Automotive History: 1963 Days – Popular Science Tests the Hot Compacts

(first posted 10/16/2013, Revised and updated 8/19/2023)      We keep coming back to this topic, first with yesterday’s Comet and then today’s Falcon Sprint.  That era was indeed the beginning of a new generation of potent compact cars.  In May of 1963, Popular Science Magazine got onto this topic too and tested five of them.  In addition to the Falcon Sprint, they checked out the turbocharged Corvair Monza Spyder, the turbocharged Olds Jetfire, the Pontiac Tempest and (of course!) the supercharged Super Lark.

Alright, you are on to me – this is just another thinly disguised excuse to flail you all with the complete superiority of my favorite car of the moment, the Super Lark. If you have a few minutes, read the article.  It is a fascinating step back into time when these hot new cars were really new cars.


A couple of notes.  First, I combined two pages due to a table which was impossible to read otherwise.  Unfortunately, the way the pages lined up, the data on the right page is a line down from the label on the left page.

Second, there is a wide variety of engine types: 2 normally aspirated V8s (Falcon and Tempest), a turbo 6 (Corvair) a turbo V8 (Olds) and a supercharged V8 (Lark). I hope this is not a plot spoiler, but when looking at the results of the acceleration tests, note that the Tempest had the highest (numerical) axle ratio of all, by far, with a 3.90.  All others ranged from 3.26 to 3.55.  Pontiac Chief Engineer John DeLorean was plainly ready to race.  And one of these cars topped out at 132 mph.  Also, the car with the tallest rear axle was also the one with the lowest top speed.  Read on to see which one.

The Corvair impressed the testers most in the inexpensive heavy duty suspension option that turned the car into a real corner-carver.  Higher speed oversteer was less of a problem than before and ride was not really affected.

It was interesting that far more space was spent discussing the suspension than was spent on the turbo.  But was the description of the car’s performance as “better than adequate” damning it with faint praise?

The Falcon’s 260 V8 was hobbled by having only a 2 bbl carb.  However, the gearbox was described as “one of the best” and worked well with the engine.  The big complaint was the lack of power steering in a very front-heavy car, which reminded the testers of driving a truck.

The Oldsmobile was another car where handling seemed more interesting than the new turbocharger.  The car understeered steadily but the Borg-Warner transmission came in for praise.

The Jetfire’s turbo differed from the Corvair in providing boost all through the rev range.

The editors saved the best for last, with a shootout between the Pontiac Tempest and the Studebaker.  The Pontiac was praised for its brute force power – but provided numbers that made the reader wonder if the package was on the up-and-up.  A three speed transmission (that was not all that satisfying) would be expected to be a drag on performance.  Pontiac built a single V8 in varying displacements – it is hard to avoid asking the question if the boys at Royal Pontiac might have swapped a 389 into the car in the months before the debut of the 1964 GTO.

The Studebaker came in for a lot of praise – power, handling and ride all got good marks.  It is a good review when the biggest complaint is the way the pedals are placed.  For a company that was on the ropes and with precious little in the way of an engineering budget, the Lark acquitted itself very well.

So which one of these hot little numbers would you choose?  You probably already know my answer.