Auto-Biography: How I Came To Be A Professional Pre-Production Test Driver For The Pontiac Iron Duke Engine Program

I was never big on cigars, though

(first posted 10/26/2011)  In a recent Nova CC, I lamented the fact that I’d never had the pleasure of a direct encounter with a four cylinder Chevy II or Nova. GM must have known about my distress, and in their typical caring way, arranged for me to be a professional pre-production test driver of their soon-to-appear 1977 Iron Duke 151 four cylinder engine. The purpose of the program was to ensure the Iron Duke’s durability in an environment where it would accumulate miles as quickly as possible under the most extreme stresses conceivable. In other word: try to kill it. No wonder they chose me.

In the summer of 1976, I moved to San Diego, and became a taxi driver for Yellow Cab. It was still an old-school taxi company, where they owned and serviced the whole fleet, and drivers were actual employees, not independent contractors like in modern times. And it was also on its last legs, which explained the fact that its fleet consisted of big Chevy Biscaynes, the oldest (mine, naturally) being a 1970 six with probably a million miles on it or more. The newest ones were ’73s, with V8s, and even they were now some four years old. As the youngest driver, I naturally got the oldest cab, a truly venerable pile, with manual steering, Powerglide and unassisted drum brakes.

One day that August I pulled into the big open-air shop/garage after a shift, and I saw a very strange sight indeed: a yellow compact sedan that looked like a Nova from a distance, and a bunch of drivers were standing around it, looking in its engine compartment. I parked and walked over. So they were going to buy new cars finally, but Novas? Never seen them used as taxis, what with their rather modest rear seat legroom.

When I walked up to it, I realized this was no Nova, but its Pontiac clone, a Ventura (CC here). Hmm; downright odd, actually. I worked my way through the gawkers to the open hood, wondering what could possibly be so interesting about the inevitable Chevy six. Holy cutting torch! There was a blue four cylinder sitting in there, looking rather lost in the very ample engine bay of the Ventura, and obviously embarrassed by all the attention. This totally threw me for a loop.

I was Professor Knowitall, but had absolutely no clue about this four cylinder engine coming down the pike. One of the guys explained that it was Pontiac’s new four, set to debut in a few months for the 1977 model year. And GM had sent two of them (in 1976 bodies) our way for a real-world durability test. So how do I get my hands on one of them?

My day came sooner than I might have hoped for. I took my old ’70 Biscayne out one morning, and just a few blocks from the garage, I had to hit the brakes just wee bit harder than average. Like a horse tripping on the racetrack, the Chevy’s left front corner dropped down, and we stopped abruptly, as metal hit the pavement. The whole front wheel assembly had sheared off from the tired ball joints. Suddenly I’m remembering the blast up I-5 at ninety-five mph to LaJolla the day before. And all the other wide open runs…and here I had been going all of 30 mph.

Well, it was convenient, as I just walked back to the garage. And lucky timing too, because one of the Venturas was in for a check-up, and I hung around and nabbed it from the mechanic’s hands as soon as he finished with it. Time for him to get back to rebuilding tired and smoking Chevy sixes with 300k miles on them, for the second or third time around.

It was odd to hear (and feel) the distinct throb of a big four under that long hood.  Now my expectations weren’t exactly high, given what I was used too. I dropped it into gear, and…ok, somebody raise the anchor! The Iron Duke wheezed, grunted and growled, but it all didn’t exactly amount to much. In fact, it was slower than my now-dead ’70 Biscayne six, despite the fact that Pontiac had a three-speed THM tranny.

The original version of the Iron Duke was rated at 84 (net) hp, at all of 4000 rpm. The 1976 Ventura is listed in the Encyclopedia of American Cars as weighing 3200 lbs. That makes 38lbs/hp.  The 1970 Chevy 250 six was rated at 155 gross hp, or about 115-120 net hp. The Biscayne was listed at 3600 lbs. That makes about 30lbs/hp, and explains why the Ventura was such a dog, especially at higher speeds. Its power-to-eight ratio was worse than the typical American car of the thirties. Now that’s progress.

Call me insane, but I often hit or exceeded 90 in the Biscayne six (without a fare in the back seat) on the freeway, weaving in and out of traffic. The Ventura struggled to pin its 85 mph speedometer, if the run was long enough. And the noises…

The whole experience was particularly frustrating, because the Ventura handled superbly, just like a Firebird, with which it shared much of its platform. The 1975-up X-Body Nova and its clones were undoubtedly the best handling of their class, and among the best Detroit had to offer anywhere. With its quick power steering, disc brakes, and surprisingly flat and precise cornering, the Ventura would have been a joy in my youthful fingers, except for the Iron Duke. Unfortunately, nobody from GM asked my opinion.

Just a year earlier, when I was a transit bus driver in Iowa City, we had a newish ’75 Nova sedan with the 250 six for ferrying drivers between the garage and the downtown station. I had driven it a few times, and it was the best six cylinder American sedan I had ever driven, by a big margin. What a contrast from the tippy Falcons and Chevy IIs from the sixties.

They didn’t bother to fix my old ’70, it was so utterly worn out. So I was upgraded to a ’71 Biscayne, also with a six and Powerglide, and even power steering! It was decidedly mushier than the ’70, and compared to my brief encounter with the Ventura, it felt like driving a not-quite set-up Jello salad full of nuts and bolts, and about to break apart any second. Like all of my hundreds of careers, this one also (mercifully) came to an end quite soon too. But I gave it my best, especially in pushing the Iron Duke hard. And it survived, and went on to grace millions of Americans with its refined and powerful manners for decades to come. I’m so proud to have played a small part in proving that it could stand up to endless abuse. And gratified to know that I was being paid for my only wheel time ever behind an Iron Duke. Everyone else who paid good money for one (specially Camaro and Firebird owners) should have been so lucky.