The Buick-Olds-Pontiac “senior compacts” all shared a body that looked way too much the same, not unlike the problem GM had with their look-alike cars in the ’80s. But the Tempest, F-85 and Special offered very different drive trains under the hood: A four, a six and an eight, as well as three totally-different automatic transmissions. And the Tempest even had a rear transaxle and IRS. Lots of choices.
Car Life drove all three versions, to determine their respective pros and cons.
As with its V8s at the time, Pontiac offered no less than five flavors of its Trophy Four in the Tempest. The version tested was the mid range, with 140 hp, a high 10.25:1 compression ratio, and a one-barrel carb, a version only available with the automatic, which was a variant of the Corvair’s Powerglide in the rear transaxle. That’s seems a bit odd, even offering a high-compression version short of the four-barrel 166 hp job that was also optional. The Buick aluminum V8 was also available, but very rarely ordered, as it was quite pricey, due to Buick charging Pontiac so much for it.
CL notes that the high compression did no favors in reducing the noise level of the big (194.5 cubic inch; essentially half of the 389 V8) four; the low compression ratio version was noted to be smoother. But despite the challenges, CL felt that Pontiac had done a good job of “taming four big husky cylinders“. It was possible to tell that a four was idling when standing outside, but “there’s no objectionable shake under 99% of driving conditions, particularly with the automatic, but full throttle acceleration shows a slight 4-cyyl. roughness“. CL says they could only be sure which was the four by getting in and out of all three cars.
CL did recommend that Tempest buyers spring for the automatic, as it went some distance to mask the roughness of the four.
CL notes that folks had been predicting bad things for the Tempest’s unique curved drive shaft (“rope drive”), but so far, reliability issues had not appeared. The benefit of a flat front floor were appreciated.
The biggest selling point of the Tempest was its 53.5/46.5 F/R weight balance, thanks to its rear transaxle, although the F-85 and Skylark had almost the same, with a 54/46 F/R distribution. The Tempest’s handling was a strength, especially on mountain roads. But of course its rear swing axles could be tricky at the limit, one which the great majority of Tempest drivers were not likely to ever experience. The very slow steering (6.2 turns) was only compensated by the lack of front end plowing.
The Buick’s V6 was new in 1962, a hasty development of its 215 inch aluminum V8. The 90 degree V6 “is smoother than the Tempest—in fact, there’s more difference between this six and the four than between the six and the eight.” The Buick V6 and Tempest four had almost identical hp and torque ratings, and their performance up to 50 mph was essentially the same, but above that speed, the Buick had the advantage. This was attributed largely to the “Dual Path” automatic, a unique unit made only for the Special from 1961-1963; it was nominally a 2-speed torque converter unit, but due to its relatively high first gear (augmented by the torque converter), the upshift to second didn’t come until 63 mph under full-throttle, thus it felt quite sprightly and yielded a 14.8 sec. 0-60 time almost as good as the more powerful V8 F-85 (14.0). (The Tempest took 15.9 seconds). CL went as far as to say that the Buick automatic “is as good as any 3-speed we’ve tried”. Even the Torqueflite?
There’s a separate section on the basics of engine design, which highlights some of the key pros and cons of each of the ones used in these three engines as well as the inline six, which inherently has perfect balance, but its length and weight were factors in these cars. The most ambitious solution, the 215 aluminum V8, had its share of cons too, including cost and issues related to the use of aluminum in the cooling system.
The Tempest 4 was a quick and dirty solution; it would have taken a balance shaft to make it more palatable. The Buick V6 was clearly the best compromise, despite some minor issues with its uneven firing order. If I’d had been king, I’d have had a single 60 degree V6 engine developed specifically for all three of these cars, or at least two of them. But that would have required unique engine machining transfer lines.
The F-85 obviously had the most powerful (155 hp) and smoothest engine, but its Roto-Hydramatic hobbled it with slow shifts, resulting in performance times that were barely better than the 135 hp Buick V6.
As to handling, the Special and F-85 both suffered from excessively soft suspensions and strong understeer. Brakes on all three were similar, meaning signs of fade in the first full-on braking from 80 mph, and bad fade on the second attempt.
The one disadvantage of these unibody cars was the transmission of road noise, especially on certain kinds of pavement. This was of course the primary reason GM went to a perimeter frame for the replacement A-Bodies in 1964, as it allowed for better isolation.
CL’s recommendations: for maximum economy, the Tempest with a manual, preferably the 4-speed. The Buick V6 harmonized with its unique automatic particularly well, and was recommended for those wanting a self-shifter. And the Olds offered the potential for best performance, but with a manual, preferably the 4-speed. The 185 hp 4-barrel version with the 4-speed would have made for reasonably brisk compact, perhaps one with a 10 second 0-60 time.
Related CC reading:
Vintage Car Life Tech: Buick’s New V6 Engine (1962) – The Beginning Of A Very Long Life
Vintage Car Life Comparison Test: 1961 Buick Special vs. Volvo 122S – An Unfair Comparison?
You’ve a minor typo in the third-to-last paragraph: “Barkes.”
Well, My Uncle had the V6 Aluminum engine Buick special like the Article, I snuck it out at 14 years old , That car was very fast , I’d say the zero to 60 time was no worse than 7 sec , We both couldn’t believe how fast it was , Might even been faster than that , It took a block or so to hit 80 , We both remember that
Buick had a version of the aluminum V-8, very similar to the Oldsmobile. They didn’t make an aluminum V-6, it was all iron.
It’s startling how much the three-speed Hydra-Matic hobbled the Olds 215 — and this test car was a half-second quicker to 60 than the first F-85 Car Life tested! Road & Track tested 1961 Specials with both transmissions and found that the base engine Dual Path car did 0–60 in 13.2 seconds, despite the taller 3.08 axle. I would assume the testing procedures for Car Life and Road & Track were about the same at that point, and that’s a big difference for cars with basically the same power-to-weight ratio. (The Buick 215 had a 10 lb-ft edge in gross torque, but I wouldn’t expect that to produce a really significant difference in acceleration times in 2,800-pound cars.)
I’ve mentioned this before, but the second car I ever drove after my parents’ ’65 Coronet with TF was a friend’s ’62 Cutlass. I thought something was wrong with the transmission. It felt really off in comparison to the TF.
52.7″ tall! GM was stuck with giving all their cars similar proportions.
They didn’t mention a bumpy idle on the odd-firing V6.
When Kaiser owned the V6, they sold some to Outboard Marine Corporation for stern drive use (the 155). I had a customer with one, and It was smooth as silk. But then again, a fiberglass hull in water is just one big vibration damper. Also weird was the lack of GM part numbers on the castings.
That 3-speed Roto Hydramatic is another example of how good GM got at flushing money down the toilet in the early 1960s – I guess it is OK so long as you have plenty to flush, which they did. All of that engineering went into a transmission that lasted four model years (1961-64). Other than the fact that it didn’t perform all that well and that it wasn’t all that durable, it was a fine transmission. 🙂
The point of the exercise was to create a simplified, cheaper, lighter successor for the four-speed Controlled Coupling Hydra-Matic, which was big, heavy, terrifyingly complex, and very expensive to produce. So, the three-speed units achieved their goals in that regard, they were just worse in basically every single other particular.
Developing a transmission that’s noticeably inferior to both its predecessor AND its successor is really quite an achievement, in an appalling sort of way.
If you test drive many of the Roto-Hydramatics it is possible to find one that works really quite well. I drove one that performed so nice it was stunning. Having said that, in the field they have a high failure rate, and most of them even in working condition operate poorly. I think it was a case of some innovative engineering that didn’t work well. The fluid coupling being very small and located inside the transmission case was a big problem. I imagine that Oldsmobile and GM were working on the Turbo Hydramatic 400 as early as 1961 after realizing the shortcomings of the Roto.
@Duane: The three-speed Hydra-Matic was a direct evolution of the four-speed Controlled Coupling Hydra-Matic, developed by the same people to try to take some of the complexity and cost out of the four-speed unit. There weren’t really any innovative new features — the dump-and-fill coupling came out of the four-speed, although the three-speed used it somewhat differently — it was basically, “What can we take out of this thing to slim it down and make it cheaper to build?” The four-speed worked better, but the final iterations weighed literally twice as much as the three-speed and were enormously complex.
Both the dual-coupling four-speed and single-coupling three-speed Hydra-Matic only really make sense as evolutions of the original ’40s Hydra-Matic. Neither was anything a sober engineer was likely to come up with given a clean sheet of paper, and ultimately the greatest success of the three-speed units (if one may call it that) was to finally convince Detroit Transmission/Hydra-Matic Division that the original 1940 design concepts had reached the end of the line. So, the TH400 went a completely different direction and produced arguably the finest contemporary application of the Simpson gearset layout, which was vastly less eccentric than its GM predecessors.
Was this the same Roto-Hydramatic used in the 1961-64 Oldsmobiles and some full-size Pontiacs of those years? I was a member of the Oldsmobile Club of America (OCA) in the 1990s, and member stories of those full-size Oldsmobiles were invariably the same – first sign of transmission trouble at around 60,000 miles, followed by a “repair,” which was then followed by a complete failure about 10,000 miles later.
It seemed as though these 1961-63 GM senior compacts had virtually disappeared from the road by the early 1970s in our small town. It was still possible to see some Falcons, Fairlanes, Comets and Mopar A-bodies from this era in daily use.
Yes, essentially, but AUWM has said that the version in the large cars was a bit different to handle the higher torque of the big V8s.
It was a flawed design, in more ways than one.
The F-85 used a slimmed down version of the Roto, both worked similarly, but different units. They spent a ton of money on those transmissions, then only got 3 =-4 years use out of them. The Buick Special used the 2 speed “Dual Path”, air cooled, completely different from the Roto. Those seem to hold up well, they’ll hum and whine, but seem to keep working. I think the developement and manufacture of those transmissions was a learning experience for GM. Consider the next GM automatic design, the Turbo Hydramatic 400, a superb transmission. That transmission continued clear into the computer age in the 90’s as the 4L60E and 4L80E, electronically computer controlled.
I think you’re right concerning life span. The engines would go out due to the lubrication, or aluminum corrosion. The Tempest driveshafts broke. The automatics went out. When these cars were 10 years old parts started to be scarce, front suspension and steering parts became unavailable. That hurt too. The v-8 215 went on to a very long successful life with Rover, but they extensively revised the engine over time. The Buick V6 was junk clear up into the 80’s because of the oiling system, but after Buick went to a internal rotary oil pump, the engine became bullet proof, and lived a long life as the 3800, famous in thousands of GM cars.
A friend of mine had an early 1980s Cutlass Supreme coupe with the Buick V-6. He had some transmission trouble, which he had repaired. Soon after that, the V-6 died on him.
@Geeber: There were two versions of the three-speed Hydra-Matic: The F-85 got the light-duty Model 5, which was also foisted on Vauxhall, Opel, and Holden for their biggest models, and the Model 10, which was used in full-size Oldsmobile and some Pontiac models. Functionally, the main difference is that the smaller unit used a brake band only while the bigger model had both a band brake (used only in Low and S) and a sprag clutch (used in Drive), plus a neutral clutch to allow the sprag clutch to freewheel in neutral and reverse. The bigger unit was a bit heavier, had a higher input torque capacity, and had fractionally different gear ratios.
What made both units so peculiar was that their shift action required emptying the fluid coupling on the 1–2 and refilling it for the 2–3; in second gear, the coupling was empty and power was transmitted entirely mechanically. Because the coupling was itty-bitty (8 inches in diameter), its charging pressure was very high — about four times as much as the front coupling on a four-speed Hydra-Matic, to increase its torque capacity.
The three-speed Hydra-Matic was not an Oldsmobile design; it came out of Detroit Transmission Division, which made all the various Hydra-Matic transmissions (and was renamed “Hydra-Matic Division” in 1963). It was an evolution of the dual-coupling four-speed unit
You bring back memories that I hadn’t thought of for a long time! I really thought Olds designed the Roto, they certainly talked like they did, and they were so proud of it, that it went in the big 98’s. Pontiac stuck with the dual coupling for their larger cars. Your observations are accurate. A big clue is a review of the 1961 Oldsmobile service bulletins. Problems with the Roto-Hydramatic were front and center. The innovative engineering, I was referring to was how they managed to make the slim jim with all the short comings work as well as it did.
Had another thought, didn’t the Detroit Transmission guys have a lot of egg on their face? Who got fired or demoted?
Probably nobody, certainly not Walter B. Herndon, the engineering director and the one who’s listed as the lead inventor on the applicable patents and the author of the SAE papers on them. (Herndon, who was part of Earl Thompson’s original team developing what became Hydra-Matic, was a co-winner of the Elmer A. Sperry Award for 1963, and I think remained with Hydra-Matic Division until he retired, probably sometime in the early seventies.)
Herndon, a name. He probably realized that his baby had issues. My attempt to poke fun at some of these guys. Reading automotive history there’s never a mention of repercussions for unlucky designs, the copper cooled Chevies, the Vega engine, the Edsel, Hudson building the Jet that no one wanted, the Chevy V-8 motor mounts, etc. It would take some industry insiders to reveal, do they all kiss and make up, decide to move on, ignore, or in some way find a punishment? Fascinating all the same
I have a hard time seeing people actually getting fired over engineering problems. I’m sure there were examples of it, but if it were the norm, nothing would have gotten done. Automotive engineering was a constantly moving target: Designers and engineers were always working several years ahead, teething problems were expected, there were constant running changes even to engineering systems we would think of as unexceptional and fairly static, and when big problems cropped up, there was usually a lot of blame to go around.
To the latter point, there was also often a divide between the automotive divisions and the supplier divisions. The latter weren’t paying for the warranty claims of their customers, but WERE on the hook for the cost of engineering changes to their products. There are various documented cases where one of the automotive divisions was urging the suppliers to make changes that the latter didn’t want to pay for, resulting in impasses. I don’t know to what extent that sort of thing factored into the issues with the three-speed Hydra-Matic, but that KIND of thing was not necessarily uncommon, and was an inevitable result of treating each division as a profit center with its own P&L sheets to account for.
The most logical answer. I can see where nothing would ever get done if everyone was afraid to try something new. And if the something new wasn’t perfect, playing the blame game would inhibit anyone from trying something new!! One mystery, why would Buick stay with a terrible lubrication system for over 20 years? I know the tooling, etc costs money, but really, 20 years? In contrast to Buick, Oldsmobile went to work within two years to redesign their diesel engine, going as far as recasting the engine block.
After the passage of time we know that the V-8 suffered from the bad lubrication system of the oil pump hanging on the front timing cover, the difficulty of pulling oil from way back from the bottom of the oil pan, and the tendency of the pump to lose it’s prime if the engine sits idle for a while. All Buick V-8’s suffered from this defect and the V-6. The Tempest drive shaft isn’t durable, I had two and both had broke shafts. The local wrecking yard north of town had many Tempests, all of their driveshafts were missing.
On the one hand, it is nice that there was a time when GM tried new things and built cars that weren’t all the same under the badges. On the other hand, it isn’t so nice that they have only ever done a couple of things really well.
Each and every car company has had it’s lists of good or bad. Would take too long to compile the lists now. GM isn’t any worse than all the others. Of the big 3.
Not to be pedantic, but not ALL Buick V8s had the oil pump in the timing cover – the Nailhead’s oil pump is mounted in a more traditional location “in” the oil pan.
No, very true, and the Nail Head, dating from 1953 was always a good engine. The Buick V-8’s with the timing cover pump were the 215, 300, 340, 350, 400, 455. If you drive them almost daily, they’re better. But park it a few weeks, and the oil runs out of the pump and the prime is gone. On start up, often there would be no oil pressure. Buick shop manuals have the procedure to prime the pump, disassembly and pack with petroleum jelly. Even engine operated often, if you notice the oil gauge or trouble light, there’s a significant lag before oil pressure is apparent. Engineering says that the spur gear pumps are excellent at pushing the oil, but terrible with drawing the oil into the pump.
You’re exactly right. I have a Skylark with a 300, and I have to be very careful about oil filter brands because there will be a five-or-six-second moratorium on oil pressure if I choose the wrong one. Even on the best day, it’s two seconds to show oil pressure on the gauge. I did, however, rebuild and shim the oil pump about 10,000 miles ago, and hot idle oil pressure has always been decent (over 20 psi except on the hottest day after a freeway run – then it’s 17). I’ve driven it over 40,000 miles now since I bought it 20 years ago.
You’re doing real well. I’ve actually bought GM vehicles with these engines from the local oil change business that after an oil change and new filter, the oil pressure was gone since the pump lost it’s prime during the procedure. They could have returned the pump to working of course with the disassembly and packing with petroleum jelly. I had a junk car business.
I don’t think I’ve ever driven any of these, but my memories of early- and mid-sixties American cars without power steering are dominated by the slow steering ratios. I think the real benefit of power steering wasn’t so much the reduced force needed to turn the wheel, but the reduced work (work = force times distance) expended to actually drive a car like this in town or on a windy road. The even greater lack of road feel with early P/S was a smallish price to pay. The Volvo 122S I learned to drive on had a 15:1 steering ratio, 3.5 turns lock to lock for a 32 foot turning circle … and it wasn’t that much lighter.
It might be worth crediting at least the authors of the article and citing the date of the issue.
The authors aren’t credited in the original article; that was very common by reviews done by a magazine’s staff. And the date (December 1961) is very clearly shown on the bottom of the pages.
You think I would purposely cut out the author’s name(s)? The whole article as printed was scanned and reposted here.
I read that at one time Oldsmobile was working on a small displacement iron 60 degree V-6 that would have been ideal for these cars. Seems that Olds had also given thought to making the F-85 front wheel drive early on in development, but due to cost considerations decided instead to introduce front wheel drive on an expensive ‘flagship’ car.
Oldsmobile’s early FWD experiments actually began in 1960, just a few months before the F-85 went into production, so even if Olds management and the corporation had decided to proceed with FWD for the compact line, it probably wouldn’t have been until the second generation. (The early FWD mules were extremely crude, using TWO chain drives to transfer power to the differential, and weighed about 600 pounds more than the production F-85, so they were a long way from production-ready.)
These were attractive cars with flaws at a time when their competition was less attractive, but more durable. I can better understand the success of the Mercury Comet now. The Falcon was a dull, dependable, slow car – so the Comet piggy-backed off of that while providing nicer touches and a bit more speed. It is a bit disappointing that the best compact of them all – the Valiant/Lancer – was so ugly and that Chrysler didn’t want to sell a well-sorted-out version of it because of its unearned hubris.
My dad had a Tempest, and it wasn’t around long enough for me to remember beyond being a nice shade of blue, too small for a family of seven, and my sister repeatedly throwing up in it. It was replaced by a very nice Oldsmobile Dynamic 88.
In GM fashion they started to get these perfected in 63… the last year of production before the conventional A bodies replaced them. Much more distinguished styling between divisions, and the 326 became available in the Pontiac.
My Grandpa convinced my Uncle, his son in law, to get a new Buick in ’61. But, could only afford the Special. And it had the issues described above, and cost more $ to fix since “it’s a Buick”. Well, after 4 years, traded it in on a new ’65 Plymouth Fury III. Then more Mopars after. Though had their issues, just cheaper to fix.
These were not inexpensive cars. The Pontiac was the cheapest at $2240 which was hundreds of dollars (thousands of dollars in today’s money) more expensive than, say, a Rambler American or VW bug in 1962. I’m guessing that B-O-P buyers looked at the price and just bought strippo full sized models instead for probably little or no more money.
The price and performance, or lack explains my parent’s decision to buy a 64 Valiant as their first new car. A slant 6 and Torqueflite got around just fine. Of the bunch a V8 Tempest with 4 speed sounds the most interesting.
I don’t think the four-speed was available with the V-8. It definitely wasn’t available with the bigger iron V-8 in ’63, as the engine exceeded its input torque capacity. (It was probably really straining the torque capacity of the three-speed as well; the automatic was better able to handle it.)
I had a 1962 Buick Skylark special it had a 217 V8 motor with a four-barrel on it now this special was smaller than your regular skylarks that you’re right about. Wish you good luck in the future.
The Y bodies are historically important as being the end of the road for the Sloan model of highly independent divisions within GM competing against each other on innovation and market share, and this article is illustrative as to how that happened. Having multiple divisions selling smaller cars at a lower price point than their full size lines with so much separate engineering investment can’t have made much economic sense, even if the usual body savings of the Sloan model of sharing inner structure and roofs across divisions was taken to a higher level by sharing outer door skins.
But the answer of the Donner era of forcing the divisions to collaborate on common platforms with common basic parts other than engines (’64 A and ’65 B&C) itself turned out to be sowing the seeds of GM’s ultimate demise — with the high overhead of multiple divisions and inability to effectively differentiate product among them in the absence of unique engineering.
So in a way the Y bodies are a swan song for the old GM.
In that regard, it’s also notable that the corporation WANTED the Y-body cars to be mechanically similar, with the divisions sharing engineering responsibilities, but the divisions kicked and screamed and held their breath. So, as it turned out, a lot of small stuff was shared and big stuff was not.
Always wondered where Bob Dylan got the idea for “From a Buick 6” off the LP Highway 61 Revisited.
Cuz Buicks were never sixes up until….
I see the magazine article, and perhaps Dylan had some time on the plane to read.
Buick did have sixes through about 1930.