The styling of the 1961 full-sized line, including the 1961 Pontiac Ventura, was completely different from the previous year, and more "Pontiac-like" than before. Up front, the split-grille theme of 1959 returned in a new interpretation. Bright-metal mesh grilles were laid back at about a 45-degree angle, while the openings formed by the hood and front fenders were slanted slightly forward. The treatment gave the effect of motion, even at rest.
With a new design but still no side pillars,
the 1961 Ventura offered 360-degree visibility.
Venturas were available in the same two hardtop body styles, both of which featured new roof contours. The two-door hardtop roofline was a sleek and graceful update of the 1959-1960 style. It swept gently back from the A-pillars to the rear deck, ending in a pair of tapering C-pillars. The large glass area, thin pillars, and "bubbletop" design offered 360-degree visibility and a spectacular appearance. The vision-distorting wraparound windshield was replaced with a less-radical, though still-curved, design.
The four-door hardtop used the same windshield design as the coupe, but with a much more formal roofline. It no longer had a rear overhang, and was, in fact, more modern looking. The C-pillars were much wider than on the coupe, though they were still restrained and attractive.
The Ventura's rear-end treatment was clean and understated, much in keeping with its sophisticated persona. A combination of vestigial tailfins and chrome-plated end caps served as a visual extension from the bumper, and contained the small rectangular taillamps shared with Catalinas.
All 1961 Pontiacs featured a spearlike extrusion in the bodyside sheetmetal. This feature included a concave area that began in the front doors and tailed toward the back. On Venturas and Star Chiefs, a thin band of brightwork ran over the extrusion, then edged the rim of the concave area. Series-name script was placed inside the concavity.
Ventura interiors were all-new as well. A completely redesigned dash with a full-width covelike opening featured a horizontal 120-mph speedometer and plenty of bright trim. Tri-tone Morrokide upholstery, Ventura crests on the seats, and a translucent steering wheel rounded out the attractive package.
Powertrains displayed a few changes in output and availability. (Engines were now known as Trophy V-8s considering that the Tempest name was newly applied to a family of compact cars.) The base engine for manual-shift cars was still the low-compression 215-horsepower 389. Automatic-equipped cars started with a 267-horsepower version with 10.25:1 compression, but the lower-compression "economy" 425E 389 rated at 230 horsepower remained available.
Moving up to a four-barrel carburetor gave the 10.25:1 version of the 389 a rating of 287 horsepower at 4,400 rpm, with 417 pound-feet of torque at 2,400. This powerplant was available only with the automatic, but those who stuck with the stick could now select a four-barrel engine, too; a 235-horsepower job with 8.6:1 compression that was borrowed from the Bonneville.
The rest of the Pontiac street-engine lineup was the same as in 1960, including the 318-horse Tri-Power as well as the 333- and 348-horse versions of the high-performance 425A series. The 389-cubic-inch Super Duty returned as well, with new high-flow cylinder heads but the same power rating.
Late in the model year, a dozen or so copies of a new 421-cubic-inch Super Duty V-8 were released. This new engine was not a factory-installed option, but was available to selected racers such as Mickey Thompson and Arnie Beswick. The 421 used the same block as the 389 Super Duty, but was bored and stroked for its additional displacement. The forged-steel crankshaft also made use of larger 3.25-inch main journals.
It should come as no surprise that few believed Pontiac's factory rating of 373 horsepower for the dual-quad 421, which was just five horsepower more than the Tri-Power 389 Super Duty's obviously underreported 368 horses. It's safe to say that the 421 was putting out about 100 more horsepower than the factory rating.
The transmission lineup was more significantly changed. While the standard and heavy-duty three-speed manual gearboxes returned from 1960, the Borg-Warner T-10 four speed became a regular-production offering, as opposed to its very limited availability the year before.
The biggest change for the Catalina and Ventura was the replacement of the four-speed Super Hydra-Matic transmission with the new three-speed Roto-Hydra-Matic, also known as the "Slim Jim" because of its more compact dimensions. This transmission was a medium-duty unit that was shared with Oldsmobile. It ultimately proved to be rather trouble-prone and some potential buyers who wanted the proven Super Hydra-Matic were forced to go with a Star Chief or Bonneville.
In another of the auto industry's periodic down years, demand for full-sized Pontiacs declined sharply in 1961 (though sales of 100,000 Tempests softened some of the blow). Ventura orders slumped to 27,209 cars -- 13,297 two-door hardtops and 13,912 four-door hardtops -- enough to fall behind the Star Chief by about 2,300 units. While just 1,940 Venturas were equipped with manual transmissions, that actually represented a proportional gain of stickshift installations.
There was no need for the Ventura after 1961, not with the new Grand Prix that combined Bonneville luxury, Catalina size, strong performance, and distinctive styling features. The 1960-1961 Ventura effectively bridged the gap between the late-Fifties Bonnevilles and the 1962 Grand Prix. In fact, formal-roofed prototypes for a Grand Prix-like car built as early as 1959 carried Ventura nameplates, and the name even appeared in early press photos of the car that eventually became the GP.
From 1962 to 1970, most Catalinas could be ordered with an upgraded Ventura interior option. (Cars so equipped were even badged as Venturas for a few years in the late Sixties.) The name last resurfaced on the Chevy Nova-based compact Pontiac sold in the Seventies.
In their own right, the first Pontiac Venturas represented a sophisticated departure from the chrome-laden excesses of the previous decade. The idea of an upscale high-performance vehicle with luxurious appointments is every bit as appealing today as it was more than 40 years ago.
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