COAL: 1961 Pontiac Laurentian – From Field to Mountains (and back?)

(This car is likely well known on the site but I thought I would give it the COAL treatment regardless)

I had just sold a MG B roadster which did not get as much use as I expected over the summer. Reflecting on this I determined it did not have enough seats for the family and that dramatically cut back on the times I could use it. What I needed was a more family friendly classic and a cheap one that could be used in the next Great Beater Challenge. Enter the 1961 Pontiac Laurentian.

After a few misfires I responded to an ad for a classic four door Pontiac that was located in a very rural area, which often depresses selling prices. The seller had a large number of other classic cars and I got the impression he was able to source vehicles from other rural spots and flip them. This one had been for sale a while and he had just lowered the price. Not wanting a rust bucket, the inspection started with the usual rust traps. The trunk, rockers and floors are common trouble spots on almost any old car but the Pontiac was incredibly solid with just a touch of rust in the rear wheel arches. The car had all the signs of being a dry prairie survivor.

The interior was brittle but complete and as a bonus even included an original owner’s manual.

The six cylinder engine easily started although it ran off a bottle of fuel (a whiskey bottle visible behind the thermostat housing) rather than the gas tank. The seller mentioned that the water pump had a bad bearing and one could indeed feel the free play in the bearing. The car wore stock partial hub caps on one side and Impala SS covers on the other.

The seller wanted an extra two hundred for the Impala caps which I declined actually preferring the stock chrome units.

Quite a few of the yard vehicles had more potential value than the Pontiac but would also require more work to get back on the road. I was looking for a straightforward project this time around so a deal was struck for the big Pontiac. And yes there are three pedals present in the driver’s footwell.

To understand this Pontiac we need a little background on the Canadian market and GM at the time. The Canadian market is only about ten percent of the size of the U.S. market and thus a full line of Pontiacs could not be justified. At the same time standalone dealerships for marques in GM’s portfolio were not possible especially in the less densely populated areas of Canada. So GM organized its dealer lines into Chevrolet/Oldsmobile/Cadillac and Pontiac/Buick/GMC. As the lowest rung member Chevrolet would have received the largest volume of sales but again not every town could support a dealer of each type. To solve this issue GM attempted to equalize sales between the two dealerships streams by offering more entry level Pontiacs. A hurdle to this strategy was the steep duties levied against automotive parts and vehicles not produced in Canada at the time. Cadillac, Buick and Oldsmobile with their larger profit margins were better positioned to absorb these costs while the lower priced Pontiacs could not. The solution was to slowly increase the use of Canadian produced Chevrolet parts in these Pontiacs until they because mostly Chevrolet under the skin with styling that aped their Pontiac cousins from the south. The result was for many years Pontiac had sales numbers that approached Chevrolet’s.

For 1961 American Pontiacs got a newly designed perimeter frame while the Canadian models stuck with Chevrolet’s “X” frame. As a result the brakes, suspension, and wheels are identical to a 1961 Chevrolet Biscayne or Impala. While the base engine in a Chevrolet Biscayne would have been a 235cid straight six, the Canadian Pontiacs received a related but larger 261cid modified from light truck duty rated at 150hp. For those that required more power a 283cid Chevrolet small block V8 or 348cid V8 was optional depending on trim level. The Laurentian is the mid line model slotting in between the base Strato Chief and more plush Parisienne.

Like many of the Canadian car names the Pontiac Laurentian was named for a Canadian person or place. In this case it was the Laurentian mountain range in southern Quebec. This particular Laurentian is a fairly bare bones example with the six cylinder engine, a three speed manual transmission as well as manual brakes and steering. It certainly makes the engine bay clutter free which greatly eases the effort of maintenance and repair. I agreed on the price with the seller and we planned our return to haul it home.

Due to a trailer rental shortage I was forced to rent this massive one which was likely a reasonable choice for the big Pontiac. Once we arrived at the seller’s property with trailer in tow, we gathered up a couple extra rims that were included in the deal and prepared the car for loading.

When it came to time to load the trailer we were aided by the fact that the car ran, but hampered by the fact that the brakes were not functional. The seller offered to do the actual driving since neither Rod nor I had driven a three on the tree manual transmission before. The sheer size of the car soon became a factor as we had to supplement the trailer ramps with extra wood in a bid to improve the approach angle and avoid high centering the car.

We noticed the remains of the stock exhaust system nearby under a tree; it had been a victim of when the car had originally been unloaded from a trailer. Likely past its best regardless.

Once on the trailer, we disconnected the coil and used the starter to fine tune the car’s location on the trailer. After securely strapping it down we hit the open road.

Thankfully the drive back went smoothly although we did stop once to double check the tie downs. Before getting home it seemed like a good idea to fully clean the several decades’ worth of grime and dust that had accumulated on the car. Rather than risk taking the car off the trailer and being unable to load it again we decided to leave it on for the wash.

The hot water powered through the grime in the engine bay, making it a much more pleasant place to work in. The seller had mentioned earlier that he had started to restore the paint finish on one side of the car with metal scrubbing pads(!!). Certainly not the tool or method I would choose but it had left one side a slightly lighter color than the other. Fortunately our power wash did the same thing the metal scrubs had done but in a more gentle fashion and evened out the car’s color.

As with any old vehicle I tackle, the first step is to give it a good clean as this does a couple things for me. First 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.

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.

In a fit of enthusiasm I decided to convert the front to disc brakes and bought suspiciously cheap kit to do the job. While waiting for parts I fixed a few of the smaller items like the non-closing glovebox door and nasty arm rests. One of the unintended consequences of doing the brake conversion was that the stock rims would no longer work on the front. A set of later junkyard GM wheels with good tires were sourced.

Because the bones of this Pontiac were really Chevrolet I was able to buy front shocks cheaply for the front and rear. With some difficulty the new units were swapped in.

The disc brake conversion was a bit of long process mostly because of the rather poor instructions. Like a lot of these tasks I could do it again much easier. All new brake lines were built and installed at this time front to back.

The leaky water pump was replaced as well as all the hoses. Plenty of leak chasing following as well as replacement of one of the parts that came with the new pump. Finally the Pontiac had an effective cooling system. Fluids in the engine, gear and differential were changed as well as new plugs and wires. A few suspect looking wires were replaced as well. The brakes took several more attempts to get bleed and right which was rather frustrating.

Next up is the gas tank that was in unknown condition. It could be full of old and vanished gasoline as the car had been sitting since 1981 or so. The guy I bought it off bypassed the tank and used a whiskey bottle for fueling but that is hardly a long term solution. Interestingly the tank straps used wood as spacer. I was able to undo all the fasteners with only a brief struggle. The tank looked good and after a cleaning was re-installed with new fuel hoses.

An old car needs a Mexican blanket right?

After a bit of an ordeal with insurance and registration the first drive went successfully.

The car still needed a few things before we head off on the Beater Challenge including an exhaust. I asked for a super basic, no fills exhaust system but I suspect that shop only does top notch work as I got a beautiful exhaust. Too beautiful for the car really and way more expensive than I planned or was quoted for. A friend got the Laurentian aligned after its brake swap. A bigger issue was discovered … the steady bearing was bad. Really bad. A known weak point on these cars so I should have checked it earlier. Amazingly a local shop had the parts required. So on the very last afternoon we (again mostly he) got the driveshaft out and the steady bearing replaced as well as a u-joint. Not many photos here as it was a big time crunch.

The whole Affordable Classic series is below if you want to read in more detail:

  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
  7. Disc Brake Mounting
  8. Cooling and Fueling
  9. Back into the Brakes and Other Odds and Ends
  10. First Drive!
  11. Last Minute Fixes

Despite having no real driving time and certainly no time on the highway the Laurentian completed The Great Beater Challenge 2018 edition. Or just about. Unfortunately the engine started knocking and smoking badly right at the end. You can read on the whole challenge below.

The Teams

Day 1 Part 1

Day 1 Part 2

Day 2 Part 1

Day 2 Part 2

Since we had moved house just before the event I was no left with a car that had a broken engine that did not really fit well into the new garage. The interior was in poor shape with seriously uncomfortable seats. It still had a number of issues to resolve including the blasted brakes which did not work that well. I really, really did not want to have to dig into the brakes again. Unfortunately I had spent way too much money on it. Most of it was safety items, principally the brakes and that expensive exhaust system. I decided to move on the Laurentian had a new owner. While it was a pretty decent financial loss in car terms it was not a bad investment in terms of a family vacation and memory making. So the real point of a family classic.

Last I heard from the current owner he had put some classic Corvette Rally rims on it but was unable to source a replacement 261cid engine. His next plan was a V8 engine swap which likely means the loss of the manual transmission.

My whole COAL series so far