Curbside Classic: 1969 Pontiac Tempest Custom S – The Ex-Secretary’s Wanna-be GTO

(first posted 9/30/2011)   Nope, I haven’t found a genuine Curbside Classic GTO, yet. There was a time when GTOs in this kind of condition were plentiful, but those days are pretty much gone, even in Beaterville, Oregon. But then lowly A-Body coupes in gray primer aren’t exactly dime-a-dozen anymore, and this one is an almost perfect time capsule from say, the late seventies or early eighties. That’s when every kid who fancied himself a goat could buy a Tempest or LeMans coupe from the woman down the street, who was now married with kids and had just bought a new Olds Cutlass Supreme.

Yes, GM really dominated this segment of the market, as we’ve documented in the CC Complete Cutlass Chronicles. And although the Cutlass eventually rose to the top of the mid-sized heap, the Pontiacs acquitted themselves fairly well, thanks in large part to the huge success of the GTO. And although the GM A-Body coupes shared the same basic shell, the Pontiac’s distinctive beak made it highly unmistakable.

The GTO’s “Endura” body-colored nose gave it more street cred than ever, since one could tell it was the genuine article a block away. And the styling impact it made on the global industry is not to be underestimated. Let’s face it: the ’69 GTO’s front predicted every modern car: no chrome bumpers, and a face integrated into a soft-plastic front end. Pontiac was still at the height of its game.

Although the ’68 GTO was the high water mark in terms of sales (88k), not everyone could quite afford one.

Like this very (trying hard to be) prim and demure secretary ready to take dictation: “Yes, Mr. Niedermeyer; what can I do for you?” Take off those ridiculous fake glasses, for starters. What agency sent you anyway? Oh, right; Sterling Cooper.

When I was hard at work setting a new record for how long one could last at Loyola High School without ever doing a stitch of homework (two years), there was a fund-raising raffle each fall. The prize was a low end Tempest, a ’68 and a ’69, obviously donated by an alum who owned a Pontiac store. They even had the OHC six, which frankly was not a common sight in these cars by this time.

I always thought it was pretty tacky to raffle a stripper car; I mean if you’re going to gamble, go for the gold. Or at least a nicely equipped LeMans coupe, which was by far the best seller of the bunch. But then it undoubtedly wouldn’t have come with the OHC six, which was an engine that had a powerful thrall over me at the time. I was much happier opening the hood of the prize car, and poring over its details than facing another Latin class with old Buck (seven of them per week!).

Little did I know at the time that 1969 would be the last year for that engine. It was a short run indeed, all of four years, before nobody gave a damn about it anymore. It was of course all part of the John DeLorean years at Pontiac, when the efforts to pop out of the GM gray-flannel suit approach resulted in everything from the rear transaxle – irs 1961 Tempest, to the OHC six.

In reality, the Sprint six never did quite fit where cars were going in the late sixties, as well as the price of gas, which continued to drop in inflation-adjusted real terms, and even more so in terms of the (then) growing real wages. By 1969, sixes were strictly for the (genuinely) primmest of secretaries, or raffle-mobiles.

This shot from the 1968 brochure shows not only the last gasp effort to market the higher-performance four-barrel Sprint six, but a specific car that I have never, ever seen in the world. In fact, I didn’t know it existed: a Tempest (not LeMans) convertible with the Sprint package. Now that’s probably worth something today; much rarer than the GTO by a long shot. “The Great Impostor” indeed. I might have assumed they were referring to the GTO, but the text refers to “those low-slung, high-priced jobs from across the sea”. Seriously, who were they really targeting the Sprint to? Austin-Healey 3000 buyers?

One of the problems with the Sprint six, in its 215/230 hp four barrel form, was that it really needed the four-speed stick to function as intended, as the Pontiac two-speed automatic made a very poor companion.

I’ve allowed myself to veer off track here, by focusing on the OHC six, which our featured car obviously doesn’t have. I’d guess 90% or more of these coupes came with the 350, which in two-barrel trim was rated at 265 (gross) horsepower. That made a decent-enough performing car, in the normal sense of the times. A 330 hp four-barrel version was also available.

That made the decisions fairly easy, because if you were buying a ’69 Pontiac with the 400 CID V8, there no less than nine versions available (265, 290, 330, 345, 350, 360, 366, 370 hp). Most of those were GTO variants. What I do know is that the 265 hp two-barrel 400 in a GTO (delete option) was not a fast car. One of the seniors at Loyola had a brand new red ’68 GTO, and one day we got him to give us a ride up up-hill Chestnut Avenue, at full throttle, and I was decidedly underwhelmed. His dad had obviously done the smart but sad thing, and ordered the goat with the two-barrel. Looked good, though.

So what’s left to say about this Tempest? No much. These GM coupes had a fairly decent ride-handling compromise, for the times. Classic GM: smooth, a bit too soft, mediocre brakes unless the discs were on tap. The GM power steering was a bit better than average, unless one got really aggressive with it and it couldn’t keep up. Actually, I don’t think I ever drove one of these Pontiacs, but the 1970 Skylark I drove once or twice had a honey of a drive train. But then it had the Turbo-Hydramatic, while Pontiac was still saddling their fine motors with two-speed automatics in the smaller cars. Bad call.

CC 33 117 800

But then the secretaries wouldn’t have cared, and if you won the stripper Tempest at the Loyola raffle, you’d just give it to your son or daughter anyway. And eventually, it would end up like this one, with a GTO spoiler and some cheap mag wheels. Impostor indeed.