Affordable Classic: Assessment and Planning – 1961 Pontiac Laurentian

In the previous installments I managed to acquire and haul home a new project car, a four door 1961 Pontiac Laurentian. I find the research and buying phase the most fun and easy but now comes the hard work. When fixing up an old car it is usually a good idea to have an overall plan along with your end goal and intended use of the car. Once this is complete it drives the more detailed project plan of what tasks need done and parts acquired.

There are a number of legitimate end goals for an old car project. They can range from a light mechanical sorting to get to the “drivable beater” stage all the way to a body off full restoration in order to ply the car show circuit. The ultimate intended usage for the vehicle can drive where the goal should be. If a car receives a top of line concourse quality paint job and interior renovation you may find yourself reluctant using it to cruise for ice-cream on a summer Sunday. Mechanical upgrades aimed maximum horsepower at the drag strip quickly become a liability a long road trip or in daily driver mode. On the flip side shabby paint and a greasy engine might not yield the results hoped for at the local concours d’elegance.

For this project and car I am definitely not aiming for a high dollar, perfect restoration. The values of a Sixties four door sedans do not support that for one and secondly I want to put some mileage on it (yes mileage as the speedometer pre-dates Canada’s adoption of the metric system). My first goal is to have a mechanically well sorted family cruiser which dovetails nicely into my second goal which is keeping the budget tight and low. Mechanical work is almost always cheaper than quality bodywork outside of exotic cars. There is an annual event called the Great Beater Challenge that my sons and I have participated in before that I am hoping is the center piece of our summer automotive plans. Before then a few family ice-cream runs, a show and shine and perhaps even an auto-x event (purely for ironic effect) would be fantastic as well.

The general idea of the Great Beater Challenge is as follows: buy a cheap vehicle ($700 or less all in including repairs), come up with a team theme, drive it on a road trip while completing a scavenger hunt and, of course, have fun. In the previous years I have kept to very low priced but not terribly interesting rides with a Dodge Aries K-car and a wooden spoiler equipped Honda Civic. This year the plan is to have an older interesting vehicle by exploiting the rules for maximum benefit. The key to making this project work is that all safety items are exempt from the $700 total. So tires, brakes and suspension which is the lion’s share of what the Pontiac needs.

As with any old vehicle I tackle the first step is to give it a good clean as this does a couple thing for me. First it it removes any of the icky factor when working on it later. Nothing is worse than removing ultra greasy parts. The Pontiac was actually quite clean for an older, cheaper car but often the surfaces and seats can be quite gross. A second benefit is that it forces you to take a look at the details that might have been missed in the purchase inspection. On the Pontiac the rear parcel shelf has no material covering on it for example. Additionally as a third benefit you might come across parts stashed away that might otherwise have been assumed to be missing or in need of replacement. I once bought a replacement alternator (from the junkyard at least) for a Volvo 240 when a set of replacement brushes was sitting in the trunk. As Homer Simpson would say: D’oh.

While the Pontiac was reasonably clean it did need some attention under the seats and floor mats. The glove box lay permanently open as the lid latch was non-functional but it did contain various bits and pieces including a spare but disassembled latch mechanism and the missing radio knob.

There was also a similar but not identical AM radio from a 1964 model sitting near the passenger seat. I gave it a quick clean and hope to sell it mostly to cover the budget costs of a replacement water pump.

The owner’s manual was included as well. I have scanned all forty eight pages which you can view here if you wish. For further reading Old Car Brochures has a very nice Canadian 1961 Pontiac line-up brochure.


New shocks in 1977? Hard to imagine any (automotive) company naming one of their products Pleasurizer these days.

Taking an inventory of the car as a whole I figured the car needed the following at minimum:

  • New (or at least better tires). The existing ones dated at least back to 1981 when the car had last been on the road and were dry rotted. Surprisingly they all held air except one.
  • Water pump. The old one had excessive play in it.
  • Brakes. As bought they were completely non-functional with no fluid in the master cylinder. It made sense to overhaul the whole system including a new master cylinder.
  • Shocks. I had a receipt for two new shocks back in 1977 and the mileage after installation was still within warranty period but one had a minor leak. At over forty years old it made sense to replace these as well.
  • Radiator and heater hoses seemed like another reasonable age related replacement item.
  • A new thermostat is cheap insurance against overheating.
  • Any fluids – engine oil, coolant, differential oil, etc.
  • One wheel stud was also broken on the driver’s side front wheel.

The water pump replacement required a bit of research. A replacement water pump for the 261cid version of the “Stovebolt” six cylinder is not listed anywhere I could find. But for the more common and smaller 235cid version the pumps are not only available but reasonably cheap as well. After examining too many online photos and posts I strongly suspected there were one and the same part. There were two different hub heights so I had to pull my pump to verify which I was working with. It is the 5 1/4″ version for the record.

The next bit of research and decision making involved the brakes. Given that I was going to be replacing shoes, wheel cylinders, master cylinder would it make more sense to take the opportunity to convert to disc brakes? Doing some research I found an old school hot rodder’s recipe of components that work. The chance of finding an early Seventies Chevrolet Nova among others in the junkyard with usable parts seemed unlikely. Besides re-using junkyard components like pads and bearings feels like false economy. After pricing out all the components I found an online speed shop vendor that offered a whole conversion kit for less. A win for having a mechanically common classic car (it is essentially a 1961 Chevrolet under the skin). I plan to drive the Pontiac through the mountains so front discs and a dual master cylinder should give a bit more piece of mind for only modestly more outlay than overhauling the stock drums. As a bonus the brake conversion would also fix the broken wheel stud on the driver’s side front wheel.

In the next installment I will tackle a few minor jobs while waiting on parts to arrive.

The whole Affordable Classic series thus far:

  1. The Search Is On
  2. Landed One – 1961 Pontiac Laurentian
  3. Dragging It Home
  4. Assessment and Planning
  5. Little Fixes
  6. Shocks and Brake Removal