For 1959, Pontiac dropped the name Chieftain for its entry level model and renamed it Catalina, while demoting the former top-line Star Chief to mid-line status and expanding the Bonneville nameplate to a full flagship series that included sedans, coupes, convertibles and Safari station wagons.
In the lower-priced Catalina line, Pontiac Division advertising placed higher emphasis on the top trimmed two- and four-door hardtops, convertible and Safari station wagons instead of the pillared two- and four-door sedan variants despite the fact that the four-door sedan was the bread-and-butter best seller in this line.
The Catalina, though it was the lowest-priced full-sized Pontiac, was still a substantial step up from the Chevrolet Impala in trim and appointments and only a short step below the Buick LeSabre and Oldsmobile 88 in trim and appointments but priced about $100 to $200 less. Catalinas also came standard with more amenities than Chevrolet models and included a larger and more powerful V8 engine of 389 cubic inches, compared to the Chevy's six-cylinder or 283 and 348 cubic-inch V8s. Pontiacs also benefited from a much better automatic transmission than their Chevrolet counterparts - the four-speed Hydra-Matic - versus the Chevy's two-speed Powerglide.
Though the basic Catalina was well equipped with features such as full carpeting, glovebox and trunk lights, dual front ashtrays, cigar lighter, glove compartment snack bar (two cup indents on the glovebox door that could be opened for use at drive-in restaurants), heater/defroster and a choice of cloth and Morrokide vinyl upholstery or expanded Morrokide (all-vinyl trim), Pontiac buyers could add even more trimmings for a few dollars more by ordering the Decor Group which added full wheel covers, deluxe steering wheel, chrome pedal trim plates and more. Also offered from 1962 to 1970 on most Catalina models was the Ventura custom interior (which was a separate model in 1960 to 1961), which included the interior and exterior upgrades offered with the extra-cost decor group option plus a slightly more luxurious interior of cloth or Morrokide trims similar to the costlier Pontiac Star Chief or Executive depending on year.
Catalina and other 1959 Pontiacs were completely restyled on a new General Motors B-body that was shared by all GM divisions from Chevrolet to Cadillac, replacing the previous A-body utilized for Pontiacs and Chevrolets that was used only for 1958. Twin tailfins, two on each side, were new and only in 1959. Styling highlights included thin-pillar rooflines and greater use of glass for increased visibility. Pillared four-door sedans featured six-window styling, while two-door hardtops were dubbed the "bubbletop" due to the thin c-pillar and large rear window and four-door hardtops featured flat-blade rooflines with an overhang past the rear window. Wheelbases on all models remained at 122 inches, but overall length was 213.7 inches (5,430 mm).
The 1959 Pontiacs featured a new styling trademark - the "split grille" which easily distinguished a Pontiac from any other car on the highway until around 1996/7, when the grilles began to resemble those of BMW via convergence (Pontiac having separated the grilles from the headlights that they had traditionally stretched out to embrace at the same time BMW expanded their "kidneys" from a tacked-on chrome piece to forming the full extent of the grille). This Pontiac trademark came about by accident when the styling studio were exploring grille design. Experimentally, a design for a conventional, full width, oval grille, containing horizontal quad headlights, was cut in two and the halves transposed. With the lights remaining at the extremities, this gave the split center, open ended look of the 59 Catalina. Along with the wider body came a wider chassis in which the wheels were moved further out by five inches almost to fender level. This not only improved the appearance of the car, but Pontiac engineers discovered that pushing the wheels further out also led to vast improvements in ride and handling - hence the term "Wide Track Tigers" which Pontiac would use in its promotional efforts for many years to come.
All Pontiacs were powered by various renditions of the new 389 cubic-inch Tempest V8, which was later renamed from 1961 as the Trophy V-8, which was basically a stroked version to 3.75" of the 370 cubic-inch V8 used in 1958-model Pontiacs and based on the same Pontiac V8 design introduced in 1955. Catalinas came standard with a 235 horsepower (175 kW) version of the 389 with two-barrel carburetor and 8.6 to 1 compression mated to the three-speed manual transmission. When the optional four-speed Hydramatic transmission was ordered, the standard engine was 280 horsepower (210 kW) version of the same engine with higher 10.5 to 1 compression ratio. Available as a no-cost option with the Hydramatic transmission was the 215-horsepower 389 (dubbed the Economy V8) with 8.6 to 1 compression ratio which burned cheaper regular gasoline, instead of the premium and super-premium fuels required for the high-compression engines, and capable of achieving more than 20 MPG on the highway. Optionally available at extra cost were higher-power of the 389 V8 with four-barrel carburetion rated at 283 horsepower (211 kW) with stick shift or 303 with Hydramatic, or "Tri-Power" options with three two-barrel carburetors and horsepower ratings of 318 and 330 4bbl and 345 hp (257 kW) tri power.