One Custom Coupe: The Ehle’s 1953 Pontiac Catalina

One Custom Coupe: The Ehle’s 1953 Pontiac Catalina

There’s a lot of talk about hybrid cars these days. You know, half electric, half gasoline-powered modern vehicles. Long before those cars roamed the earth, there was another hybrid chapter in automotive history. Early post-war American cars were a unique combination of pre-war aesthetics and new design trends, offering a glimpse into the evolving automotive design landscape. This 1953 Pontiac Catalina Custom Coupe is the perfect example of that moment in time.

When the US entered WWII on December 8th, 1941, domestic auto production halted and 1942 model cars were frozen in time. America retooled its mighty industrial base and transformed it into the Arsenal of Democracy. The war ended in 1945. Civilian auto production resumed shortly after. New 1946 cars were essentially warmed-over 1942 models, but demand was so strong, the Big Three could barely keep up.

Post War Optimism

At the dawn of the 1950s though, they were yesterday’s news. The Big Three were feverishly toiling away to get all-new designs off the drawing boards and into the hands of a nation starving for the hottest cars money could buy.

Photography by – Dave Cruikshank

GM Design Cheif Harley Earl’s first all-new post-war design was the 1948 Cadillac. Not only did it have nubile fins, but it introduced the General’s new design language to a war-weary world. It was a hybrid of a modern envelope body from the B-pillar forward, yet it retained fat fenders at the rear. Buick, Olds, Pontiac, and Chevrolet followed suit in 1949 with different styling variations on the hybrid blueprint established by Cadillac.

This era of GM cars lasted through 1954 and was superseded by full-envelope body cars. Today, 1948-1954 GM cars survive to varying degrees. Of all the General Motors divisions, Pontiacs of this era seem exceptionally scarce.

New For 1953

Long before John Delorean’s Wide Track Ponchos of the sixties, Pontiac was known for its Silver Streak hood and fancier trim than its down-market Chevrolet stablemate. For 1953, Pontiac introduced a fresh lineup featuring the Chieftain model, available with either a six- or eight-cylinder engine which was offered in Special or Deluxe trims.

The year brought a significant facelift, including one-piece windshields and a wraparound rear window. The rear fenders sprouted vestigial tailfins, foreshadowing the industry-wide trend of the late fifties. The lineup sported new hood ornament and grille designs with integrated parking lights. Big chrome headlight housings and “Panorama View” gauge clusters were also at the leading edge of tech back in the day.

1953 Pontiac ad with Catalina Custom Coupe in the upper right

Straight Eights and Sixes

The six-cylinder engine boasted a displacement of 239 cubic inches, with four main bearings, solid valve lifters, and a Carter two-barrel carburetor. It delivered 115 horsepower when paired with the synchromesh transmission and 118 horsepower with the Hydra-Matic transmission. The larger 268 cubic inches L-head eight-cylinder engine produced 118 horsepower with the synchromesh and 122 horsepower with the Hydramatic.

Standard models, known as the Specials, featured dog dish hubcaps, simple beltline trim, short arrow-shaped side trim, and rubber gravel guards. The Deluxe Chieftains were more elaborately adorned with stainless steel gravel guards that extended to the rear fenders, full-wheel hubcaps, dipping belt moldings, and long ‘dual streak’ body moldings. Models with the eight-cylinder engine were distinguished by an ‘8’ emblem set between twin ‘Silver Streaks’ on the deck lids.

Body styles included two- and four-door sedans, in addition to a Deluxe Catalina coupe, a Deluxe convertible, and a Deluxe station wagon. The Custom Catalina coupe featured unique horizontally grooved decorative trim plates at the rear roof pillar edge. It was available exclusively in Milano Ivory, Laurel Green, or two-tone combinations of these colors.

Striped trim at C-Pillar denotes Catalina Custom

Rescued Survivor

Rick and Yvonne Ehle’s 1953 Pontiac Catalina Custom Coupe was built by Aaron Cushman at Total Performance Motorsports out of Salinas, California. Hailing from Brentwood in Northern California, Rick is a 50-year law enforcement veteran with a storied history of public service. He had known about the car since the seventies and was worried the car would never be treated to the restoration it deserved.

The Catalina was purchased new in San Luis Obispo, California in 1953. The original owner sold the car to a relative of Rick’s in the 1980s. “The car sat for years. It did time in a barn and it became home to toothy rodents. Eventually, it was rescued and moved to a residential garage.

Rick told Street Muscle, “My first car in 1965 was a 1957 Pontiac Star Chief, and when I saw the ’53 sitting in my cousin’s garage in Santa Rosa, my wife Yvonne and I were drawn to it. was promoted to Chief of Police in Capitola, California,, which was a big milestone for us. Yvonne told me. ‘You’re Chief now, you should see if the car is for sale’.”

Rick and the Pontiac headed to Total Performance Motorsports in 2013

In 2005, after some negotiation, he was able to lock the car down and make it his own.”It wasn’t running when I took possession, but I got it roadworthy and drove it for a few years. It even won daily driver awards at local car shows.” Rick recounts.

Taking The Pontiac To The Next Level

Around 2013, he decided he wanted to take the car to the next level, so he called Aaron at Total Performance Motorsports. Rick explains how they met and what would turn into a lifelong friendship, “I met Aaron in 2005 during the Capitola Art and Wine Festival. Aaron had purchased several cases of wine and asked for my assistance in loading the wine into his car as I was volunteering for the event.”

Capitola Rod and Custom Classic Car Show in 2022

“Learning that I was the Capitola Chief of Police and was standing with Fire Chief, Bruce Clark, he asked if our newly formed Capitola Public Safety Foundation would ever consider participating in a car show with the help of the Camsnappers Hot Rod Club, of which Aaron was the President. That conversation led to the first car show in 2006 when Aaron became a Foundation Board member for almost ten years.” Since then, in connection with the Capitola Public Safety Foundation, they have raised over $750,000 for various charitable causes.

Developing A Strategy

The two guys put their heads together and created a game plan for a thoughtful resuscitation of the car. Rick tells us, “We wanted to ditch the ancient mechanicals and bring the car into the 21st century without hurting its provenance or mucking up its originality. The goal was always to be a car I could drive.”

Because Rick and Aaron had known each other for years, the project was billed at the “Friends and family rate.”  Aaron told Street Muscle. “The car was worked on when there was a pause in the shop’s schedule, it was a labor of love, and it took us nearly ten years to complete.”

Origins Of Total Performance Motorsports

Aaron traces his roots to his childhood passion for drag racing and motorsports. Growing up near iconic raceways, Aaron was drawn to the sport’s raw power and excitement. His teenage years were spent mastering his craft, tuning cars to win races—a skill that evolved from necessity to a sought-after talent.

Aaron then found his calling in restoring the cars of motorsport legends, earning the trust of those who inspired him. Total Performance Motorsports was born from this obsession, dedicated to honoring the pioneers of motorsports and preserving its rich history. The company has since expanded its expertise to include custom fabrications and restorations for classics, street rods, and muscle cars.

A Sturdy Foundation

Even though the Pontiac was a California car, it was rusty, suffered a fender bender, and was spackled with a fair amount of body filler. So, Aaron removed the tired old body from the chassis and his team began assessing what they would tackle first.

Any build is only good as its foundation, so the guys started sorting out the frame and running gear. The decision was made to have a static suspension system thereby avoiding cutting up and bagging the car. The factory frame was retained and fortified with a Fatman front stub, Mustang II suspension components, and OEM leaf springs in the rear.

To achieve the ever-elusive perfect stance, Aaron chose Eaton drop coils up front, re-arched leaf springs out back, and added Bilstein shocks all the way around. They even made two sets of springs for the car, “Show” and “Drive,” to tailor the car’s stance. To stop the old Pontiac, 14-inch Wilwood disc brakes were installed up front and rebuilt factory drums in the rear. The rubber meets the road via a set of 15×7-inch steel rims, restored factory hubcaps, and BF Goodrich Silvertown tires.

Modern Motivation

Next up, the factory straight eight and Hydramatic transmission were removed and replaced with a 383 cubic inch, Chevy stroker V8 from Blueprint Engines. Just the right amount of brightwork dresses up the engine including custom aluminum valve covers and a Billet Specialties air cleaner. Otherwise, the engine compartment is clean and tidy with plenty of elbow room.

This mild-mannered brute makes a healthy 450 horsepower and is backed up by a trusty, four-speed 700R4 with overdrive. For quick starts and smooth operation, Atomic EFI crowns the intake, and the small-block exhales out of custom headers and Magnaflow exhaust. The car is plumbed with Painless wiring and is running a Powermaster alternator to power all the updated accessories.

Let’s Get Physical

Next up was getting the body sorted out. The car is ladled with chrome, stainless trim, and a myriad of emblems from the factory. A strategy was critical to keep track of all of it. Aaron told Street Muscle, “We logged and bagged all the trim. It was challenging to find parts but we scoured the country. Rick had some parts as well.”

New sheetmetal was formed in-house to repair the body damage and many hours were spent getting the car straight and true. One of the most fantastic art objects on the car is the illuminated Indian head hood ornament. They researched reproductions, but luckily found a NOS part that now lives again (with wings) on the hood of the car.

Aaron elaborates further, “We massaged the front wheelwells, and removed the bumper guards and the antenna. When it came time to paint, we created augmented versions of the factory colors. We christened the new body color “Kermit the Frog” green and finished it with a white top with a skosh of pearl. Precision Auto Body And Paint does all of our finishing, and they did an incredible job.”

The Gods Live In The Details

The car’s jewelry is spectacular and a testament to the incredible artists at Pontiac back in the day. It was also painstakingly restored. Sherm’s Plating, of Stockton, and New Age Metal Finishing, in Fresno, had their work cut out for them here. The signature Silver Streak stainless trim was painted by Harry’s Custom Paint, Hollister, California.

Inside the cabin, Aaron and Rick worked together to breathe lightly on almost every component for aesthetics and functionality. Aaron told us “We gutted the interior, and every nut and bolt has been touched. Again, we went with a slightly different hue than the factory and it helps the interior pop.” Upholsterer Denny Gattis stitched up the interior, which required two buttery hides of cream colored leather. Rick found the geometric insert fabric in Miami, and it looks like it could have rolled off the assembly line with the car.

Like the exterior, there is an incredible amount of brightwork and trim. It was all carefully refurbished and reassembled with modern amenities cleverly grafted in. The Bluetooth stereo is hidden from view, and the huge radio speaker in the middle of the dash is now a Vintage Air air conditioning system vent. Red Line Gauge Works rebuilt the instruments and new green-tinted glass from Custom Auto Glass was installed on all the windows.

Epilogue

Since the car’s completion, it has won several awards including the 2022 Goodguys Award of Excellence, and Meguiar’s Magnificent Masterpiece in Pleasanton. First Place, Mild Custom Sacramento Autorama 2023. All American Grundy Award of Excellence at 2023 Goodguys, Pleasanton, Goodguys Del Mar Memory Lane Award 2024, and the 2024 Subtle Elegance Roseville Rod and Custom Award at Goodguys, Pleasanton. Next up, the Ponitac is a finalist for Custom of the Year at the 2024 Goodguys in Pleasanton.

These days, Rick and Yvonne enjoy driving and showing the car up and down the west coast. Rick told Street Muscle, “We raised two boys and put them through college. I worked hard for years and getting this car into the shape it’s in today was a bucket list, dream come true.” We say the best thing that ever happened to this 1953 Pontiac was when Rick threw it the automotive equivalent of a life preserver. It could have easily languished or worse yet, been sent to the crusher.

Trusting Aaron and Total Performance Motorsports to gently reincarnate the car was another stroke of luck. Aaron told Street Muscle, “The Pontiac is the result of the great team that I am so lucky to work with, and it was a joint effort from the beginning to end.” Total Performance Motorsports has some cool new builds coming as well. Aaron hinted to us, “We’re building a 1967 C10 truck for the owner of the biggest C10 forum in the world, he said ‘Build me the ultimate C10 truck,’ and that’s exactly what we’ve got underway. We also have a Hellcat Redeye-powered 1963 Fargo (Dodge) Crew Cab truck sitting on a Roadster Shop chassis coming too, so stay tuned for more updates.”

About the author

Dave Cruikshank

Dave Cruikshank is a lifelong car enthusiast and an editor at Power Automedia. He digs all flavors of automobiles, from classic cars to modern EVs. Dave loves music, design, tech, current events, and fitness.
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