1961-1963 Pontiac Tempest

The 1963 Pontiac Tempest Lightweight Super Duties

Though currently modified, one of two prototype Super Duty coupes still exists.
Though currently modified, one of two prototype Super Duty coupes still exists.
©2007 Publications International Ltd.

Pontiac seemed determined to adapt their Tempest to fulfill just about any automotive need. Next up was the Pontiac Tempest Lightweight Super Duties, designed to compete on the drag strips of America.

By 1963, Super Stock drag racing was a solid motorsports phenomenon, capturing the attention of competitors, spectators, and manufacturers alike who wanted to be able to say definitively who made the fastest car around. Though Pontiac had started the Sixties strongly with its Super Duty parts program and factory-built SD Catalina and Grand Prix race cars, the competition was posing a major threat, particularly Dodge and Plymouth. Their powerful 426-cid wedge-head race engines and lightweight bodies were beginning to steal Pontiac's thunder.

Pontiac initially responded to the 200- to 300-pound weight penalty the Super Dutys suffered by offering aluminum body panels. The weight-loss program culminated in the building of Catalinas that featured large holes drilled in the frames. (Automotive journalist Roger Huntington dubbed them "Swiss Cheese" frames-for obvious reasons-and the nickname stuck.)

Unfortuately for Pontiac, these efforts weren't as successful as hoped. In addition to having frames break due to the removal of too much metal, the cars were still too heavy once the Chrysler makes responded with aluminum body parts of their own. Something drastic had to be done to keep the "Max Wedge" Mopars out of the winner's circle, so the Tempest was called upon to defend Pontiac's honor on the drag strip.

Actually, the idea of dropping Pontiac's brutal 421-cid Super Duty race engine in the compact Tempest body had been in the works since 1962, when racer Mickey Thompson, Detroit-area dealership Royal Pontiac, and even Pontiac Engineering cooked up their own versions of the swap. Though the independents relied on conventional transmissions and rear ends gleaned from the full-size line, Pontiac wanted to explore the idea of retaining a rear-mounted transaxle to put additional weight over the drive wheels. This would help compensate for the limited tire technology of the day.

The only problem was that stock transaxles were hardly strong enough to handle the 421's output. Engineers came up with a new four-speed transaxle known as the "Powershift." At the risk of oversimplification, the Powershift was essentially two Corvair Powerglide two-speed automatic transaxles mounted inline to offer four forward speeds. The actual nuts and bolts of the project was handled by combining off-the-shelf parts with more than 200 new components unique to this design and then casting a new case to hold it ail together.

Though the Powershift was by no means "bulletproof," it was quite a bit more durable than a stock production unit. The rear-mounted four-speed could use either a clutch or a torque converter, giving racers the opportunity to choose the best arrangement for their intended type of competition. The only available final-drive ratio was 3.90:1 and only 14 were built, one for each car produced. No spare cases were built.

With the transaxle situation under control, attention was turned to the engine. A lower-profile dual-quad intake manifold was cast to clear the Tempest hood. Also, the crankshaft had six extra holes drilled in the end flange to mate it to the curved drive-shaft. This version of the 421 Super Duty boasted a 12:1 compression ratio and was rated at 405 bhp, though the actual power figure was somewhere closer to 500.

To save weight, the compact Pontiacs were fitted with full aluminum noses and the doors had much of their inner bracing removed. Production of these racing specials came to two prototype Tempest coupes, six LeMans coupes, and-amazingly-six Tempest station wagons. The idea was that the wagon would put even more weight over the rear wheels than the coupe. Considering that even the big Catalinas had traction problems, these hyperactive compacts needed all the help they could get to put the power to the ground.

Unfortunately, all the effort came to naught. On January 24, 1963, General Motors, fearing an antitrust suit from the U.S. Department of Justice, announced that it was pulling out of all factory-supported racing activities. Apparently, the "Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday" marketing philosophy was working too well, pushing GM's market share dangerously close to the 60-percent figure that would trigger a federal investigation.

Pontiac's Super Duty program was halted and most teams quickly jumped ship to seek factory deals with Chrysler and Ford. Those few 1963 Super Duty cars that made it out of GM before the doors slammed shut ended up in the hands of privateer racers and collectors. They're incredibly rare and highly cherished icons of the factory racing days. Currently, only four coupes and one wagon are known to survive, and of those, just one coupe and the wagon seen here have been restored to original condition.

Originally named "Instant" and driven by Harold Ramsey, it's commonly referred to as the "Union Park wagon" (after sponsor Union Park Pontiac). It is now owned by Randy and Jean Williams of Columbia City, Indiana, and was restored by Scott Tiemann, of Supercar Specialties, in Portland, Michigan. Faithful to its factory-built configuration, the wagon is equipped with the correct 405-horse 421 Super Duty V-8 and rear-mounted four-speed Powershift trans-axle. The restoration was one of extremely high quality, painstaking research, and nearly 20 years of parts collecting.

The Union Park wagon made its post-restoration show debut at the 1999 Ames Performance Pontiac Nationals in Norwalk, Ohio, where legendary Pontiac racer Arnie "The Farmer" Beswick made a gentle 12.4-second pass at more than 112 mph-on the original tires-with Randy in the passenger seat. (Beswick estimated the car was capable of 11.5s.) The Union Park wagon now resides in the Williams' Pontiac museum in Columbia City, along with several other original Super Duty race cars.

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