Photos by Patricia O’Blenes

Behind the Wheel: Pontiac Catalina is a tribute to ‘Slim’ the ‘Southern gentleman’

By: Maria Allard | Metro | Published October 13, 2022


METRO DETROIT — Every time Rick Gaines starts up the 1967 Pontiac Catalina that once belonged to his wife’s grandfather, he says the same thing.

“All right, Slim,” Rick says. “I’m taking your car for a ride, so be nice to me.”

The memory of Robert “Slim” Williams lives on each time Rick and Dawn Gaines, of Roseville, take the vintage set of wheels to a local car show or cruise. It’s been on Gratiot, Harper and Woodward avenues over the years, and it’s always a conversation piece at the annual St. Margaret’s Catholic Church car show in St. Clair Shores.

“He was a Southern gentleman. This was his baby,” Rick said. “We get a lot of people that stop and stare and give a thumbs-up. It’s not a car you see every day.”

Slim was originally from Camden, Tennessee, and moved to Michigan in the early 1950s. He purchased the turquoise/aqua model at a Detroit dealership. He  died in 1996, and the Pontiac stayed in the family.

“It feels like a giant boat, but there’s a nice ride to it. There’s no power steering. It’s all manual steering. That’s a bit of a challenge,” Rick said. “This car has a feature most cars didn’t have. It has a tire skirt on both rear wheels that came with the original car. It’s just the style. It just enhances the look of the car. Some of your Cadillacs had them.”

For many years, the Catalina wasn’t used.

“This car sat for a long time,” Rick said. “It sat almost 10 years. It finally made its way on the road in 2019.”

Dawn has plenty of childhood memories of her grandfather behind the wheel of the Catalina.

“He used to take me to Eastern Market and to Belle Isle to ride the big slide,” Dawn said. “He drove the car all summer.”

Slim, however, would park it in the wintertime and use another car during the cold-weather months.

“He loved it. He swore he would never sell it,” Dawn said. “He really took good care of it. We kept everything the way it was.”

Slim often drove with the window down. He’d relax his left arm on the driver’s side door and maneuver the car with just his right hand on the steering wheel.

“Despite not having power steering, he could manage it,” Dawn said. “When he got the car, it did not have an air conditioner.”

It was a luxury for which he’d have to wait. So, over a two-year period, Slim “saved every dime he had” to purchase an air conditioning unit. He finally got one. The unit is a “big old box underneath the dashboard,” Rick said.

“It was a family car,” Dawn said. “The car is all original.”

That includes the paint job, tires, motor and parts. Rick and Dawn purchased a historic license plate for the car.

Dawn’s grandfather was known for wearing a baseball cap that said “Slim,” which now rests proudly in the back seat of the Catalina. There’s a section of The McKenzie Banner, a Tennessee newspaper, from 1993 still in the trunk.

Rick never knew Slim. He died before Rick and Dawn met.

“I think they would have gotten along well,” Dawn said. One sure sign of that is the relationship between Rick and Slim’s brother, Uncle Hurley. “If my Uncle Hurley liked you, then my grandpa liked you.”

Dawn said Slim and her dad, Robert Gaines, “had a tight relationship,” and the pair used to drag race at different racetracks.

“My grandpa had a love of classic cars, and so did my dad,” Dawn said. “They would just do their own repairs.”

When Dawn posted pictures of the Catalina on her social media page, it caught the attention of relatives from out of state. They were quick to hit the “like” button.

“They were happy to see it was up and running and still in the family,” Rick said. “They’re ecstatic we still have it. Once the gang saw it on Facebook, the memories flooded back.”