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.
Snapping out of our WWII fantasy, we noted that the dash consists of a simple array of Auto Meter Pro Comp tach, speedo, and gauges set in an engine-turned aluminum plate. To the immediate right, there's a rectangular hole where the AM radio used to reside-and not much else. The hydraulic clutch pedal feels light and exhibits half the travel of mechanical versions. The American Powertrain hydraulic master cylinder is mounted to the floor and uses an adjustable angle that eliminates clutch pedal rod bind in the master cylinder. The shifter for the Tremec TKO-600 five-speed is conveniently placed and shifts without effort. As expected, the ride is stiff. Jeff comments that the car is set up for the autocross and road course with the shock settings and the spherical bearings more accountable to the ride quality than the springs.
Our first surprise was the near-instantaneous steering input from the rack-and-pinion. Rated at 15:1, a slight tug on the wheel commanded the car to an instant leap into the corners. This is partly due to the 2-degree negative camber setting. Of course, the 275/ 40R18 front BFG KDW II front tires are partly responsible for this impressive steering response. The fronts are mounted on 9 1/2-inch-wide XXRs while the rears are on 13-inch hoops custom-widened by Weldcraft wheels. This was part of the Schwartz/Craft plan because the off-the-shelf XXR 18-inch wheels are nicely affordable, but XXR didn't offer the width needed for the rear. Even adding an additional $210 each for the custom machine work, Jeff says they still spent much less than $2,000.
This whole plan was aimed at having fun while still being practical. The Tempest had just completed the Hot Rod Power Tour when Jeff buckled in for the Motor State Challenge Pro Street car competition that required timed runs through an autocross and the road course at Gingerman Raceway in South Haven, Michigan. He pushed the revs a little too high on the road course, resulting in a stock connecting rod bolt letting fly, creating a fist-sized hole in the aluminum block. This ended the Pontiac's day-but not before the car had managed to set the 10th-quickest road course lap time overall on the BFGs when most of the front runners were racing on supersticky tires.
This was also only a few short days before the Real Street Eliminator event in St. Paul during the Car Craft Summer Nationals, requiring a full-contact thrash to assemble a new engine for the Pontiac. Time was of the essence, but it was not a complete catastrophe, since Jeff had a pile of spare parts, including a block and an LS9 crank that were looking for a new home. For those not conversant in GM speak, LS9 stands for the new 6.2L (374ci) supercharged engine that's used in the instantly legendary ZR-1 Corvette. Since this engine was destined for normally aspirated duty, he changed to a different set of forged pistons with more compression and a set of LS3 heads along with an LS7 dry-sump oiling system in anticipation of turning corners. Jeff and his team completed the refit mere hours before the Car Craft Nationals and RSE.
During the initial Real Street Eliminator contest, at first it didn't appear the Tempest was destined for glory. On a first dyno pull, the Pontiac couldn't clear the 400hp mark but came back later to post 476 hp with the help of a 100hp NOS dry-nitrous kit. This placed the Pontiac eventually in Second Place on the dyno, but it was on the autocross where the Tempest exhibited its excellent handling capabilities with a winning 11.456-second time and then on the Launch Box, scoring a Second Place finish behind Mark Storlien's amazing little '62 Corvette. This combination of a First and two Second Place finishes was enough to just beat out the equally consistent John Wegner and his '69 big-block Camaro. Jeff plans to make as many competitive events in the next year as possible to show off the car's capabilities and keep it together enough to allow Grant to drive it when he comes to visit. It beats driving a rental car.
Who: Grant Craft
What: '65 Pontiac Tempest
Where: Hong Kong, China
Suspension: We'll start here since the Schwartz Performance chassis is the foundation. The chassis that Schwartz sells is a combination round and rectangle tubing chassis that not only radically increases torsional stiffness but also reduces weight. In the front, the system integrates power rack-and-pinion steering along with tubular upper and lower unequal-length control arms that connect with large, Teflon-lined QA1 spherical bearings that help connect the arms to a pair of custom-forged Schwartz aluminum spindles. The front springs are also QA1 pieces at 400 pounds per inch and damped by a pair of Bilstein coilover shocks. The front sway bar is a 1-inch tubular model that ties to a pair of aluminum arms that connects to the lower control arms. The rear suspension is a variation of the factory A-body four-link rear trailing arm suspension. These links are custom tubing arms mounted with QA1 spherical bearings and locate the custom aluminum centersection rear axle assembly with 300-pound-per-inch QA1 springs and Bilstein shocks.
Engine: The current engine began life as a 6.2L LS9 supercharged short-block with a 4.060-inch bore and 3.62-inch stroke using the factory forged-steel crank, K1 connecting rods, and Wiseco pistons and rings, along with a 211/230 degrees at 0.050 factory LS7 hydraulic roller cam with 0.580-inch lift. Completing the engine is a set of LS3 rectangle-port cylinder heads, a 90mm GM cable-actuated throttle body, and an NOS nitrous system with a 100hp jetting. The factory computer enjoys a Schwartz Performance tweak, while the exhaust is plumbed with a set of Schwartz custom-built 1 7/8-inch headers with a 3-inch collector and Magnaflow stainless mufflers. Keeping the engine in the right temperature range is a Be Cool aluminum radiator and twin electric fans.
Transmission: The Tremec TKO-600 five-speed overdrive trans is a great compromise between strength and weight since it is significantly lighter than the larger T56 six-speed. The LS9 short-block required a custom 9-bolt LS-style flywheel to allow bolting up a McLeod single-disc clutch assembly. Muscle Up out of Janesville, Wisconsin, supplied the driveshaft that connects the trans to a Dana 60 with 3.55:1 gears and a limited slip.
Brakes: Monster 14-inch Baer rotors work with a set of Baer Monoblock six-piston front brakes with the same size rear rotors and Baer six-piston Pro Plus calipers on the rear. These monster calipers are commanded by a factory iron master cylinder.
Wheels/Tires: Jeff says he normally specs a 345/30R19 tire for these A-body cars for the rear, but he found a company called XXR that offered a set of 18x9-inch wheels for an excellent price, so he ordered four and had Weldcraft Wheels in Plymouth, Michigan, widen out the rears to 13 inches. That then required a set of BFGoodrich 275/35R18 KDW II tires for the front and wider 335/30R18 KDW IIs for the rear. He ran these same BFGs on the road course at the Motor State Challenge.
Bodywork: This is where the simplicity of the car takes the forefront. The Texas car had some rust issues but nothing a new trunk and floor couldn't fix. "This wasn't as difficult as it sounds," Jeff says. "The floor reinforcement panels were still in good shape." After the floor was in, they cleaned up some minor rust in the quarter-panels and did some minor panel straightening with the body finished. Jeff's crew then shot the car with DP-40 primer and left it just like you see it here. The only other work was a 2-inch mini-tub job in the rear to accommodate larger rear tires. Jeff says the company will have a budget mini-tub kit for A-body cars available soon based on his experience in adding room for fatter tires.
Interior: The seats are inexpensive eBay specials along with the Simpson four-point harnesses, while a Flaming River steering column feeds steering input through a Grant wheel. All that's left is the Auto Meter tach, speedo, gauges, and a rollcage, leaving not much else to talk about. Just envision a B-17 bomber cockpit.
Weight: Despite the lack of creature comforts, the polycarbonate side windows, and the all-aluminum engine, the rest of the Tempest is all steel except for the fiberglass bumpers, which is one reason Jeff was a little disappointed by the car's 3,250-pound weight without driver.
Crew: Jeff wants to thank owner Grant Craft, the Schwartz Performance crew, and Walter Goto for the cool Temptress logo.