1961 Pontiac Tempest Wagon - Wake The Sleeper
Originality is a great thing when performance is part of the factory design. You wouldn't think of ditching a 455 H.O. or a 421 SD if it was originally installed in your prized Pontiac. But a 4-cylinder is a different story. Would the voice of the hobby cry "injustice" if you dumped the Indy-4 in your Tempest in lieu of a stump-pulling 455 graced with ultra-rare Ram Air V heads and intake? We didn't think so.
This is exactly what Jim Pickett of Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania, did to his '61 Tempest wagon that shipped way back in 1961 with the Pontiac 195ci Indy-4, a motor that is a Pontiac V-8 sliced in half. "The 4-cylinder had to go," Pickett told HPP. "We decided to do something a little different." Different meant that Pickett would lead himself down a path that would mate 303ci R/A-V heads to a 455 and then to a very unlikely recipient. "We built a '61 Tempest sedan first and had so much fun and it turned out so nicely that we said, 'Let's do a wagon.'"
Dropping a huge motor into an early '60s Tempest wagon is not a new idea. Pontiac built six wagons in 1963 with 421 SD engines. But these Tempest wagons featured a four-speed transaxle and did not require modification of the floor area to accommodate the drivetrain.
Building a Tempest wagon today forces a racer to go up against the forces of the Tempest's original sheetmetal design. Undoubtedly, the '61 Tempest's floorpan is unlike that of any traditional rear-wheel-drive Pontiac. Its flat floor accommodates the rope drive transaxle and gives passengers more legroom in a compact body, but it leaves no hump for a transmission and driveshaft. Dropping a hefty Pontiac V-8 and transmission into a '61 Tempest takes training in welding and fabrication. "These cars had a transaxle, torque tube, and flat floor," says Jim Pickett. "You've got to be skilled to do a proper conversion."
His plan was to replace the Tempest's floorpan and transmission tunnel. "A '69 Firebird floorpan and trans tunnel does nicely with a little massaging and welding," he says. Lucky Luciano of Lucky's Race Cars in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, cut the whole floor out and replaced it with Firebird metal. Then, as Pickett tells us, Lucky's "fabricated a straight rail frame with custom transmission crossmember and ladder bar suspension, and coil-over shocks" that attach to a 9-inch Ford rear with a Detroit locker and 4.30 gears. Up front, Pickett retained the Tempest's original subframe and suspension right down to the 9.5-inch drum brakes-11-inchers came with the 9-inch rear end.
With the metal work completed, Pickett set forth to change the Tempest's exterior and interior color combo. If he thought the 195 ci Indy-4 engine was unacceptable, the Fernando Beige (code R) with Fawn vinyl (code 274) this California Tempest wagon was built with didn't fare much better. "I love the color blue," he says. "The interior became a great-looking blue vinyl and the exterior came right from the Pontiac color charts, Lucerne Blue (code 26) from the '70 GTO and Firebirds."
Pickett's Poncho features a 455 4-bolt main block orphaned by a '70 Bonneville and bored 0.030 over to produce a 4.180x4.250 bore/stroke and 467 ci. Its rotating assembly was prepared by Nunzi's Automotive of Brooklyn, New York, and features a crankshaft that was offset ground to get the 4.250-inch stroke, pumping billet Crower rods and Ross dished forged aluminum pistons. It also has Nunzi steel 4-bolt main caps, a blueprinted 60 psi oil pump with custom pickup, a special aluminum oil pan with 4-inch kickouts, NHRA-approved balancer and an SFI-approved flexplate.
The most interesting part of Pickett's Tempest, however, is the top end, where the ultra-rare parts begin. Pickett purchased a set of R/A-V tunnel port 303 heads, specifically designed for use in Trans/Am SCCA Sedan II racing and originally planned to be part of a '69 1/2 Trans Am 303 ci option package that was nixed before it hit the streets. They feature 56cc combustion chambers and a mild clean up. "The heads are stout, just like Pontiac's Herb Adams intended them," Pickett tells HPP. "There was no need for us to perform serious porting on the intake and exhaust sides, Nunzi just did a cleanup." Custom pushrods activate Nunzi 1.7-ratio shaft-mounted rocker arms that compress dual valve springs and open 2.19/1.76 titanium valves. The compression ratio is 11:1.
A Nunzi cam orchestrates the valve action and, thanks to HPP contributor Rocky Rotella, we were able to "declassify" its specs as a custom solid roller with 272/278-deg duration and high 0.600's gross valve lift. Rotella also learned that this pair of R/A-V heads produces intake flow in excess of 300 cfm at 28 inches of pressure with exhaust flowing 74 percent of intake.
HPP contributor Don Keefe weighed in on the rarity of these heads. "While any Ram Air V cylinder head is a rare piece, the 303 versions are particularly scarce," he said. "No one knows for sure, but somewhere between 80 and 200 Ram Air V 400 crate motors and 25 complete 303s were ever built. Some additional heads were said to have been sold through the parts network. Even so, there never were a lot of them to begin with. Quite a few sets of 303 heads were liberated from their short-deck blocks, however, as the smaller engines ran much better with modified Ram Air IV cylinder heads. As far as we know, Tom Schlauch's is the only 303 short-deck Ram Air V in running condition, though another one is being built by an East Coast enthusiast using a shortblock that I used to own."
An equally ultra-rare Pontiac R/A-V 400 aluminum intake manifold (PN 545288) supports a Holley 950 cfm carburetor (the factory used a Holley 800 cfm carb), and the fuel feeds from a Barry Grant 280 electric fuel pump. Spark is activated with an MSD crank trigger distributor and travels through MSD wires to NGK Iridium plugs. Exhaust exits through custom made headers, built by Lucky's, that feature 2-inch primaries and 4-inch collectors. A 3-inch dual exhaust with Flowmasters makes this race car street ready and legal.
A Trans Specialties 3,000 rpm converter sends the torque to a Turbo 350 transmission mated to a custom driveshaft. The rear wheels are Pickett's own creation, custom 15x10.5s that mount 30x10.5-inch slicks.
This is Pickett's fourth Tempest racer. He completed a '63 coupe that runs Pro Nostalgia clocking 8.97 e.t.s at 153 mph, a '61 sedan that runs Nostalgia Modified posting 9.32s at 145 mph, and a '63 wagon that was completed in Spring, 2007. He has yet to produce a time slip for his '61 R/A-V wagon.
Nonetheless, Pickett tells HPP his "sleeper" wakes up whenever he pushes the pedal. "This wagon is really fun to drive and will peel the tires through Third gear." he says. "The motor is really reliable and it's great at local cruises. It's fully street legal, and it will be fierce competition at the racetrack."
The factory never intended for the '61 Tempest to be more than a low-price, entry-level family car. Thanks to Jim Pickett, all that has changed. This is one '61 Tempest that hauls...a whole lot more than groceries, wherever it goes.

Photo Gallery: 1961 Pontiac Tempest Wagon - High Performance Pontiac Magazine

Read More | Digg It | Add to del.icio.us