By on December 14, 2010

In the thirties and forties, GM pioneered and brought to market some of the most innovative, successful and lasting new technologies: diesel-electric locomotives, the modern diesel bus, automatic transmissions, refrigeration and air conditioning systems, high compression engines, independent front suspension, and many more. But GM’s technology prowess was just one facet of its endlessly warring multiple personalities. Planned obsolescence, chrome, fins and financial rationalization were the real moneymakers, especially during the technically conservative fifties. But in the period from 1960 to 1966, GM built three production cars that tried to upend the traditional format: the rear engined 1960 Corvair, the front-wheel drive 1966 Toronado, and the 1961 Tempest. And although the Corvair and Toronado tend to get the bulk of the attention, the Tempest’s format was by far the most enduring one: it was a BMW before BMW built theirs. If only they had stuck with it.

A high performance four cylinder engine with four-venturi carburetion, four-wheel independent suspension; four speed stick shift; perfect 50-50 weight distribution; a light, compact yet fairly roomy body; decent manual steering; and neutral to over-steering handling qualities: sounds just like the specs for the all-new 1962 BMW 1500/1800. Or a Mercedes, or a Rover 2000 perhaps? But none of them had this: a rear transaxle and a totally revolutionary flexible drive shaft.  When GM gave its engineering talent the freedom to innovate, the results were often extraordinary. But in true GM fashion, penny-pinching resulted in the 1961 Tempest arriving flawed, like the Corvair. But unlike the Corvair, The Tempest never got a second chance to sort out its readily fixable blemishes. If so, the result would have been even more remarkable than the 1965 Corvair.

John DeLorean may be more famous for the ’59 Wide-Tracks, the GTO, the Pontiac OHC six, and the ’69 Grand Prix during his tenure at Pontiac, but in my opinion, the 1961 Tempest is his most ambitious and creative engineering effort. He was aware as anyone of the limitations of the Detroit big car formula: too big, thirsty, front-heavy and dull-handling. With the 1960 Corvair in the wings, DeLorean’s lingering plans to build a truly advanced and practical car finally came to (not quite ripe) fruition.

DeLorean was particularly interested in the benefits of independent rear suspension that so many European cars like the VW, Porsche and Mercedes had been using since the thirties. In the mid fifties, his engineering team developed an even more radical evolution of the Mercedes approach for the 1959 full-sized Pontiacs: a rear transaxle to balance weight distribution, and connected to the engine with a flexible shaft drive inside a rigid torque tube. That innovation was his alone, and he received a patent on it. And please don’t call it “rope drive;” good luck trying to send power through anything resembling a rope. It was a single flexible piece of steel, more akin to a torsion bar or a speedometer drive shaft.

The big 1959 Pontiacs arrived with their ad-friendly wide tracks, but were otherwise utterly conventional. But GM wanted to foist the new rear-engine Corvair on Pontiac, in order to spread its high development and production costs. The prototype Pontiac Polaris (above) was classic badge-engineering: a ’59 Pontiac-ish front end grafted on an otherwise unaltered Corvair. But the Pontiac brass Bill Knudsen, Pete Estes and DeLorean weren’t buying it, in part because DeLorean was already familiar with the Corvair’s tricky handling and nasty habit of spinning or even flipping when it got pushed too far.

DeLorean’s initial plan was to use the Corvair body, but turn it into a front-engined car while leaving the whole Corvair rear suspension and its transaxle in place, not even turning it around to face the motor. By using a hollow shaft, the Corvair transmission would actually be “driven” from the rear of the car, resulting in the torque converter hanging off the back of the differential, where it would normally have mated up to the Corvair’s rear engine.

Very creative indeed, and rather bizarre to see the torque converter just sitting there in the open like an appendage (above).  The drive shaft had three inches of deflection (curvature), and that curvature was strictly induced by applying the appropriate stresses on each end; there were no intermediate bearings necessary to locate it within the torque tube.

The rigid torque tube’s benefits went well beyond resulting in an almost-flat floor. It was a key component to adapt the four cylinder engine and help tame its vibrations. A four cylinder theoretically has perfect primary balance. But because it has only two power impulses per crankshaft rotation, second order and torsional vibrations can be quite significant, especially in a larger displacement motor. Traditionally, Europeans kept fours to two liters or less for that reason. Mitsubishi reintroduced the balance shaft with its 2.6 liter four in 1975, and it is highly effective and now very common in smoothing large fours.

This is why Detroit shunned fours like the plague; in order to provide American-style torque and power, American fours had almost always been large. At low engine speeds, like in the Ford Model T and A, this was not too bothersome. A suitable six might have been perfect, but Pontiac had little choice but create a compact and low-cost four by building it the quick and dirty way: eliminating one of the banks of its 389 CID V8. This was very cost effective, because it used a high percentage of the V8’s parts, and could be machined on the same lines as the V8.

Rigidly mounting the four to the front end of the torque tube eliminated the need for the engine mounts to control its front-to-back movements, so it was possible to isolate it and its vibrations from the body to a much greater degree than if had been mounted in the usual fashion. The mounts on the four only had to control its vertical movements, so they could be very soft. That does result in an impressive display of vertical “jumping” when the throttle is opened from idle.

That’s not to say that the 195 cubic inch (3.2 L) four’s noise, vibration and harshness issues were all miraculously solved by DeLorean’s innovative mounting solutions. It’s a very big four, for better or for worse. It does have a fatter torque curve than a comparable six or eight for its displacement, and therefore is very responsive. And thanks to Pontiac’s high performance experience, it could be quite powerful; output started at 110 hp, and went up to 165 hp with the optional four barrel carburetor. That overshadows the 1961 Corvair’s 98 hp optional engine.

As it turned out, Pontiac didn’t have to use the actual 108″ wheelbase Corvair body after all; GM relented and let them share the Corvair-based but slightly larger 112″ wheelbase Y Body that Buick and Oldsmobile were preparing for their 1961 compacts. But Pontiac was given a very tiny budget to adapt it, so the 1961 Tempest (above) used most of the Olds F85 sheetmetal with a ’59 Pontiac-derived front end and a new rear end grafted on. But the four cylinder, flex-drive and Corvair transaxle and its rear suspension were retained, for better or for worse.

The worst was that it was a simple swing axle: rigid half-axles jointed only at each side of the rigidly mounted differential. This was the hot new thing in Europe back in the thirties, but its tendency to jack up in fast corners and create snap oversteer and flipping had become all-too well known.

That’s why Mercedes developed its innovative single low-pivot rear axle (above) with an anti-jacking compensating spring in the early fifties, a temporary step before it adopted a double-jointed irs in 1968. BMW’s “Neue Klasse” 1500/1800/2000 sedans first arrived in 1962 with a double-jointed rear suspension. As did the Jaguar S sedan. Europe was moving on, and GM would quickly learn this painful lesson in penny-pinching. The 1963 Corvette Sting Ray had a new double-jointed rear axle, which the 1965 Corvair also adopted to great effect.

I showed you the odd Tempest automatic transaxle earlier, but here’s the (leaky) four speed in the featured convertible. That round bolted cover on the end is where the Corvair bellhousing would have attached.

And here’s the front of the same unit, showing the shift linkage which the Tempest conveniently shared with Corvair too. It wasn’t a model of precision and quickness, but Porsche had to have something left to improve when it adopted a highly similar torque tube rear transaxle for their 928 and 924/944/968. The 968’s three liter four was only slightly smaller than the Tempest 3.2, and its ferocious torque showed to best advantage the benefits of a large displacement four with balance shafts. If John Z. had remembered about the 1904 Lanchester’s patented balance shafts and adapted them, the Tempest would really have been a milestone car.

Speaking of Porsche’s claims about their pioneering:

a minor error in the text

The ’61 and ’62 Tempests did also offer a version of the aluminum Buick 215 CID V8 optionally, but only 1-2% of them were built with it, and only a tiny handful with a stick. Theoretically, the combination of the light and smooth V8 with a four speed and the Tempest’s independent suspension and perfect weight balance would have potentially made a very appealing package. But the V8 was troublesome from the beginning, and Pontiac had to “buy” it from Buick, so the four was pushed heavily. And the hi-po four did make almost as much horsepower as the V8.

The Tempest was widely (and rightfully) hailed when it arrived. It won Motor Trend’s COTY, and accolades from the press: “a breakthrough for Detroit”…”a wonderfully refreshing automobile”…”a significant coup of major import”…”may be the forerunner of a new generation”…”unquestionably a prototype American car for the sixties”. Testers praised its 50-50 front-rear balance, which resulted in lighter steering, less understeer, better traction and braking, and a good ride. But its ability to create the dreaded snap oversteer in the wet or on quickly driven curves was not left behind with the Corvair’s rear engine. The Tempest’s handling could also be tricky, and its agricultural sounding four could not be fully tamed, even if some of its shaking was mitigated. Consumer Reports was not so enthralled.

1962 Tempest LeMans

The Tempest met its sales expectations, selling 100k in 1961, 140k in ’62, and 130k in ’63. That helped Pontiac clinch third place in the sales stats. But it suffered the same problem as the Corvair: profitability was not up to snuff. The extra costs in converting the Olds body and the drive shaft and rear transaxle bit into the already slim margins on compact cars. The whole ambitious Corvair/Tempest/Olds F85/Buick Special Y-body experiments left GM with a bad aftertaste, especially since Ford was doing so well with its utterly conventional Falcon and Comet. The dull 1962 Chevy II was the effective replacement for the Corvair, and the B-O-P compacts became highly conventional mid-sized cars in 1964.

Our next door neighbor in Iowa City, a Russian professor, drove a white ’62 LeMans convertible like the one above. I vividly remember the throb of the big four as I rode with her to Sears to get her lawnmower fixed. But the open top was even more effective than DeLorean’s other efforts to drown out its agricultural sounds, at least above thirty or so. And I once briefly drove a co-worker’s base ’61 sedan in LA: despite being elderly, its intrinsic balance (which could be all-too easily upset for amusing purposes) and decent steering for an American car was downright un-American. If only its engine ran sweetly like my Peugeot 404’s. But the trade-off was the torque: very American indeed.

Our featured car is a 1963 LeMans, which was the sporty/upscale variant analogous to the Corvair’s Monza with the same bucket seats and higher trim. The ’63s were restyled to make them appear bigger, wider and longer. This convertible has all the right options, at least for those that have a soft spot for the four. I found it in front of this shop where it had just been converted to the factory 165 hp four barrel setup. And it also has the four-speed stick. Not surprisingly, its owner turns out to be a ’63 Tempest junkie; it was the car he always wanted in high school.

Norman has over half a dozen ’63s in and a round his shop and back yard, including this sedan still on the trailer that he just picked up. And he has another convertible (below) with the optional 326 V8 that replaced the aluminum V8 for 1963. This was a prescient move by DeLorean, and foreshadowed the 1964 GTO.

The 326 is a 389 with smaller bores (and actually displaced 336 cubic inches), and although no lightweight, it still results in a quite decent 54/46 weight distribution because of the rear transaxle. With a two barrel carb, the 326 made a fairly modest 260 hp, but the Tempest was light (2800-3000lbs) so with the V8 it scoots right along.  Because of limited funds, the four speed was not upgraded to handle the V8’s torque, so as far as is known, all the 326s came with the three speed stick or the two-speed Powerglide/aka: TempesTorque automatic. Norman says his fours get 18 – 20 mpg, and the 326 around 16 – 18 mpg.

To mitigate its handling rep, the 1963 Tempest’s rear suspension was revised with a modified control arm geometry and other tricks. But it was still a swing axle, and the Tempest’s end was already in sight, to be replaced by live-axle conformity.

But in my imagination, I see a 1965 Tempest coupe based on the stunningly beautiful ’65 Corvair body, with the 230 hp Sprint OHC six under a lengthened front end and sharing that Corvair’s new Corvette-based rear suspension. What a genuine American BMW that would have been, right down to the dash (the BMW’s Tempest look-alike dash appeared on the ’66 1602). In my oft-repeated GM coulda-shoulda dreams.

A scan of an in-depth SIA article on the Tempest is here

Over two hundred other Curbside Classics are here

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68 Comments on “Curbside Classic: 1963 Tempest LeMans- Pontiac Tries To Build A BMW Before BMW Built Theirs And Almost Succeeds...”

  • avatar

    This is incredible to me! Where did you find this car? This is the exact same car that I bought in January of 1972 for $10. I was 16, it was my first car. Same color, same color convertible top, mine had an automatic transmission, a 326 4 barrel and a white interior. In almost 39 years I have never seen another one like it. I tell my kids about it but with no pics……..until now! These were definitely odd cars. The trans as you know was in the back, a transaxle. The shifter was an odd affair, between the seats, no console with kind of a reverse quadrant with low in the front, reverse all the way back and a pull up park lever. The front of the car required 15″ wheels because 14s would rub on the tie rod end. That sucked because I got a great deal on a pair of 14″ Magnum 500s that I ended up putting on the back with a pair of 15″ chrome reverse wheels in the front. Exactly backwards!!! All in all the car was a real PITA, always needing some repair or another to keep it running. Brakes went out, wiring harness fried, hood would fly open, it was a real treat. Being 16 though. it did teach me a lot about car repairs.
    I’m not sure whether you remember or not, but this car’s one claim to fame was in the movie “My Cousin Vinnie”. In the movie Vinnie’s girlfriend broke the case by remembering that the 1963 Lemans had independent rear suspension and was the only car besides a Corvette that could leave even rubber marks over a curbed median. My favorite part of that movie and one that absolutely no one else appreciated LOL. Anyhow, loved the post and pleas, if you have any more pics of this car please forward them to me. It’s taken me nearly 4 decades to see another one.

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      It may be similar to your car, but it’s not the same one. The red convertible in the top photos is a four cylinder with a four speed stick. The maroon convertible lower down is a 326 with a three-speed stick. Which color did you have? I don’t have a lot more pictures than shown here, but if you tell me which one was like yours, I’ll send you what I have.

      • 0 avatar
        Piston Slap Yo Momma

        I’d not heard of the torque tube drive system before reading this article: and you can well imagine how thoroughly blown away I was. That this guy thought a v12 Jag engine, a Corvair body and the torque tube rear transaxle would make a delicious smoothie is genius.

    • 0 avatar

      Mine was like the red one with the white convertible top. I didn’t think that it was the same one, Michigan is a long long way from Oregon. Besides the different engine and trans mine also had an impossible to keep clean white interior. Still, from the outside, they look exactly alike. Thanks again for any pictures that you can send me. Great find!!! ez3[email protected]

  • avatar

    Nice article, Paul.

    I could swear that the driveshaft was round, with splined ends. I did spend some time underneath one of these cars many years ago.

    For all the interesting engineering, my memory is that the Valiant I had at the time, 62 model, rode and handled far better than the Tempest. And, once I put the 289 Ford engine in, it was quicker.


  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    GM engineers are allowed to innovate, company bean counts it till it dies, lather, rinse, repeat.  Woulda, coulda, shoulda.  Sometimes it’s hard to believe that John Delorean worked for GM.
    I often wonder what shape GM would be in if the engineers were allowed free reign over the mechanical bits.  Maybe we wouldn’t give a crap about the low rent interiors?

    • 0 avatar

      I often think about how that post might apply to life in general…if the engineers were allowed to design and the bean counters ditched!

    • 0 avatar

      History is littered with the corpses of engineer-lead companies which innovated themselves right into bankruptcy. What’s needed is balance: engineers who get that they can’t have everything they want, and accountants who get that there are more important things than every last penny they can squeeze out of the COGS (cost of goods sold). The original Honda was an examplar of this. Everybody has heard of Soichiro, but few people know about Kiyoshi Kawashima. But it was their Engineering/Business partnership that made the company successful.

    • 0 avatar

      History is littered with the corpses of engineer-lead companies which innovated themselves right into bankruptcy.

      True, but at least they leave lots of cool stuff behind on their path to oblivion.

    • 0 avatar

      Dan, even harder to believe is that every car company with which JZD was involved sooner or later bit the dust…  Order of involvement:  Packard, Pontiac, GM-corporate, DeLorean; Order of demise:  Packard, DeLorean, Pontiac, GM…

  • avatar
    Acc azda atch

    Where is Mona Lisa Vito to discuss with us the benefits of Posi Traction?

  • avatar

    From the article: “good luck trying to send power through anything resembling a rope.”
    What do you mean? Bicycles do it all the time!

    (I kid, I kid!)

    • 0 avatar
      Felis Concolor

      My father despised the chain drive used for bicycles and said a good belt drive system would be a superior solution. With today’s multipliticy of 7-14 speed hubs from Shimano, SRAM and Rohloff there is no reason not to use a quieter, low vibration belt drive to send power to the internal mechanism.
      Oh great, now I’m thinking about commissioning a one-off from the fine folks at Linear.

    • 0 avatar
      martin schwoerer

      Carbon-reinforced belt drives for bicycles are pretty cool and quite effective, although they don’t like snow. Check out

    • 0 avatar
      Felis Concolor

      Thanks for the information; I’ll be calling them this week. I love the irony of the belt drive not liking snow, as I often drove past the old Gates Rubber factory when running errands into downtown Denver. One advantage of the chassis I prefer is its topology; there are no stays to cut through and re-close for belt installation.

  • avatar

    Ah, another great ‘what if’ from the auto industry history. It’s really weird to think that while these great innovations from GM were fighting the ultra conventional Ford Falcon in the US, over here in Europe the first fwd Ford Taunus was figthing GM’s untra conventional Opel Kadett.
    I have more than one time wondered what the world would have looked like now if they’d taken this car with, a slightly better rear suspension and managed to get the Buick V8 to work better with a turbo like in the Olds Jetfire and then stayed with it. GM even had electronic ignition and mechanical fuel injection in the Corvette that could have been adapted. But instead in 1980 a Chevy Malibu had a 2bbl carb 305 with 145 hp a live rear axle and non-functional rear door windows…

    • 0 avatar

      That FWD Taunus originally was going to be an American car – the Ford Cardinal. It was to be introduced for 1963 or 1964. However, Lee Iaccoca didn’t like the idea so he shuttled it over to Ford Germany where it became the Taunus 12M. German Ford needed a new small-car design anyway and the Cardinal fitted nicely.

  • avatar

    Love that 35 cent price on that magazine cover, and I do remember paying it, as well as being dismayed when the price rose to 50 cents. Dang a dollar ain’t worth a dime anymore.
    That red example at the top still pleases my mind’s eye. Very nice styling.

    • 0 avatar

      Adjusted for inflation, .35 cents from 1961 is worth about $3 in today’s money.  The current cover newsstand price for Popular Science is $4.  Adjusted for inflation, the mag costs $1 more today than it did back then — in 2010 dollars that is.

  • avatar

    Maybe a “screaming chicken” slathered across the hood would have increased sales?

  • avatar

    Unlike most of the articles about cars on the Web, this is an extremely well researched and well written piece of research and commentary.  Thanks for that.  A few years ago at Retromobile I picked up a copy of Paul Frere’s autobiography, which was titled something like “My Life With Cars.”  The one thing I remember from this book is his comment that this Tempest was the single most dangerous car he had ever driven, and he drove everything that was ever made from the fifties through the nineties.  Apparently his test drive was a little unsettling.  I think I’ll stick with the Valiant.

  • avatar

    Thanks for the article. I always wondered how “rope drive” actually worked. What do you think caused GM to go from an engineering powerhouse with adventurous cars like the Tempest and Corvair to producing slightly better styled versions of what everyone else was making. Was it Ralph Nader, who made GM pay for unleashing an advanced car on the public? Was GM following Ford’s lead by going the route of McNamara and cutting all of the cost and innovation out of the cars? Was it another factor altogether? I wonder what the GM of 1961 would have making today, if they hadn’t lost their stride?

  • avatar

    A very nice example. I’ve been looking for a rope-drive Tempest to photograph for three years, and I’ve never seen one in the metal in L.A.
    A couple of points. It appears that originally, GM intended the Tempest to simply be a reskinned Corvair, but Bunkie Knudsen and Pete Estes were not terribly keen on that idea, because it would be hard to present it as anything other than a made-over Chevy. I believe that the main reason for creating the slant four, rather than doing something like the OHC six (whose development began at roughly the same time), was that they needed something cheap enough that senior management wouldn’t balk and tell them to just use the Corvair engine.
    One interesting Pontiac engineers told Norbye and Dunne was that they thought the Buick V8 was that it was TOO light. One of the reasons GM cars tended to have a static weight distribution of around 55/45 was that GM assumed cars would carry passengers and luggage. If the static balance was 50/50, a car would be rear heavy with six passengers and a full trunk, leading to an untoward penchant for tail swinging — not an area where swing-axle cars generally needed a lot of help.
    Jim Wangers, who was then a Pontiac ad exec, says it was Pontiac that ultimately decided to give up on the rope drive, rather than the corporation, mostly because it cost a lot to build. Since the Tempest was supposed to be an economy car, it was tricky to keep the price to a palatable level. I think the arrival of the Ford Fairlane in ’62 really hurt, as well. The Tempest was kind of neat, but if you didn’t care about the greasy bits, a Fairlane was more car for similar or less money, and that’s the way a lot of people went.

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      I’d been looking for quite a while too. I lucked into this; I happened to catch him as he was trailering the sedan from Washington, and followed him. He seems to have cornered the ’63 Tempest market in this part of the world.
      The Chevy six that the OHC was based on didn’t appear until 1962, and Pontiac’s OHC version arrived in ’66. I suspect that it was not even on their horizon back in 1958-59 so when the Tempest was developed. And, yes, the slant four must have been very cheap to develop and build.

    • 0 avatar

      The first prototypes of the cammer weren’t built until early 1962, but Pontiac first started working on it in 1959, so it was definitely on their minds, albeit not ready for production, when the Tempest arrived.

    • 0 avatar

      Maybe Pontiac should have gone ahead and built the rear-engine Polaris after all. Years later, John Z. DeLorean, the father of the Tempest, left General Motors and started his own car company. He produced a sports car called the DeLorean DMC-12 and it had the engine in the rear, just like the Corvair.

  • avatar

    this one is really fascinating.

  • avatar

    I had the station wagon version in brown.  I think it was a 1961 model.  It was generally a good car and handled better than anything else I had driven up to that time. I never experienced any problems with the rear suspension jacking up.
    I did have problems with the droopy drive shaft right after the warranty expired.  The fix was a felt washer that should have been included in the original design.
    The only other problem I had was a broken timing chain/belt(?) Fortunately, it was not an interference engine and there was no damage other than the belt.
    Later, my wife had a used sedan in blue with the 2-speed PowerGlide.  It was gutless in New York; then we moved to Colorado and the 4-cylinder was really gutless at that altitude.  That car never failed on us, though.  We did experience severe brake fade in the mountains.

  • avatar
    Uncle Mellow

    “BMW’s “Neue Klasse” 1500/1800/2000 sedans first arrived in 1962 with a double-jointed semi-trailing arm rear suspension. As did the Rover 2000 and the Jaguar S sedan.”Quote
    The Rover 2000 used a De Dion system (with fixed length driveshafts and telescopic De Dion tube) while the S-type used what was in effect the double wishbone system from the E-type. Both superior to the cheaper BMW suspension.

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      Good catch; something nibbled at me when I wrote that about the Rover, but I failed to act on it.

    • 0 avatar

      At the risk of resurrecting an old topic…

      Many things that are better in concept don’t work as well when implemented.

      The Jag rear suspension is complex and bulky and the inboard rear brakes a nasty maintenance issue (a failing the Rover shares.)

  • avatar

    My friend’s mom had a 1962 Tempest convertible. Light blue, automatic, bench seats, white top. Man, that was a cool car to cruise and race around town in back then. That car would “diesel” so bad that my buddy could put it in gear and it would move until the engine finally gave up and stopped – about 30-35 feet later! It was a fun car that I wish I could’ve had in those days! The gear selector was on the dash, too. The seats were made of extremely thick vinyl that was very durable.

    Nice find, Paul! Keep ’em coming!

  • avatar

    As a kid, we were Oldsmobile people and the Bordners next door were Pontiac people.  We had a maroon 61 Olds F-85 wagon with that miserable 215 ci V8.  It must have suffered from some casting flaws because the only way to keep it running without overheating (usually) was to run antifreeze year round in the cooling system.

    In 1963, Mrs. Bordner got a sky blue Tempest LeMans convertible.  I suspect that she had the V8.  It was a really neat little car, much cooler than the 62 Catalina sedan that got traded in.

    My family upped the ante in 64 with a new Cutlass hardtop with the 330 and a 4 barrel.  (I never knew until today that the Tempest engine was actually a bit bigger).  This was one of the best cars we ever had.  But Mrs. Bordner trumped us in 66 with a new GTO hardtop (with a 4 speed, no less).

    The Tempest is the poster-car for late 50s-early 60s GM – All bluster and no convictions.  They spent money like water on these unusual drivetrain combinations, but would not build the cars right to make them the best cars they could be.  Then, when sales were not where they should have been (because the car was a work in progress) they would give up on the whole process.

    The other interesting story here is that this was the end of the line of the GM divisions as actual car-making companies with engineering staffs, their own engines and their own assembly capabilities.  John DeLorean knew how to play the games required in order to build some really interesting cars.  I am not sure that there was a better-run GM division than Pontiac in the 60s.  It didn’t take long for him to figure out that interesting but high-cost was a dead end.  It was then his innate sense of the market that cooked up the GTO and had GM leading the market for maybe the last time.  By the early 70s, GM was consolidating and the divisions ceded authority inch by inch until they had no function but to sell what GM designed and built.  This is how GM died.

  • avatar

    Great article. There is an extremely rough ’62 convertible for sale close to me with wire wheels of all things. The rocker rot and lack of interior make it a scary project but interesting car none the less. (at the bottom of the page – its been for sale for a while)
    I have seen two coupes (both red so perhaps the same one)
    I did enjoy looking at the engine. Would love to take a look at the rear axle in rear life but the photos in the article where great.

  • avatar

    Thanks for the great article Paul, really interesting. How did I not know more about this car before?

    And speaking of Jim Wangers, he had a Chevy Dealer in Milwaukee in the 1970s. I still remember the words to the jingle song about Vegas. Don’t ask me why, but here goes:

    Down at Jim Wangers, early in the morning
    See the little Chevy Vegas all in a row,
    Three speeds, four-speeds, turbo-hydramatics,
    Coupes, GTs, and station wagons too.


  • avatar
    Gardiner Westbound

    Seems everything GM has ever produced was not quite ready for prime time.

  • avatar

    My Mother’s first car was the 1961 Buick Special.
    As I recall, the only way to keep the “miserable 215 cu. in. V8” from overheating was to not drive it in warm weather.
    We were told that the cooling system was full of aluminum chips from the block.
    I have no idea if there was any truth in that.

  • avatar

    Our neighbors were Pontiac people. They usually had a fairly new Pontiac Grand Prix or Executive sitting in the driveway, but one year the husband bought a used early Tempest that had flowers painted all over it, like some kind of hippie car. We in the neighborhood were a little intrigued by the Tempest, as the very low floor and the strong 4 cylinder motor was a novelty to those of us who had regular Mercurys, Oldsmobiles and etc. He also used the car for fishing and hunting expeditions. I guess he must have gotten a few interesting stares driving around with a deer strapped to the roof of a “hippie car”…
    Thanks again Paul, for another good CC!

  • avatar

    My GF’s(now wife) 1st car was a ’63 Buick Skylark convertible, with the 215 V8, Powerpack 200 HP engine–and 2-speed auto trans. Ran STRONG, never overheated.
    On the way back from picking up her 2nd car–’68 Pontiac Firebird 350–we staged an impromptu drag race.
    Dead stop, both cars even–the light turned green, we floored the pedals..and…the Buick was pulling away from the Firebird the whole way!

  • avatar

    But in my imagination, I see a 1965 Tempest coupe based on the stunningly beautiful ’65 Corvair body, with the 230 hp Sprint OHC six under a lengthened front end and sharing that Corvair’s new Corvette-based rear suspension.

    My minds eye sees something more like a Tempest convertible, suitably reinforced, resto-modded with C6 Corvette drivetrain bits, including, of course, an LSx.

    Jay Eitel’s V-12 ‘Jaguair’ Corvair uses a ‘Vette rear end and suspension.

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    Wow.  This is the history of GM in a nutshell.  This car was *this* close to being a world-beater — a veritable icon of history — but was sunk by short-sightedness.
    I never even knew something like this existed.  In some ways I’m dumbfounded.  GM was *this* close to having a car that was a paradigm shift.  A car that was decades ahead.  I never knew that about GM.  But of course, they blew it.

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      And in many ways so was the Corvair.  “If I had a million Corvairs right now, I could sell every one of them.” – Bunkie Knudsen, General Manager of Chevrolet during the height of the oil crisis of 1973
      And the Pontiac Fiero  if you really want to know about GM and killing things just as they get good.

    • 0 avatar

      Bunkie Knudsen was gone from GM by 1973. He left for Ford in 1968, and was fired by Henry Ford I a year later. He never went back to GM.

      That quote is from Ed Cole, the “father” of the Corvair.

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      Thanks for the clarification.  Still a good quote though.  And factual, if GM had made the Corvair right from the start, and if Nader hadn’t gone after it… Who knows what sort of lasting impact it would have had on the company as a whole.

  • avatar

    so close, and yet so far away

  • avatar

    What a great find. These are rare even at old car shows around here. I love the history of this car. Our neighbors were “Pontiac people,” and had a 1963 Tempest sedan, along with a 1965 Catalina sedan, in their driveway. Even as a kid, I remember thinking that the two round taillights used for the Tempest were very cool, but somehow out of place on a sedan.

    Supposedly, Ford lifted the rear window treatment from the 1963 LeMans coupe for the first Mustang. 

    This is another example of GM bringing out a really interesting, innovative car, and then letting it die on the vine because it was cheaper to build a miniaturized 1949 Cadillac.  

    • 0 avatar

      @geeber: “This is another example of GM bringing out a really interesting, innovative car, and then letting it die on the vine because it was cheaper to build a miniaturized 1949 Cadillac.”
      From the article: “The whole ambitious Corvair/Tempest/Olds F85/Buick Special Y-body experiments left GM with a bad aftertaste, especially since Ford was doing so well with its utterly conventional Falcon and Comet.”
      Ford was killing them in the marketplace with a cheaper less expensive alternative. Then like now, few people are really willing to pay more for innovation, no matter what they say on internet forums. I can understand their thinking, if people are not demanding it, why push it? Ford (at that time) had the key to making sales, it didn’t make sense for GM to lose money to play in that end of the market.

    • 0 avatar

      GM had Chevrolet for the people who wanted the “cheap and cheerful” alternative. Pontiac was supposed to be “above” Chevrolet, so it had no business going after Ford (that was Chevy’s job), and it should have offered a more sophisticated alternative for those who wanted something better, and were willing to pay for it. Those people ended up going to the imports.  

    • 0 avatar

      @geozinger.  You are correct.  Americans will pay for gimmicks or “status” but will not pay for true engineering innovation.  Ford designed a proper IRS for the 65 Mustang, but realized that it would not improve the bottom line, so it never saw production.  To this day the Mustang sells well, and is the only pony car to be in continuous production since its inception, and continues to use a solid rear axle.  BTW, the 1965 Mustang IRS was used by Ford in track competition where it was noticed, and cribbed, by Mercedes and BMW.

    • 0 avatar

      @geeber: I guess my post wasn’t entirely clear, I meant Ford as the corporation, not the brand. I would say that the Mercury Comet competed against the Pontiac (and probably the Olds & Buick, too) directly, but the point remains. The Pontiac had innovative engineering compared to the Comet and Falcon, but Ford (the corporation) was making more money on each unit. Again, it didn’t make sense for GM to lose money on each unit versus the competition. It’s the automotive equivalent of “when in Rome…”

  • avatar

    Nice article – thanks.
    The irony here is that they didn’t want a rebadged Corvair because of the tricky handling and they ended up with the Corvair rear suspension.  Fate is a cruel mistress.
    What’s weird about that – when I think about it – is that the Corvair’s worst handling characteristics were due to removing a stabilizer bar to save money. The engineers were well aware of the problems.  With a second chance to get it right they did the exact  same thing.  Punks.

  • avatar

    Wasn’t there a camber compensator available for this car?

  • avatar
    Mike C.

    A very interesting read Paul.  What a shame the idea was abandoned so quickly.

  • avatar

    Between this article and the Corvair article you’re giving me nostalgia for the Detroit that coulda/shoulda/woulda been.
    In case anyone’s interested (and I can only hope the URL works) google books has the PopSci article that the picture above is from:

  • avatar

    This is the car mentioned in the film “My Cousin Vinny”.  I thought the courtroom comment made of the car having rear independent suspension was a mistake

  • avatar

    Nice article Paul (just now getting around to reading it) … esp. liked the pics of the underbody bits.  btw: “Bill Knudsen” in the article should be changed to “Semon (or Bunkie) Knudsen”, “Big Bill” was Bunkie’s dad, and he left GM in the 1940’s to become the head of the War Production Board (and prior to that and hid GM-gig, he had been one of HFI’s right hands at Ford.  After leaving gov’t service, I don’t think he ever returned to either company.)

  • avatar
    63 lemans


  • avatar

    I bought a new dark blue 1963 Tempest 326 two barrel three speed manual two door sedan.

    The transmission was out for repair 9 times in 80K miles. The original rear tires were bald in 3K miles–I was a pretty aggressive driver. I put on wider tires, and then the transmission would not tolerate the additional traction. The gear that transferred the torque from the rope drive to the cluster gear did not match up and only about half of the width of the gears were used. The teeth of those gears stripped 8 times and the rope drive broke once while I owned the car.

    The radiator was not adequate and boiled over every summer day on the driveway after I got home from work.

    The sudden over steer caused scary handling, but my reflexes must have been pretty good back then because I never wrecked it–more likely, I was just lucky.

    Quick acceleration was difficult because weight transfer to the rear caused the tires to have only the inside edge having good contact with the road. But if I was lucky with slipping the clutch to maintain traction, the 326ci was capable of a very good launch.

    If I had it to do over again, I would continue to drive the ’58 Plymouth I traded in on that Tempest and would invest the money I paid for the Tempest and its tires and repairs in the Dow and use that money today to but a Ferrari. But the Tempest was a fun car and I’m proud to be able to say that I bought the first American muscle car. But that’s assuming buying a ’60s muscle car was something about which one should be proud and it’s not.

  • avatar

    Hello, I have a 1963 LeMans and I have been desperately trying to find wheel cylinders for it. I have had no luck after two years of searching the country. Is there any way you could contact me or help me? Thanks, Courtney

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