From 1961 to 1963, the “senior compact” Pontiac Tempest had a novel powertrain layout featuring a front engine and a rear transaxle, connected with an unusual flexible driveshaft known as the “rope drive.”
What price novelty? If you walked into a Pontiac dealer in November 1960, the answer was $2,167, the list price of one of the most unusual American cars of its era: the all-new 1961 Pontiac Tempest. In this installment of Ate Up With Motor, we’ll take a look at the short career of the “rope-drive” 1961–1963 Pontiac Tempest and the hows and whys of its peculiar front-engine/rear-transaxle powertrain.
Detroit Compacts Revisited
As the fifties became the 1960s, it appeared that American automotive engineering was settling into a comfortable routine, leaving behind a brief flurry of experimentation with features like air suspension and fuel injection. The “standard” American car of the time was a big three-box notchback (coupe, sedan, or two- or four-door hardtop) or a station wagon, with body-on-frame construction, independent front suspension, an open propeller shaft driving a live rear axle, drum brakes, and a choice of carbureted cast iron V-8 or inline six-cylinder engines. A few manufacturers chose unitized construction over body-on-frame, and Buick and AMC still clung for a while longer to their traditional torque tube drive, but such variations only served to emphasize that most American cars were more alike than different in all but looks. Not even the contemporary Chevrolet Corvette had independent rear suspension or disc brakes.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that when the latest wave of smaller “compact” and “intermediate” models arrived for the 1960 and 1961 model years, they generally hewed closely to the status quo except in size and more widespread use of unit construction. The case in point was the popular new Ford Falcon, which quickly emerged as the segment leader in part because it did nothing to test buyers’ appetite for novelty.
By far the most notorious exception was the Chevrolet Corvair, which was less a scaled-down big Chevrolet than a scaled-up, Americanized take on certain popular European economy cars. The Corvair, as most readers already know, featured a rear-mounted, air-cooled flat six; a rear transaxle; and independent rear suspension by swing axles, whose shortcomings have made the Corvair controversial to this day.
A year after the Corvair came the other great departure from Detroit engineering orthodoxy: the 1961 Pontiac Tempest. Sharing some pieces with the Corvair (including its swing-axle rear suspension), the Tempest was if anything even more iconoclastic, mounting its engine up front and its transmission in the rear, connected by an unusual curved, flexible driveshaft (the eponymous “rope-drive,” of which we’ll have more to say presently). The engine too was unusual, a big water-cooled slant four of rather intemperately large displacement, essentially a Pontiac V-8 shorn of one cylinder bank.
Still more curious was the fact that the Tempest shared its unitized body shell with two other GM compacts, the Buick Special and Oldsmobile F-85. All three of these “senior compacts” were almost identical in size and similar in appearance, but the Buick and the Oldsmobile had conventional FR layouts, live rear axles, and a lightweight aluminum V-8 engine (which was also optional on the Tempest).
Why would Pontiac build such an unusual car that looked so much like its nearest corporate relatives and yet was so unlike them mechanically? When the Tempest debuted, Pontiac officials spoke at length about the many advantages of its novel layout, but while these made for good copy, they were mostly rationalizations. As is often the case, the real story was both simpler and far more complicated.
The Import Problem and the Eisenhower Recession
As we’ve previously written, the U.S. auto industry had toyed with compact cars of various kinds for years, and there had been a brief flurry of them in the early fifties, beginning with the first Nash Rambler in 1950, followed by Kaiser’s Henry J, the Hudson Jet, and the Aero-Willys. This proliferation proved premature; American buyers who had clamored for smaller, more economical cars were less enthusiastic upon realizing that “smaller” did not necessarily mean meaningfully cheaper. By the end of 1955, only the Rambler survived, and the fledgling American Motors Corporation soon hedged its bets with a somewhat larger midsize Rambler model.
The situation soon shifted again, in surprisingly short order. The boom that followed the lifting of Korean War restrictions, which led to record new car sales for 1955, was not sustainable, and by mid-1957, the U.S. economy was slipping into recession. That downturn coincided with the introduction of some of the American auto industry’s biggest and glitziest new models to date, notable declines in build quality, and a new wave of pop sociology (perhaps best exemplified by Vance Packard’s book The Hidden Persuaders, first published that summer) warning that the advertising industry was using sophisticated psychological trickery to sell Americans an array of products they neither needed nor really even wanted — including ever larger and more expensive automobiles.
In this climate, a growing number of American buyers again looked to compact cars — not simply out of parsimony or sticker shock at new car prices, but as a reaction against the perceived excesses of Detroit and Madison Avenue. Some bought Ramblers, validating AMC chairman George Romney’s decision to consolidate around the Rambler brand and his oft-quoted derision of thirsty, overstuffed “Detroit dinosaurs.” Others turned to imported small cars, including a certain resilient German-made insect from Wolfsburg, whose U.S. sales began to take off around this time.
It would be another decade before most Big Three auto executives would be willing to publicly acknowledge that import buyers were anything other than “kooks,” much less that small imported cars represented any real commercial threat, but the trend was concerning. The imports’ collective market share doubled from 1956 to 1957, and would more than double again for 1958. Economic downturns were one thing; seeing middle-class buyers who in the normal order of things “should” have been driving a Pontiac or an Oldsmobile instead pass by in a new Volkswagen Beetle was something else.
How concerned the leaders of GM’s mid-price Buick, Oldsmobile, and Pontiac divisions were about these trends is no longer entirely clear, but those divisions’ franchise holders were apparently quite alarmed — so much so that in late 1957, thousands of Buick and Pontiac dealers signed up to sell compact cars imported from GM’s British and German subsidiaries: the Vauxhall Victor and Opel Olympia Rekord. Clearly, something more substantial would have to be done, and quickly.
The Shared Body Problem
For what happened next to make sense, it’s important to understand that during this period, each of GM’s individual automotive divisions enjoyed substantial, though not unlimited, operational autonomy. The divisions didn’t manufacture all of their own components by any means, but they each had their own engineering, manufacturing, and assembly facilities, and each had ultimate responsibility for the direction of their own products and marketing. Senior management occasionally sought to dictate product or engineering decisions, but these attempts were usually met with resentment and recalcitrance.
To be sure, the automotive divisions routinely shared body shells, which reduced unit costs and allowed quicker amortization of the costly tooling needed to produce a steel car or truck body. However, GM had the most sophisticated shared-body program in the world, and the corporation typically allowed the divisions considerable budgetary leeway for individual styling. If there were occasional similarities in roofline or overall proportions, a Buick was still a Buick and a Pontiac was still a Pontiac, each with its own powertrains and various unique features. Moreover, the divisions regarded one another as competitors. The last thing any of them wanted was to have to offer the same corporate white-label product under different names, like cans of generic supermarket peas.
Yet, it appeared in 1957–1958 that this would be the price of responding to the import threat. Worse, at least from the perspective of the mid-price divisions, it was Chevrolet that forced the issue.
As we’ve previously discussed, the project that became the Chevrolet Corvair had been in development, in some secrecy, since 1955, an expression of the engineering fascinations of Edward N. Cole, then Chevrolet chief engineer and subsequently that division’s general manager. The start of the recession and the import boom gave Cole the leverage to “sell” his air-cooled, rear-engined car to senior management in the fall of 1957, in no small part because the project was already far enough along that it could be made ready for production in only two years.
The problem was that the Chevrolet compact would be a truly all-new car, sharing little with existing Chevrolet or GM products. That would make it more expensive to build, reducing profit margins and making it harder to keep prices competitive. Short of starting over with a more conventional design, which would have involved more delays, the obvious answer was to spread the development costs around by getting the other divisions to offer their own versions.
This prospect did not go over well. Outside of Chevrolet, there was little enthusiasm for the idea of an air-cooled rear engine. GM president Jack Gordon and chairman Harlow Curtice had reservations, and the general managers of Buick, Oldsmobile, and Pontiac were all opposed to the idea. Since the public reaction was still to be determined, it was also commercially dicey, so there were limits to how far the corporation was prepared to force the issue.
However, the corporation was evidently very concerned about the tooling costs of the all-new compact body shell. Shared bodies were a basic tenet of the GM philosophy; the cost of tooling was enormous, and sharing as much of that expense as widely as possible was essential to profitability.
Eventually, there was a compromise: The compact program would include four cars, all sharing a new unitized Fisher Body shell. Chevrolet and Pontiac were to share the air-cooled rear engine, while the Oldsmobile and Buick cars, codenamed X-100, would have a more conventional front-engine/rear-drive layout, sharing an all-new aluminum V-8, developed by the Engineering Staff to be built by Buick. Despite the differences in powertrain layout, the corporation wanted as much mechanical commonality as possible, with engineering and manufacturing responsibilities to be divided among the divisions. Chevrolet would be first to market, with the others following a year later for 1961.
In a later era, or at another company, this plan would have been unremarkable, but at the time, it was a bitter pill for the mid-price divisions, who were not entirely convinced that the project was worth their time in the first place. Even if they accepted the need for a compact model, this was not the direction they would have gone if left to their own devices. The divisions weren’t keen on unit construction, for one — it limited styling flexibility and transmitted more noise, vibration, and harshness (NVH) than body-on-frame construction — and they complained that the planned 108-inch (2,743-mm) wheelbase was too short. The corporation eventually conceded the latter point and authorized a stretched version of the new unitized shell with a 112-inch (2,845-mm) wheelbase, known as the Y-body, for Buick and Oldsmobile, though not Pontiac, at least at first.
Pontiac Takes an Inch
For Pontiac management, the compact project represented not only an unpalatable “top-down” management directive, but also a potentially serious existential threat.
Throughout its history, perhaps the most serious challenge Pontiac faced was differentiating itself from Chevrolet. Pontiac had other rivals, of course, including Oldsmobile and Buick as well as non-GM mid-price brands like Mercury and Dodge, but Chevrolet was the most persistent foe, and arguably the most dangerous, thanks to its larger dealer base and the economies of scale offered by its greater production volume. To keep Chevrolet from eating their lunch, Pontiac management and Pontiac dealers fought for every advantage, even symbolic distinctions like offering an extra inch of wheelbase over a comparable Chevrolet. Fortunately, in the late fifties, Pontiac still had an edge on Chevrolet in a number of areas, including its own larger engines with more horsepower, optional four-speed Hydra-Matic rather than the two-speed Chevrolet Powerglide, and subsequently the much-ballyhooed “Wide-Track” stance.
As planned, the new compact — which didn’t yet have an official name, although the full-size clay models carried either “Ventura” or “Polaris” identification — would eliminate most of those distinctions. Pontiac would be chained to a Chevrolet “package” and a Chevrolet powertrain, with little to set the Pontiac version apart from its bowtie-wearing sibling except a few Pontiac styling cues and different trim. In the not-too-distant future, that would become the division’s primary modus operandi (and was already the norm for the Canadian market), but Pontiac management of the late fifties regarded the prospect with dismay. Although we now think of that period as the beginning of a Pontiac renaissance under recently minted general manager Semon “Bunkie” Knudsen and chief engineer E.M. (Pete) Estes, they were still trying to convince the public and a skeptical dealer base that the previously moribund division was finally back on track. The last thing the division or its dealers wanted was to have to shove a made-over Corvair clone down the unwilling throats of Pontiac franchise holders.
Upper management was not wholly unsympathetic to these concerns, but the price tag for the whole project was steadily escalating as the envisioned commonality between the four cars diminished. The corporation was simply not willing to put up any more money for Pontiac to differentiate its compact from the Corvair.
However, “no additional money” was not the same as “no.” Like the other automotive divisions, Pontiac had its own tooling and engineering budgets. Much of that money was already earmarked for the division’s full-size models, but there might be a little bit to spare for something else, if it was cheap enough and clever enough.