1962 Pontiac Tempest
1962 Pontiac Tempest. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

In 1960 the American Big Three of GM, Ford and Chrysler brought out compact cars to counter the increasing market penetration of the small imports. Ford’s was the straightforward Falcon; Chrysler’s was the Valiant with its unusual slant-six engine. Chevrolet’s Corvair was the most daring, with an air-cooled, flat-six engine in the rear.

Other GM divisions also wanted to get in on the small-car movement, and so they borrowed some of the Corvair’s internal sheet metal body pieces to develop their slightly larger “senior compacts.”

The results were the Buick Special, Oldsmobile F-85, and Pontiac Tempest that appeared for 1961. They were similar, but all had their divisional styling cues. The most technically interesting was the Tempest.

Pontiac developed a four-cylinder engine by simply cutting one bank off its 6.4-litre (389 cu. in.) overhead-valve V8. The resulting large 3.2-litre (194.5 cu. in.) slant four was the first American four-cylinder since the Henry J and Crosley of the early 1950s. To counteract the big four’s rough-running performance, Pontiac resorted to extra-soft engine mounts, reminiscent of Plymouth’s 1931 “Floating Power.”

Pontiac’s half-an-eight reduced engine development costs considerably. Production costs were also lower because the four could pass down the same engine assembly line as the eight.

Pontiac’s innovations didn’t stop under the hood. The driveline was also unusual in that, although the engine was in the front, the transmission was in unit with the differential in the rear.

Power went to the rear via an unorthodox, one-piece, 2133 mm long, flexible 16 mm steel drive-shaft that sagged in the middle, soon earning the Tempest the nickname “Rope-Drive Pontiac.”

This shaft was supported by two steady-bearings, and because it ran in a constantly curved condition, no universal joints were required. It was to act like a torsion bar to dampen out some of the vibration of the big four. The rear suspension was independent, using a swing axle design similar to early Corvairs.

The Tempest came with a three-speed manual transmission or a two-speed “Tempestorque” automatic with a torque converter. The automatic had a novel feature: when the transmission was in high gear, 60 per cent of the power was routed through the torque converter, and the other 40 per cent through regular non-slip mechanical gears. This split-torque power delivery eliminated some of the slippage inherent in automatics, contributing to better fuel economy.

The engine came with horsepower ratings ranging from 110 to as high as 166 in an optional high performance version. The aluminum 3.5-litre (215 cu. in.) 185 hp Oldsmobile V8 engine was also available.

Placing the transmission in the rear eliminated the large transmission hump, although it sacrificed 14 litres of trunk space. It also brought the front/rear weight distribution of the car to almost 50/50.

Pontiac claimed a number of engineering firsts for the Tempest. It was the first U.S. four-cylinder since the Crosley and Henry J; the first U.S. forward-engined car with rear automatic transmission; the first with a curved propeller shaft; and the first to use a split-torque automatic transmission with torque converter.

In performance, the four-cylinder Tempest was the slowest of GM’s new senior compacts. A December 1961 Car Life magazine’s comparison test of the three 1962 cars indicated that the 140 hp Tempest took 15.9 seconds to accelerate from zero to 96 km/hr (60 mph), whereas the 135 hp V6 Buick took 14.8, and the 155 hp Olds V8 only 14.

The Tempest’s top speed was also the lowest at 142 km/hr (88 mph) compared with 153 km/hr (95) for the Buick and 161 km/hr (100) for the Oldsmobile. It was, however, slightly better in fuel economy.

The motoring press was generally impressed with the Tempest, no doubt captured by its technical novelty. Motor Trend magazine gave Pontiac its Car Of The Year award for it.

Alas, the Tempest’s technological promise proved more seductive than its real world performance. The drive-shaft had a tendency to vibrate and rattle, and the swing axles were prone to the same handling deficiencies as those in the Corvair, with a tendency to tuck under and oversteer. And that big four was a rough runner.

In spite of its shortcomings, the Tempest initially outsold its two corporate stablemates, surpassing 100,000 sales in both 1961 and 1962. Then in 1963 the Buick and Oldsmobile models both topped 100,000 sales, while the Tempest slipped to fewer than 70,000, in spite of the availability of a 5.3-litre (326 cu. in.) V8.

For 1964, Pontiac abandoned the curved driveshaft and rear transaxle and reverted to a conventional driveline.

That early Pontiac Tempest was an effort to appeal to those interested in an unconventional and innovative driveline layout, and the increased interior space it provided. Its shortcomings outweighed its advantages, however, and it soon faded into oblivion.

The conventional Tempest did leave us one lasting legacy, though. Its 1964 LeMans GTO light-car-with-a-big-engine option would spawn the Muscle Car era that lasted from 1964 to the early 1970s.

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