Classic Cars Wiki
Classic Cars Wiki

The Pontiac Tempest was an entry-level compact produced by the Pontiac Motor Division of General Motors, introduced in September 1960 for the 1961 model year.

Sharing the new monocoque (unibody) Y platform with the Buick Special and Skylark, and Oldsmobile F-85 and Cutlass, the model also appeared under the LeMans nameplate (largely beginning with the 1962 model year, though Pontiac also manufactured a few 1961 LeMans coupes).

For 1964, the platform was redesigned with a full-size frame, and renamed A-body. The Tempest name was discontinued after the 1970 model year in favor of LeMans, a nameplate previously used for upmarket versions of that series.


Despite sharing some of the Oldsmobile's sheet metal, the original Tempest featured an innovative drivetrain — a rear-mounted transaxle coupled to a torque shaft arcing in a 3 in (76 mm) downward bow within a longitudinal tunnel — coupling the forward engine and rear transmission into one unit and eliminating vibration. The arrangement, known as "rope drive", had been previously used in the 1951 Le Sabre concept car.

The combination of the rear-mounted transaxle and the front-mounted engine gave the car very nearly an ideal 50/50 front/rear weight distribution, enabled four-wheel independent suspension, and eliminated the floor "hump" forward of the front seat which accommodated the transmission in a conventional layout, such as the front engine/front transmission used in the Tempest's Buick and Oldsmobile sister cars.

John Z. DeLorean, designer of the Tempest, was the division's chief engineer and a Packard veteran who would later become the division's head and later still would become widely known for founding the DeLorean Motor Company. The Tempest was Motor Trend magazine's 1961 Car of the Year. Road & Track praised the Tempest as "exceptionally roomy" and "one of the very best utility cars since the Ford Model A."

Power came from a 195 in³ (3.2 L) straight-4, marketed as the "Trophy 4", derived from the right cylinder bank of Pontiac's 389 in³ V8, the standard powerplant Pontiac used in its larger cars, such as the Bonneville and Catalina. The engine was advertised as a gas-saving economy motor for thrifty consumers, but Pontiac also saved money because it could run the engine down the same assembly line as the 389. There were three versions of the engine: an 8.6:1, low compression, single-barrel carburetor; a 10.25:1 high-compression with single barrel; and a high-compression engine with a four-barrel carburetor. While the single-barrel version produced 110–140 hp (82–104 kW; 112–142 PS), the four-barrel was capable of 155 hp (116 kW; 157 PS) (SAE gross) at 4,800 rpm and 215 ft·lbf (292 N·m) of torque at 2,800 rpm. All three versions had a fuel economy ranging from 18-22 mpg, and the engine was generally reliable though it had a reputation as the "Hay Baler", a derogatory label applied by dealer mechanics (ostensibly from farm states) who experienced the violent kicks it could produce when out of tune.

Another departure from the other Y-body cars, lesser but still notable, were the wheels. Both Buick and Oldsmobile had standardized their Y-body cars on an odd 9.5 in (24 cm) brake drum with four lug studs on a 4.5 in (11 cm)-diameter circle (a "four-on-four-and-a-half" bolt pattern), with 14 in (36 cm) wheels, shared by no other GM cars at the time. Pontiac went with a 9 in (23 cm) drum, but used five studs on the same bolt circle ("five-on-four-and-a-half") and 15 in (38 cm) wheels. This was a second configuration shared by no other GM cars but would be identical to the wheels on the Ford Mustang when released some four years later in mid-1964. Perhaps only coincidentally, the Pontiac plant that produced the Tempest's undercarriage was in Los Angeles, across the street from the Ford plant where the Mustang's was developed.

Of particular note is that the innovative aluminum Buick-built 215 in³ (3.5 L) V8 was optional in the Tempest in 1961 and 1962. (This also had first appeared in the LeSabre.) It is estimated that just 3,662 Tempests were ordered with the 215 engine, or about 1% of production. This motor produced, in its various incarnations, from 155–215 hp (116–160 kW; 157–218 PS) despite weighing just 330 lb (150 kg) installed. The Pontiac 215 blocks are distinct from other Buick 215 blocks because in addition to the factory Buick markings they were hand-stamped at the Pontiac plant with the Vehicle Identification Numbers of the individual cars they were installed in. Thus, in 1961 all Pontiac 215 blocks begin "161P"; the 1962 cars, "162P". Further code numbers told whether the car had an automatic or manual transmission. In 1961, this would have been either a three-speed column-shifted manual with a non-synchromesh first gear or a two-speed automatic controlled by a small lever on the dash to the right of the ignition. This automatic—called "TempesTorque" in company literature but unmarked on the unit itself until 1963—was a type of Powerglide similar to, but sharing very few parts with, the one in the Chevrolet Corvair. (The next year, a floor-mounted, fully synchronized four-speed manual was added.) At its introduction, the Tempest was only available as a four-door pillared sedan and as a Safari station wagon. A pair of two-door coupes, one of which was named LeMans, were added at the end of 1961, both in the 1961 body style.

By the time the 1962 models arrived, LeMans, primarily a trim package upgrade featuring front bucket seats, also came as a new convertible. There were now a total of four models: station wagon, sedan, coupe, and convertible. All four came as Tempest; customers who wanted a more deluxe coupe or convertible could pay extra for Tempest LeMans. There was no LeMans station wagon or sedan. And although Oldsmobile and Buick had pillarless hardtops (the Cutlass and Skylark, respectively), there was no pillarless hardtop LeMans. In 1963, the LeMans became a separate series, reaching nearly 50% of all combined Tempest and LeMans production.

The 1963 version, slightly larger and heavier than the previous two years (now designated a "senior compact"), and with a redesigned transaxle that improved handling, offered a high-performance option much more powerful than the scarcely ordered 215. The 215 was replaced by Pontiac's new 326 in³ (5.3 L) V8, a motor with the same external dimensions of the venerable 389, but different internals, designed to produce more torque. A new version of the automatic transmission (now officially stamped "TempesTorque" on the case) was designed with beefier internals to handle it; the four-speed was not, so few, if any, V8 cars were built with four speeds (the three-speed remained for both motors, however). The high-compression 326's output was 260 hp (194 kW; 264 PS) and 352 ft·lbf (477 N·m) of torque. The actual displacement was 336 in³, but according to lore, since no GM division compact was allowed to have a motor larger than the Corvette's 327, the advertised number was 326. The cast-iron mill brought weight up 260 lb (120 m) 260 pounds over a 195 in³ Trophy 4 and weight distribution changed only marginally to 54/46. Performance was strong enough that Car Life magazine stated; "No one will wonder why they didn't use the 389," and fuel economy with the 326 ranged up to 19 mpg. The V8 option proved popular: 52% of the 131,490 Tempests and LeMans sold in 1963 were ordered with the 326. The 326 sold in the 1963 cars is a one year-only motor; the next year the displacement was adjusted so that it was actually 326 in³.

Super Duty[]

Perhaps the most famous Tempests built were the 1963 Super Duty cars. Just 14 in number and built to compete in the NHRA Factory Experimental class, they were built at the Pontiac plant in Michigan over Christmas 1962 with the knowledge of the impending General Motors ban on factory racing. Among those who successfully raced the Tempest Super Duty cars was Wild Bill Shrewsberry who drove for Mickey Thompson in the 1963 NHRA Winternationals with average times in the low 12-second range. Shrewsberry still owns his car and it is still equipped with Pontiac's "Powershift" transaxle as retrofitted later in the 1963 season. Developed specifically for the Super Duty, this was essentially two Powerglide automatics in a single four-speed unit, allowing clutchless shifting in much the same manner as modern drag racing transmissions.

On October 31, 2008, one of the most rare factory race cars, the missing Stan Antlocer Super Duty Tempest LeMans Coupe was auctioned on eBay. The seller started the auction at $500 being unaware of the car's true value. Eventually, the car was sold for $226,521.


In 1964, the Tempest was redesigned as a more-conventional vehicle and enlarged from a compact to an intermediate-sized car with a 115 in (2,900 mm) wheelbase and an overall length of 203 in (5,200 mm). The unibody, curved driveshaft and transaxle were gone; they were replaced by a traditional front engine, front transmission, frame and solid rear axle design used by all of GM's other cars, with the exception of the Corvette and Corvair. Together with its sister cars (the Oldsmobile F-85/Cutlass and Buick Special/Skylark), the Tempest/LeMans moved to the new A body platform shared with the new Chevrolet Chevelle, and all three cars received updates and modifications standardizing them throughout — including the wheels — by GM edict. The LeMans name was discontinued as a separate series, so now the cars were, in ascending order, base Tempest, Tempest Custom, and Tempest LeMans.

Replacing the previous half-a-V8 four-cylinder engine as standard equipment was a new 215 in³ inline six-cylinder engine with one-barrel carburetor and 140 hp (104 kW; 142 PS). This six was basically a bored out version of the Chevrolet-built 194 in³ six and offered as Pontiac exclusive. Optional engines included two versions of the 326 in³ Pontiac V8 introduced the previous year, a two-barrel 250 hp (186 kW; 253 PS) regular fuel option; or the 280 hp (209 kW; 284 PS) 326 HO engine with four-barrel carburetor and 10.5:1 compression ratio which required premium fuel. Transmissions included a standard three-speed manual with column shift, four-speed manual with floor-mounted Hurst shifter or a two-speed automatic; the latter was a version of Buick's Super Turbine 300.

The popularity of the high-performance V8 package the year before prompted Pontiac to make it available again on the Tempest LeMans and give it a name: GTO, producing a watershed car of the 1960s and 1970s.

Interestingly, the success of the GTO prompted Oldsmobile to rush out its own high-performance option package for the F-85/Cutlass called the 442 that year, and the next year, for Buick to release a high-performance version of the Skylark called the Skylark Gran Sport, or GS. Both cars would enjoy success and contribute to what in retrospect has become the "muscle car" era.

Engine offerings for the 1965 Tempest were the same as 1964, except the 326 HO was uprated to 285 hp (213 kW; 289 PS). Styling changes included a new split grille with vertical headlights similar to the larger Pontiacs, revised taillights and a more slanted rear deck. A two-door hardtop coupe was added to the Tempest Custom line, while the LeMans got a four-door sedan with a plush interior done in Preston Cloth trim similar to the full-sized Bonneville Brougham.

A major facelift was made on the 1966 Tempest that included more rounded bodylines with a Coke-bottle effect similar to the full-sized Pontiacs. New four-door pillarless hardtop sedans were added to the Tempest Custom line. Under the hood, the Chevy-derived 215 six was replaced by a new Pontiac-built 230 in³ overhead cam six, the only such engine found in an American production car at that time. This was also the first American-built engine to use a belt to time the camshaft to the crankshaft rather than a chain. The base OHC had a one-barrel carburetor and was rated at 165 hp (123 kW; 167 PS), designed for economy buyers. Optionally available as part of the Sprint option package on two-doors was a four-barrel, high-compression 207 hp (154 kW; 210 PS) version of the OHC six, marketed as an alternative to higher-priced European sport sedans, which had similar OHC engines. For those wanting V8 power, the 326 and 326 HO options continued with horsepower ratings of 250 and 285 hp (213 kW; 289 PS), respectively.

Only minor changes were made to the 1967 Tempest, Custom and LeMans models. Engines and transmission offerings were the same as before except the four-barrel OHC six was uprated to 215 hp (160 kW; 218 PS). Front disc brakes were a new option along with a stereo 8-track tape player and hood-mounted tachometer.

1968 restyle[]

A restyled Tempest was introduced for 1968 with more rounded styling cues, concealed windshield wipers, a return to horizontal headlights and a split-wheelbase mode of 112 in (2,800 mm) for two-doors and 116 for four-door models. The OHC sixes were enlarged from 230 to 250 cubic inches with horsepower ratings unchanged while the 326 V8 was replaced by a new 350 in³ V8 with horsepower ratings of 250 with two-barrel or 320 with four-barrel carb. The same lineup of models including the base Tempest, Tempest Custom and LeMans continued as in previous years.

Other than elimination of vent windows on hardtop coupes, styling only received minor revisions for 1969, when the Tempest Custom was renamed the Custom S for this one year. However model offerings were the same as 1968. A new three-speed Turbo Hydra-matic 350 transmission was introduced and available with all engines as an alternative to the older two-speed automatic. Engine offerings were the same as before except for the 350 HO V8 engine gaining five-horsepower to 325. A new locking steering column with relocated ignition switch was introduced and front seat headrests became standard equipment.

Minor styling revisions highlighted the 1970 Tempest, which would be the final year for the nameplate in the U.S. Initially, the line was down to just two- and four-door sedans but expanded at mid-year with the introduction of the low-priced T-37 hardtop coupe, billed as GM's lowest-priced hardtop coupe. The Custom S became the LeMans this year and the previous LeMans series was renamed the LeMans Sport. The Pontiac-built OHC six-cylinder engine was replaced by a Chevy-built 250 in³ inline six while the 350 V8 was down to a two-barrel 255 hp (190 kW; 259 PS) version. New engine offerings included 400 in³ V8s rated at 265 hp (198 kW; 269 PS) with two-barrel carburetor and 8.6:1 compression ratio or 330 with four-barrel and 10.25:1 compression.

The Tempest nameplate was phased out after the 1970 model year. For 1971, it would be replaced by a new T-37 series that included each of the three bodystyles offered on the 1970 Tempest and T-37. After this year, the T-37 would be dropped and for 1972 all Pontiac intermediates took the LeMans nameplate except the GTO.

Third generation[]

Pontiac marketed a rebadged version of the compact L-body Chevrolet Corsica as Tempest, for Canada only, beginning in model year 1987. Discontinued in 1991, the Tempest—along with the 6000—was replaced with the Grand Prix sedan. The 1987-1991 Pontiac Tempest came in two trim levels, base (equivalent to the U.S. Corsica LT) and LE (equivalent to the U.S. Corsica LTZ) The main differences that separates the Tempest from its L-Body twin are different grille, emblems and taillights (the taillights were later adopted as the U.S. Corsica's taillights). The only other difference were wheel options, DRLs and a metric instrument cluster.