crossover, Flowmaster Series 40 mufflers, and 2.25-inch tailpipes.

Pushing the power to the pavement is a four-speed conversion installed by Tiemann that features a Centerforce dual-friction clutch, a BorgWarner Super T-10 trans, a Hurst linkage with stock shifter, a steel driveshaft, and the original Safe-T-Track rearend, upgraded with a new ring-and-pinion, and 3.90 gears.

Conclusion
Upon Ronzello's request, Tiemann displayed the just-completed Catalina at the '08 Detroit Autorama where it won First Place in Factory Nostalgic. When Ronzello arrived to see it for the first time since its restoration, a buyer had been waiting patiently near the car for three hours to make an offer. "I hadn't even driven it, and he told me that he had to have the car," Ronzello says. "I think that speaks highly to the quality of the restoration that Tiemann performed. The Catalina is everything we set out to achieve. It's a vintage race car that will remind you of your youth and of early factory musclecars, and it's a concours vintage race/show car that has proven itself as a national show-winner."

Whether you plan on restoring your Pontiac as a nostalgia Super Stock show car as did Ronzello, or you intend on keeping your ride factory original, remember to make your decision before you begin, and work with a restorer who's comfortable with your goal. In the end, you'll find that you've restored a Pontiac that pleases you and-if you did the job right-others as well.

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