The Pontiac Tempest is known for its tumultuous 400-cubic-inch V8, for spewing clouds of atomized rubber and partially combusted gasoline, for altering weather patterns and generally being a kick-ass muscle car. But it started life as a funky little economy car created by the legendary John DeLorean.
I had no idea the first-generation Tempest (1961-63) existed until I spied one for sale a few blocks from my house. The red ragtop was in sorry shape. Paint shot, trim pieces missing, holes in its top. Still, there was something about it. It had gorgeous lines and good proportions.
When I hit Wikipedia later that day, I realized the little convertible was far more sophisticated and, well, wacky than I had ever imagined. At first glance it looks to be like any other mid-60s compact—likely driven by a straight six backed with a two-speed slushbox. But the Tempest’s drivetrain is unique. Very unique.
The Tempest was one of John DeLorean’s earliest projects. Thus, it was innovative. It’s powered by quite possibly the wonkiest American engine ever, the Tropy 4. The 195-cubic-inch (3.2-liter) straight four mill is basically half a 389 V8. The engine made between 110 and 140 horsepower, depending on carb options. It was frugal, but earned the name “Hay Bailer” due to its rough and raucous nature.
Thankfully, things get much better as you move aft of the engine bay. The Tempest is equipped with a flexible driveshaft known as the “rope drive.” This meant the floor was flat—no transmission tunnel. The rope drive was connected to a two-speed automatic transaxle at the rear, giving the early Tempest 50/50 weight distribution. To top it all off, the car was equipped with four-wheel independent suspension.
In ’61 and ’62, customers could spec the Tempest with Buick’s aluminum 215 c.u. V8. The engine produced up to 215 horsepower and weighed just 330 pounds. In ’63, Pontiac pulled out the big guns, offering the 326 V8 (actually a 336, but marketed as a 326). That engine produced 260 hp and 352 ft-lbs of torque. To cope with the extra power, the car’s autobox was beefed up and the transaxle was revamped to improve handling. Just 3,600 Tempests got the 215 and probably no more than 5,000 got the 326.
The first-generation Tempest is one of the least-appreciated American rides out there. It was an ingenious little car packed with many features that still aren’t standard on modern cars. If you’re looking for a quirky classic car, the first-generation Tempest should be on your list.
UPDATE: Jim Brennan of Hooniverse spied this gorgeous ’62 Tempest Convertible showing off in a local parking lot. It wears a paint color I’ve never seen before and is probably the best-restored Tempest on the road. Check it out.