Super Duty – A Fantastic Ride
In modern times, they call it Pontiac excitement. In 1963, it was called super duty. Whatever you call it, it’s a fantastic ride. America has always had a love affair with the automobile . And no other car company has done more to provide Americans with ways to express that love than Pontiac. Today, Pontiac is GM’s excitement division. But there was a time when Pontiacs weren’t exciting. In fact, they were boring!
Pontiac buyers didn’t want fancy cars. They wanted cars that would run forever. Says Jim Wangers: “Their advertising slogan was ‘GM’s masterpiece: Built to last 100,000 miles.’ In fact, lots of them did last 100,000 miles and then people had a car they knew was going to last that long. They weren’t in a rush to come back and replace it!”
The Pontiac Transformation – From Stodgy to Sleek
Everything about Pontiac said stodgy, old style, and worst of all, slow. By the mid 50s, Pontiac had fallen to last place in sales among GM’s divisions and was actually in danger of going out of business. But, in 1956, a miraculous transformation started within Pontiac, which, over the next few years turned these boring old cars into the sleekest, fastest rides in America. This transformation was engineered by a man regarded by man as the most brilliant automobile executive of the 20th century, Bunkie Knudsen.
Jim Wangers was just starting his career as Pontiac’s ad wizard at about the same time. He recalls Knudsen’s credentials: “Mr. Knudsen was a veteran racer. He was an engineer by education, got into the production engineering and the manufacturing. He was not really a marketer. But he liked cars.” Most of all, Knudsen had a knack for knowing what the car buying public wanted. Knudsen also knew, long before most of the movers and shakers in Detroit, that the future of the auto industry was in the hands of a new wave of younger buyers who wanted cars that delivered a whole lot more than just basic transportation. Knudsen was determined for Pontiacs to be those cars.
Under Knudsen’s direction, a new image was created for Pontiac. This was the wide track era and no cars were ever so creatively styled or aggressively marketed. Jim Wangers recalls: “Wide track became a symbol for the new phase of Pontiac.” A big part of Pontiac’s problem was its low performance engines. Knudsen had a fix for that, too. He created a task force of young engineers and sent them on a mission to put more punch into Pontiac’s engine In less than five years, they had more than doubled their horse power and had also created a catalog full of brute strength drive line parts to handle this extra power. Some of these parts never made it to the production line and weren’t listed in any salesman’s book. You have to be one of a very select group of racers to even know about them. Yet, they became some of the most famous high performance parts ever made. Today, the cars from this era are remembered by the name given to this engine development program: Super Duty.
How these magnificent cars propelled Pontiac from near extinction to the #3 selling auto in America is an amazing success story. With the clock ticking on Pontiac’s future, Bunkie hit the ground running. He knew Pontiac was long overdue for a complete makeover. But, thanks to GM’s styling cycles, Knudsen couldn’t change body styles for at least two years. He could have an immediate impact on performance, though. His goal was to squeeze 100 more horse power out of Pontiac’s new little V8 engine. Pontiac had entered the modern V8 era for the first time in 1955 with a 287 cubic inch engine which made 180 horse power. By 1957, this engine had been bored and stroked with 347 cubic inches and horse power had increased to 270. There was also a special 10.25 to 1 compression version, which made an amazing 315 horse power. With this engine, the ’57 Pontiacs were over three seconds faster 0 to 60 than the ’55 models. Pontiac’s engine development program started by re-designing the cylinder heads for improved breathing. A key figure in this effort was the legendary Mac McKellar. “The goal was to make it breathe and in 1957, by the time that Bunkie Knudsen came, that program was ready and it really helped turn ’57 into one of the hottest street cars on the road at that time.”
Loaded with new horse power, Knudsen now wanted to win a few races. For help, he called on some famous names in the racing business like Ray Nickels. Some of these people were a bit skeptical. Explains Jim Wangers: “He got ahold of Smokey one day and he said, ‘Smokey, we’re going to go racing.’ Smokey supposedly said, ‘What are you going to race with?’ He says, ‘Well, a Pontiac, of course.’ At this point, Smokey chuckled.”
The chuckles didn’t last long, however. When the Pontiac showed up at the 1957 Daytona speed race, they scored overwhelming victories in the flying mile competition and the big grand national stock car race. How these stock Pontiacs got so fast in a short time was a mystery to everyone but Bunkie and his engineers. For the Daytona race, they tooled up a special Nascar version of the 347, sporting triple Rochester two barrel carburetors and a few other stock parts. Jim Wangers says: “They selected a lot of outside manufacturers After market manufacturers. To build special parts for these Pontiac engines and then if they had the proper parts developed, they’d slap a Pontiac part number on it and you could get it out of the parts department at your local Pontiac dealer.”
Pontiac didn’t have to rely on outside sources for long. Knudsen’s engine lab was coming up to speed. And by 1958, there was a whole shelf full of high horse power parts available to the car buyer. The block was punched out again. This time to 370 cubic inches. Tri power carburetion was a $94 option and also included special 10.5 compression cylinder heads and a high lift cam shaft to make 300 horse power at 4600 RPM. The next step up was a big one. For $500 you could get the new Rochester fuel injection set up, which used the same heads and cam shaft and made 310 horse power. The top of the line racing goodies were called the trophy 390 A package. In addition to special heads and cam shaft, the package included low restriction exhaust manifolds and a Rochester four barrel carburetor. It cranked out 330 horse power at 5200 RPM and was bargain priced at $320.
Pontiac repeated its success at Daytona in 1958. It was becoming a pretty exciting car. But the country was in a recession and car sales were down everywhere. The sales slump hit Pontiac and Bunkie Knudsen especially hard. Describes Jim Wangers: “1958 was the all time low sales year for Pontiac in modern history. They sold a little over 240,000 cars as a division, which was incredible. And, of course, it was very bothersome for Mr. Knudson because his 5 year period was rapidly coming to an end.” But waiting in the wings were some truly eye catching cars. The 59s. They helped Pontiac get on the road to recovery.
1959 was a milestone year for Pontiac styling. If you liked big cars with fins, that is. Along with a nice set of tail fins, the designers gave Pontiac two styling elements that have become synonymous with Pontiac: its split grill and the wide track stance. Jim Wangers explains: “Contrary to a lot of people who would like to think wide track was not an engineering development. It was not conceived to make the car a better handler, a better balance, a better ride. It was purely a styling exercise.” Even with wide track styling, performance continued to be the key word in Knudsen’s makeover strategy. The engine lab punched out Pontiac’s power plant again in 1959, this time to 389 cubic inches. The hottest version now made 345 horse power, an astonishing 112 horse power gain in just three years. By now, the Super Duty engine program was on a huge roll with car builders like Smokey and drivers like Fireball Roberts, Pontiacs thundered to victory at race after race.
In February, stock car racing entered the big leagues. The 1959 Daytona 500 would be the first race on Nascar’s new state of the art high bank track. Qualifying speeds were averaging over 135 mph. But the Pontiacs were capable of running at least 10 mph faster than this. Despite its obvious speed advantage, Pontiac didn’t win the Daytona 500 this year. But 100,000 race fans saw a sight they would never forget: Pontiacs running rings around Ford, Chevy, and CHY. For Bunkie Knudsen and his engine wizards, it was the reward they’d been waiting for. Says Mac McKellar: “I can remember watching one of the first 25 mile races on television. I guess that was the first one that was televised and my stuff on those engines so that was quite a thrill.” Almost 400,000 Pontiacs sold in 1959. Thanks to fresh styling, awesome power, and a full bore marketing push, which re-defined Pontiac as young America’s performance car. Even though the production line Pontiacs didn’t have all the Super Duty parts, the ad guys made sure you knew those cars were powered by the same engine you could get in a Bonneville. (Sort of.)
Jim Wangers explains: “The term Super Duty, believe it or not, never got used in advertising. You’d use the term like a specially equipped with special performance options and so on but never used the term Super Duty. That was strictly an internal term.” By now, super duty parts were finding their way onto the streets and the drag strips. Jim Wangers thought getting Pontiac involved in drag racing was a great marketing idea. “I was able to convince the Super Duty guys that they should start to take some of these parts, make them available to the drag racers, because stock car drag racing was really coming into its own.” Wangers even got into the act himself. He helped build a factory super stock racing team at a Detroit dealership called Royal Pontiac. With Wangers driving, Royal’s Hot Chief Catalina won the stock eliminator class at the 1960 US nationals.
Being Out Front is Fun!
Going into 1961, Pontiac had momentum. Being out front was fun. And the only thing more fun was having a bigger lead. The era of the fins was over. The 1961 Pontiacs were smaller and almost 400 pounds lighter than the ’60 models with a complete body restyle which brought back the split grill front end look. Absolutely no trace of Pontiac’s dull and boring image remained. During the past three years, the stylists had poured luxury into this car until it rivaled Buick and Cadillac for beauty and comfort. Pontiac’s interiors now featured leather trim upholstery, a fully instrumented dash, and a full sheet of luxury options. Power brakes were available for $43, six way power seats for $97, power windows for $104 and the magic automatic headlight dimmer for $43. Air conditioning set you back a heavy $430 but you could save big on cruise control for just $16.
But even though the cars were becoming luxurious, Knudsen continued to dance with the ones that brought him to the party: those powerful engines. After five years of R&D, Pontiac’s engineers delivered the magic bullet that Knudsen had been waiting for: the 421 Super Duty engine. This was the crown jewel of the Super Duty program and it was a no holds barred racing engine. With a forged steel crank and rods and a McKellar solid lifter cam, special 13 to 1 compression cylinder heads and two Carter AFB four barrels on a special aluminum intake manifold, this barn burner was rated at 435 horse power.
The little motor that had started life as a 287 inch boat anchor was now the meanest engine in the auto industry. In the fifth year of Knudsen’s five year plan it had all come together. Pontiacs won 21 of the 51 grand national events that year and the factor drag racing teams were dominant. Sales were up and by 1962, there was no more talk from the GM brass about closing Pontiac down. Now for the first time, Super Duty engine parts were coming out of the closet. Literally everything from the fan to the fly wheel had been re-designed for high performance. Now, having a race winning Pontiac was just a matter of choosing the right combination of factory parts. The Super Duty drag racers had another speed secret in 1962: lighter cars.
Pontiac had everything going its way on the stock car tracks in 1962, even adding a young Roger Penske to their super team. Out on the drag strip, though, Pontiac was caught up in some furious competition. The new Super Stock was aluminum. “We had a handicap because we were heavier,” Remembers Jim Wangers, “And so, we really ought to do something about cutting the weight out of this car. So, we came out of the original idea of building aluminum parts!” Just about everything forward of the firewall could be replaced with aluminum, all with Pontiac factory part numbers of course. Racer Bill Blaire has restored several aluminum nose factory race cars He has to be careful of the thin metal, even while working on them. “You could bend them things with spark plugs and you had to reach up under and push the fenders back out.”
By now, of course, thanks to Pontiac’s drag strip success, the Super Duty cat was clearly out of the bad, which meant with enough money and the right part numbers, you could have your very own 421 SD Catalina if you didn’t mind getting it in kit form. “You could go to the dealer and order out a Super Duty car,” says Jim Wangers, “You got the car built with Pontiac’s highest production engine, highest performing production engine. Then you proceeded to buy the parts over the parts counter: the block, the crank, the rods, the pistons, the intake manifolds, the exhaust manifold, the valves, everything! And literally assembled it on your own.”
Going into 1963, the trend toward lighter cars continued. But there wasn’t a part on the car that hadn’t been lightened except the frame. Enter some truly incredible cars: the Swiss Cheese Pontiacs. Drilling a few hundred large holes in your cars chassis might not sounds like a good idea to the average car owner, but it was a great way to go faster. Every pound saved made the car quicker and that’s all that counted. But the most awesome Super Duty car ever built is the 1963 421 Super Duty Tempest Thirteen of these cars were built with aluminum front ends and a special trans axle called the lower shift transmission. These little Tempests could run the low 10s at almost 140 MPH. But you had to know how to drive them. “You’d come out by the car length and you’d feel the car take ahold and you’d go ahead and slide open and from then all you did was pull the levers.”
GM Kills the Super Duty
The Super Tempest was the last blast of all that racing technology from the Super Duty group, which was about to receive a surprise from management. Says Jim Wangers: “A little less than three months later, GM dropped a bomb on all their divisions and on the entire racing community and informed everybody they were actively withdrawing from any participation in motor sports.” With this decision, Pontiac’s Super Duty program ceased to exist overnight. But, thanks to the momentum from the Super Duty cars, two wonderful things happened. The first, of course, is that Pontiac survived. The other is the car which picked up the excitement of the Super Duty cars and took it to the streets: the ’64 GTO. “They forced Pontiac to take their performance off the track and put it on the street.” Explains Jim Wangers.
By the time the first GTO rolled onto the streets, Knudsen had left Pontiac to become the president of GM. But Pontiac lovers everywhere will tell you that Super Duty still lives. It’s apart of Pontiac’s heritage, just like wide track. Knudsen’s six years at Pontiac did more than rescue the division. It gave them a corporate mission they still pursue today: excitement.