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.”
1962 Pontiac Tempest and Tempest Le Mans
The 1962 model year was arguably the least eventful for the Y-body Tempest, but also the bestselling iteration of the Y-body’s three-year run, which says something about the market for these cars. There was a modest facelift, along with a few new options, a new convertible body style, and a new Le Mans sub-series in the Custom line. These were worthwhile additions, with the arguable exception of the facelift, but there was nothing so headline-worthy as the Y-body Oldsmobile F-85 Jetfire or the new Corvair Monza Spyder, which in early 1962 became the world’s first mass-market production cars with turbocharged gasoline engines.
Nonetheless, there was a bit more power for the Trophy 4 engine in both its most basic low-compression form, which now made 115 gross horsepower (equivalent to about 87 kW) with automatic, and the four-barrel version, which was up to 166 gross horsepower and 215 lb-ft of torque (equivalent to about 124 kW and 292 N-m), and was newly available with manual transmission as well as TempesTorque. The aluminum V-8 was now offered only in the same high-compression four-barrel form used in the Skylark and Cutlass, rated at 185 hp and 230 lb-ft of torque (equivalent to about 138 kW and 312 N-m). A costly $261.36 option, it was still rarely ordered. (The aluminum V-8 went into only 1,658 1962 Tempests, 1.2 percent of production.)
Four-cylinder Tempests were newly available with a four-speed manual gearbox, the same one that had become optional on the Corvair the year before. Its widely spaced gearing wasn’t ideal for the torquey Trophy 4 engine, but unlike the three-speed, it had a synchronized low gear, and third was a useful passing gear. The four-speed was also noticeably quieter than the three-speed gearbox. Taller (lower numerical) axle ratios were now specified across the board, a change made late in the 1961 model year, perhaps in response to buyer complaints about fuel economy. Standard ratio was now 3.08:1 for cars with automatic (except with the four-barrel Trophy 4 or with air conditioning), with a 3.31:1 axle specified with either manual gearbox or A/C. The 3.55:1 axle remained standard with the four-barrel Trophy 4, and ratios up to 3.90:1 were available by special order.
A front anti-roll bar was now standard, although it did little to change the Tempest’s handling dynamics. The point of the anti-roll bar was to increase understeer so that the front tires would run out of grip before the tail got out of line, but it couldn’t do anything about the rear suspension’s sometimes-abrupt camber loss. Heavy-duty springs and shocks might have helped a bit, but they remained rare and hard to obtain on a new Tempest, at least from the factory.
Far more important, at least from a marketing perspective, was the Tempest Le Mans, the now-obligatory Monza fighter (or Skylark and Cutlass fighter), with bucket seats, full carpeting, and special trim. The Le Mans was strictly a trim package, with the same powertrains, suspension tuning, and limited instrumentation as the standard Tempest. Pontiac advertising actually noted, perhaps apologetically, that no tachometer was available, although you could order a dashboard-mounted electric clock.
If the Le Mans was only cosmetically sporty, it was nonetheless sending the right message. Although a Le Mans coupe cost a not-inconsiderable $218 more than a base Tempest coupe, it was the most popular Tempest variation for 1962, selling almost 40,000 units. The Le Mans convertible accounted for 15,559 more. This was enough to bring total 1962 Tempest sales to a healthier 143,193, of which 58 percent were two-door models.
The Tempest was no longer the bestselling Y-body (the Buick Special/Skylark beat it by more than 10,000 units for 1962), but it had returned respectable sales in a good year for the Pontiac division, whose market share grew 1.25 percentage points from its already-decent 1961 sales. Better still, the popularity of the Le Mans undoubtedly bolstered the profit margins of the Tempest line, which hadn’t been any too encouraging in its first year.
The big winner during this period was John DeLorean. When Bunkie Knudsen departed to become general manager of Chevrolet in November 1961, DeLorean was promoted to Pontiac chief engineer, with Pete Estes succeeding Knudsen as general manager.
A Cast Iron V-8 and a New Suspension
Even before the end of the 1962 model year, the fate of the Y-body Tempest had been sealed. Ed Cole, who had been promoted to group vice president of the Car and Truck Group in 1961, decided that all three Y-body senior compacts would be replaced for 1964 by somewhat bigger intermediate models sharing the A-body shell of a new midsize Chevrolet, aimed at the recently introduced midsize Ford Fairlane. The Y-body cars were already on the large side for the compact class, even by Detroit standards, and the fact that the plusher models were decisively outselling the plainer versions suggested that buyers wouldn’t be deterred by a healthy dose of longer-lower-wider. Thus, the 1963 model year would be the swan song for the rope-drive Tempest and its Y-body siblings.
Nonetheless, the last rope-drive Tempest received some substantial changes before its final curtain call, including new styling, a new engine option, and a revised suspension.
The styling revision brought with it new and larger exterior dimensions. Overall length grew 5 inches (127 mm), mostly in the tail, while overall width increased by 2 inches (51 mm), eliminating the previous concave body side sculpting save for a vestigial simulated extractor vent behind each front wheel. Track width also increased a bit both front and rear. The new nose now bore a greater family resemblance to full-size 1963 Pontiac models, albeit retaining horizontal rather than stacked quad headlights. The Le Mans, newly promoted to full trim series, had a different grille and different taillights to set it apart from lesser Tempest models. Inevitably, the larger dimensions added about 50 lb (27 kg) to curb weight, although more precise casting techniques trimmed about 30 lb (14 kg) from the Trophy 4 engine, so the net increase on four-cylinder cars was only 20 to 25 lb (9 to 11 kg).
Inside, the dashboard had a new instrument panel with four round binnacles and an optional tachometer. The Le Mans could have a floor console along with its bucket seats, for the full sporty car effect.
While the Trophy 4 engine remained standard, the aluminum V-8 was dropped, replaced by a new cast iron Pontiac V-8. Essentially a de-bored 389, it displaced 337 cu. in. (5,521 cc), although Pontiac advertised it as 326 cu. in., probably for reasons of corporate policy. (Pontiac may also have wanted to avoid confusion with the earlier 336 cu. in. (5,508 cc) V-8 previously used in some GMC trucks, which didn’t have the same bore and stroke dimensions.) The “326” was even heavier than the Trophy 4, although improved casting techniques made it a bit lighter than it otherwise would have been.
The cast iron V-8 was cheaper than the aluminum Buick engine and much more powerful, offering 260 gross horsepower with the standard two-barrel carburetor or 280 hp with the optional four-barrel H.O. engine (equivalent to around 194 kW and 209 kW respectively). However, it exceeded the torque capacity of the four-speed gearbox and appears to have strained the standard close-ratio three-speed; contemporary road tests suggest that too much enthusiasm could break the second gear synchro rings. The better part of valor with the V-8 was probably TempesTorque, which had been beefed up, deleting the previous split torque feature, adopting slightly closer gear ratios, and adding a much-needed parking pawl. All powertrain combinations except four-cylinder automatics now used driveshafts of 0.75-inch (19.1-mm) diameter, although there were still several different driveshaft lengths depending on engine and transmission.
Behind the gearbox, the rear suspension’s previous semi-trailing lower control arms were gone, replaced by a new L-shaped lower control arm with a relocated shock absorber, behind the axle halfshaft. The new control arm’s pivot points were more widely separated than before, with the inner pivot more or less parallel to the halfshaft and the leading pivot more or less perpendicular to it, so that camber changes would not also change the toe angle of the rear wheels, as had been the case with the original layout. (The new control arms also simplified routine toe adjustments, which previously required shimming the differential mounts.) Contrary to some accounts, the 1963 Tempest suspension still did NOT use double-jointed halfshafts (there remained only one inboard universal joint on each axle), but the changes provided some improvements in cornering stability.
V-8 cars had stiffer springs and shocks, and heavy-duty suspension components were now more readily available — and surprisingly cheap if ordered with a new car. Another new option was faster unassisted steering, in essence the quicker ratio of the power steering setup without the hydraulic assistance. Finned drum brakes (conventional cast iron ones, not the integral aluminum wheel/drums available on full-size models) became available after introduction, and if you made enough of a fuss, sintered metallic linings were now on the options list.
It would be tempting to say the 1963 Tempest was the car the rope-drive Y-body should have been from the start: more attractively styled (although there was now something slightly awkward about its proportions, a bit too narrow for its length), more powerful, and sportier inside and out. It could now be fully accessorized in the expected Pontiac manner, potentially raising the list price of a fully loaded V-8 Tempest Le Mans to more than $3,500 — not an economy car price tag in 1963.
A Tempest with the cast iron “326” had brisk performance. Even with the two-barrel V-8, TempesTorque, and 3.08:1 axle, a Tempest V-8 could reach 60 mph (97 km/h) in well under 10 seconds, with a top speed approaching 110 mph (176 km/h). Manual-shift cars were quicker still, and a Tempest with the H.O. engine was hot stuff: Car Life, not generally a magazine noted for fanciful road test results, tested a Tempest H.O. with the three-speed gearbox and 3.90 axle and found it capable of 0–60 mph (0–97 km/h) in less than 7 seconds, with the standing quarter mile (0–400 meters) coming up in 17 seconds flat. Fuel economy and weight distribution suffered, of course, but that didn’t stop about one-third of Tempest buyers from specifying the V-8, making it far more common than the aluminum V-8 had ever been under Tempest hoods.
Pontiac also built a handful of lightweight ’63 Tempests for drag racing duty, armed with the division’s 421 cu. in. (6,902 cc) V-8 in its most white-hot Super Duty form. With a low-rise intake manifold and two four-barrel carburetors, the hottest 421 claimed 405 hp and 425 lb-ft of torque (strictly nominal figures, but equivalent to around 302 kW and 578 N-m) and drove an experimental four-speed Powershift transaxle with a 3.90 final drive ratio. Only 14 of the lightweight cars were built (including two prototypes) before senior management forcefully reasserted GM’s corporate prohibition on factory racing efforts in January 1963, ending the Super Duty program for good.
Handling was not a priority for the Super Duty cars, but those who tried the 1963 Tempest in its more mundane production form found that the revised suspension did not, alas, resolve the by now well-documented handling issues. A 1963 Tempest was somewhat more stable than the 1961 or 1962 cars, but the same basic problems remained: too much positive camber when lightly loaded, too much camber change, and jacking and tuck-under at the limit. V-8 cars were noticeably more composed, both because the extra weight on the nose shifted the balance toward understeer and because their firmer springs and damping reduced the practical range of wheel motion. A Hot Rod magazine investigation suggested that the most complete solution for the handling problems would be decambering: lowering the rear suspension to induce some negative camber. Since the factory made no provision for that, essaying such a solution was left to the courage and mechanical aptitude of the individual owner. Another possibility Hot Rod proposed was adding an EMPI Camber Compensator or its equivalent (a transverse leaf spring that acted to keep the lower control arms relatively level with one another). This too was absent from the Tempest option list, although a similar item would be added to the Corvair for 1964.
By this point, it was clear even to observers unaware of GM’s internal discussions that the Tempest had reached a crossroads. If it was to continue with independent rear suspension, it really needed a better-sorted one, the most obvious possibility being a three-link arrangement like that of the new Corvette Sting Ray (trailing arms, double-jointed halfshafts, lower control arms). However, that would be even more expensive than the existing arrangement, an ongoing sore point for the whole Y-body line.
Moreover, independent rear suspension was really only necessary if the Tempest retained the rear transaxle, and Pontiac saw little upside in doing so. The weight distribution benefits had not turned out to be particularly compelling, especially with a heavy cast iron engine up front, and the cost of the flexible driveshaft was high; the machining and finishing was reportedly more expensive than a conventional propeller shaft with universal joints. The existing Corvair-derived transaxles set definite limits on how much power and torque Pontiac could offer, which wasn’t in keeping with the division’s increasingly performance-focused image. As for ride quality, reduced rear unsprung weight was useful, but the quickest, cheapest route to a soft ride was still lower spring rates and more sprung weight.
Beyond that, the Tempest’s mission objectives had evolved. The Tempest had never really made it as an economy car — there were too many thriftier alternatives for less money — and it was never going to be a Detroit Lancia, but it was appealing as a junior Pontiac with a bit of sporty flair. (The high-end Le Mans series accounted for nearly half of the Tempest’s 1963 sales.) The rope drive, rear transaxle, and swing axles no longer served that end.
Of course, Pontiac could have invested more in developing those features, but the Tempest didn’t sell nearly well enough for the corporation to consider such an investment worthwhile. 1963 sales totaled 131,490, bringing the three-year total for the Y-body Tempest to 375,466 units. By most standards, that was quite respectable, and the tooling costs of the Y-body shell itself were also spread across the 389,379 Buick Specials and Skylarks and 299,307 Oldsmobile F-85s and Cutlasses sold in the same period. However, by GM standards, these were mediocre figures for cars that were more expensive to manufacture than they should have been, with too much of that money spent on features customers wouldn’t see or care about. The future would have to be cheaper, less ambitious, and far more conventional.
The Tempest Goes from Y to A
If you’re reading this article, you probably already know what happened next: For 1964, the Y-body senior compacts were replaced by new intermediate models, sharing the A-body shell and 115-inch (2,921-mm) wheelbase of the new midsize Chevrolet Chevelle/Malibu. Unit construction was abandoned in favor of a semi-unitized body on a perimeter frame, and all models now had completely orthodox powertrains, with front-mounted engines and transmissions driving conventional propeller shafts and live rear axles on coil springs, located by trailing arms. In most respects, the new models were scaled-down versions of the divisions’ contemporary full-size cars.
The new Tempest was slightly narrower than the 1963 car, but 8.7 inches (221 mm) longer and about 150 lb (68 kg) heavier. A cast iron V-8 was again optional, this time displacing an actual 326 cu. in. (5,340 cc), but the Trophy 4 was gone, a casualty of the switch to a conventional drivetrain. The flexible driveshaft, rigid torque tube, and four-point powertrain mounts had done much to keep the big four’s shakes within acceptable bounds; without those features, the Trophy 4 was judged too rough. In its place was a new 215 cu. in. (3,529 cc) cast iron inline six, quietly sourced from Chevrolet. The six was both 30 lb (14 kg) lighter and significantly smoother than the Trophy 4, but most buyers opted for the V-8.
Before long, of course, there would be the Pontiac GTO, initially an option package. The GTO quickly came to define the Pontiac A-body line. If it wasn’t especially innovative in an engineering sense, it was exciting, and it did wonders for Pontiac’s image in ways the rope-drive Tempest never had. From 1966 to 1969, there would also be the overhead cam six, another novel engineering development overshadowed by the allure of cheap horsepower.
This retrenchment paid off handsomely in sales. 1964 Tempest sales were up more than 86% from 1963. By 1966, GTO sales alone came close to total Tempest sales of just five years earlier. It couldn’t last, but while it did, the success of the GTO helped to make Pontiac No. 3 in the U.S. industry and one of the most successful automotive marques in the world.