Imagine, if you will, an automobile of substantial girth equipped with a large but mild power plant, able to live on a steady diet of pump premium with a cam so mild it pulls 14.5 inches of vacuum; a car that goes about its business on a highway-friendly 3.31 gear and lulls you into thinking you're driving a luxury sedan. Now, imagine abruptly slamming your right foot deep into the carpet and this Dr. Jekyll turning into Mr. Hyde as it catapults you forward like it's been rear-ended by a freight train. Stop imagining and meet Jim Hand and his '71 Pontiac wagon.
Jim Hand's love affair with this '71 LeMans wagon began back in 1986 when it was rescued from a salvage yard in Dallas. The purchasing price was a low $350, and the tattered wagon was dragged back to Missouri where the transformation began. Only 125 wagons were produced in 1971 with the GTO appearance package front clip, making it a rare find. By 1987, the paint and bodywork were completed and the big Pontiac was presentable.
Over the course of the next decade and a half, the Poncho was massaged, flogged, tuned, and refined into a monster that is able to idle complacently in traffic at a cool 180 degrees F; comfortably traverse the imperfections of the local roads the way only a long-wheel-based car like a station wagon can; accelerate smoothly, and then after a good hard burnout, jerk its left front wheel 8 inches off of the tarmac on its way to high-11s at a buck-fifteen. Then, as if that wasn't enough, it delivers its owner home safely without any drama whatsoever. Try that in your hot rod.
Lots of time and patience were dedicated to refining the combination. The '73 455 was poked and stroked via an offset grinding on the stock nodular iron crankshaft and a 0.060-inch overbore. A '69 428 provided the donor four-bolt-main caps, and Eagle 6.8-inch big-block Chevy rods were attached to a set of JE forged pistons to round out the stout bottom-end. A repro Ram Air IV cam controls valve-timing events and a set of 1970-vintage cast-iron heads (ported by Jim) handle the breathing chores in conjunction with a massaged factory iron intake. A tweaked Quadrajet on a homemade spacer tops the engine off. The resulting torque and power is, as Jim puts it, "adequate" to click off high-11s reliably all day long. A Continental "tight 10-inch" converter ensures that wheels-up launches are the norm. Jim's son Tom built the Turbo 400 trans and set it up to shift itself at 5,500 rpm when matted, allowing the driver to keep both hands on the wheel. A freeway-friendly 3.31 posi resides in the 12-bolt rear.
Weighing in at a not-so-svelte 4,040 pounds with driver, this LeMans represents a lifetime of hard work. You don't need the trick of the month or cubic dollars to go fast, but you do need ingenuity, perseverance, and a good dose of patience to find out what works and what doesn't. As Jim has proven, to have your cake and eat it, you just have to invest the time.
The 473ci Pontiac features a nearly smooth idle, production heads, and an iron intake topp
A regular at Kansas City International Raceway, Jim Hand has recorded more than 3,000 docu
Pump gas is the fuel of choice in Jim's wagon.
Car Craft Q&A
Car Craft: Why a wagon?
Jim Hand: It all started in 1965. I had seven children and could only afford one car, so we had a '65 Catalina nine-passenger wagon with a tri-power 389 and a 3.23 posi. I ordered it without A/C as the performance engine took its place in the budget. I raced it regularly and drove it daily. In '66 I raced the wagon and won Top Stock Eliminator in Wichita. In those days, Top Stock was just that. The car weighed 4,600 pounds and ran 15.30s at 88 mph in pure stock form. So, I got into station wagons out of necessity and soon came to realize that wagons have a traction advantage that somewhat offsets the weight penalty. The Catalina was my daily driver up until 1986 at which time I retired and I retired the Catalina. Time and rust had taken their toll. I was looking for a retirement project when my brother located this LeMans wagon in Texas. I actually wanted an intermediate wagon that was a bit more modern, lighter, and equipped with disc brakes.
CC: Your wagon has run a previous best of 11.32 at 117 mph. What made you detune it?
JH: In late 1999 we lost an engine in the wagon when a carb screw dropped into the motor and destroyed it. We decided to build a bigger motor with an offset grind on the crank and I had a 0.060-over 455 block sitting in the garage collecting dust. We also went to a bigger cam, an aftermarket intake, and a reworked Holley carb. This combination was good for some low-11-second passes at the Pontiac Uprising event in Arkansas City, Kansas. Well, evidently some people in the Pontiac community believed that it would only be possible for me to run this fast with expensive aftermarket parts. There was a real buzz on the Pontiac Web sites. So, I set out to prove that it was possible to go fast with stock-type parts.
CC: How did you arrive at this combination?
JH: Through a lot of experimentation with cylinder heads, cams, intakes, headers, and so on. This combo started coming together in 1986. The wagon ran 13.60s with what was essentially a stock engine. We kept tuning and tinkering to get it to this level. We ran through the entire range of Pontiac production cams and tried some aftermarket pieces and slowly arrived at an idea of what would run best. We tried manifolds from a number of Pontiac racers as well. I got to where I am today by trying a whole range of parts and tune-ups.
The interior is all business. Note the fan next to the shifter.
Plenty of room for groceries should the need arise.
Car: '71 Pontiac LeMans wagon
Engine: 473ci Pontiac
Heads: Iron No. 64 castings, 2.11/1.77 intake/exhaust valves, ported by ownerInduction: Cast-iron production dual-plane intake modified by owner, 840-cfm Rochester Quadrajet carb by Cliff Ruggles
Camshaft: Melling hydraulic flat-tappet RA-IV, 230/240 degrees duration at 0.050-inch lift, 0.469-inch lift
Transmission: Turbo-400, Trans-Go Shift Kit, Continental 3,200-stall converter
Rearend: GM 12-bolt, 3.31:1 gears
Front suspension: Stock, Competition Engineering drag shocks
Rear suspension: Moroso springs, Competition Engineering drag shocks, air bag, Olds 442 boxed lower control arms
Brakes: Stock discs, front, stock drums, rear
Wheels and tires: Cragar Super Light 15x6s with P205/75R15 radials, front; Cragar Super Light 15x10s with Mickey Thompson 28x13.5-15 ET Streets, rear
Body mods: VFN fiberglass front bumper, trim removed
Paint: Dupont Carmine Red, Ditzler clear, by owner
Best e.t.: 11.32 @ 117 (quarter-mile)
Cost to Build: "Unknown"