Building a 1963 Pontiac Catalina – A Conversion Story

By Jon Fincher

Quest for Inclusion

The Northwest Scale Modelers are a club which meet monthly at the Museum of Flight in Seattle, Washington. One of group’s activities includes filling two permanent display cases at the Museum on a quarterly basis. These cases are populated with models supporting the activities of the Museum (see photos). Currently, the Museum is currently showcasing the 50th anniversary of NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration), and so the club got together to build rockets, satellites, and NASA aircraft for display. Since I classify myself primarily as a car modeler (or at least, primarily not an aircraft modeler), I felt a little excluded from the action.

Then, one fateful day in June, Tim Nelson, a fellow club member who specializes in space related models, approached me with an idea and a book. He told me that in 1963, NASA was experimenting with vehicles called “lifting bodies” – aircraft which generated lift using the entire airframe body rather than wings alone. These airframes were used as experiments and proving grounds for ideas that eventually became the Space Shuttle. However, at the beginning in early 1963, they needed a way to get these unpowered airframes down the runway to test their flight characteristics.

In order to do this, the book says, NASA bought a stock 1963 Pontiac Catalina convertible, sent it to Straub in California for a “hot rod makeover”, and brought it back to Edwards AFB where it was equipped with a tow package, high visibility yellow hood and trunk lids (more on why later), and some NASA markings. They then proceeded to tow the first lifting body (designated M2F1) down the runway behind the Catalina at a cool 110mph (!). By October 1963, a C-43 had replaced the Catalina as the tow vehicle, but the car had done its part and taken a step into the history books. With this inspiration, I undertook to build this early 60’s “muscle car” for the NASA display.

Defining the Problem

My first problem was simple, but posed the biggest hurdle: there are no kits of a 1963 Catalina available, at least none that I could find. The early Catalina kits from 1960 and 1962 I did find had radically different bodies, and I didn’t want to scratch-build an entire car body. I thought about using die-casts, but had problems finding acceptable subjects there. Armed with some Internet pictures and a video from the NASA archives of the Catalina in action, I went looking for a suitable substitute. Knowing I had an eight week deadline, and would lose some of that due to personal travel plans, I was looking for something that matched the basic body shape of the Catalina, and wouldn’t require a lot of hacking and slashing to make it fit.

What I found was the 1965 GTO kit by AMT. The basic body outline matches well, but to be sure, there are some significant differences between the GTO and the earlier Catalina.

1. The windshield on the Catalina wraps around, while the GTO windshield is flat.
2. The taillights on the Catalina are mounted vertically behind the fenders, while the GTO lights are mounted in a panel under the trunk, which spans the width of the rear end.
3. The trunk on the GTO is flat and opens on top, while the Catalina trunk bends over the rear “character line” and the trunk lid is also narrower.
4. The headlights are subtly different
5. There are some badging, chrome, and character line differences as well.
Oh, and there’s one other small minor difference between the two cars: the GTO is (supposedly) a lot shorter than the Catalina.

My second problem was simple after this: In order to perform the conversion, I had to figure out how to handle each of the problems listed above. In doing so, I considered the audience – most visitors to the Museum of Flight would not be able to tell a Camaro from a Firebird at a distance. I therefore opted to take on the easiest fixes – the tail section and trunk lid, character lines and chrome trim, and GTO badges. I decided to leave the windshield alone (I don’t have the capability to vac-form new glass), and the front end changes were simply too difficult to undertake without major surgery. I also decided about halfway through to make this a curbside model – no one would see the engine, so why bother building and detailing it?

However, and this may be the most surprising of all, I didn’t bother with lengthening the GTO chassis. According to my sources, the documented wheelbase length difference is only 5 inches (.2 scale inches) and the LOA (Length Overall) difference is only 4 inches (.16 scale inches). I didn’t think the change was worth the work, given the audience.

My third problem? This was by far both the easiest and most difficult problem of all: I’ve never done anything remotely like this before. The best I’d ever done to a car was to remove existing badges – no chopping, no channeling, no pancaking, no nothing. I hadn’t even lowered a car by turning the king-pins over. This was brand new territory for me. Let’s see how I did…

Execution

My first task was to resculpt the rear of the body. I cut off the rear fender pillars just above the GTO chrome rear bumper, and then used the pieces to build the rear bumper to look more like the Catalina (see photos). A lot of epoxy putty and CA glue later, and I had a reasonable facsimile of the Catalina rear bumper. I sanded down the top portion where the taillights were encased with some chrome and added strip styrene to form the housing. I also built down the trunk lid and scribed a new trunk line to fit with the new rear bumper shape.

My first attempt at rechroming the rear bumper with Alclad Chrome was a dismal failure – I used the incorrect base coat, and the results looked like bad aluminum paint. My second attempt was to use BMF (Bare Metal Foil) as chrome – after a few attempts, I had something that looked OK but not great. I had issues with seams and getting the BMF around the compound curves, but was running out of time, so I left it as is. With weathering and proper positioning, the rear bumper would be less visible, but I plan to fix it once the model is returned from the Museum.

I removed all the GTO badges from the car and sanded down the character lines on the body to look more like the Catalina. I added a chrome strip, which was eventually covered with BMF when the paint was complete. I also lengthened the rear wheel wells on the body to look more like the Catalina, and therefore had to modify the chassis wheel wells as well, sawing them off and replacing them with sheet styrene backed with some epoxy putty for firmness. This wasn’t the first problem the chassis would give me, though.

Since this was a convertible, the interior would be highly visible and very important to get right. The interior of the modified NASA vehicle was described in the references my friend handed me – the driver’s bucket seat faced forward, the passenger’s bucket faced rearwards (?!), and the rear bench had been removed and replaced with a third bucket behind the driver, facing to the right. I cut the rear bench out of the interior and built the floor and rear of the interior pan back up, making sure to carry the drive shaft tunnel through to the back (see photos). This was covered eventually with flocking, so I didn’t do much to restore lost detail here. The third bucket seat was provided by an older Mustang kit. No interior colors were mentioned, so I went with a neutral grey all over. The interior was completed with the addition of a simple roll bar behind the driver and passenger seats and spanning the width of the interior (see photo)

All this work, however, caused my first fit issue with the chassis – the new squared off interior interfered with the tops of wheel wells on the chassis. I cut out wedges in the tops of the wheel wells to accept the new interior corners so the interior pan would fit, reasoning that folks would be looking down into the model rather than up into the wheel wells when it was on display. However, to help disguise the openings, everything underneath was painted flat black.

The wheels on the real car were five bolt steel rims and unnamed black walls – I used flat black paint and some detail painting to convert the kit’s chrome five-bolt rims, and a knife and files to remove the Goodyear logos from one set of tires. Some CA glue was used to overcome rim-to-tire fit issues, but since the wheels had to be wedged into the wheel well openings, I didn’t try to glue them to the interior rims. Some weathering with light grey acrylic paint to represent the dirt and dust from repeated high speed runs down an active runway covered up the CA fogging and hit other sins on the tires.

The last major hurdle was the hood. The Catalina’s hood is flat, but the GTO has a prominent hood scoop. I back filled the hood scoop with epoxy putty and started grinding down the profile. Once I had a good flat hood to work with, I applied primer and the first few color coats. It was then that I noticed the scoop outline and some epoxy putty irregularities ghosting through the paint. I wound up starting over on the hood, this time using automotive sealer to block the body work from ghosting up through the paint.

Paint and Decals

The original car was white, with the exception of the hood and trunk lids, which were painted high visibility yellow on the real car. The reasons here were two-fold: First, the car would be racing down active runways at Edwards AFB, and needed to be seen from the air as a safety measure.

The second reason was more interesting, though: the bright yellow marking discouraged NASA workers from taking the souped up car, capable of 140+ mph, out onto nearby the Nevada highways (with their lack of speed limits) on the weekends. One story tells of the regular driver doing this regularly to “calibrate the speedometer” at 100mph and higher.

The car body was painted with Tamiya Acrylic Lacquer rattle cans in Pure White and Chrome Yellow – the interior was a mix of custom grey enamel and acrylic brush painting. The doors sported not NASA blue meatball logos, but the simple words “National Aeronautics and Space Administration” in a generic non-serif font. They were simple to print out using my ink-jet printer, some Super Cal paper, and Tamiya Clear Lacquer to seal them. No clear coat was used, but the body was lightly sanded and rubbed out with Novus polish before the decals were applied. BMF and some light weathering were added later, as was the final detail – a small white blade antenna on top of the left rear quarter panel.

The final result was installed in the display cases at the Museum of Flight on August 23 (see photos).

Lessons Learned

I learned a lot doing this conversion, and there are a number of things I would do differently if I could. First, I’d start with a different kit – the AMT GTO has some fit issues outside the ones caused by my hack and slash attacks. The hood doesn’t quite cover the entire opening in the body, and the interior pan doesn’t fit up into the body well either – you can see over the dash into the engine compartment. The custom wheels don’t fit between the body and the chassis wheel wells.

Second, I’d give myself more time. A wise modeler once said, “Nothing sucks the joy out of this hobby like building on a deadline.” (Oddly enough, this was the same Tim Nelson who started me down this path). Taking more time to do more searching for the right kit, for asking more folks for advice and help on scratch-building things, and for experimenting with new techniques first is definitely in order.

Third, I’d add some more detail to parts of the model that got overlooked. There are no seat belts, which would be necessary on a 100+ mph vehicle. I couldn’t find Catalina badges to add to the body. I would either replace the windshield with the proper version, or detail the inside of the vent windows. I’d rechrome everything properly, or at least apply Alclad Chrome properly. More weathering is in order as well.

However, I did learn one big positive lesson in this build: Modifications shouldn’t be feared. I’ve been afraid to modify other models for fear of “screwing it up”. This build taught me that even if I screw something up, I can fix it with styrene, epoxy putty, or spare parts from other kits.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a couple of Model Ts and As to hack into hot rods…

References

Wingless Flight, by R. Dale Reed, Darlene Lister, Chuck Yeager, pp. 33-39
1963 Pontiac with M2F1 on lakebed
1963 Pontiac with M2F1 in hangar
Video of 1963 Pontiac Towing the M2F1 Lifting Body
Museum of Flight, Seattle, WA

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