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The Pontiac Tempest


Just a few months hence, 1963 would prove to be the pinnacle of GM participation in all things racing. Mickey Thompson and Royal Pontiac's successes on the dragstrip with the Tempests and Super Duty Catalinas set the wheels in motion to construct 14 cars—six Le Mans coupes and six Tempest wagons, and then later two more Tempests coupes were constructed, all in white with 421 SD engines. But these cars came with a twist. They retained the transaxle and independent rear suspension (IRS). All production Tempests came with a two-speed automatic transaxle (called the Tempest Torque) that was modified by Pontiac Engineering with a second planetary gearset added to the rear of the transaxle, transforming the two-speed into a four-speed called the Powershift. According to Tempest owner Tom Schlauch, he witnessed two of these cars being delivered to Jess Tyree's shop.

According to Schlauch, the cars he witnessed were equipped with a clutch, but it's possible that a few came with a fluid coupling, which is very inefficient because it lacks the stator that multiplies torque. A few Tempests attempted to run fluid couplings, but none were successful. Unfortunately, breakage was a big problem. Schlauch says that most of the cars could get roughly 10 runs out of a ring-and-pinion before they failed. This eventually forced most of the SD Tempest racers to convert to the traditional solid rear axle and transmission configuration. Schlauch says there are four surviving original SD Tempests, and three of them retain the incredibly rare original transaxle and the so-called "rope" driveshaft. The actual production Tempest driveshaft was in reality a solid, 3⁄4-inch bar that was encased in a torque tube that incorporated a significant fore-aft bend in the tube to create less of an intrusive tunnel in the floorpan.

The 1963 factory cars also enjoyed even more exotic weight reductions. Part of the Tempest weight-loss plan was to offset the fact that the 1963 redesigns were heavier, due to the 5 additional inches of overall body length and 2 inches in width. The low-calorie program included an aluminum front end, including fenders, hood, lower valence, and grille surround. Aluminum bumpers on the early cars proved too thin and were replaced by acid-dipped steel versions. The idea behind the wagons followed Junior Stock theory that the additional rear weight would improve traction, but the extra 200 pounds hurt elapsed times so that the sedans were considered the most desirable.

Thompson continued his winning ways, with Bill Shrewsberry driving his 1963 car to take the Winternationals A/FX class win with a 12.04 at 116.29 mph. By now, the NHRA had also created B/ and C/FX classes for lower horsepower configurations and times for all the classes were dropping fast. By the end of the year, the A/FX record was still held by a Tempest with Arlen Vanke running an accredited 11.89/123.11 pass. While Chevy, Ford, and Chrysler had been caught napping the year before, the factory teams quickly stepped up their game, and Dave Strickler won the A/FX class trophy at the 1963 Nationals, driving a 427ci Z-11 Impala.

There was certainly more development that might have kept Pontiac in the limelight of the quarter-mile drama, but the axe fell at the end of 1963 when GM "officially" pulled out of active participation in motorsports. Pontiac followed the rules and retired all its factory drag racing support, while Chevrolet continued a clandestine effort. This corporate push to avoid racing came about due to pressure from the federal government that believed GM was approaching a near monopoly on auto sales in the U.S. Since Ford and Chrysler were the underdogs, they could continue to fund and support racing programs, and by the 1964 Nationals at Indy, the once-heroic Tempests were already outclassed. As often happens, most of the racers who had championed Pontiacs a few years earlier moved on to Fords, Chevys, and Mopars. Even Thompson transferred his allegiance to Ford by the end of 1963. It was the end of Pontiac's drag racing domination.

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