Magnificent Kludge: The ‘Rope-Drive’ 1961–1963 Pontiac Tempest


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.

1963 Pontiac Tempest Le Mans convertible (red) grille closeup by AlfvanBeem (CC0 1.0 - AS recrop)
(Photo: “1963 Pontiac 2217 DR-90-46 p3” by AlfvanBeem, which was dedicated to the public domain by the photographer under a CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0) Public Domain Dedication; this version was recropped and resized 2022 by Aaron Severson)

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.

1960 Ford Falcon four-door sedan (Belmont blue) by Aaron Severson (author photo)

The original Ford Falcon was not a notably interesting car to look at, to drive, or to examine from an engineering standpoint (although its six-cylinder engine’s lightweight iron casting techniques foreshadowed an industry trend), but it was the clear sales winner among domestic compacts of this period. (author photo)

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.

1960 Chevrolet Corvair 700 coupe (light blue) by Aaron Severson (author photo)

The original Chevrolet Corvair was by no means a strange-looking car, and its sporty styling was one of its leading virtues. From an engineering standpoint, however, it was with little question the most unorthodox American car of 1960, which was not necessarily to its credit. Its handling shortcomings, though eventually rectified, resulted in lawsuits and made the Corvair a cause célèbre for the emerging automotive safety lobby. (author photo)

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).

1961 Pontiac Tempest four-door sedan (red) front 208352 (General Motors LLC / GMMA 26150)

From head on, a casual observer might mistakenly assume the 1961 Pontiac Tempest was simply a full-size ’59 Pontiac that shrank in the wash. (Photo: General Motors LLC)

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.

1958 Pontiac Bonneville Sport Coupe (copper and white) front 3q by AlfvanBeem (CC0 1.0)

The Pontiac Bonneville debuted in 1957 as a limited-edition convertible and became a regular model line for 1958. Big, glitzy, and powerful, the 1958 Bonneville was out of step with the tastes of what proved to be a recessionary year for Detroit and for Pontiac. Also, its 4.5-inch (114.3-mm) longer wheelbase couldn’t hide its pronounced resemblance to the 1958 Chevrolet Impala that shared its body shell (though not its 370 cu. in. (6,054 cc) Pontiac “Tempest 395” V-8). Sales for the two-door Bonneville Sport Coupe hardtop totaled 9,144, a mere 4.2 percent of Pontiac’s 1958 sales, which were down a worrying 35 percent from 1957. (Photo: “1958 Pontiac Bonneville photo2” by AlfvanBeem, which was dedicated to the public domain by the photographer under a CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0) Public Domain Dedication; it was resized 2022 by Aaron Severson)

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.

1959 Vauxhall Victor FA (blue with white roof) front 3q by Steve Glover (CC BY 2.0)

The Vauxhall Victor, a product of GM’s British subsidiary, found its way into some Pontiac showrooms beginning in 1958, with U.S. prices starting at $1,988. With 55 gross horsepower (about 41 kW), its 1,508 cc (92 cu. in.) pushrod four could push the Victor to 50 mph (80 km/h) in about 18 seconds, which was sprightly for an English family car of the time, but rather sluggish by American standards. Reaching 60 mph (97 km/h) took 26 to 28 seconds, and contemporary American highway speeds of 45–55 mph (72–88 km/h) coincided with a period of unpleasant engine vibration. (Photo: “Vauxhall Victor FA (1959)” by Steve Glover, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license)

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.

1960 Chevrolet Corvair 700 coupe (light blue) rear 3q by Aaron Severson (author photo)

When the Corvair debuted, Chevrolet hadn’t offered an air-cooled car since the early twenties, and the results had not been felicitous, to say the least, which made the Corvair both a commercial and technical gamble for Chevrolet. (author photo)

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.

1960 Chevrolet Corvair 700 coupe Turbo-Air 6 engine by Aaron Severson (author photo)

The Corvair’s “Turbo-Air 6” was a horizontally opposed six, initially offering 80 gross horsepower and 125 lb-ft (about 60 kW and 157 N-m) from 140 cu. in. (2,287 cc). (Net output was a modest 65 hp and 110 lb-ft (about 48.5 kW and 138.1 N-m).) Air-cooled flat-sixes were almost unknown in automotive applications at the time the Corvair debuted; the Porsche 911 was still several years in the future. (author photo)

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.

XP-76 Holden-Pontiac fiberglass model rear 3q D-20005 (General Motors LLC / GMMA 26150)

Like the Corvair on which it was closely based, some early development of the rear-engined Pontiac compact (XP-76) was attributed to Holden, GM’s Australian subsidiary, although this full-size fiberglass model, photographed in August 1958, carries “Pontiac Polaris” identification. We don’t have complete dimensions for it, but they were presumably about the same as the 1960 Corvair, which was 180 inches (4,572 mm) long and 66.9 inches (1,669 mm) wide on a 108-inch (2,743-mm) wheelbase. About three weeks after this photo was taken, this same model was photographed again wearing slightly different trim and Oldsmobile identification, badged “Sixty-Six,” a designation Oldsmobile had last used in 1948. (Photo: General Motors LLC)

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.

XP-76 Holden-Pontiac fiberglass model rear D-20006 (General Motors LLC / GMMA 26150)

It’s not difficult to see why Pontiac management was wary of the XP-76, which was very obviously based on the Corvair. A subsequent mockup, badged “Ventura” and photographed in April 1959, substituted “frenched” oval taillights, but the net effect was about the same. (Photo: General Motors LLC)

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.

Pontiac Advanced Engineering

Along with their individual engineering departments, each of GM’s automotive divisions also had its own advanced engineering section, developing new concepts and new technologies not necessarily intended for any specific production model. The head of advanced engineering for Pontiac during this period was one John Z. DeLorean, who had arrived from Packard in September 1956.

One of the ideas DeLorean explored during the early part of his tenure in Pontiac advanced engineering was the front-engine/rear-transaxle layout. This was a rather trendy idea at the time; Chevrolet and Oldsmobile also studied the concept during this period, although their versions never made it to production.

The interest was probably sparked at least in part by the marvelous Lancia Aurelia. Introduced in 1950 to replace the Lancia Aprilia, the Aurelia was an exceptional car of a kind with no real parallel in the United States. It was by European standards a medium-size family sedan — although Americans would have regarded it as a compact, as it was 2 inches (51 mm) shorter than a 1950 Nash Rambler, albeit on a much longer wheelbase — with a pillarless four-door body (later joined by lovely two-door coupe and convertible variants) and an aluminum V-6 engine, mounted in front and driving a rear-mounted clutch and transaxle through a central driveshaft. Suspension was fully independent (though Lancia eventually switched to a De Dion axle), and static weight distribution with a full tank of fuel was almost precisely 50/50.

1953 Lancia Aurelia B22 berlina (red) front 3q by Tony Harrison (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Despite its modest dimensions — an Aurelia berlina like this one is 174 inches (4,420 mm) long on a 112.6-inch (2,860-mm) wheelbase — the Lancia Aurelia was no econobox; it was meticulously engineered and of very high quality, with prices to match. This is a 1953 Aurelia B22, which used a 1,991 cc (121.6 cu. in.) version of the aluminum V-6 engine, retaining the block of the original 1,754 cc (107.1 cu. in.) B10 engine, but with a larger bore, a longer stroke, freer-breathing heads, a hotter camshaft, and bigger Weber carburetors, good for about 90 hp (67 kW). The berlina was never officially exported to the U.S., but the two-door models eventually were, at least on a limited basis. (Photo: “Lancia Motor Club AGM 2011 DSC_4409” by Tony Harrison, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) license)

By the standards of its era, the Aurelia had superb handling and a firm but comfortable ride, abetted by a commendably robust monocoque structure. Despite modest engine displacement (initially just 1,754 cc (107.1 cu. in.)) and fairly hefty curb weight, the Aurelia also had respectable straight-line performance and decent fuel economy, though with list prices starting at about 1.8 million lire (equivalent to about $3,000 at early-fifties exchange rates, a lot of money in those days), it could hardly be called an economy car.

1951 Lancia Aurelia B10 engine by Andrew Bone (CC BY 2.0)

Developed by Francesco De Virgilio, the engine of the Lancia Aurelia was the world’s first 60-degree V-6, an all-aluminum engine with pushrod-actuated overhead valves, initially making 56 hp (42 kW) from 1,754 cc (107.1 cu. in.). (Before you ask, it was NOT the world’s smallest-displacement automotive V-6; in the nineties, Mitsubishi offered the DOHC 24V 6A10 V-6, which displaced a mere 1,597 cc (97.5 cu. in.).) Later versions of the Lancia V-6, offering up to 150 hp (112 kW) from 2,775 cc (169.3 cu. in.), continued to power the Lancia Flaminia until 1970. (Photo: “Lancia Aurelia B10 (1951)” by Andrew Bone, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license)

In any form, the Aurelia was an engineering tour de force, and undoubtedly an object of fascination for automotive designers and engineers around the world. We don’t know for certain that John DeLorean was among its admirers, but we would be very surprised if he were not.

1951 Lancia Aurelia B10 transaxle gearbox and rear axle brakes from underneath by MartinHansV (PD)

Unlike the “rope-drive” Pontiac Tempest, the Lancia Aurelia had a two-piece driveshaft and mounted its clutch at the rear, ahead of the transaxle. The Lancia also had inboard rear brakes to further reduce unsprung weight, and there are constant velocity (CV) joints at each end of both halfshafts. This 1951 Aurelia B10 berlina has the original independent rear suspension, which used coil springs on semi-trailing arms. (You can see the inner pivot point of each arm on either side of the transaxle.) Lancia was ahead of its time in the use of semi-trailing arms, which from the mid-sixties until well into the eighties were the predominant form of independent rear suspension, but the Aurelia dropped this arrangement in mid-1953 in favor of semi-elliptical leaf springs and a De Dion axle, which connected both rear wheels with a hollow tube to maintain constant camber. (Photo: “MHV Lancia Aurelia 1951 06” by MartinHansV, which was released into the public domain by the photographer; it was resized 2022 by Aaron Severson)

As the Aurelia adeptly demonstrated, there are a variety of advantages to placing engine and transmission at opposite ends of a car. The most obvious is that it shifts a useful chunk of the car’s unladen mass off the front wheels (reducing steering effort and, at least in principle, the tendency to understeer) and onto the drive wheels (improving traction and allowing the rear brakes to do more of the work of stopping the car), without the extreme rear-heaviness that can make a rear-engined car disagreeably twitchy near the limits. Moving the transmission to the rear can also reduce the intrusion of the powertrain into occupants’ foot and knee room. Since the transmission must be fixed in place — which requires the use of independent rear suspension or a De Dion axle — rear unsprung weight is also reduced, improving ride quality and, potentially, handling.

There are also a number of downsides. While a rear-mounted transmission or transaxle may intrude less into cabin space than a conventional RWD drivetrain, it does reduce the rear volume that might otherwise be available for cargo. With a manual transmission, if the clutch is in front, matching revs is more difficult, and the load on the synchronizers is greater because of the added inertia of the driveshaft; if the clutch is at the rear, it must be able to absorb the extra inertia of the driveshaft. Maintaining the correct geometry between engine and transmission can also be challenging, not least during assembly. Additionally, this arrangement is more costly than a conventional live axle layout, and an ill-sorted rear suspension can result in treacherous handling behavior.

1953 (?) Lancia Aurelia B20 coupe (jade green) front 3q by 35mmMan (CC BY 2.0)

The Lancia Aurelia was offered in bare chassis, berlina (sedan), spider (roadster), convertible, and sports saloon (coupe) forms. The latter three were built by Pinin Farina, although the coupe was probably not designed by Farina; it may have been the work of Felice Boano. This RHD Aurelia B20 coupe has the 2,451 cc (149.6 cu. in.) V-6, with 118 hp (88 kW). Although licensed as a “1959” model, we believe this may be a 1953 Series 3, combining the bigger engine with the original independent rear suspension; Series 4 and later cars had a De Dion axle instead (and were offered only with left-hand drive). (Photo: “Lancia Aurelia B20” by 35mmMan, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license)

DeLorean was certainly aware of these pros and cons, many of which were discussed in a paper he wrote for the Society of Automotive Engineers in 1960. However, as the X-100 project unfolded, he realized that the front-engine/rear-transaxle layout offered something far more compelling: a way to make the Pontiac compact — eventually named “Tempest,” a name Pontiac had applied to its V-8 engines beginning in 1958 — something other than a badge-engineered Corvair.

On paper, the idea was quite simple: Pontiac could keep the Corvair body shell, transaxle, and other mechanical components, but mate them with a conventional front-mounted, water-cooled engine. In that way, the corporation’s desire for commonality would be satisfied, more or less, but a Pontiac salesman would still be able to demonstrate the difference between the Tempest and its Chevrolet cousin by simply popping the hood. All Pontiac would need to pull it off was an engine and a way to connect it to the Corvair transaxle.

From V-8 to Slant Four

At that point in the development process, Pontiac did not have an engine suitable for this application. The division had retired its elderly 239 cu. in. (3,920 cc) six at the end of the 1954 model year. The Pontiac V-8, which for 1959 was expanded to 389 cu. in. (6,372 cc) displacement, was far too much engine for a compact economy car — or for a transaxle designed for a 140 cu. in. (2,287 cc) flat six. There was the new aluminum V-8, but while Pontiac would reluctantly offer that engine as an option, it was too expensive to make standard equipment, something that would also become a problem for Oldsmobile and Buick. As we’ve previously discussed in our article on the 1961–1963 Buick Special/Skylark, Buick eventually solved that problem by creating a cast iron V-6 based on the architecture of the aluminum V-8, but that engine hadn’t even been conceived at this stage, and wouldn’t be available until the 1962 model year. The same was true of the inline six and four Chevrolet would offer for the Chevy II/Nova, a conventionally engineered compact that would supplement (and, as it happened, eventually supplant) the rear-engined Corvair.

1961 Pontiac Tempest four-cylinder engine on stand (color) 210390 (General Motors LLC / GMMA 26150)

The Trophy 4 engine (originally announced as the “Indianapolis 4”) retained the Pontiac V-8’s right cylinder bank, mostly to avoid the need to redesign the oil filter housing, which was mounted on that side of the block. Accessory mounts had to be beefed up to withstand the big four’s vibration, which also caused problems with the timing chain and timing gear, shared with the V-8. Dry weight of the four-cylinder engine is variously quoted as 507 or 557 lb (230.0 or 252.6 kg), although the latter figure may be with manual clutch. 1963 engines were about 30 lb (13.6 kg) lighter, thanks to the use of more precise casting techniques. (Photo: General Motors LLC)

Here again DeLorean had an answer: make a four-cylinder engine out of the Pontiac V-8. If this idea seemed somewhat ridiculous, early experiments demonstrated that it could work. Pontiac powertrain engineer Malcolm McKellar found that even with four cylinders disabled, the big V-8 had ample torque and adequate power. By amputating the left cylinder bank, Pontiac would have a 194.5 cu. in. (3,186 cc) slant four that could be built on the existing engine production lines.

It’s easy to second-guess this choice or to point to other alternatives that might have worked better, like a 90-degree V-4 or a de-bored, short-stroke 90-degree V-6. However, Pontiac’s overriding priority was to minimize the tooling investment, and the four-cylinder engine proved the most expedient way to do that. Although the four would need a new crankshaft (still with five main bearings), unique camshaft, and new intake and exhaust manifolds, Pontiac also wanted to share as many existing V-8 components as possible. The resulting “Trophy 4,” as Pontiac eventually dubbed the four-cylinder engine, was bigger and heavier than it needed to be, weighing almost as much as a Chevrolet V-8 of much greater displacement, but it was able to share about 120 parts with the V-8, and its development and tooling were a fraction of the usual cost of launching a new engine.

Cheap, the Trophy 4 was; smooth or refined, it most certainly was not. Any inline four-cylinder engine has a second-order vibration, caused by the unbalanced motion of the reciprocating masses. Even in a relatively small-displacement four, the result is a vertical shaking force of considerable magnitude, which becomes more severe as displacement increases. In a 90-degree V-8 engine, the second-order vibration of one cylinder bank can be balanced against the other through the use of a cross-plane crankshaft and counterweights, but that’s not possible with a slant four, and the bank angle means the second-order vibration has both vertical and horizontal components. With its large displacement and substantial reciprocating mass, the Trophy 4 shook like a paint mixer, and its torsional vibration was strong enough to shred the timing chain it had inherited from the V-8, a problem not fixed until after regular production had already begun.

1961 Pontiac Tempest four-cylinder engine on stand with partial cutaway (B&W) 058502 (General Motors LLC / GMMA 26150)

The Trophy 4 engine had its intake and exhaust manifolds on opposite sides of the head, which provided good breathing, although it complicated carburetor warm-up. Engines with the optional four-barrel carburetor also had a two-plane intake manifold with 17-inch (431.8-mm) intake runners, for a resonance supercharging effect at certain engine speeds. This display engine is partially cut away, and if you look closely you can see the size of the pistons, which contributed to the big four’s considerable unbalanced vibration. (Photo: General Motors LLC)

Today, most passenger car fours displacing more than about 2.2 liters (134 cu. in.) deal with second-order vibration by adding twin counter-rotating balance shafts, but that technology was still underdeveloped in the late fifties and early sixties. (Frederick Lanchester patented the concept back in 1912, but modern balance shaft technology owes a great deal to Mitsubishi, which greatly advanced the state of the art with its “Silent Shaft” fours in the mid-seventies.) In any case, Pontiac didn’t consider balance shafts a possibility for the Tempest due to budget constraints. There was simply no extra money to develop balance shafts, or to modify the block to accommodate them.

Pontiac decided instead to focus instead on isolating the engine, and indeed the entire powertrain, from the body structure, resulting in the Tempest’s most unusual feature, and the one that would earn it its most lasting nickname.

The Rope Drive

Like the other Y-body compacts, the 1961 Pontiac Tempest would use unitized construction, but the suspension and powertrain were carried on detachable front and rear crossmembers. This appears to have been a matter of production convenience rather than an effort to isolate the body structure from noise, vibration, and harshness (NVH). While the rear crossmember incorporated rubber cushions at the mounting bolts, the front crossmember was simply bolted to the body, relying on the rubber insulators in the spring seats and control arm mounting shafts to control NVH. (Author’s note: This paragraph originally stated that the rear crossmember was also bolted directly to the body shell, but an examination of the shop manuals revealed that that wasn’t true; there were rubber cushions around the rear cross member mounting bolts.)

The Trophy 4 engine was supported on the front crossmember by two rubber-isolated engine mounts, one on either side of the block. It was mounted in approximately the same fore-aft position as the V-8 in bigger Pontiac models, albeit offset about 1.4 inches (36 mm) to the left. On cars with manual transmission, the clutch was mounted behind the engine in conventional fashion rather than with the transaxle, probably to simplify the clutch linkage. With automatic, the torque converter was rear-mounted at the back of the transaxle. (Because of this variation, manual transmission cars used shorter driveshafts than did cars with automatic, bolting to the end of a short clutch shaft rather than directly to the engine flywheel.) In back, the transaxle was carried on a differential support arm, attached to the rear crossmember through two more rubber-isolated mounts.

1961 Pontiac Tempest drivetrain front 210386 (General Motors LLC / GMMA 26150)

On the 1961–1963 Pontiac Tempest, the engine and transaxle are rigidly connected by the steel torque tube (painted blue on this display model), so the entire drivetrain is effectively a single unit, suspended at four points. This interconnection also allowed the crossmembers and torque tube to form a kind of pseudo-chassis, which made it possible for Pontiac to assemble the Tempest on the same production lines as the division’s body-on-frame full-size cars. Because the relative positions of the engine and transaxle were constant, there was no need for universal joints; the trailing end of the driveshaft was simply splined to the transaxle, while the leading end incorporated a flange that was bolted to the flywheel or clutch shaft. (Photo: General Motors LLC)

Between the engine and the transaxle was the driveshaft, which rode on two rubber-isolated ball bearing assemblies within a 76.2-inch (1,935-mm) stamped steel torque tube. The driveshaft itself was forged steel, machined, heat-treated, subjected to magnetic particle inspection, and shot-peened to ensure that it was as smooth and straight as possible; it also had a thin protective coating to prevent corrosion and surface wear. Because it only needed to transmit engine torque, not multiplied by the transmission gears (or the torque converter, on automatic transmission cars), the driveshaft could be quite thin. Diameter was 0.75 inches (19.1 mm) on cars with manual transmission, a mere 0.65 inches (16.5 mm) on cars with automatic. Being so thin, the shaft was also flexible, particularly in torsion, able to twist by up to about 30 degrees in either direction.

This flexibility was further demonstrated by the shaft’s unusual designed-in curvature. The driveshaft formed a gentle downward arc, which put the middle of the shaft around 3 inches (75 mm) lower than either end. Contrary to some early press coverage, this had nothing to do with the torque tube bearings. Rather, the curvature was created by the bending moment applied at both ends of the driveshaft by the shaft’s rigid connections to the engine and transaxle, both of which tilted downward by a total of about 11 degrees. This curvature led wags to dub the driveshaft the “rope shaft” or “rope drive.”

Curving the driveshaft in this way was another of DeLorean’s inspirations, an elegant if peculiar solution to a practical problem. Pontiac had found that with a straight driveshaft of such length and small diameter, the shaft would develop strong, destructive vibrations at a critical speed within the normal range of operating speeds. Bending the shaft into an arc shifted the resonant frequency out of the normal operating range, which eliminated the problem (although the driveshaft could still rattle on its bearings under certain conditions). A similar resonant frequency problem with the torque tube was addressed by varying the tube’s cross-sectional area, putting its critical speed below normal engine idle speed and giving the tube a constant bending stiffness throughout its length.

As a bonus, the driveshaft’s curvature also made it possible to minimize the height of the torque tube, reducing its intrusion into cabin space. To achieve a similar result, the Y-body Oldsmobile F-85 and Buick Special needed a costly two-piece driveshaft, with a constant velocity joint in the middle as well as a universal joint at each end.

1961 Pontiac Tempest drivetrain rear C750-0072 (General Motors LLC / GMMA 26150)

The curvature of the Pontiac Tempest driveshaft (which was enclosed within the torque tube) was not very dramatic, amounting to a slight downward bowing with a radius of about 36 feet 6 inches (11.1 meters). Note the two bulges visible along the top of the torque tube, which indicate the positions of the ball bearing assemblies in which the driveshaft runs. The bowl-like blue object behind the rear axles halfshafts is the torque converter for the TempesTorque automatic transaxle. (Photo: General Motors LLC)

The torque tube was something of an afterthought. It was not included on early test mules, and was initially added simply to help maintain the correct alignment of the driveshaft relative to the engine and transaxle. However, it emerged as an important part of the concept. Interconnecting the front and rear crossmembers proved to be an invaluable aid to production and assembly, and the torque tube also helped to mask the bad manners of the Trophy 4 engine.

By rigidly connecting the engine and transaxle, the torque tube limited the engine’s range of motion, preventing the big four from moving laterally or fore and aft. Some of the engine’s torsional vibration, meanwhile, was absorbed by the twisting of the driveshaft within the torque tube. That left only the vertical shaking forces caused by the engine’s secondary vibration and by torque reaction from the drive wheels, which were absorbed by the four soft rubber powertrain mounts. (The engine mounts were so soft that Pontiac had to add metal limiters to keep the engine from shifting too far out of its appointed space.) No one would ever accuse the Trophy 4 of silken refinement, but this arrangement proved remarkably effective. There was still a lot of commotion under the hood, but it was largely unnoticeable inside the car, at least so long as the engine and engine mounts were in reasonably good health.

Transaxles and TempesTorque

Although its transaxles had some commonality with the ones used on the Chevrolet Corvair, the manually shifted Tempest parted ways with the Corvair in several respects. In Corvairs with manual transmission, the clutch was mounted behind the differential, sending power forward with a clutch shaft that ran through the center of the hollow pinion shaft and main shaft to a clutch gear at the front of the gearbox. Power then flowed back through the transmission main shaft back to the differential pinion shaft. Since the Tempest mounted its clutch in front, this convoluted power flow was unnecessary; the trailing end of the propeller shaft was simply splined to the clutch gear of the three-speed gearbox, whose main shaft was splined in turn to the differential pinion shaft. The Tempest three-speed also had closer ratios than the Corvair three-speed (the same ratios as the Saginaw three-speed that would become standard on the 1962 Chevrolet II), although first gear was still unsynchronized. The all-synchro Corvair four-speed would be offered later, but wouldn’t be available at launch.

The automatic transaxle, which Pontiac dubbed “TempesTorque,” was more closely based on the Corvair Powerglide, even mounting its torque converter behind the differential, as on the automatic Corvair. In a Corvair Powerglide, two hollow shafts passed through the hollow differential pinion shaft: a central pump shaft that allowed the torque converter impeller to drive the transmission’s front oil pump and a hollow turbine shaft that allowed the torque converter turbine to drive the transmission’s input sun gear. TempesTorque added an internally splined coupling to the leading end of the pump shaft, allowing the flexible driveshaft to drive the pump shaft and thus the impeller of the torque converter. This was circuitous, but it allowed a transmission intended for a rear-mounted engine to take its power input from the opposite end with minimal design changes.

1961–1962 Pontiac TempesTorque automatic transaxle diagram by Aaron Severson (author photo)

As illustrated by the above diagram (which is NOT to scale and has been simplified for visual clarity), in the Pontiac TempesTorque transaxle, the trailing end of the driveshaft is splined to a coupling at the front of the gearbox. That coupling drives the front oil pump and a central pump shaft that drives the hub of the torque converter at the rear, which drives the torque converter impeller (all shown in red). A stator (light blue) on a one-way clutch (fuchsia with black triangle) multiplies input torque under some conditions. The torque converter turbine drives an input shaft that sends power forward to the input sun gear of the planetary gearset (all shown in dark blue). The planetary gearset’s planet carrier drives the rear oil pump, the output shaft, and the differential pinion gear (all shown in light green). In first gear, the low band holds the low sun gear (purple), driving the carrier and the output shaft forward in reduction. In high, the low band is released and the direct clutch locks the low sun gear to the pump shaft. In reverse, the direct clutch and low band are released and the reverse clutch engages to hold the annulus (orange), driving the planet carrier and output shaft backward in reduction. (author diagram)

Pontiac used a different torque converter than the Corvair unit, providing a stall ratio of 2.0:1 rather than 2.7:1, and added a nuance not shared with the Corvair: a split-torque high gear. The clutch hub of the TempesTorque transmission’s direct drive clutch was splined to the pump shaft, and thus always rotated at engine speed, without any hydraulic slippage. When the clutch engaged with the 1–2 shift, the low sun gear would also turn at engine speed, while the input sun gear turned at turbine speed. This had the effect of “demultiplying” slippage in the torque converter by about 45 percent in high gear, a partial mechanical lockup that improved fuel economy and engine response in top-gear cruising. (You’ll find a further discussion of this principle in our article on split-torque transmissions and lock-up clutches.)

One unfortunate similarity between TempesTorque and the Corvair Powerglide was that it had no “Park” position, leaving the selector with only four positions: RNDL. This was a cost-saving measure, but it would later become a source of customer complaints, since the mechanical parking brake’s ability to hold the car on a steep grade left something to be desired. (A parking pawl was belatedly added to the Tempest automatic for 1963.)

While Chevrolet originally hoped to make Powerglide standard on the Corvair, we haven’t seen any indication that Pontiac contemplated a similar strategy for the Tempest. However, such a move would have made sense — the automatic imposed surprisingly little penalty in performance and fuel economy. The torque converter further ameliorated the effects of engine vibration, and also masked the twisting of the driveshaft, which was noticeable and occasionally disconcerting with a manual gearbox and conventional clutch.

The Y-Body Tempest

By mid-1959, GM corporate management had accepted the new direction for the Pontiac compact. The corporation also authorized Pontiac to adopt the longer Y-body shell. We assume that with Pontiac no longer sharing the Corvair mechanical package, the priority had shifted to recouping the tooling costs of the bigger body, since it was likely that the cheaper Corvair, then nearing the start of regular production, would handily outsell its B-O-P cousins (as indeed it did).

1959 Pontiac Polaris full-size clay front 3q D-21424 (General Motors LLC / GMMA 26150)

Photographed January 20, 1959, this full-size clay model, badged “Polaris,” still shows a strong Corvair resemblance in the bodyside sculpting and greenhouse. On the whiteboard behind the clay model, you can see a mockup of a grill that appears closer to the production 1961 Tempest. (Photo: General Motors LLC)

This meant that Pontiac’s focus now shifted from differentiating their compact from the Corvair to differentiating the Tempest from the Buick and Oldsmobile Y-bodies, the Buick Special and Oldsmobile F-85. Pontiac arrived quite late to that particular party, and had to contend with a stylistically inflexible unitized body shell whose basic dimensions had been largely dictated by Buick and whose styling had been tailored to suit Oldsmobile.

1959 Pontiac Polaris full-size clay rear 3q D-21426 (General Motors LLC / GMMA 26150)

From the back, it’s apparent that this 1959 “Pontiac Polaris” clay is still intended for a rear engine, with an unusual split rear grille, divided by the rear bumper. (Photo: General Motors LLC)

Fortunately, Pontiac had a readily identifiable styling feature that could be made to work within the limited tooling budget: the “hairpin” split grille, developed by previous Pontiac styling chief Joe Schemansky for the 1959 Pontiac line. Although the 1960 Pontiac line, mostly done when Humbert arrived, had gone a different direction, Humbert revived the theme for the 1961 models, correctly recognizing that it gave Pontiac an immediately recognizable “face.” The Tempest eventually adopted a variation on the 1959 theme, which reduced but could not wholly eliminate the inevitable resemblance to the Special and F-85.

1959 Pontiac Bonneville Sports Coupe (white) front by Brian Snelson (CC BY 2.0)

First seen for 1959, the split grille would succeed the old “Silver Streaks” as the most enduring Pontiac styling feature, although it was actually dropped for 1960 before new Pontiac styling chief Jack Humbert realized they were throwing away a good thing. (Photo: “Goodwood Breakfast Club – 1959 Pontiac Bonneville” by Brian Snelson, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license)

1961 Pontiac Tempest sedan (blue covered in snow) front by Hootsk (PD)

Pontiac was a latecomer to the development of the Y-body, but the integration of the split grille theme was surprisingly cohesive, with none of the fussiness that marred the nose of the 1961 Oldsmobile F-85. As with many of the Pontiacs of Jack Humbert’s tenure, there’s a crisp precision to the placement of the details that elevates even a straightforward design (and that isn’t always perceptible in photographs). Alas, the rest of the 1961 Tempest wasn’t nearly as cohesively styled as the front clip. (Photo: “Snow-covered 1961 Pontiac Tempest sedan” by Hootsk, which was released into the public domain by the photographer; it was resized 2022 by Aaron Severson)

To the likely dismay of the sales executives and accountants, the biggest tooling change Pontiac made to the Y-body shell was one most customers would never see: a new floorpan to accommodate the torque tube. This didn’t even provide a completely flat floor, which might have given the Tempest a unique selling point. It did at least lower the driveshaft hump to roughly ankle height, and the floor was flat in the area around the front passenger’s feet, which helped to justify subsequent advertising claims of six-passenger capacity — or would have, had Pontiac not decided that every Tempest with manual transmission should have a floor-mounted shifter. (As on the Corvair, the selector for the automatic was neatly integrated into the dashboard, again making us wonder if Pontiac originally intended to make TempesTorque standard equipment on the Tempest.)

1961 Oldsmobile F-85 four-door sedan (copper) front 3q by dave_7, modified by Aaron Severson (CC BY 2.0)

Although Oldsmobile reportedly dictated much of the basic design of the Y-body shell, we find the front end of the 1961 F-85 the least aesthetically successful of the three B-O-P “senior compacts,” with its jutting hood and heavily lidded headlights making it look like it has a headache. Despite unique cylinder heads, the Oldsmobile version of the aluminum V-8 was no less troublesome than its Buick sibling, and, surprisingly, contemporary testers found the performance of its three-speed Hydra-Matic inferior to the two-speed Buick Dual-Path Turbine Drive. (Photo: “1961 Oldsmobile F-85” by dave_7, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license; this version was modified (recropped and obscured bystander faces) and resized 2022 by Aaron Severson, and is licensed under the same CC BY 2.0 license as the original photo)

1961 Buick Special four-door sedan (blue) front 3q by RL GNZLZ (CC BY 2.0)

Had the aluminum V-8 been less troublesome in its early years, the Buick Special would probably be the clear choice of the 1961 Y-bodies, offering the looks and most of the virtues of contemporary full-size Buicks with less bulk and greater economy. The Special would have benefited from 15-inch wheels (which were optional) and better shock damping (which was not), but it was an appealing package soured by the teething pains of its lightweight engine (which went on to a long and successful life in the UK). (Photo: “Buick Special 1961” by RL GNZLZ, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) license)

Floor shifter or no, the Tempest’s potential sportiness was undercut by the decision to launch with only four-door sedan and four-door Safari wagon body styles — not exactly a pulse-quickening lineup — and bench seats. The Tempest wasn’t a bad-looking car, but as yet, there wasn’t much of the design pizzazz that would become a Pontiac hallmark throughout the sixties.

1961 Pontiac Catalina Sports Coupe (black) front 3q by Greg Gjerdingen (CC BY 2.0)

If it sounds like we’re being a little hard on the styling of the 1961 Tempest, consider that the full-size ’61 Pontiacs looked like this — and this was the low-end Catalina series! This Catalina Sports Coupe (two-door hardtop) features the optional eight-lug aluminum wheels with integral brake drums, which provided greatly improved brake cooling in this 4,000-pound (1,815-kg) car. (Photo: “1961 Pontiac Catalina” by Greg Gjerdingen, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license)

Introducing the Pontiac Tempest

Although developing the Tempest and getting it ready for production in time was an enormous amount of work, the Pontiac engineers and designers who worked on the project were enthusiastic about it. The Tempest was one of the most technologically interesting models Pontiac had ever offered, and even the challenges it presented were colored with the excitement of doing something new and novel. We assume it was a matter of divisional pride as well; through their efforts, and thanks in no small part to the ingenuity of John DeLorean, they had succeeded in transforming an unwanted corporate hand-me-down into a unique Pontiac product.

1961 Pontiac Tempest four-door sedan (red) front 3q 208142 (General Motors LLC / GMMA 26150)

While the Y-body Tempest looked less like the Corvair than did the early Polaris clays, the Tempest nonetheless bore a strong resemblance to the contemporary Buick Special and Oldsmobile F-85 that shared its body shell. Presumably Pontiac found that similarity less troublesome than the previous Corvair similarity, perhaps because the Oldsmobile and Buick cost about 10 percent more than their Pontiac cousin! (Photo: General Motors LLC)

When the Tempest made its press debut in early 1960, automotive editors were also very excited about it. Above all, the new Tempest seemed like Progress, a sign, along with the Corvair, that Detroit could offer more than senseless bulk and glitz. The Tempest was sensibly sized and seemed to give away little in technical sophistication to high-end European cars. It was the Motor Trend Car of the Year for 1961, and some reviewers optimistically declared that other automakers would rush to imitate it.

Convincing the public was another matter. The average compact car buyer knew nothing about transaxles, and the practical advantages of the front-engine/rear-transaxle layout were not always obvious. Yes, the Tempest nominally offered seating for six, but so did most domestic cars in this class, and the manual transmission’s floor shifter might require some tense negotiations with the front middle passenger. Yes, the drivetrain tunnel was lower than usual for a front-engine/rear-wheel-drive car, but the Tempest couldn’t boast a completely flat floor like the Corvair’s. Most gallingly, a four-cylinder Tempest was not substantially less nose-heavy than a Buick Special or Oldsmobile F-85, because the Trophy 4 engine weighed so much more than the aluminum V-8. (The Trophy 4 alone weighed more than the Oldsmobile Rockette V-8 and 61-5 Hydra-Matic transmission put together, and the Buick engine and transmissions were lighter still.)

1961 Pontiac Tempest dashboard C865-R8-0015 (General Motors LLC / GMMA 26150)

The 1961 Pontiac Tempest instrument panel featured only a horizontal speedometer, a fuel gauge, and assorted warning lights. This car appears to have the Custom Interior Decor Group, a $69.94 option that included the steering wheel ring, a right-hand sunshade, a cigar lighter, and Morrokide upholstery. The radio was an additional $53.80. (Photo: General Motors LLC)

In its favor, the Trophy 4 engine gave the Tempest peppy acceleration. Even in standard form, with an 8.6:1 compression ratio and a single-barrel carburetor, its gross output was 110 hp (about 82 kW) and a stout 190 lb-ft (258 N-m) of torque, comfortably ahead of the Corvair, Falcon, and Comet. With either transmission, buyers could specify a higher 10.25:1 compression ratio, adding a further 10 hp and 12 lb-ft of torque (about 7 kW and 16 N-m), and cars with the high-compression engine and TempesTorque got a hotter cam that added 20 hp and 5 lb-ft (about 15 kW and 7 N-m). Most interesting from a performance standpoint was the optional high-compression four-barrel version, available only with TempesTorque, which offered 155 hp and 215 lb-ft of torque (equivalent to about 116 kW and 292 N-m). That was enough to make the Tempest a fairly hot number for 1961, and unlike the rare Chrysler Hyper-Pak Slant Six, the Trophy 4 still wasn’t especially high-strung in this form.

With the base low-compression engine, manual shift, and standard 3.55:1 axle ratio, the Tempest could do 0–60 mph (0–97 km/h) in less than 15 seconds — decent for this class — with a top speed of about 92 mph (148 km/h). Adding the high-compression four-speed engine and the optional 3.73:1 axle brought 0–60 mph (0–97 km/h) times below the 12-second mark and allowed a top speed of around 100 mph (160 km/h), brisk for an American family car of the period.

Tempest buyers could also order the same 215 cu. in. (3,528 cc) aluminum V-8 that was standard in the Buick Special, although few customers did so. Initially offered only with a two-barrel carburetor, the V-8 was no more powerful than the four-barrel Trophy 4 and a good deal more expensive (listing for $216 extra), although it was much smoother than the Pontiac 4 and about 35 percent lighter, providing better weight distribution. Pontiac had no great enthusiasm for the aluminum V-8, which was offered mostly at the insistence of corporate management, and proved troublesome as well as expensive. Only 2,004 V-8 Tempests were sold for 1961.

1962 Pontiac Tempest Custom Safari wagon (black) Trophy 4 engine by Greg Gjerdingen (CC BY 2.0)

Even with only four cylinders, the Trophy 4 had quite a lot of displacement, with thirst to match. A four-cylinder 1961 Tempest sedan returned an average of about 17–18 mpg in town and 21–23 mpg on the road with manual transmission, a bit less with TempesTorque or with the Tempest Safari wagon, which weighed 180 lb (81.7 kg) more than the sedan. High-compression versions of the four-cylinder engine also required premium fuel. Before the end of the 1961 model year, Pontiac adopted taller (lower numerical) axle ratios in search of better fuel economy. (Photo: “1962 Pontiac Tempest Custom Safari” by Greg Gjerdingen, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license)

Neither engine was especially thrifty. Although the Tempest had respectable fuel economy for an American compact of its era, even the base four was almost as thirsty as a V-8 F-85 or Special. This shouldn’t have come as a great surprise, considering that a four-cylinder Tempest was heavier than its Oldsmobile or Buick cousins, gave away only about 21 cu. in. (342 cc) to the aluminum V-8, and had considerably more displacement than many (slower) six-cylinder rivals. However, Tempest buyers assumed that a four-cylinder engine would be more parsimonious, and were annoyed to find that it wasn’t.

1961 Pontiac Tempest four-door sedan (red) side 208143 (General Motors LLC / GMMA 26150)

Although it was cheaper than the Y-body Special or F-85, the 1961–1962 Pontiac Tempest was actually the largest of the three, though not by much. With an overall length of 189.3 inches (4,808 mm) and an overall width of 72.2 inches (1,834 mm), the Tempest was 0.9 inches (23 mm) longer and 0.9 inches (23 mm) wider than the Buick, 1.1 inches (28 mm) longer and 0.7 inches (18 mm) wider than the Olds, with a 0.8-inch (20-mm) wider track. The big four-cylinder engine also made the Tempest around 150 lb (68 kg) heavier than its corporate cousins. On the plus side, the 112-inch (2,845-mm) wheelbase provided more rear seat room than a four-door Corvair, along with easier entry and exit for rear-seat passengers. (Photo: General Motors LLC)

There were greater disappointments in store for buyers who DID know what a transaxle was and anticipated dynamics resembling a Lancia or other high-end European car. The Tempest’s suspension tuning was typical Detroit, viz., soft and under-damped in the interests of a compliant ride. (Stiffer springs and shocks were theoretically available, but Pontiac didn’t promote them, and they didn’t appear on the standard lists of factory or dealer-installed options for 1961.) As for steering, your choices were light and very slow with unassisted steering, or a bit quicker and really light with power assist. Either way, crisp steering response was not on the menu.

That was perhaps just as well, because the Tempest could be a handful when pushed, betraying its kinship with the cheaper Corvair and some of the compromises Pontiac had had to accept to bring the Y-body compact to market.

The Swing-Axle Follies

When the Tempest debuted, keen observers noted that its rear suspension looked suspiciously like that of the Corvair, despite protestations to the contrary by Pontiac officials. In fact, it was substantially the same suspension: swing axles with semi-trailing lower control arms to carry the rear coils and shock absorbers (which acted against the rear crossmember) and transmit acceleration and braking forces to the body. The Tempest’s front suspension was also Corvair-like, with coil springs and upper and lower control arms, the latter located by a short compression strut between the lower arm and the front crossmember. Like the Corvair, there was initially no anti-roll bar, although one would be added later in production.

As with almost every aspect of the Tempest, the Corvair suspension was specified for cost reasons. Pontiac was aware of its shortcomings — DeLorean actually designed and patented both low-pivot and simulated low-pivot suspensions that would have addressed some of those limitations (U.S. Patent Nos. 2,968,358 and 3,011,578) — but there just wasn’t room in the limited budget for anything else.

Some readers are no doubt familiar with the characteristics of swing axles, but a brief recap seems in order. In a swing-axle suspension, the differential is fixed (in this case, to the rear crossmember), with each axle halfshaft pivoting on a universal joint to allow the halfshaft to transmit power while also acting as a locating arm for the wheel. This has several advantages: A swing-axle suspension has significantly less unsprung weight than a live axle and allows each rear wheel to react independently to bumps, both factors that improve ride quality. However, a swing-axle rear suspension also has a high static roll center (13.6 inches (354.4 mm) above ground level in the case of the Corvair, 14.5 inches (368 mm) on the early Tempest), which increases the tendency to oversteer, and a short swing arm length, which means that each rear wheel undergoes significant camber changes as it moves up and down through its arc of travel. At certain angles, the axle halfshaft can also act as a lever, forcing the differential upward in an effect known as jacking. This can result in a type of extreme camber loss known as tuck-under, which means what it sounds like it means. On both the Corvair and Tempest, these issues were compounded by rear alignment that gave the rear wheels a bit of static positive camber (wheels tilted outward at the top) when unladen. The expectation was that the weight of rear passengers and cargo would compress the rear springs and give zero camber or slight negative camber, but in a lightly loaded car, the positive camber setting served to further reduce the bite of the rear tires.

The Tempest had at least two theoretical advantages over a Corvair with the same suspension: greater width (in particular a 2.8-inch (71-mm) wider track) and significantly less weight over and behind the rear wheels. However, with the same basic geometry as the Corvair, its foibles were similar.

Driven conservatively, the Tempest was docile enough, and its relatively neutral balance could make it feel poised and agile, belying the exaggerated camber angles the wheels assumed in even moderately brisk cornering. As with the Corvair, the problem was not that the Tempest would oversteer, but that the point of departure could arrive with little warning. The more candid contemporary road tests found the Tempest’s cornering limits surprisingly low and warned that catching the tail if it broke loose was not easy, a consequence of the slow steering. In December 1961, Mercedes-Benz engineer Rudolf Uhlenhaut, a driver of great skill, managed to spin and roll (or nearly roll; accounts vary) a Tempest during a demonstration at a press preview for the new Mercedes 300SE in Daytona Beach, Florida, bending a wheel in the process. The Y-body Special and F-85, with their conventional four-link live axles, couldn’t be called agile, but they were far less likely to swap ends.

Another area where the Tempest could provide unwelcome excitement was brakes. All of the Y-body cars had 9-inch (229-mm) drum brakes, but the Tempest’s had 12 percent less swept area than the Y-body Special and F-85 despite its significantly greater curb weight. The brakes faded heavily in hard use and lining life was unimpressive. The parking brakes’ ability to hold the Tempest on a steep grade also left much to be desired, which could give owners of cars with TempesTorque an unhappy reminder that the automatic had no parking pawl.

The Y-Bodies Change Course

The upshot was that for all its cleverness and engineering novelty, the Tempest was not a particularly outstanding entry in the now-crowded domestic compact field, even among its GM Y-body “senior compact” siblings. It was far from the worst of the bunch — it was much quicker than a Falcon or Comet, less eccentrically styled than the Valiant or Lancer, and cheaper than the F-85 or Special. It also had good snow traction and a more usable rear seat than a four-door Corvair. However, the handling limitations of the rear suspension and the uncertainties of the unconventional powertrain kept the Tempest from being seen as a safe choice. Consequently, while the Tempest was the bestseller of the B-O-P senior compacts and the only one whose sales reached six figures in 1961, it wasn’t by much: 1961 production totaled 100,783 units, a disappointing figure by GM standards.

1961 Pontiac Tempest four-door sedan (blue) front seats C865-R6-0010 (General Motors LLC / GMMA 26150)

This appears to be the same car pictured in the dashboard photo above, and features the Custom Interior Decor Group (upholstered in what the brochures call “Jeweltone Morrokides With Accents”) in blue. Since there’s no floor shifter, this car presumably has TempesTorque (whose shifter is on the dashboard to the right of the steering wheel). The rope-drive Tempest does have a driveshaft tunnel, albeit reduced in size; the floor is flat around the front middle passenger’s feet, but not under the dash or in the back seat. (Photo: General Motors LLC)

By early 1961, even before the end of the model year, the sense of urgency that had driven the development of the X-100 project had largely faded. Although U.S. auto sales declined about 10 percent from 1960 to 1961, the arrival of the Corvair, Falcon, Valiant, and Studebaker Lark the year before had at least temporarily satisfied most of the American market’s appetite for compact cars. The market penetration of imported cars that had caused so much alarm two or three years earlier was now on the decline, giving U.S. automakers the confidence to resume ignoring the imports for a while longer.

This left the GM mid-price divisions with second thoughts about the entire senior compact program. Although bigger than the Corvair, the Y-body was still smaller than Oldsmobile or Buick were comfortable with; Pontiac proposed further enlarging the body shell as part of the 1963 facelift. None of the divisions was very happy with the NVH characteristics of the unit body, particularly in the area of road noise, which all three cars suffered at higher speeds. Mechanical commonality was considerably less than originally anticipated, which drove up unit costs, and the aluminum V-8 was proving an enormous headache from a manufacturing and service standpoint as well as being inherently expensive to build. Buick had already embarked on a crash program to create a cast iron V-6 from the V-8 design, using the latest “thinwall” casting techniques to keep the weight down, while Pontiac was looking at creating a de-bored and lightened version of its own V-8 to replace the costlier aluminum Buick engine.

Oldsmobile general manager Jack Wolfram and Buick general manager Ed Rollert wondered aloud if it made sense for their divisions to stay in the compact market. The Y-bodies weren’t doing much for the bottom line, and the sales force didn’t seem to know what to do with them. As for Pontiac, the Tempest was bringing in a respectable number of first-time buyers, but its production costs (particularly for the driveshaft, whose machining was costly and which had to be made in several variations that weren’t interchangeable) kept it from being a very profitable venture.

1964 Chevrolet Corvair Monza interior by Greg Gjerdingen (CC BY 2.0)

The great irony of the Corvair is that Chevrolet pinched pennies to keep the base price as low as possible, expecting to sell it as an economy car, but buyers gravitated toward the substantially more expensive Monza, which had bucket seats, carpets, plush vinyl upholstery, bright trim, and various minor conveniences. A 1964 Monza four-door sedan like this one started at $2,335, a hefty $335 more than a basic Corvair 500 club coupe. (Photo: “1964 Chevrolet Corvair Monza” by Greg Gjerdingen, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license)

Moreover, by the time the senior compacts entered production, the expectations of the market had shifted. The name of the game was now “Monza,” as in Corvair Monza, the unexpectedly popular sporty version of the Corvair. Introduced late in the 1960 model year, the Monza had become an immediate hit, with its plush trim, bucket seats, and (optional) hotter image transforming the Corvair from bare-bones econobox to low-priced sporty car. For 1961, it gained the option of a fully synchronized four-speed gearbox, and Chevrolet extended the Monza trim series to include four-doors as well as coupes.

The success of the Monza had clearly caught Pontiac, Oldsmobile, and Buick off-guard — even more than it had Chevrolet, which was struggling to keep up with demand. Jack Humbert’s Pontiac design studio had created full-size clays of a Tempest coupe as early as July 1959, but with only four-door sedans and wagons in the initial lineup, the expectation had obviously been that most buyers would be looking for economical family cars to bridge the gap between smaller imports and “Detroit dinosaurs.” A floor shifter and the four-barrel engine might make for an entertaining combination in a Tempest Safari wagon, but it was no Monza.

1961 Pontiac Tempest Sports Coupe (green) front 3q with airplane 210147 (General Motors LLC / GMMA 26150)

The 1961 Pontiac Tempest debuted with only four-door body styles; the two-door models appeared late in the model year, around April 1961. Although the car in the photo is identified as a Sports Coupe, we think it might actually be the standard coupe, which had thinner C-pillars and a wider backlight similar if not identical to that of the sedan. We’re not positive about the identification of the airplane behind the Tempest, although we think it might be a Rockwell Aero Commander. (Photo: General Motors LLC)

It took until the New York International Automobile Show in April 1961 for the mid-price divisions to debut their first two-door Y-bodies. In a fit of better-late-than-never overkill, there were actually two different versions of the new body style: a standard coupe with a wide, slightly wrapped backlight and what Pontiac called a “Sports Coupe,” with a smaller rear window and more sharply creased sail panels for what Pontiac dubbed “town-car styling.” The latter, evidently deemed the more elegant or upscale of the two rooflines, was used for the now inevitable B-O-P Monza-fighter: the Oldsmobile F-85 Cutlass, the Buick Skylark, and the Pontiac Tempest Custom Coupe.

1961 Buick Skylark interior by foshie (CC BY 2.0)

Buick hedged its bets with the Skylark, offering the plush sporty trim with the buyer’s choice of bench or bucket seats. Initially, dashboard design was very similar for all of the Y-body cars, although the Special/Skylark speedometer binnacle extended downward toward the steering column, with the fuel gauge and warning lights below the speedometer rather than on either side of it as on the Tempest and F-85. Note the drivetrain hump, which is more prominent on the Buick and the Oldsmobile than on the Tempest (where the hump only contains the torque tube, not the transmission). (Photo: “Buick Skylark interior” by foshie, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license)

At the New York show, Pontiac had shown off an upscale Tempest coupe called Le Mans, although unlike the Cutlass and Skylark, it had an extra dose of unrepresentative auto show frosting, including wire wheels, a padded vinyl top, a tachometer mounted on a short under-dash console, and a modified Trophy 4 engine with a GMC supercharger. As far as we’ve been able to verify, Pontiac didn’t apply the Le Mans name to the production Tempest until the start of the 1962 model year, but the late ’61 Custom Coupe had the Sports Coupe roofline and the requisite bucket seats, which were also offered on Custom sedans and Safari wagons. The base coupe had the other roofline and none of the fancy trim, but it assumed the role of price leader, with a list price starting $54 below the sedan and a significant $184 less than the Custom Coupe.

1962 Pontiac Tempest Le Mans convertible (gold) Le Mans badge by sv1ambo (CC BY 2.0)

Pontiac first used the name “Le Mans” (sometimes styled “LeMans,” although the nameplate clearly has a space) on a Tempest show car in spring 1961. Some sources indicate that the production version appeared late in the 1961 model year (like its Buick Skylark and Oldsmobile Cutlass cousins), but we haven’t found anything to confirm that assertion. The Le Mans package (initially a sub-series of the Tempest Custom line) was definitely available at the beginning of the 1962 model year, costing $124 more than a Custom coupe and $177 more than a Custom convertible. (“1962 Pontiac Tempest Le Mans convertible” by sv1ambo, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license)

Because of their late introduction, the coupes accounted for only about 15 percent of 1961 Tempest production, with sales split almost equally between the base and Custom trim series. However, the two-door models would be an essential part of the Tempest’s future.

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.

1962 Pontiac Tempest headlights by John Lloyd (CC BY 2.0)

If you’ll forgive us the aesthetic judgment, we don’t think the 1962 Tempest’s front end treatment was an improvement over the well-sorted ’61; it looked like the front clips of the 1959 and 1960 full-size Pontiac had been combined through some sort of early photographic special effects process. The results didn’t look very Pontiac-like, troublesome given that the Tempest already looked a great deal like the Oldsmobile F-85 and Buick Special. (Photo: “1962 Pontiac Tempest” by John Lloyd, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license)

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.)

1962 Pontiac Tempest Custom Le Mans sports coupe (blue with white roof) front 3q by Greg Gjerdingen, recropped by Aaron Severson (CC BY 2.0)

With a base price of $2,418, a 1962 Pontiac Tempest Custom Le Mans Sports Coupe was $145 more than a 1962 Corvair Monza coupe, although even the base Trophy 4 had more power than the Corvair’s optional engine (a $26.90 extra on any Corvair). The Monza coupe still outsold the Le Mans coupe by close to 4 to 1, but Le Mans sales suggested Pontiac had moved in the right direction commercially. (Photo: “1962 Pontiac Tempest LeMans by Greg Gjerdingen, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license; this version was modified (recropped) and resized 2022 by Aaron Severson, and is licensed under the same CC BY 2.0 license as the original photo)

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.

1962 Pontiac Tempest Custom Le Mans sports coupe (blue with white roof) rear 3q by Greg Gjerdingen, recropped by Aaron Severson (CC BY 2.0)

Much of the Pontiac Tempest’s exterior brightwork was optional, including the chrome ornaments on top of each front fender, the windshield and side window moldings, the three chrome windsplits behind each front wheel, and of course the De Luxe wheel covers. This 1962 Tempest Custom Le Mans Sports Coupe lacks some of the available tinsel, including chrome door-edge guards, rear appliqué, and rear fender peak mouldings. Note that the Sports Coupe is not a hardtop; Oldsmobile and Buick offered two-door hardtops in the Y-body line, but Pontiac never did. (Photo: “1962 Pontiac Tempest LeMans” by Greg Gjerdingen, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license; this version was modified (recropped) and resized 2022 by Aaron Severson, and is licensed under the same CC BY 2.0 license as the original photo)

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.

1962 Pontiac Tempest Custom Le Mans convertible (red) front 3q by Greg Gjerdingen (CC BY 2.0)

In two-door form, the 1961–1962 Pontiac Tempest looked smaller and more close-coupled than it was, but exterior dimensions were the same as the four-door save in overall height. With a base price of $2,741, the Custom Le Mans convertible was the most expensive version of the 1962 Tempest, although it outsold the $177 cheaper Custom convertible by three to one. (Photo: “1962 Pontiac Tempest Convertible” by Greg Gjerdingen, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license)

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.

1962 Pontiac Tempest Custom Le Mans convertible (red) interior by Greg Gjerdingen (CC BY 2.0)

The Le Mans package included plusher trim and bucket seats, but NOT a floor console, although one became available for 1963. Cars with TempesTorque did not have floor shifters; the TempesTorque quadrant is on the dashboard next to the ignition key, with the selector lever beneath it. Header and defroster controls are to the left of the steering column, out of reach of front passengers. (Photo: “62 Pontiac Tempest Le Mans” by Greg Gjerdingen, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license)

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.

1962 Pontiac Tempest Custom Safari wagon (black) rear 3q by Greg Gjerdingen, recropped by Aaron Severson (CC BY 2.0)

The Safari wagon wasn’t available in Le Mans trim, so this Custom Safari was the fanciest 1962 Tempest wagon, with a base price of $2,586. Along with its whitewalls and De Luxe wheel discs, this one appears to have all the optional chrome, including door-edge guards, a fuel door guard, rear fender peak mouldings, rear deck appliqué, and rear bumper guards, as well as the optional roof rack and backup lights. It also appears to have the power rear liftgate window, a $53.80 option. (Photo: “1962 Pontiac Tempest Custom Safari” by Greg Gjerdingen, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license; this version was modified (recropped) and resized 2022 by Aaron Severson, and is licensed under the same CC BY 2.0 license as the original photo)

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.

1963 Pontiac Tempest Le Mans convertible (blue) front 3q by Greg Gjerdingen (CC BY 2.0)

The 1963 Pontiac Tempest returned to the split grille — a welcome change — and eliminated the fussy body-side sculpting. Wheelbase remained 112 inches (2,845 mm), but the ’63 was now 194.3 inches (4,935 mm) long and 74.2 inches (1,885 mm) wide. Surprisingly, prices changed little if at all from 1962; a 1963 Le Mans convertible was now $2,742, just a dollar more than the ’62 version. (Photo: “1963 Pontiac Tempest LeMans Convertible” by Greg Gjerdingen, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license)

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).

1963 Pontiac Tempest Le Mans convertible (blue) rear 3q by Greg Gjerdingen (CC BY 2.0)

The 1963 Le Mans had a different rear panel with horizontal taillights; the cheaper trim series had vertically stacked round taillights, which made the tail look wider. Note that the rear wheels still have a bit of positive camber at rest. (Photo: “1963 Pontiac Tempest LeMans Convertible” by Greg Gjerdingen, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license)

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.

1963 Pontiac Tempest Le Mans convertible (white) interior by dave_7 (CC BY 2.0)

The 1963 Tempest dashboard had fewer instruments than it appeared at a glance. From left to right, the round binnacles contained ammeter and an oil pressure warning light; the speedometer and odometer; the fuel gauge and water temperature warning light; and the optional tachometer (which this car has, although it’s too small to see at this scale). Curiously, the ammeter and fuel gauge each occupied only about one-quarter of their respective dials. (Photo: 1963 Pontiac Tempest interior” by dave_7, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license)

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.

1963 Pontiac Tempest LeMans (light blue) 326 badge by Tap Tapzz (CC0 1.0)

Advertised and identified as a “326” (or “V326,” as on this car’s decklid badge), the 1963 Pontiac Tempest’s optional V-8 had a bore of 3.78 inches (96.0 mm) and a stroke of 3.75 inches (95.3 mm), which in most places would add up to an actual displacement of 336.9 cu. in. (5,521 cc). The Pontiac 326 offered from 1964 to 1967 had an 0.06-inch (1.6-mm) smaller bore, giving an actual displacement of 325.8 cu. in. (5,340 cc). (Photo: “1963 Pontiac LeMans” by Tap Tapzz, which was dedicated to the public domain by the photographer under a CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0) Public Domain Dedication)

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 (by about 9 percent) and firmer 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.

Tempest Fugit

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.

1963 Pontiac Tempest Le Mans coupe (red) front 3q by Greg Gjerdingen (CC BY 2.0)

While we find the front end of the 1963 Tempest an improvement over the ’62, we think the stretched tail throws off the proportions a bit, making the Tempest look too long for its wheelbase and overall width. This car’s wheels and tires are not stock. (Photo: “1963 Pontiac LeMans” by Greg Gjerdingen, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license)

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. An investigation by Hot Rod writer OCee Ritch, published in the 1963 Pontiac Performance Handbook, suggested that the most complete solution for the handling problems would be de-cambering: 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 Ritch 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.

1963 Pontiac Tempest Le Mans coupe (red) rear 3q by Greg Gjerdingen (CC BY 2.0)

A 1963 Pontiac Tempest Le Mans Sports Coupe started at $2,418, with the V-8 adding $167 and TempesTorque (no longer required with the V-8, but still the better option) an extra $173. (Photo: “1963 Pontiac LeMans” by Greg Gjerdingen, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license)

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.

1964 Pontiac Tempest Le Mans hardtop (black) front 3q by Greg Gjerdingen (CC BY 2.0)

Hard as it may be to believe today, most 1964 Pontiac Tempests were NOT GTOs. According to its fender badges, this 1964 Le Mans hardtop has the 326 cu. in. (5,340 cc) V-8, which offered 250 hp (186 kW) in low-compression two-barrel form or 280 hp (209 kW) with 10.5:1 compression and a four-barrel carburetor. Most cars had the new two-speed automatic. (Photo: “1964 Pontiac Tempest LeMans” by Greg Gjerdingen, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license)

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.

1964 Pontiac Tempest coupe (blue) 215 engine by Greg Gjerdingen (CC BY 2.0)

Replacing the Trophy 4 as standard power for the 1964–1965 Pontiac Tempest was a 215.4 cu. in. (3,529 cc) six, a Pontiac-assembled variation of the second-generation Chevrolet six with a unique 3.75-inch (95.3-mm) stroke, making 140 gross horsepower and 206 lb-ft (equivalent to about 104 kW and 279 N-m). This engine was replaced for 1966 by the 230 cu. in. (3,769 cc) OHC six. (Photo: “1964 Pontiac Tempest” by Greg Gjerdingen, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license)

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.

Rope Drive in Retrospect

In the early seventies, as the GTO era was winding down, Alfa Romeo introduced the Alfetta and Porsche began development of Projects 928 and EA425, which resulted in 1976 in the Porsche 924 and a year later the Porsche 928. Each had a front engine and rear transaxle. Like the old Tempest, the Porsche 928 had a V-8 engine, and the subsequent Porsche 944 and 968 (eventual successors to the 924) had a big four-cylinder engine derived from that V-8. All went on to long if not unqualifiedly successful careers.

1983 Porsche 944 (red) by Aaron Severson (author photo)

A Yuppie darling of the eighties, the Porsche 944 resembled the rope-drive Tempest in combining a large-displacement four-cylinder engine (derived from a V-8), a front-engine/rear-transaxle layout, and independent rear suspension. Unlike the Tempest, the 944 had balance shafts to smooth out the four-cylinder shakes; a well-tuned semi-trailing arm rear suspension that made the Porsche one of its era’s best-handling cars; and a price tag that started at $18,980 in the U.S., which, adjusted for inflation, was more than twice the base price of a 1961 Pontiac Tempest. (author photo)

Some pundits with long memories asserted that these cars vindicated the rope-drive Tempest concept, which we think was missing the point. The front-engine/rear-transaxle concept hadn’t originated with Pontiac and was never in need of vindication; there was nothing wrong with that layout, or with the Tempest’s flexible driveshaft, which worked well enough in service. The Tempest’s most serious shortcomings were in its rough, heavy four-cylinder engine and twitchy swing axle suspension, which were the more or less inevitable consequences of applying a layout usually found in high-end GT cars to a cheap family sedan contrived from hand-me-down pieces. As with the original Oldsmobile Toronado, the Tempest’s technology was sound enough; it was just applied in a context where it didn’t make much sense.

Could Pontiac have turned the rope-drive Tempest into a bona fide big GT like the Porsche 928 or a real high-end sports sedan like the Lancia Aurelia or Flaminia? Perhaps, but Pontiac was about as likely to build such a car as they were to sell hot air balloons. In a corporation that considered anything selling fewer than 100,000 units a year a niche product and anything under 200,000 units a year a sales disappointment, it was hard to generate sustained enthusiasm for novel features that didn’t move the metal. Sporty bucket seats and floor consoles were one thing — they had showroom appeal and sold at a handsome markup — and there was almost always a market for extra horsepower, but anything more involved than that was easily dismissed as too much of a risk.

Ultimately, what stands out most about the original Pontiac Tempest is the ingenuity of its conception. If the results were flawed, the idea was singularly audacious; ideas like, “Let’s bend the driveshaft into an arc to reduce vibration and get rid of the universal joints,” were definitely not how Detroit usually handled problems resulting from limited development and tooling budgets. Obviously, the rope-drive Tempest was an engineering kludge on every level, but that was the object of the exercise. Had the Tempest been anything other than a kludge, it would never have made it past the prototype stage, and Pontiac would almost certainly have grudgingly proceeded with the made-over Corvair the corporation originally wanted the division to build in the first place.

That too would likely have been short-lived, stumbling along for a few years of probably indifferent sales before being supplanted by the A-body Tempest. It might have paid off for Corvair buyers (would greater economies of scale have resulted in earlier fixes for the suspension limitations of the early Corvair?), but so far as Pontiac was concerned, the outcome would have probably been about the same. Or perhaps worse. After all, Pontiac did manage to sell 375,000 rope-drive Tempests, which was hardly bad; in the seventies, it took five and a half years for Pontiac to top that figure with the X-body Ventura, a barely disguised clone of the Chevrolet Nova.

1973 Pontiac Ventura Sprint Coupe (orange) front 3q by Mr.choppers (CC BY-SA 3.0)

In some respects, the seventies Pontiac Ventura (initially called Ventura II) was what the corporation had wanted the Pontiac Tempest to be a decade earlier: a compact Chevrolet (in this case the X-body Chevrolet Nova) in Pontiac drag, with Chevrolet mechanicals. Pontiac had been offering similar Chevrolet-based models in Canada since the fifties, but the X-body Ventura was something of a damp squib in the U.S. The 1973 Ventura sold 96,500 units, about half of those coupes. This car’s Sprint package was an appearance option, including the Firebird-style blackout grille and stripes. (Photo: “1973 Pontiac Ventura Sprint Coupe 350 in orange, front right” by Mr.choppers, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0) license; it was resized 2022 by Aaron Severson)

Today, the rope-drive Tempest has the peculiar distinction of being arguably the most interesting product of Pontiac’s sixties Golden Age and also one of the most obscure. We don’t imagine the novel powertrain has done survival rates any favors (finding a replacement driveshaft or other unique parts seems like it would be a real project at this late date), but the Y-body Tempest also languishes in the shadow of its far more numerous A-body successors, whose reputation has been lifted by their kinship with the glamorous and muscular GTO.

The 1961–1963 Tempest was neither a jock nor a beauty queen, and we can’t in all candor describe it as an honor student, but it remains a thoroughly fascinating oddball, and a welcome reminder that “cheap” doesn’t necessarily mean “dull.”



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Please note that all exchange rate equivalencies and inflation estimates cited in this article are approximate and are provided solely for the reader’s general reference — this is an automotive history, not a treatise on currency trading or the value of money, and nothing in this article should be taken as financial advice of any kind!



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  1. Good job on the airplane ID- indeed an Aero Commander, I believe a ‘500U’ model, the ancestor to the later ‘Shrike’ made famous by R.A. ‘Bob’ Hoover.

    Thanks for a very informative and well researched read! Good years for aviation and autos…

  2. Another good job, up to your usual standards.

    As you point out, the Corvair Monza sold much better than the base model. It’s more or less a truism that the upgrades would have been more profitable than the basic car. With the stipulation that hindsight is 20/20, Chevrolet could have taken a lesson from the nicely trimmed Nash Rambler.

    If I didn’t already know that Vauxhall was a subsidiary of an American automaker, the Victor’s styling would lead me to suspect it.

    1. Deciding how to position a car in terms of base price is complicated, and I don’t want to be TOO dismissive of that. It’s clear that base price can function as a psychological barrier, and it’s not a stretch to concede that the same 1960 compact buyer willing to add $299 worth of options to a $2,000 car might have dismissed as too expensive a similarly equipped version of the same car listing for $2,300. Also, Chevrolet did sell a fair number of base-trim Corvairs (around 63,000 for 1960), and I’m sure there were sales execs who argued that standardizing a better-equipped trim level would have meant throwing those sales away. The corporate priority was maximizing return on tooling investment, which generally meant maximizing production volume. Selling 300,000+ cars a year paid off the tooling costs far more quickly than building “only” 200,000 of a pricier better-trimmed version. The problem, of course, was knowing where to draw the line so that the price-leader base model didn’t become seriously deficient. For instance, I think it was probably reasonable to sacrifice the original plan to make Powerglide standard, but both the Corvair and Tempest should have had the ’64 Corvair suspension from the outset, even on base models.

      (One point the Tempest story highlights is that just the front anti-roll bar was not enough. The Tempest got that much sooner than the Corvair did — as a running change for 1961 — and it didn’t help all that much. I suspect also adding a transverse leaf spring would have helped, although perhaps not quite as much as on the Corvair. Part of the issue with the Corvair was that its rear springs had to be stiffer to support the powertrain, which was less of an issue with the rope-drive Tempest, although the transverse spring might still have helped to reign in the camber change antics.)

  3. Another quality article,Aaron.The Tempest was definitely a fascinating design, second only to the Corvair in ingenuity in that era.By the way, International Harvester also used a Half-a-V8 design in the Scout, a contemporary of the original Tempest. It had a much longer production run.

    1. The International Harvester 4 had a displacement of 152 cubic inches, in the same ballpark as GM’s Iron Duke. Presumably it wouldn’t have been very refined, but it would have been more refined than the Trophy 4. In that application a high degree of refinement probably wasn’t expected.

      1. I’m not very familiar with IHC engines, but the brochures I could find say the seventies “Comanche 196” engine displaced 195.4 cu. in. (3,203 cc), which was a bit bigger than the Trophy 4 and probably about as rough.

        1. I wasn’t aware of that one. I’m pretty sure they had a 152 CID I4 also.

          1. Yes, there was a smaller “Comanche Four” that was first introduced for 1961. It was based on the V-304 and shared its bore and stroke, giving 151.8 cubic inches (2,488). The “Comanche 196” followed in 1968, based on the V-392.

          2. I found I had a Car Life review of the 1961 Scout with the 152, whose refinement they characterize only as “smoother than you might expect” — not very revealing in this case, and not an especially high bar. They note the conceptual similarity to the Pontiac Trophy 4, but unfortunately offer no detailed comparison, which might have been interesting.

    2. That 4-cylinder Scout engine could also be had with a turbocharger, although I think it was more aimed at high-altitude areas like the Rocky Mountain states than just extra power.

      1. I read a little bit about that the other day. Apparently, the turbo package, which made 111 hp (compared to 93 hp for the normally aspirated four) was expensive and not terribly well-sorted, and was fairly rare. It expired not long after the bigger 196 cu. in. four became available, although it was still listed as an option into 1968. (The 1968 Scout brochure lists normally aspirated and turbo 152 and normally aspirated 196.)

  4. I have a 1962 version of the Tempest service manual that I picked up at the swap meet in Carlisle (PA) many years ago. I hoped to own one some day after reading “Unsafe At Any Speed” and seeing the quote from Road Test magazine printed in late 1964 to describe the new for 1965 Corvair with the proper independent rear end. It said (speaking of the 2nd gen Corvair), “Previous to 1965. the car was probably the worst riding, worst all-around handling car available to the American public with the exception of the original Pontiac Tempest.” So one can infer that the Tempest was – at the time – THE worst riding, THE worst handling car available – at any price – in North America, at least according to the authors of that article. Reading that made me really want a Tempest – to celebrate it as the worst of the worst in every automobile attribute you can define and quantify. How awesome.

    To describe this car as a magnificent kludge is accurate when you read the proper procedure for setting rear wheel toe alignment. On the 1961-1962 models, the service manual says you adjust the toe angle by using shims on the rear swing arm mounting points to slightly change their angle (as viewed from above) from the roughly 40 degrees to a little more or less. Each wheel can be adjusted independently. With the hubs bolted to those arms, changing their angle changes the rear wheel toe – in or out. But doing so also moves the transaxle slightly in a longitudinal direction. And remember that the engine is rigidly fixed to the transaxle via the torque tube. So in comes the kludge part of the procedure: Before adding or removing shims to adjust rear toe, the manual says you should loosen the motor mounts, add/remove shims to get the toe set properly, then run the engine for a few minutes to allow the engine to settle into proper position after being moved forward or rearward within the car, then shut down and tighten the engine mounts. That sounds like a “gee we never thought of that” workaround, doesn’t it?

    Thank you for covering this unique moment in automotive history. It reminds me so much of those cooking shows that give three or four teams and handful of ingredients and challenge them to make a gourmet meal from what they are given. In the case of the Tempest, they got the Olds/Buick body, a Buick V8, half of a Pontiac V8, and a Corvair rear suspension and transaxle. And from that, they prepared the best they could within the budget and time limitations.

    1. Since you’re moving the engine forward or backward, how much force do you have to bring to bear on the shims?

      1. The torque specs in shop manual were nothing particularly extreme. It seems that the specific issue was that the engine mounts were VERY soft and allowed a lot of deflection, making it easy to inadvertently misalign the whole powertrain.

        The revised 1963 suspension simplified rear toe adjustments (toe was adjusted by shimming the mounting bracket on the leading end of the control arm, rather than the differential mounts), but the 1963 shop manual still recommended loosening the engine mount bolts first and then retightening them afterward, I assume for the same reason.

        Incidentally, the 1961 and 1962 shop manuals recommended inspecting rear toe and adjusting as needed every 2,000 miles, so this was not an infrequent chore if you followed the manual!

  5. Thanks for another great article, Aaron! I enjoy reading about unusual designs and what led to those decisions.

    Is there any info on how the rope drive fared in service? I’ve wondered how the continued flex and torque would affect the metal over time or if the support bearings life was affected.

    1. The Pontiac engineers who developed the Tempest said the early cars suffered problems with the engine timing gear basically shaking itself to bits, since the V-8 timing gear and timing chain wasn’t designed for the greater shaking forces of the four-cylinder engine, and a contemporary owners’ survey found a surprising number of owners (around 30 percent) complaining of problems with the manual clutch. Those seem to have been the major initial reliability issues.

      It seems that at least within the cars’ original design lifetime, the flexible driveshaft itself worked out pretty well. I don’t know what the fatigue life of the shaft ended up being in practice; I couldn’t find any detailed information on that, so I can only speculate based on the design parameters. Pontiac did try to over-engineer the driveshaft to avoid fatigue problems (heat-treated shot-peened forged steel, which was very expensive), and the bending moment is supposed to remain constant throughout the shaft, so I don’t know that the curvature would affect the shaft’s fatigue life that much. However, I do have to wonder about the torsional forces involved. The shaft was designed to twist through a range of about 60 degrees (30 degree in each direction), which seems like it would eventually take a toll, both on the shaft and on the protective coating applied to its surface.

      As for the torque tube bearings, their main function appears to have been to support the shaft in the tube, and the shop manual asserts that they were sealed for life, so it appears Pontiac assumed their operating stresses would be fairly low. The shop manual doesn’t list any procedure for inspecting or replacing them in service, although I have to wonder what happened when they got old and the rubber and plastic insulators within each bearing assembly started to get crunchy. A more immediate concern may have been the longevity of the torque tube itself, particularly in areas that used a lot of road salt. I assume the driveshaft’s protective coating was intended to prevent corrosion, but the torque tube was just stamped steel, and so moisture inside the tube or bad surface rust, especially around the bearing mounts, seems like a potentially nasty problem on an older car.

      Again, I don’t have any hard data or first-hand experience to share in these regards, and I’m definitely NOT a mechanic, but those are the areas of the design that seem like obvious areas of concern.

  6. So good to see this superb article finished and posted. Extremely thorough and lots details and context.

    A couple of minor things or questions: That ’61 LeMans coupe without any exterior bright trim threw me. It went against everything I knew and remembered about the LeMans, a package of trim and other features comparable to the Monza. I can’t imagine a “stripped” one being offered. I went to the 1961 Tempest brochure, and in the text for the LeMans, it says “Full custom treatment on hardware and trim – all standard!” I very strongly suspect that the pictured LeMans in your post was either de-trimmed for some reason, custom-ordered, or maybe it was base Tempest that someone add the LeMans badges to? Whatever; it’s a pretty minor detail.

    Like you, I thought the ’63 restyle was not successful, in its attempt to make these cars look bigger, undoubtedly to transition them to the larger A body for ’64. And yes, the ’62 front end is not very good either.

    You summed it up perfectly in your title; this was a classic kludge. I understand what DeLorean was trying to do, and appreciate the limitations they had, but the result is both fascinating yet unsatisfying on a number of levels.

    Our next door neighbor in Iowa City bought a new ’62 LeMans convertible; she was a single, Russian middle-aged professor of Russian at the university. One could say she was perhaps a representative target demographic? The sound of that big four was deeply imprinted on me at that age, not in a very good way, but I did have a memorable ride in it once, with the top down. That rather masked the sound of the engine!

    1. If you mean the blue Le Mans with the white roof (which is a ’62), I don’t know its provenance, so I can only speculate. This is also complicated by the fact that the 1961–1963 brochures I could find did not have any detailed specifications for the Le Mans, which leaves some question about how much of the chrome trim was standard. The Custom included some but not all of the optional brightwork, and my guess would be that at least some of the chrome gewgaws (e.g., the fuel door filler trim) was probably still optional with the Le Mans package. It’s also possible that the owner didn’t like some of the chrome bits, or, perhaps more plausibly, had lost or damaged the trim on one side, couldn’t find a full set of replacement trim, and decided to remove the rest so it would at least be symmetrical. It would not be a base coupe with Le Mans badges (since I believe the base coupes came only with the now very rare standard coupe roofline rather than as “Sport Coupes”), although it might be a Custom coupe with Le Mans badges. Short of asking the owner, I don’t know.

      The ’63 restyling/enlargement was apparently proposed by Pontiac quite early, I believe before the decision about what to do for ’64 had been made. So, I think it wasn’t so much a transition to the bigger ’64s as a response to B-O-P managers fretting that the ’61 senior compacts looked too dinky, even with 4 inches more wheelbase than a Corvair. That said, it did end up serving as a transition to the ’64 Tempest/Le Mans, which I think had better proportions.

  7. A Happy New Year, and thanks for another great article.

  8. It’s quite fascinating that the “compact” car of the past in North America are considered big cars elsewhere, including places that are said to have similar taste to America, like Australia (Even the largest Falcons of the 70s are smaller than the Mavericks at that time). Pretty sure the Tempest is similar.

    1. Yes, that’s been a recurring theme. The 1961–62 Tempest was 189.3 inches (4,808 mm) on a 112-inch wheelbase and 72.2 inches (1,834 mm) wide, weighing around 3,000 lb (1,360 kg) with the four-cylinder engine and automatic, so it was not a particularly small car on a global scale. For instance, it was 21 inches longer and 9.7 inches wider than a Mk1 Ford Cortina, and about half a ton heavier. (The Tempest was the heaviest of the Buick-Oldsmobile-Pontiac Y-body “senior compacts” with the four-cylinder engine; the Buick aluminum V-8 and cast iron V-6 were a good deal lighter.)

  9. Aaron, thank you for this interesting article on the rope=drive Pontiacs. I owned GTOs and Le Manses in my younger days (Along with a Catalina) and counted myself as a Pontiac afficianado, and I also very much liked the BOP Y bodies (especially the turbocharched Cutlass), but never owned one.

    Most of us who enjoy cars are familiar with the Corvair swing axle issues, and in this article you have added good teaching about what was and was not inherited by Y body Tempests which used the Corvair derived transaxle. I especially appreciated your description of automatic transmission differences from the Corvair version, and also your discussions regarding the “rope” itself.

    But (there’s always at least one, isn’t there?) while I recognize that the subject and purpose of your article was to discuss Y body Pontiacs, I’ve always had questions regarding these cars and Corvairs. I understand the issue about roll centers, camber changes, and sudden oversteer. What I do not understand is why the same design was used by Volkswagen (also a “cheap” car), Porsche (not a cheap car and noted for its handling), and Mercedes Benz cars from the 50s to the 70s, and similar Jill Claybrook-inspired handwaving and pearl-clutching hasn’t accompanied those autos?

    (By the way, I believe Ford used a similar sort of idea in their “Twin I Beam” 4 wheel drive front axles in their pickups, where the lengthened arms were intended to counter camber changes, with middling results.)

    I think I understand that Mecedes Benz used a lower center pivot point for their swing axle and incorporated some sort of monkey motion to make the swing axle behave in an intermediate way between a fully independent system and a live axle with regard to camber change.

    I wonder if your story of Rudi Uhlenhaut testing and commenting on the Tempest had something to do with the Mercedes Benz implementation of the swing axle?

    I also think that Porsche used an anti-roll bar on the rear swing axles of some of their models, but I’m not so sure about this.

    Did the DeLorean patents have something to do with designing some Mercedes Benz-like trickery to the Tempest suspension?

    If it is convenient for you to shed a little light on this question (Corvair and Y body Tempest versus Mercedes Benz, Volkswagen, and Porsche swing axles), I would very much appreciate your comments.

    Another thing you’ve done with this article is add more fuel to my mental exercises regarding John Z DeLorean. I’ve always liked the Pontiac OHC 6 (aand still do!) and your discussion of his Packard Ultramatic are very interesting. Now you’ve added the rope drive and the slicing of the Pontiac V8, a la Sesco midget engine, to the whole John Z DeLorean story, along with his rebellious GM leadership years, the DMC episode, and also his cocaine sales sideline. He was clearly a complex man with talent, taste, and a tug-of-war between ambition and ethics. I don’t say this from a judgmental perspecive, but rather a contemplation of the human nature we all share.

    Thanks again!

    1. What I do not understand is why the same design was used by Volkswagen (also a “cheap” car), Porsche (not a cheap car and noted for its handling), and Mercedes Benz cars from the 50s to the 70s, and similar Jill Claybrook-inspired handwaving and pearl-clutching hasn’t accompanied those autos?

      Volkswagen DID; the Beetle got its share of negative ink in Unsafe at Any Speed for that reason. Mercedes-Benz, meanwhile, mitigated the worst of it with the low-pivot axle. The original gull-wing 300SL, which didn’t have it, is still notorious for its unforgiving swing-axle characteristics, although there were so few of the coupes and seeing one was and is such a rare event that it’s just kind of part of the lore. The low-pivot axle used on the 190SL, the W113 cars, and most of the sedans and coupes, lowers the roll center, reduces the tendency to jacking (which is an angularity issue), and limits rear roll stiffness. It’s still not ideal geometrically, but it’s less likely to be treacherous.

      As for Porsche, the rear-engined air-cooled cars’ penchant for tail-swinging was well-known, evidenced by years of reviews insisting that the latest suspension revisions had definitely finally, truly put to rest the nasty oversteering antics, while assuring the ego-sensitive reader that those antics were never really a problem for someone who Knows What They’re Doing, that eternal shibboleth of automotive apologism. I will grant that with a 356, (a) their reputation for oversteer certainly preceded them, and (b) they were sports cars, with quick steering and sharper reflexes, so you could potentially manage the tail’s periodic excursions from linearity without necessarily going around in circles or wrapping the car around a pole. (The air-cooled 911 had semi-trailing arms in back and wasn’t quite the same animal, although semi-trailing arms have sharpish trailing-throttle characteristics even with a forward weight bias.)

      The dilemma with the Tempest, as with the Corvair, is that its chassis was trying hard to be conventional American family car: soft springs, soft shocks, slow steering, and rear suspension geometry compromised by the expectation that people would really want to use it to carry six passengers. So, there was little immediate indication that it would handle differently than other cars of its size and vintage (most of which did not, it should be said, handle very well either). If you tripped over the line, it was hard to catch and the suspension and steering were not very cooperative.

      This is the point of the Uhlenhaut anecdote. He was obviously showing off — it was part of a Mercedes launch demonstration — and I assume he intended to put the tail out, presumably to contrast its behavior with the better-mannered low-pivot Mercedes rear axle. However, even with advanced planning and a high level of skill, he overcooked it, memorably alarming people who witnessed it.

      The Mercedes low-pivot axle would not have translated directly to the Tempest for a number of reasons, particularly the rigid interconnection between the transaxle and the engine. DeLorean came up with two alternatives: The first carried each rear wheel on a big, wide lower A-arm, hinged at the bottom of the differential; each swing axle only had a single inboard U-joint, but had a telescoping section allowing it to change length as the wheel moved from jounce to rebound, providing a longer swing arm length and lower roll center. The second, which he actually called a “simulated low pivot swing axle suspension,” also specified telescoping U-joints, but had no lower control arm, just a transverse leaf spring bolted to the underside of the differential, serving as both control arm and spring. How well these would have worked in practice is hard to say — I’m not sure if they were ever even built — but they were designed to achieve similar effects as the Mercedes low-pivot axle, albeit not in the same ways.

      The Tempest would probably have benefited from some of the fixes Chevrolet eventually offered for the Corvair. There was initially a H-D kit for the Corvair that included stiffer but lower coil springs that effectively decambered the rear suspension, along with a front anti-roll bar (which the Tempest had by the end of 1961) and limiter straps for the rear swing axles, as a crude way of limiting tuck-under. The ’64 Corvair had softer rear coils with a transverse leaf spring between the rear trailing arms, pivoted off the bottom of the differential, so it would support the rear end vertically and resist tuck-under without adding to rear roll stiffness. It wasn’t as elaborate as the completely new three-link suspension for ’65, but it helped. Unfortunately, Pontiac didn’t offer anything like that, so it would have been a matter of trying to find aftermarket or homemade solutions.

      As far as I know, early swing axle suspensions didn’t use rear anti-roll bars, since the high roll center and stiff rear springs provided more than enough rear roll stiffness. Some later Porsche rear-engine models did, but as mentioned, the 911 had semi-trailing arms, not swing axles.

      1. Thank you, Aaron! This makes a lot more sense than what I possessed on the subject.

        Would it be correct to say that the Corvair’s, Volkwagen’s, and Porsche’s oversteer habits were exacerbated beyond swing axle issues with the engine hanging from behind the rear axle? It would seem that having that weight out at the end of the car would want to bring the rear around when the car got out of shape.

        Regarding Mercedes Benz and Uhlenhaut, I am not dismissive of their technology, as they certainly have a long and enviable record of innovation, development, and quality. However, I try to always apply a degree of skepticism regarding matters that seem to fall under commonly accepted truth/myth. When I was young, I recall going to the Chicago Auto Show with a friend (this would have been in the early to mid 70s, when Pontiac Firebirds had big chickens on their hoods). Stopping at the Mercedes Benz display and having been inculcated with machines like the 300SLR with desmodromic valves and the W196, I saw a display of their high tech carburetor, which was such an obvious rip off of GM’s Quadrajet (a carburetor that I did and still do hold in low esteem) shocked me with its near total resemblance. The Rochester carburetor book by Bill Fisher and Doug Roe even has a cutaway diagram of the Solex carburetor Mercedes Benz used in those years and notes this resemblance on page 122. I recall the representative giving me a very condescending look, which did nothing in my mind to dissuade me from the opinion that he was a snob, and snobby as only an ignorant person can be.

        Returning to the Pontiac, it seems that this is yet one more of many issues from Detroit where the “what ifs” can be tracked back to money. As much as I hate to admit it, when it came to compacts, McNamara had the right idea with the Falcon and, as you rightly pointed out, Ford’s artistry with cast iron. The technology in that case really did have a direct and positive effect on what the customer bought, even if it wasn’t understood or even known.

        Your noting the popularity of the Le Mans and Monza packages shows that the public wasn’t completely turned off by the smaller car if it was marketed correctly. Cosworth Vegas and Fieros had promise, as did even the Pontiac OHC 6, but all of these cars didn’t have what Toyotas et al had. This is a pretty recurrent story, I suppose: as you allude to, even Rover and TVR could take the Buick 215 and make it into something good (not to mention Repco!) that Detroit always seemed to miss.

        1. My object in mentioning Uhlenhaut specifically was not to say, “Mercedes-Benz good, Pontiac bad,” but rather, “Even in the hands of an expert driver, the Tempest’s handling characteristics could be a handful.” (I don’t think any reasonable person would disagree that Rudi Uhlenhaut Knew What He Was Doing behind the wheel of an automobile.)

          I’m sympathetic to people who bristle at the accusation that a relatively cheap American car is technologically inferior to a European car costing vastly more money (a Mercedes 220SE cost very nearly $3,000 more than a 1961 Tempest, and a Lancia Flaminia sedan was getting on to three times the Tempest’s base price). On the other hand, even Chevrolet made more of an effort to address the handling flaws of the swing-axle Corvair, and there was no particular reason Pontiac couldn’t have done the same. (The 1962–63 Corvair handling kit wasn’t standard because the decambering of the shorter springs wasn’t desirable for carrying a full load of passengers; the 1964 compensating spring didn’t have that issue, although decambering would have further improved handling.)

          As for the question of whether the location of the engine made a difference, the answer is, “Yes and no.” Putting the mass of the engine behind the rear axle is obviously going to shift the longitudinal center of gravity rearward, and means that once the tail cuts loose, it will have more inertia. Furthermore, the rear springs will tend to be stiffer because they have to support the weight of the engine, although this can be mitigated by using a compensating spring that is arranged so it doesn’t contribute to roll stiffness. On the other hand, a lot of the problems with swing axles come down to unfavorable geometry, exacerbated on the Tempest and early Corvair by static positive camber.

          Jerry Titus, who had written a cogent dissection of the Corvair’s handling problems in the last issue of a short-lived magazine called Foreign Cars Illustrated (reprinted in the Brooklands Corvair road test portfolio), wrote a followup in Sports Car Graphic, where he reported that the Corvair’s cornering power actually improved by about 20% by adding 170 lb of weights on the floor of the back seat. The reason was that this more closely replicated the original design parameters for the suspension: The expectation was that the Corvair and Tempest would be used as family sedans, and with such a short swing arm length, that meant the static camber had to be positive so that adding weight in the rear wouldn’t produce excessive negative camber and high tire wear. Adding weight eliminated the positive camber, letting the rear wheels get a better bite on the pavement, and changed the angles of the halfshafts relative to the U-joints so that jacking was less likely. This is an area where the Porsche 356 was starting with an advantage; Porsche had not set up the suspension with the expectation that it would carry six passengers!

          The dilemma that all the domestic automakers ended up facing in the early sixties was that the market for which they had designed the compacts was not really the one they ended up with. The initial Ford Falcon was pretty much what dealers had been screaming for in 1957: It was cheap, it was thrifty, it was uncomplicated, and it didn’t scare the horses. The idea that people would want to pay extra (and, on a percentage basis, a bunch extra) for junior Thunderbirds was not really on the table at the outset, and it seems Detroit was pretty well flummoxed by it. People did still buy the cheaper base cars, and at a rate that I think would have made the divisions very reluctant to push the base prices too high, but the take-up for the deluxe editions was really unexpectedly good. I don’t think it was a matter of “marketing them right” so much as the buying public having turned out to want something different that happened to be more plush. (By contrast, I don’t know that the Monza, Futura, et al would have gone over terribly well if the cars had been launched that way just a couple of years earlier — look at what happened when Chrysler brought out the K-car in the early eighties, where the early cars were optioned up at a time where people wanted basic and cheap.)

          The aluminum V-8 is another matter. Producing the engine early on really proved to be kind of a nightmare. Buick used semi-permanent molds (metal exterior molds with sand cores for the internal passages), which turned out to be much more expensive than anticipated, took too long, and had various areas where things could and did go wrong, resulting in excessive porosity and/or machining chips that weren’t completely cleaned out of the castings. Rover didn’t have anyone who could replicate the semi-permanent mold process, so they redesigned the block so that it could be sand cast, with pressed-in cylinder liners rather than the cast-in liners of the original. They also benefited from a great deal of technical assistance from Buick, which was happy to share their experience with production and service issues, and from Joe Turlay, the Buick motor engineer who had designed the engine (from original Engineering Staff concepts).

          Keep in mind also that from Buick’s perspective, they hadn’t abandoned the small V-8 so much as developed it into a series of far less troublesome, much cheaper, and still quite light cast iron engines. The 90-degree V-6 in 225 cubic inch form was still under 400 lb (with all accessories, minus flywheel) and just as powerful as the aluminum 215, if not as smooth. The iron 300/340 V-8 didn’t have any smoothness worries and only weighed about as much as a Ford 289, also one of the lightest V-8s in the industry. So, Buick felt they’d made a couple of silk purses out of a sow’s ear, and, according to Rover and BL engineers, were somewhat incredulous and at least a little amused that BL was still interested in the old aluminum version.

          As I’ve said elsewhere, I’m not convinced the Y-body Tempest had any abundance of untapped potential. Giving it a camber compensating spring à la ’64 Corvair would have made it more agreeable without any dire compromises, and a decambered “performance suspension” and faster-ratio steering for a few extra bucks might have made it a bit more agile, but the A-body Tempest/Le Mans/GTO was where the market was going, and the rope-drive powertrain was not readily compatible with that.

      2. FYI: the Uhlanhaut story was related to me in a letter in 1978 by John Bond, SAE and Editor Emeritus of Road and Track Magazine, who was involved in the M-B new-car intro in Florida. See SPECIAL INTEREST AUTOS DriveReport I did on the history of the Tempest ‘Rope Drive’ development in that year. Yes, they pushed the ’61 Tempest sedan to it’s limits, and it bent a rim. Of course; it wasn’t a sophisticated IRS at all, just an adaptation of the Corvair parts as a compromise to save money — it was GM, remember. PMD wanted to compete price-wise with the other ‘senior compacts’, not just Special and F-85, but Mercury Comet/Meteor and Dodge Dart, and Studebaker Lark as an afterthought. The Y-body Tempests pushed Pontiac into third place in sales (behind cheaper lines from Chevy and Ford, basically) where the division stayed for over a decade, acing out Plymouth lines, and Rambler, plus higher priced Buick!
        If you think the Tempest is a handful, have you ever driven a stock, 1960-61 Ford Falcon to it’s limits? It handles very poorly though a mite more predictably. I drove all of them as a 16 year old being a ‘lot-bot’ in a Pontiac/Buick/GMC agency, so I know. I’m not talking about ’63 Tempests, nor the later A-bodies, nor am I speculating from random web searches, guys. I interviewed the people who designed and built these cars. I have had a ’62 LeMans ragtop, and now am restoring a ’61 coupe with the rare Buick alloy V-8.
        Note: a ’63 Tempest can mount an EMPI camber-compensator leaf-spring with mods to the bracket, but the ’61-62 cannot as it has many fewer mounting points on the diff. I’m experimenting with a sway-bar from a M-B SUV of 2006 now forthis car.
        Just sayin’ Wick Humble age 78

        1. Thanks, Wick.

          For everyone’s ease of reference, the article to which Wick is referring is his rope-drive Tempest history in Special Interest Autos No. 48, November–December 1978, which is listed in the sources for this article and which you can also find reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Pontiacs. This article is of particular interest because of the commentary it presents by Pontiac engineer Fred Timpner, which explains the technical rationale for the curved driveshaft more thoroughly than most contemporary press coverage did, in particular the important role of the shaft and torque tube in controlling engine vibration.

  10. Aaron, you bring up a number of interesting topics, which I find useful and educational!

    1. The Buick (BOP) Aluminum 215: All I had understood about these engines was that there were many service issues connected with people not using antifreeze in the aluminum block and the resulting corrosion causing a great deal of trouble. I did not know that a sort of die casting technique for casting these engines was used, or that the British went to a full sand casting process to make them. Nor did I know that Buick engineers lent some engineering assistance to them for adapting this motor to British use.

    The engineering needed for making aluminum things was not foreign to the British or to the USA: plenty of aircraft engines were made by both nations during the War, and some small amount of expertise would have resided with outboard motor manufacturers at the time.

    As I recall, Chrysler tried to make a Slant 6 out of aluminum at this same time, which was also abandoned. I’ve read that modern hot rodders have sought out these aluminum Slant 6s and have experienced issues with warping, and I wonder if this is why Chrysler gave them up, as well.

    2. Yes, Buick did develop two forks from the 215: the V6, which they ended up having to get back from Jeep. The V6, with some development, did go on to enjoy some respectable power output in stock form in the Buick Grand Nationals. The other fork, as you said, went into making the engine out of thin iron and increasing its size to 300, 340, and 350 cu in. I believe the first or all of the 300s retained aluminum cylinder heads.

    The bore spacing of the original engines didn’t allow a 4″ bore, so by the time these V8s got to 350 inches, they had long strokes. None of these engines had great heads, and they had cast rods, so in my youth I scorned them. I preferred the Olds low deck V8 (330, 350, and much later 403) which didn’t have great heads either, but they did have forged rods. (You’ll undoubtedly note my hypocrisy here, being a Pontiac man in my youth!)

    Cadillac, too, went to cast iron wonders (block, heads, crank, rods) and today we even have sintered rods with break cap joints on the big ends from the factory (like a McCulloch chainsaw, of all things!) and all of this stuff works OK. Maybe the commentary that can be made here is that Detroit often did not stick with their engineering and development, not only with making aluminum engines, but with high silicon bore finishes (Vega), converting gasoline to diesel engines (the Olds 350 – it was doable as GM had done with the GMC V6, but they didn’t do their developmental homework), the Cadillac wet sleeve 4.1 and 4.5 V8, and a host of other technologies.

    I’ve understood that Ford was traditionally the most conservative maker. They stuck with cast iron. Old timers have told me that, in the Model T days, Ford bolts were legendary for their hardness — a result of Henry’s vanadium, I assume. Henry’s foundry technique was good, even making serviceable crankshafts for the V8 when everyone else used a more expensive forging process. It’s no surprise that Ford would lead the way in thinwall casting back at the beginning of the 60s, first with the 144 six, and then with the 221 V8. This was much cheaper than aluminum and apparently avoiding terra incognita engineering-wise was a profitable decision. Buick, as you said, followed and Olds wasn’t far behind with the thin cast 330 in ’64 and the 425 in 65. I don’t claim that those first Falcons were wonder cars (I’m certainly no admirer of McNamara, either as a proponent of daylight precision bombing winning the war, as a bean counter, or other things), but he did provide a serviceable product at a reasonable price in the Falcon. Iacocca dressed this car up in the ultimate dress-up job, the Mustang, and Ford found this to be very profitable indeed.

    2. I do bristle at the idea of Europeans knocking American engineering, but also at the not-invented-here attitude of many Americans (of which I was formerly one). Back in the 60s and early 70s, my impression was that some European cars were of high quality, but also that some American cars were pretty well designed and assembled, too. The price difference you mention did provide a value, but some 60s-era American iron offered quite a bit of “bang for the buck,” as well. But perhaps the issue is moot. Detroit is hardly in the car business anymore. Apparently, the only place USA makers can find refuge from the world is from behind LBJ’s “Chicken Law” of 1965. Beyond the pale of that, profitability seems elusive for them.

    Thanks for the suspension discussion. Porsche did seem to make the rear engine layout work pretty well.

    You mention the Y body Tempest’s potential, and I think that you are right. Americans wanted cheap cars during the Eisenhower recession but soon forgot that in a few years, and Detroit followed suit. (The A bodies and the Mustang are great examples of this.) It’s a shame that the concepts of rear engine, front engine/rear transmission, and a host of other innovations weren’t appreciated by the public. I think, for instance, of the switch pitch feature in TH400s and front wheel drive were discontinued as a cost saving measure, since the public didn’t appreciate its value. So many of these technologies were rediscovered and reapplied in our modern era. If we cannot blame Detroit for following the market rather than a “better” technology direction, should they be let off the hook for losing a great deal of their market share by sticking with their bean-counter mentality in the 70s and the 80s?

    1. As I recall, Chrysler tried to make a Slant 6 out of aluminum at this same time, which was also abandoned. I’ve read that modern hot rodders have sought out these aluminum Slant 6s and have experienced issues with warping, and I wonder if this is why Chrysler gave them up, as well.

      Yes, both Chrysler and AMC offered sixes with aluminum blocks. AMC offered one for the 196 from 1961 to 1964, Chrysler on 1961–1963 225s. Unlike the Buick engine, both AMC and Chrysler had die-cast blocks with iron heads. Neither worked out well. The blocks had open decks, and the loads on the cylinder walls and on the head gaskets were quite high. Because iron and aluminum have different expansion rates, overheating can be very troublesome with an iron/aluminum engine (either aluminum heads on an iron block or iron heads on an aluminum block), potentially leading to permanent damage. There may also have been coolant compatibility issues.

      I think the bigger problem was that the blocks were a lot more expensive than iron and provided no particular benefit other than reduced weight (on the order of 70 lb), so the cost-benefit ratio wasn’t great and the blocks tended to be more fragile than the iron equivalents.

      All I had understood about these engines was that there were many service issues connected with people not using antifreeze in the aluminum block and the resulting corrosion causing a great deal of trouble.

      There were several major issues. First, the early aluminum castings ended up having issues with excessive porosity, despite Buick giving them up to three rounds of sealant. Second, there were, as I mentioned, problems with cleaning the castings completely to remove small chips of metal. (One downside with semi-permanent mold castings is that holes generally have to be drilled rather than cast, which I assume didn’t help.) Third, certain types of antifreeze would strip off the top layers of the aluminum. I would surmise that it was probably worse with castings that came through too porous, since that would presumably accelerate the process. The water in the coolant would then cause the little bits of aluminum to corrode, which was accelerated by the copper in the radiator core. Result: a horrible mess. Worse, Buick and Olds didn’t initially know which antifreeze brands would cause the scrubbing effect, so they had to do a lot of trial and error to figure out what to recommend to owners and dealers. These problems weren’t unsolvable — obviously, aluminum engines are now very common — but the learning curve was steep, painful, and expensive.

      I did not know that a sort of die casting technique for casting these engines was used, or that the British went to a full sand casting process to make them.

      Semi-permanent mold casting is not die casting. With die casting, you have metal molds into which molten metal is forced at very high pressure (8,000 to 10,000 psi). This is very expensive to set up because the die assembly has to be enormous. (The one Chrysler used for its aluminum Slant Six blocks weighed 22 tons!) Semi-permanent molds use a combination of reusable metal molds and non-reusable sand cores; the metal molds are closed hydraulically for casting, but it doesn’t require the same extremes of pressure. In theory, die casting is more precise and has fewer problems with cleaning, but it’s also more expensive and has its own learning curves.

      With the Rover 3.5, the conversion for sand casting made the engine somewhat heavier — not a lot, I think something on the order of 25 or 30 lb — but it was expedient, cheaper, and ended up being less troublesome. Rover also had both extensive engineering notes and Joe Turlay himself to share what had gone wrong with the early engines and how to fix or avoid those issues. For instance, I don’t think Rover had to reinvent the wheel with regard to coolant, whereas Buick and Oldsmobile had had to run whole banks of test engines while arguing with different antifreeze vendors to figure out which formulations would cause scrubbing.

      I believe the first or all of the 300s retained aluminum cylinder heads.

      Only in 1964. The 1965 300 had iron heads.

      The bore spacing of the original engines didn’t allow a 4″ bore, so by the time these V8s got to 350 inches, they had long strokes. None of these engines had great heads, and they had cast rods, so in my youth I scorned them.

      The 215 was designed for the Y-body cars, so compactness and light weight were major priorities. (It was originally supposed to be only 180 cubic inches (3.0 liters rather than 3.5), with the idea that they could offer a bigger-displacement version later as a step-up option, but there were concerns about torque.) The bore spacing was one result of that. As for the head design, it ended up being one of the reasons the V-6 had such a long life: The slanted saucer combustion chamber (which was largely Turlay’s work, since the Engineering Staff design had the entire chamber in the top of the piston) turned out to be effective in reducing hydrocarbon emissions. Oldsmobile was initially dubious about that design, so the Olds 215 heads have wedge combustion chambers. In any case, the object was to provide good torque with regular fuel and much cooler timing than Buick had ended up using for the bigger Nailhead. It was supposed to be an economy engine, although that didn’t work out because the production costs ended up being much higher than anticipated, even discounting the warranty nightmares. Even the 300 wasn’t intended as a hot rod engine; it was a step-up engine for the A-body and a cheaper base engine for the B-body.

      It’s no surprise that Ford would lead the way in thinwall casting back at the beginning of the 60s, first with the 144 six, and then with the 221 V8. This was much cheaper than aluminum and apparently avoiding terra incognita engineering-wise was a profitable decision.

      Ford’s foundry work in the days of Henry I were a mixed bag — the flathead V-8 had some strengths and a lot of weaknesses, some not fixed until the fifties. Thinwall casting as used on the Falcon six and Fairlane V-8 was a largely new development, which emerged in the fifties as an offshoot of some work they had done on crankshaft casting. (The basic idea is to add thermosetting resin to the sand cores, so they’re more rigid, and then casting and curing the cores in a preheated box without removing them for heat-treating, so there are fewer opportunities for distortion.) Many other manufacturers subsequently adopted similar techniques for iron engines, but to varying degrees of effect, and they didn’t necessarily save nearly as much weight; perhaps the most notorious example was the late BMC C-series six used in the 3-litre and MGC.

      I strongly suspect the reason Ford went as far as they did with those engines was MacNamara. MacNamara insisted on very stringent weight limits for the Falcon — the 1960 Falcon was roughly the size of a Mk3 Mondeo, with a cast iron six, but it had a curb weight of around 2,400 lb — and I think the 144 engine ended up as light as it did (345 lb) because they weren’t going to be able to hit those targets otherwise, forcing the manufacturing people to push the thinwall idea further than they might otherwise. (It was arguably too far; as the Australians found out, the initial Falcon was kind of flimsy for anything but gentle suburban commuting, and later versions of the six were stouter, especially after the switch to seven main bearings.) The 221/260/289/302 was an immediate beneficiary of those efforts.

      (I think the lightness of the Buick iron V-6 and V-8 was more a result of starting with a design intended for aluminum, which tends to have to be thicker for comparable strength.)

      Olds wasn’t far behind with the thin cast 330 in ’64 and the 425 in 65.

      The 330 is another example of what I mean by not all manufacturers using thinwall casting techniques to the same extent. Olds used thinwall casting for three of the block’s six cores (water jackets and crankcase core), not the whole block, and I don’t think for the heads; they made some design changes like reducing the width of the heads (and adopting more Buick-like combustion chambers) to save some weight, but the use of hot box resin cores was pretty conservative. Hence, the 330 weighed about 40 lb more than a Chevrolet 350 and about 100 lb more than the Ford 289/302. The 425 was not a thinwall engine, despite its similarity to the 330. This was a foundry issue rather than a design one; the design essentially had provision for hot box coring, but didn’t use it, so the 425 was only a little lighter than the 394. (The 455 was, or became, a thinwall engine, but the initial 425 was not.)

      1. I understand that the Nailhead had aggressive valve timing in compensation for the small valves.

        1. To some extent, particularly as displacement increased. For the original 1953 322, intake duration was 282 degrees, with 0.378-inch intake lift and 67 degrees of overlap, which was warmer than the fifties norm. For comparison, the 1955 Packard V-8 had an intake duration of 250 degrees, with 0.375 inches of lift and 32 degrees of overlap; the Packard engine had substantially bigger valves, so it didn’t need as much lift or duration.

          However, by the time Buick expanded the Nailhead to 425 cubic inches, intake duration was up to 290 degrees, with 0.439-inch intake lift and 77 degrees of overlap. For comparison, the cam in a 1964 Pontiac 421 H.O. provided 288 degrees’ intake duration, 0.409-inch intake lift, and 63 degrees of overlap, and the non-H.O. 421 and 389 were significantly cooler than that.

          Buick actually didn’t back off that much on the timing with the initial 400 and 430 despite their larger valves. Their initial cam profile was 298 degrees of intake duration, 0.421-inch lift, and 61 degrees of overlap.

      2. A point I discovered after making this comment in January is that there’s some variation in nomenclature when it comes to casting methods: Apparently in British (and probably Canadian and Australian) usage, semi-permanent mold casting IS often called die casting, with what American usage calls die casting referred to as “pressure die casting” or “high-pressure die casting.” This had been throwing me; I didn’t realize the terminological confusion until I saw a comment mentioning this point in the discussion section of a technical paper. (That the commenter took the time to spell it out suggests that I’m not the only one who was confused.)

        There is still a significant distinction between semi-permanent molds/low-pressure die casting and high-pressure die casting; aside from the much greater pressures involved, pressure die casting imposes certain limits on the shape and design of the cast object (since there has to be a way to remove the die from the casting!).

    2. You mention the Y body Tempest’s potential, and I think that you are right. Americans wanted cheap cars during the Eisenhower recession but soon forgot that in a few years, and Detroit followed suit.

      This is true, but even if it were otherwise, I don’t think the Y-body Tempest had a lot of potential. In this, I mean that the car as it existed was a dead end, short of essentially starting over with an all-new car of similar mechanical configuration: new engine, new suspension, new transaxles, a new body, and probably a largely new marketing direction. There are a number of ways that could theoretically have gone, of varying degrees of plausibility, but when you really come down to it, few if any individual aspects of the 1961–1963 car as it existed were really worth carrying over.

      I think, for instance, of the switch pitch feature in TH400s and front wheel drive were discontinued as a cost saving measure, since the public didn’t appreciate its value.

      Well, front-wheel drive was not discontinued — the Toronado and Eldorado continued with the UPP FWD layout through 1985, joined for the final stretch by the Riviera. It just wasn’t applied on a wider basis, unless you count the GMC Motorhome.

      The rationale for dropping the switch-pitch converter was actually that it created too much noise, which, given that its users were Cadillac, Buick, and Oldsmobile makes a certain amount of sense. It also created an awkward compromise at step-off because the stator was at high angle at idle to reduce creep and then switched to low angle unless you really put your foot in it. When it was dropped for 1968, Olds, Buick, and Cadillac had adopted torquier engines that didn’t need the extra “half-step” of the switch-pitch converter even with taller axle ratios. There’s a discussion of this in the July 1968 Motor Trend, where they actually compared 1967 and 1968 Olds F-85 and Delta 88 cars back to back; with an extra 30 or 40 lb-ft (gross) torque, the ’68s had better performance at all speeds with less commotion.

      After late seventies downsizing, it’s possible the switch-pitch converter would have been helpful, but by then, fuel economy concerns brought the return of lockup converters, and a new philosophy of locking up the converter except at very low speeds and keeping it locked up as much as possible. Remembering the double-clunk of eighties three-speed automatics (shift into or out of third, then lock or unlock the converter), I don’t think they would have been greatly improved by adding an additional “stage” with the torque converter stator trying to decide what to do — certainly not subjectively!

      So, in that sense, I think it was a feature whose useful had, if not exactly ended, reached a point where the end of the road was in sight.

      1. It would be interesting to know why Detroit took so long to come out with 4 spd automatics after the first Oil Crisis. Lowering numerical axle ratios was a quick fix but full of Malaise. Then so quickly this century, they went to 6 to 8 to 10, with increasingly marginal benefits. I suppose the EPA mpg test gives an advantage to more gears (it can’t just be bragging rights), but I hate waiting for downshifts.

        1. So far as Detroit was concerned, the push for four-speed automatics was a combination of things. From a late sixties standpoint, they did not need taller cruising gears, since most passenger car axle ratios were already quite tall, and converter multiplication provided some extra punch off the line. With the power and torque reductions of early emissions controls, having a deeper (higher numerical) low gear became more imperative, and it was harder for engines to cope with the resultant wide spacing with three speeds. Once EPCA passed in 1975, providing the legislative basis for the CAFE rules, there was also even more need to keep cruising ratios tall. However, as that became apparent, there was still significant lead time involved in developing and tooling for new or revised transmissions with an extra set of gears. A lot of early four-speed automatics were essentially three-speeds with an extra overdrive gearset (Ford’s clever but weak-kneed AOD being a notable exception), which meant that space had to be found for adding that, and then once they’d found passably suitable combinations, they had to go through EPA 50,000-mile durability testing, which is time-consuming. If you look at it that way, the timeframe for their introduction is much easier to understand.

  11. No, no, Aaron, you are right:

    Well, front-wheel drive was not discontinued — the Toronado and Eldorado continued with the UPP FWD layout through 1985, joined for the final stretch by the Riviera. It just wasn’t applied on a wider basis, unless you count the GMC Motorhome.

    I have left out the 1980 Citation in 1979, the Mopar K-Cars of 1981, and the later Ford Tempo and Taurus.

    Please forgive my oversight. I intended to show that Detroit had an attention span issue when bringing a new technology to market, and was also too impatient in promoting those new cars. I think I have a point on these issues, but whether I am right about that or not, I am certainly wrong on front wheel drive being a valid example of those premises.

    1. Please forgive my oversight. I intended to show that Detroit had an attention span issue when bringing a new technology to market, and was also too impatient in promoting those new cars.

      Oh, I don’t disagree, and it’s entirely fair to criticize the way GM originally approached FWD. As an exercise, the Unitized Power Package for FWD was not dissimilar to the rope-drive Tempest: It was full of clever ideas, applied in a context where they didn’t make a whole lot of sense, and then not really pursued further (although the Toronado and FWD continued with it, which the Tempest did not).

      Oldsmobile was initially looking at FWD for a compact car (perhaps a second-generation F-85), but for various reasons, ended up introducing it in the Toronado, where most of the advantages of FWD were basically meaningless. (The Toronado was many things, but “space-efficient” was not on the list, and for a personal luxury car to have a flat floor was more a parlor trick than a useful innovation.) Even then, it wouldn’t have been unreasonable to treat the Toronado as a proof of concept and a way to build acceptance before applying the UPP FWD package to other products where it made more sense, such as the Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser wagon, where having a flat floor, no live axle to compete with cargo and passenger space, and above-average wet traction with V-8 power would have been an intriguing proposition. However, they didn’t do that, and the mainstream FWD cars GM later introduced, beginning with the X-body Citation and its siblings, borrowed nothing from the work done on the Toronado and Eldorado. So, the UPP cars, while well-engineered and well-executed, ended up being a costly and arguably pointless vanity project; the Toronado and Eldorado could just as well have been RWD. (Toronado buyers were generally aware of the car’s FWD and considered it a good feature, but I don’t think most Eldorado buyers cared a whit.)

      The big distinction between the Toronado and rope-drive Tempest in this respect is that FWD is better suited to compact family cars (which the Toronado was not) while a front-engine/rear-transaxle layout is better suited to sports cars or high-end GTs (which the Tempest was not). In both cases, though, you had a comparable case of perfectly viable technology being misapplied at a basic product-concept level, and then becoming a dead end. So, that the Tempest would remind you of the Toronado in this way is entirely reasonable!

      1. The possibility this suggests is the idea of applying the rear transaxle to a more expensive car with a more upscale sporty bent than the Y-body compacts. For instance, I could envision something like a 1969 Pontiac Grand Prix with a rear transaxle derived from Turbo Hydra-Matic. I don’t know how such a thing would have gone over commercially, since it would have been more expensive than the actual ’69 Grand Prix, and even with independent rear suspension, my strong suspicion would be that Pontiac would have found a way to make it ride and handle like any other big GM car, rendering it essentially another technological dead end, just in a different segment.

      2. no live axle to compete with cargo and passenger space

        Huge opportunity missed! The differential and axle hump made those forward-facing 3rd rows unusable by anyone over 4 feet with feet. We ended up with a ’73 Century wagon, which was a rattle-trap and strangled by smog gear, instead of a ginormous ’72 Estate Wagon. But look how many decades it took to put IRS on the profitable Tahoe.

    2. (Ford’s adoption of FWD is a more complicated story, some of which is discussed in the article on the Fiesta. Ford’s first foray into FWD was the Cardinal project, which became the German Taunus 12M/15M (P4 and P6). This was subsequently dropped in favor of the RWD Escort and a German version of the RWD Cortina, but Ford — very reluctantly — adopted a more modern transverse FWD layout for the Mk1 Fiesta in 1976, and then for the FWD Escort in 1981. The latter then spawned the larger Tempo/Topaz in the U.S. and the Ford Orion sedan in Europe. The Cardinal/Taunus P4/P6 was also sort of a dead end, especially considering that it was supposed to be offered in the U.S. and never was.)

  12. Wow – another thorough article. Even though I was quite into cars in the 1961-3 time-period, I had never heard the term “Polaris” or seen photos. Didn’t realize that the 326 started out as a 337 either.

    My recollection is that all 61/62 Tempests had the three chrome fingers in the cove behind the front wheel cutouts, and that all Le Mans cars had the rear fender peak moldings. I am surprised that the Pontiac was any longer than the Olds or Buick.

    Thanks again for such wonderful writing and insights.

  13. Back then I drove a ’61 or ’62 Tempest just one time. It must have been a base model because it was pretty plain inside. The nonmetallic beige paint didn’t help its looks. I remember it as being fast (for the time) and not quiet or smooth, and there was definitely a constant whine probably from a bad driveshaft bearing. So they didn’t necessarily last forever or even in that case very long.

  14. On perusing the bibliography, I realized that Hulki Aldikacti was one of three people whose names were on the patent for the torque tube. Of course, we know him as the father of the Pontiac Fiero.

    1. Yes, he had a long career at Pontiac.

  15. Disclosure: I am not a degreed mechanical engineer. You point out that with a transaxle “… the load on the synchronizers is greater because of the added inertia of the driveshaft.”

    Does it matter whether the clutch is directly behind the engine (Tempest, Porsche 924/944/968/928) or just ahead of the transaxle (Lancia Aurelia, Alfetta)? If it matters, which arrangement is easier on the syncros?

    1. There’s a discussion of this point in LJK Setright’s comments on the launch of the 928, in the 1977 Car and Driver preview test (which is currently available on their website). According to Setright, the tradeoff is something like this: All else being equal, putting the clutch behind the driveshaft puts less load on the synchronizers; the synchronizers have to handle the inertia of the clutch driven plate(s), but they have to do that even if the transmission is right behind or right next to the engine. However, in that case, the inertia of the driveshaft adds to the momentum the clutch has to absorb upon engagement, which tends to require an increase in its frictional area (usually by increasing diameter), and that can increase the load on the synchros. Putting the clutch ahead of the shaft reduces the load it has to carry (and simplifies its linkage, generally), but means the synchros have to carry the inertia of the driven plate(s) and the driveshaft, which makes it desirable to minimize the diameter of the shaft. (Porsche’s 928 shaft was much slimmer significantly thicker than Pontiac’s: 25mm.)

      Setright, it should be said, describes the torsional flexibility of a smaller-diameter shaft as an undesirable trait, but with the Pontiac, the shaft’s twisting was a deliberately engineered way of reducing some of the four-cylinder engine’s torsional vibration.

      1. 25mm is just shy of 1 inch (25.4 mm), so I’d say that based on the text, Pontiac’s various shafts were slimmer than Porsche’s. :)

        1. Argh, yes, I was not having a good math day on Monday, apparently. I amended my earlier comment.

  16. I’m surprised GM paid for new, single-year outer sheet metal for all three (Bill Mitchell insisted?) and new rear suspension for the Tempest in ’63, particularly if sales were disappointing. The only other single-yearers that come to mind are the high-volume ’58 Chevy/Pontiac and very-low-volume ’70 Toronado (not sure how much was new on the ’70 Riviera besides the awful fender skirts and front and rear).

    Something I hadn’t thought about is that in addition to the unibody Y body, Chevrolet went from Chevrolet + Corvette and trucks in ’59 to Chevrolet, Chevy II, the radical Corvair (and variants), and Chevelle in ’64. That’s a massive increase in GM products in a very few years, comparable to the switch to FWD X thru C body in the early 80s. Their engineering and manufacturing staffs must have been huge and very busy, yet afterwards slow to respond to the Mustang and Beetle. Exhausted?

    1. The sheet metal changes were not ultimately as dramatic from a tooling cost standpoint as they appeared. Even the ’63 was not a new shell, carrying over most of the really expensive sections with new outer panels. The latter were planned in 1960, before the cars went on sale, when division management started getting itchy about whether the Y-bodies were too small. (The divisions went through the five stages of grief in reverse with regard to the prospect of making real compacts.) At that time, the corporation expected that total volume was going to be better than it was, and that the teething pains of the aluminum V-8 would be worked out much more quickly than they were. Had the latter proved true and the Y-bodies been stronger sellers, the ’63 might have carried over an extra year, but the A-body seemed like an obviously better bet from a cost and profit standpoint, and so there was little to be gained by playing out the string. As for the ’63 Tempest’s new suspension, I can’t see the investment cost of that being particularly great. All it really amounted to was reshaped lower control arms in back, with the existing halfshafts, so it wasn’t meaningfully more expensive than the original suspension.

      The A-body project was a collaborative effort, and in many respects was closer to what the corporation had wanted to do with the Y-bodies, which ended up in a financially and commercially unfavorable position of having more commonality on the outside than the inside. The oddball, and the one that seems most like an extravagance from a cost and engineering standpoint, was the Chevy II, which was neither a spinoff of the Corvair nor a derivative of the A-body Chevelle. On the other hand, it’s important to grasp the size and scope of Chevrolet in those days: Its annual production exceeded the total annual output of the British industry, and its total employee population was something in excess of 200,000 (albeit spread out geographically to different plants and such). We tend to think of it in the same breath as Pontiac, Buick, etc., but it was much, much bigger, with commensurately more resources. This also sometimes made it more unwieldy, but there was a reason Chevrolet had its own engines and its own automatic transmission!

      Regarding responding to the Mustang and Beetle: The Corvair and Chevy II were both positioned as responses to the Beetle. (The Corvair was conceived before Volkswagen really took off, but during its production development, Chevrolet was obviously aware of Volkswagen at the center of the import surge.) They were very American responses — six cylinders rather than four, nominal six-passenger capacity, etc. — but they were domestic products, and they were aimed at American Volkswagen buyers more than at the C-segment Beetle itself, but they did have the desired effect, at least for a little while. As for the Mustang, until it actually went on sale, Chevrolet really thought it was just going to be a dressed-up Falcon Sprint, trying to carve itself off a bigger chunk of the Monza market. If you look at comparative sales for the Falcon Sprint and Monza in 1963, you can see why Chevrolet wasn’t worried, particularly since they had the pretty second-generation Corvair coming up. Once the Mustang actually debuted, alarm bells went off almost immediately and Chevrolet developed what became the F-body as quickly as production lead times allowed.

      1. I was thinking about the Vega response to VW’s surge in the mid 60s. Then as now, the Big 3 probably couldn’t figure out how to build a small, competitive, and inexpensive car at a profit with unionized labor and without cannibalizing too many more profitable sales. In the end, they could have just lightened and shrunk the Nova (like the Gremlin) and probably wouldn’t have turned off as many customers. Considering the risks and the amount of money involved, GM was pretty daring for the whole decade. The market (and govt) indicators were clearer in the mid 70s when they downsized then switched to FWD, finishing in time for gas prices to plummet.

        1. I think it’s important to recognize that the import boom, at least to the extent it represented a threat to Detroit, really had two distinct phases: the late fifties, during the recession, and then again in the latter sixties. The increase in import market share that had panicked the Big Three WAS largely abated after the Falcon, Corvair, and other domestic compacts arrived, so those models had been reasonably successful in their intended mission. That period was successful at establishing a growing presence for Volkswagen, but that wasn’t yet any cause for alarm; Detroit in general and GM in particular was generally pretty content to let what they saw as small fry have what they saw as niche markets (like sports cars). The manufacturers that became major players in the second phase of the boom hadn’t yet really established themselves (Toyota and Datsun were no threat to anyone but themselves in their initial forays into the North American market), and a lot of British and European automakers had failed to offer the kind of reliability and dealer networks that might have made them more viable here. Where things started to get harder was when the import market began to grow again in the late sixties as Baby Boomers reached driving age and started buying cars.

          The fundamental dilemma Volkswagen presented for Detroit is that it was a cultural icon in a way that did not significantly relate to its actual design or virtues as a car. It obviously had virtues (as Beetle fans hasten to insist any time anyone questions them), but its basic design was archaic and its deficiencies (in handling, in packaging, in performance) were substantial. What sold it was its reputation and the fact that it was obviously un-Detroit; this is particularly evident looking at Volkswagen’s trajectory in Europe, where it was going through an alarming decline that Heinz Nordhoff and Kurt Lotz didn’t know how to fix. These were things that were very, very difficult for Detroit to get their heads around from a conventional product planning standpoint. (Seeing Ford try to benchmark the Pinto to the ancient Beetle is so cringe-inducing that it causes physical pain.) In retrospect, a car like the early Toyota Corolla seems like the model Detroit should have been trying to emulate, but small, modern, conventional cars like the Ford Cortina hadn’t made a big splash in the U.S. compared to the Volkswagen, and Detroit couldn’t build or import them here for much less than the existing domestic compacts.

          The Vega was, for all its faults, an attractive car that handled well and was a workable compromise in utility and economy; consequently, it also sold quite well. Had it been better-built and more reliable, it would have been basically fine, and would probably be fondly remembered now rather as a kind of bonfire of Boomer goodwill. A shrunken Nova might have been more reliable, but not necessarily a better car in any other respect, a kind of Chevrolet Gremlin.

          1. For some VW owners, their ownership of a bug definitely had an element of reverse snobbery. Perhaps you were getting at this when you said it was obviously un-Detroit? Small Wonder, Walter Henry Nelson’s famous history of the bug, phrased it thus: some bug owners chose to show intellectual, not financial, wealth.

            In 1971 Road & Track published a comparison test of the Toyota Corona, Datsun 510, Vega, Pinto, and VW bug. They said the previous-generation Corona had been Chevrolet’s benchmark for quietness and refinement. At least, unlike Ford, Chevrolet chose the right benchmark. R&T also said Chevrolet had aimed at a moving target in this regard, but that’s another discussion.

          2. Yes, that’s exactly what I meant: The Beetle existed outside of the usual Detroit class hierarchies, and for many Americans was a way of signaling their rejection of those values — frugality over excess, durability over planned obsolescence, quality over gimmickry. Obviously, some people (especially those who bought a used Beetle) didn’t have any strong preconceived ideas about what the Beetle represented beyond being a cheap, economical small car with a decent repair record, but if all you wanted was a small car that got good gas mileage and didn’t cost much upfront, there were other, potentially much better choices by the late sixties or early seventies. That was the thing that I think really flummoxed Detroit product planners.

  17. I just want to state that I have been reading this wonderful article and the amazing comments and responses for the past hour or so in a state of nirvana. Thank you very much Ate Up With Motor for this article. I remember corresponding with you 5 years ago? about the rope drive as I thought it an interesting car. Your article, a tour de force, goes so far in explaining it’s intricacies and engineering rationales and compromises. Wonderful!!! I am not sure why I hadn’t seen it before now. Perhaps Curbside Classics has been capturing my attention. Anyway, thank you. I look forward to perusing your site to see what other gems you have to offer. You are without a doubt the best automotive long form writer I see. Have you written a book? Are you in process? If not, please do!!

    Also, thanks to all of the commentators for their learned and cogent comments. This is a great site with thoughtful people.

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