PONTIAC’S 1960 ENCORE
One of the great challenges of making cars is that you have to make key decisions about future models without knowing how well the current models are going to do in the marketplace. Had Knudsen and Bill Mitchell, who succeeded Harley Earl as VP of Styling in December 1958, known how well the 1959 Pontiac would be received, they probably would have carried over more of its design themes into 1960. However, design of the 1960 cars was mostly complete by the time the ’59s went on sale.
All of GM’s 1960 cars were toned down considerably from their dizzy 1959 heights. The basic B-body shell, all-new for 1959, was carried over, but with far less glitz. The 1960 Pontiac lost its fins, substituting comparatively subdued “rocket exhaust” taillights, and had a completely new front-end theme, abandoning the 1959 Pontiac’s twin grille. The styling staff was generally unhappy about that change, feeling the twin grille gave Pontiac immediate visual identification, but Bill Mitchell was enamored of the new design and his word was law.
Mechanically, the 1960 Pontiacs were changed mostly in detail. The V8 abandoned its reverse-flow cooling system, which had created problems with excessive oil temperatures in high-performance use, while the Hydra-Matic transmission got a redesigned case that enabled a lower driveline. A Borg-Warner T-10 four-speed manual transmission was now optional, although only 722 were sold. The 1960 model year also saw the debut of the first high-performance Super-Duty engines, initially as a dealer-installed option.
Pontiac did well in competition in 1960, scoring seven NASCAR victories. Even when Pontiacs didn’t win, they were frequently the fastest cars on the track, with lap speeds of more than 150 mph (241 km/h). In September, Pontiac ad man Jim Wangers also won the NHRA’s Top Stock Eliminator title driving a heavily modified Catalina prepared by Royal Pontiac. Racer Mickey Thompson, meanwhile, tried for a new land-speed record at Bonneville with the Pontiac-powered Challenger.
Pontiac sales were up slightly for the 1960 model year, but market share slipped a bit, although it remained above 6%. Even though the economy was on the mend, many buyers remained wary of the bulk and ostentation of Big Three cars. AMC’s compact Rambler line outpaced Pontiac by around 25,000 units, claiming fourth place in total overall sales.
GM’S FIRST DOWNSIZING
GM’s corporate management had recognized that trend during the recession, and dictated a new, slightly smaller B-body for the 1961 model year. As a result, the 1961 Pontiacs were about 4 inches (101 mm) shorter and 2.5 inches (64 mm) narrower than the 1960s while the wheelbase of the low-line models was trimmed from 122 to 119 inches (3,099 to 3,023 mm), shedding up to 165 lb (75 kg) in the process. Their track width also shrank by 1.5 inches (38 mm), to 62.5 inches (1,588 mm), although Pontiac continued to use the “Wide Track” slogan in its advertising.
Joe Schemansky and Jack Humbert, who replaced Schemansky as chief Pontiac stylist in March 1959, wasted little time in reviving the split-grille theme, which Pontiac would use in various forms until the division’s demise in 2009. Except for the rocket-like side spears, exterior trim was considerably more subdued than before. During Harley Earl’s tenure, stylists had often had to add extra brightwork to satisfy the tastes of their boss, but Bill Mitchell favored cleaner, crisper shapes. Another welcome change was the abandonment of the exaggerated wraparound windshields that Earl had favored, with their obtrusive dogleg A-pillars.
In retrospect, the 1961 full-size Pontiacs look like a tasteful, well-considered refinement of Pontiac’s successful 1959 themes. At the time, Bunkie Knudsen was not thrilled with them or with the smaller body, which put the Catalina and Ventura on the same wheelbase as the 1961 Chevrolet. That move also didn’t sit well with the sales staff, who understood all too well how tenuous and ephemeral the line between Pontiac and Chevrolet could be. Knudsen got permission to stretch the Catalina and Ventura to a 120-inch (3,048mm) wheelbase for 1962, restoring Pontiac’s slight psychological edge, but he was very uneasy about 1961.
As Knudsen feared, Pontiac sales were down more than 55,000 units for the 1961 model year. The entire industry was down almost 20%, however, so Pontiac actually gained a bit of market share despite the underwhelming debut of the new “rope-drive” Tempest compact. The Tempest sold just under 101,000 units in 1961, less than Knudsen had hoped, but it kept the year from becoming a rout. Pontiac did better in NASCAR competition. Although Chevrolet claimed the 1961 Manufacturers’ Championship on points, Pontiac won 30 races to Chevrolet’s 11, including an impressive 1-2-3 finish at the Daytona 500.
The market rebounded encouragingly in 1962, as did Pontiac sales. Thanks in part to a deft facelift by Jack Humbert, the 1962 Pontiacs sold exceptionally well. Market share swelled to more than 7.5% and the division claimed the coveted number-three spot in overall sales. It would retain that position until the 1970 model year.