Your momma probably told you first impressions can be misleading. She was talking about that homely girl next door, but we're more interested in machines. A quick glance at Grant Craft's '65 Pontiac may lead you to believe this is a muscle car version of a rat rod. And since those rust relics are intended as gritty alternatives to billet rods, few place more than a casual thought toward performance or handling. But don't be tempted to dismiss this Tempest as a similar exercise. The first hint that there's more to the story is the bright-red chassis that signals this is no stick-welded effort. The builder, Jeff Schwartz of Schwartz Performance, likes to think of this car as a budgetary alternative to the increasingly popular upscale Pro Touring cars. That's exactly how Jeff built it for owner Grant Craft, an Australian native now living in Hong Kong.
The project started when Jeff ran across a near-solid '65 Tempest body in Texas and had it shipped back to his Woodstock, Illinois, shop. He eventually tried to sell the car on eBay and discovered to his amazement that after several weeks online, no one wanted a '65 Pontiac hardtop body. That's when he regrouped and hatched the idea of a primer ride. Grant became caught up in the plan and commissioned Schwartz Performance to assemble the car. The plan followed the time-honored approach of minimizing the weight while making serious LS engine horsepower snuggled into a slick combination rectangular/round-tube chassis sitting on big tires and brakes at all four corners. In keeping with Jeff's allegiance to GM LS engine horsepower, the power would originate from a 550hp LS3 engine pushed through a Tremec TKO-600 and a Dana 60 rear axle assembly. The plan called for only minimal money to be spent on bodywork and paint with the emphasis on performance rather than image. They would let the car's performance speak for itself.
Jeff and the Schwartz Performance team built the whole car in a scant eight weeks, which included spending time to replace the entire floor and trunk pan with a couple of additional hours spent patching small rust holes in the quarter-panels. All this was achievable within those 50-odd days because they were not tied to spending weeks rubbing on the body to produce mirror-smooth flanks. They shot the whole car in PPG DP-90 primer and left much of the body as it existed. In fact, if you look closely you can see a line of rectangular trim holes along the length of the body line that runs just below the windowsill. You might also notice that the passenger-side door is not original, since it is missing the requisite holes. Rather than drill holes in the new door to mount the trim, the team decided to leave it as it is.
Jeff gave us an opportunity for a short stint behind the wheel that was as refreshing as it was adventuresome. Forget about the double-insulated new-car approach where you have to strain to hear the engine run. The experience is more like what it must have been like to wrestle a Boeing B-17 with four giant Pratt & Whitney radial engines straining against the props. New-car designers live in a world obsessed with NVH (noise, vibration, and harshness) in an attempt to achieve a whisper-quiet interior. Sitting in the Tempest's cockpit, you realize it is aptly named because you are at the center of a cacophony of noise, vibration, and just enough harshness to cement that visceral connection between you and the car. The interior is as if prop wash had just swept through, stripping everything that wasn't meant to be there and leaving the sprayed-on truck liner floor treatment and little else. For our morning drive, Jeff removed the bolt-in polycarbonate side windows and left the window nets to bang their steel mounts against bare inner doorskins. In the cool fall morning air, it felt like we should be wearing A-2 leather bomber jackets with a weathered image of the Temptress painted on the back. As we pulled out into the street, the tires launched assorted small rocks from the road and the sound was a machine gun-like rattle of bullets punching off the mini-tubbed inner fenderwells.