Pontiac Tempest 1961-1963
Article by Mark Trotta
With the engine up front and transmission at the rear axle, the original Pontiac Tempest was quite a departure from most American cars of the day. Initially available as four-door sedan or station wagon, two-door coupe and convertible models were shortly added.
American Compact Car Market
During the late fifties, the U.S. experienced a mild economic recession, in which time interest in smaller and more economic cars began to grow. The compact Rambler American was introduced in 1958. The Studebaker Lark came out in 1959, and a year later, the Ford Falcon, Plymouth Valiant, and Chevy's rear-engine Corvair debuted.
General Motors introduced a trio of entry-level compacts for 1961; the Buick Special, Oldsmobile F85, and Pontiac Tempest. All of these were built upon GM's new Y-Body platform and shared many of the same components. Overseeing the new Tempest was John DeLorean, Pontiac's chief engineer and general manager.
Trophy 4 Engine
Powering the Tempest was an all-new engine, an inline four literally derived from the right-side cylinder bank of Pontiac's 389 V8 engine. This "half a V8" motor gave the advantage of sharing many components with other Pontiac engines, and was built on the same assembly line as the 389 motors, thus keeping costs to a minimum.
For 1961, there were three versions of the Trophy 4 engine:
- 110 horsepower - with 8.6:1 CR and single-barrel carb
- 115 horsepower - with 10.25:1 CR and single-barrel carb
- 120 horsepower - with 10.25:1 CR and four-barrel carb
The 195 cubic-inch displacement was larger than most other four-cylinder engines, and at 540 pounds, it was also very heavy. For comparison, a contemporary small-block Chevy V8 weighed about 570 pounds. Aside from it's size and weight, the Trophy Four engine delivered good torque and decent fuel economy for it's time.
Whereas the Buick Special (and Skylark) and Olds F85 (and Cutlass) compacts had a conventional front engine/front transmission layout, the Tempest featured a rear transaxle, in which transmission and rear axle were contained in the same housing.
Along with giving a more evenly balanced weight distribution than front engine/front transmission cars, the rear-mounted transaxle also allowed for a flat floor, increasing interior space. Both manual (three-speed) and automatic (two-speed) transmission versions were offered.
Instead of a driveshaft, Pontiac engineers utilized a thin, curved steel shaft which was housed inside a torque tube. This flexible "rope drive" helped dampen vibrations from the tourquey four-cylinder, and also eliminated the need for universal joints.
Independent Rear Suspension
All 1961 through 1963 Tempest models featured four-wheel independent suspension, similar to that found on the Chevy Corvair. The rear suspension was not shared with the Buick and Olds compacts, which had conventional rear coil spring suspension.
The Pontiac Tempest was selected as Motor Trend magazine's 1961 Car of the Year.
1961 Pontiac Tempest Specs
- Wheelbase - 112"
- Overall Length - 189.3"
- Curb Weight - 2,800 to 3,035 pounds
A mild restyle included a new front grille and slightly different badging. A convertible now joined the sedan, coupe, and station wagon models.
Pontiac Tempest LeMans
Introduced in mid-1961, the optional LeMans package gave the buyer front bucket seats, console, and floor-mounted four-speed stick shift. Base motor was the 166 horsepower four-cylinder. If requested, 15" wheels were available no extra cost. The LeMans package was available on either Tempest coupe or convertible, and was not available on Tempest sedans or station wagons.
215 Aluminum V8
Optional on B-O-P compacts was an all-new aluminum 215ci V8. Both Buick and Oldsmobile produced versions of the motor, each having different cylinder heads, valve train and valve covers. The Buick's 215 was rated at 155 horsepower and weighed 315 pounds, while the Olds version also rated at 155 horsepower and weighed 350 pounds. Pontiac Tempest models received the Olds version.
The 215 V8 was optional for the model years 1961 and 1962 only. Some sources state the Tempest could also be ordered with the lighter-weight Buick version, but was a costly option few consumers chose.
1962 Tempest LeMans Production
- Two-Door Sport Coupe - 39,662
- Convertible - 15,559
The LeMans package was very popular, accounting for nearly 50% of all combined Tempest and LeMans production. Pontiac decided to make it a series all it's own for 1963.
A slight redesign made the 1962 Tempest models slightly larger and heavier.
Pontiac replaced the troublesome 215 motor with a more conventional 326ci V8 (actual displacement was 336ci). Boasting an output of 260 horsepower and 352 ft/lb of torque, the new engine option proved to be very popular, and was ordered on more than half of all Tempest models. Overall handling was improved with a redesigned "Powershift" transaxle.
1963 Tempest LeMans Production
- Two-Door Sport Coupe - 45,701
- Convertible - 15,957
Although the front engine/rear transmission idea was sound, it never caught on with the largely conservative American consumer market. GM abandoned the Y-Body platform in 1964 in favor of the larger, more conventional A-body platform. Along with the Buick Special and Oldsmobile Starfire, the Pontiac Tempest was enlarged from unibody compact to full-frame intermediate-sized car.
The 1961-1963 Pontiac Tempest was not the first front engine/rear transmission car, nor was it the last. In the mid-1970s, Porsche utilized a rear-mounted transaxle for the front-engine 924, and again with the 944, and then with the Porsche 928.
General Motors brought back the split-powertrain design in 1997 with the C5 Corvette and subsequent C6 and C7 Corvettes. Several front-engine Ferrari's and Maserati's also use this arrangement.