Vintage Car Life Comparison: 1962 Pontiac Tempest 4, Buick Special V6, Olds F-85 V8 – Decisions, Decisions

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?