GM’s all-new 1961 Y-Body “senior compacts” (Olds F-85, Buick Special, Pontiac Tempest) had a lot of potential but just didn’t quite hit the mark. This was GM’s moment to show the world how to build a better compact, and yes, there were a number of ambitious aspects, like the aluminum V8 and the Tempest’s independent rear suspension. But both of those were substantially flawed. In the case of the F-85, it was its “Roto Hydramatic” transmission, which although shifting smoothly also shifted much too slowly, giving the 155 hp V8 F-85 a 0-60 time a half second slower than a 112 hp ’61 Lark six. Really?
The other issue was its very slow steering and soft suspension. If GM was trying to make their light new compacts feel, steer and handle like a ’59 Olds 98, mission accomplished! But that’s not exactly what compact buyers were looking for. A missed opportunity.
Reading all these various period article on the new B-O-P compacts, never once is it mentioned that they share the same body shell with the Corvair. Journalists back then were a curious mixture, both more acquiescent to the manufacturers as well technically savvy. It’s a reflection of the times; I was reading an article last night about the history of mass media’s objectivity, and its rather loose relationship to that, as it’s a lot harder to pull off than it might seem. What really is true objectivity?
For instance, in the 1950s and early-mid 1960s, most reporters, including those in the top national newspapers, had been in the military press corps during WW2, and clearly felt they had to not question the government’s take on things, as that would have been disloyal to the country. Many were also in cahoots with the CIA. The government’s numerous less salacious activities such as propping up various dictators were just not questioned, and that included the Vietnam War until that became a bridge too far. They felt a shared vision of the government’s goals and activities, especially during the Cold War era; that’s not really objective reporting.
Yes, I’ve digressed, but one get a similar vibe from these period reviews. They will note certain shortcomings, like the slow shifting “slim Jim” in this F-85, but would they ever have questioned the general goals of the Y-Body program? Was it to just offer Olds buyers a smaller one but that drove like the bigger one? Or was it to woo import buyers, who were more interested in lively steering and handling, and more ground clearance than the absurdly little 5.5″ of the F-85 (empty) and a low roof line? “What’s good for GM is good for the country”.
There was a lot of industry boosterism, but then that’s always colored much of the automotive media. It wasn’t until the late ’60s, with articles like Brock Yates seminal “Grosse Pointe Myopians that car magazine writers began to more seriously question the industry.
Although GM had enough funds for the aluminum V8, the V6 that came the next year, the Tempest slant four, and three different automatic transmissions, the didn’t spend quite enough to differentiate the three visually.
The arrival of the V6 in 1962 gave the Special both the engine that it should have had from the beginning as well as a more unique identity. And of course the Tempest’s big four, rope drive and rear swing axles gave it plenty of character; a bit too much so, under some circumstances. No wonder the F85 ended up the weakest selling of the three over their three-year lifespan, with the Special coming in #1.
CL points out that the F-85 and Special were of course the most alike of the two, but there were differences. Whereas the Special got its own unique and surprisingly effective (and efficient) 2-speed “Dual Path Turbine Drive” automatic, the F-85 had the new optional three-speed Hydramatic with “Accel-A-Rotor”. (Ate Up With Motor has detailed descriptions of bothe these here).
According to CL, the Roto-HM gave very smooth shifts, but they simply were too slow. The result was a 14.5 second 0-60 time, slower than both the Lark six (manual) and the ’62 Chevy six, with PG.
I had a fair bit of seat time in a ’62 Cutlass coupe (at age 16), with the 185 hp 4-barrel V8, and although I had very little comparison except to or TF Dodge, the Roto-HM seemed “off”, with its odd mechanical feel in second gear (torque converter not active), and the slow shifts, as noted in the review. It felt very inferior to the TF in our Dodge. This Cutlass was then 5 or 6 years old, and ran hot constantly.
CL calls out the soft ride, although high speed stability was “excellent”. I can concur, from my first run to 100 mph, which was cut short by the billowing steam pouring out of the hood just as the needle seemed to hit that mark. But “The heavy front end tends to plough when cornered at the limit”.
The manual steering had 5.3 turns lock-to-lock, which made it light, but of course slow. The Cutlass I drove had power steering, but I remember it too as being quite slow and without any feel or feedback. The Cutlass, despite its sport pretensions, didn’t convey an actual sporty feeling at all. It felt just like a 7/8 scale big Olds.
The 215 cubic inch aluminum V8, whose block came from Buick but the heads were different, and produced by Olds, “runs quieter than the proverbial sewing machine”. The brakes performed adequately, for the times.
The unitized construction body “was absolutely rigid” and panel gaps and door fitment were “all excellent”. Interior space was “generally satisfactory”, essentially the same as the Corvair, except that it had a flat floor. (The extra wheelbase went into a longer front end, to make room for the drive train).
Am I being a bit harsh on the Y Body? Maybe. They were ambitious, but a significant amount of that ambition didn’t pay off. The aluminum V8 was difficult and expensive to make, had a bad tendency to overheat (and worse) and was ditched after three years. Seems like a proper 60 degree V6 in iron might have been a better choice. GM’s many automatic transmission experiments were getting a bit old. And a bit less Novocaine in the steering and handling might have been in order.
There’s probably a good reason these cars are so rare today, and don’t seem to have a fraction of the following that their cousin, the Corvair has. Would you want one?
We had a ’62 Buick Special deluxe wagon from ’66 to ’84. Reliable as an anvil, and even on the hottest summer days it never even came close to overheating. Great car, and I would take one now.
V8 or V6?
I have a soft spot for these, with one being the first family car I can remember. Our station wagon was the exact color combo of the F-85 sedan example used in the comparison of the three models GM offered.
My mother said more than once that she really loved that car – was it the car itself or the glow of young married/family life with a new car that seemed on the cutting edge at the time, I cannot say. On the minus side, ours had the same overheating issues you experienced – I remember sitting along the roadside on hot days with the hood open to give the car a few minutes to cool down before we could continue our drive.
I notice one interesting thing about the test car – it displays the new narrow whitewall tires that would be used on the 1962 cars. The 61’s sold at retail (including ours) still had the wider 2+ inch whitewall. Or maybe it was a running change that came in during the later months of production.
I will agree that these were never common. I think people avoided them as older cars because they were oddballs, and not great oddballs at that. The engines were troublesome (aluminum engines did not do well at suffering traditional American maintenance practices of the day), the transmissions were troublesome, and even when all was right, there just wasn’t anything all that compelling about them beyond their clean good looks.
One other thought – Really small displacement V8s like this one have never been embraced by the US market, at least not since the end of the Ford flathead era. Every American small V8 seemed to settle in at somewhere close to 300 cubic inches, and anything much smaller than that never really took, whether it was in 1961 or 1981. Even with 8 cylinders, 215 cubic inches was still 215 cubic inches, and that just did not translate to a lot of power when it hit the road.
OK I’ll stop after this, but I just learned something interesting on the whitewall tires. All of the brochure art and early promo photos show the wider whitewall, and some of the same brochure art was used in ads and retouched with narrow whitewalls. There are also some promo shots (from later in the year?) that appear to use the narrow whitewalls.
I had always assumed that it was a switch made at the start of the 62 model year for most of the industry, and not a running change. But I keep learning new stuff.
As stated in other posts, I havep always been a fll size RWD fan. These cars debuted when I was in high school. Family had driven Nash AMBASSADORS, DESOTOS,and other Full size cars. Unlike most younger guys, I was more interested in luxury and comfort than what these cars offered. Personally feel that 1960 and 61 GM styling of it’s hull sized cars was not greatly appreciated by the public and these junior versions echoed that same theme. Also believe that the public still loved BIG cars with V8S. If someone wanted a small car it was for basic transportation (FALCON, VALIANT, or 🤮 Corvair). Later in the 80s, people were more welcoming to Buick Century and Olds version. Still some of THESE occasionally driven.
Would I want one? Then, no. Now, maybe more as a curiosity and rarity at local car shows. But I’ve never liked any of these as much as the Chevy Corvair, particularly the 1964 and later Corvairs. By then, they had corrected much of the rear end suspension problems.
Though these “Bopettes” were definitely interesting cars, then and now. GM apparently didn’t really want to get into the compact field so they created these slightly larger and technologically much different “mini intermediates”. They knew their full sizers were still bread and butter and why try new technologies on those when it wasn’t needed. The biggies were still selling very well then and for several years thereafter. In fact, I really like the GM full-sizers of the 1960s and very early 1970s.
But props to them for trying something definitely different from the norm back then. Seems they just should have done more research, engineering and preparation before releasing them to the public.
My dad brought home a 1961 Tempest for his family of six. Yeah – didn’t work out at all, especially on Sunday mornings when my grandmother sat in the back with us boys. Then there was my sister who, like clockwork, vomited in the front seat. Delightful memories of that car, right?
Dad originally planned to keep the Tempest and suppliment the car situation with a Beetle. His budget at the time was very limited. But the Tempest flopped as a family car before the had the chance to get a Beetle. Within the year, he traded in the Tempest for a 1961 Oldsmobile Dynamic 88 – which was a terrific car. He still got the Beetle and Beetles became his work vehicles for the next decade.
Looking like a full sized Oldsmobile, which I loved – this car is appealing to me. But I don’t want to drive a mechanical experiment.
Finally – until you showed me the Pontiac, Oldsmobile and Buick profiles, I hadn’t realized how identical they appeared. At the time, I knew they were all the same car, but these cars seemed to have pioneered the badge engineering GM used with the NOVA compacts in 1973.
I have to remind myself that these appeared **between** 1960 (Falcon/Corvair) and 1962 (Chevy II/Fairlane) years–but I have no memory of ownership by family or neighbor, or even high school & college friends a decade or so later. The color photos really bring home the similarity; at the time I surely paid no attention to which was which. GM sure had the development resources to be turning these out along with the new powerplants, transmissions, and so on!
Tire Size was an interesting detail in the writeup—-I can’t think of another body shell that was offered with both 13″ and 15″ tires like this.
JPC got me thinking about whitewall tires—-I never had “1962” filed away as the fundamental changeover year. A quick peek at some brochures, however, provided another “learning moment,” this morning, for which I’m grateful.
Oldsmobile also offered 14-inch tires on the F-85, and I think they were standard with air conditioning.
People have to remember that journalists are EMPLOYEES, not independent reporters. They do what management wants them to do, or else they’re out!
We at CC are not paid employees, so we can tell the absolute truth 🙂
Regarding these B-O-Ps, I vote for the Buick Special as the best of the three in terms of looks and drivetrain (small V-8 and Dual Path). The dashboards on these Buicks are interesting, especially with the “streamlined” clock mounted on the dash. I think power steering was available. You can see this was a real attempt to replicate Buick looks and quality in a smaller-sized car. This contrasts greatly with later GM cars, which were cynically badge-engineered with nothing of importance to differentiate the various brands.
I once got to sit behind the wheel of an abandoned one parked behind a seedy used car lot. The ’61 Buick Special is a nice car, but I would still take a ’61 Comet over the Special.
It took a forgiving person to accept the V-6 with it’s odd fire and vibrating like a cement mixer, the engine wasn’t acceptable until the even fire of 1978. The other issue was the V-8 and V-6 lubrication system, very inefficient, and the long delay until oil pressure happened wore the engines out prematurely. If the car was parked for an extended length of time, the oil pump could loose it’s prime and become inoperable. I owned many of these cars so very familiar with them. After they became just used cars in the late 60’s and early 70’s a variety of steering and front suspension parts became obsolete, and many got parked because of this. The aluminum V-8 running hot was the blown head gasket, otherwise they ran cool. On the plus side, the Olds and Buick had a very advanced drivetrain with a two piece driveshaft with constant velocity joint, having a low center of gravity, coil springs all the way around, making for the smooth quiet ride. For someone familiar with these cars, they can be a fun collector car that are rarely seen today.
The funny thing is that the even-fire version actually shook MORE, in terms of magnitude of secondary shaking force: 470 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm versus 391 lb-ft for the odd-fire V-6.
I know these B-O-P small sedans shared a body shell with the Corvair, but while GM didn’t do a good job of differentiating the three newcomers, none of them look anything like a Corvair to me. Where exactly is the commonality? The proportions are as different as you’d expect from a car with the engine on the opposite side.
There are parts of the floor, some inner structure body pieces. On the Tempest, the rear differential assembly is much like the Corvair
If you are familiar with first generation Corvairs, you start seeing a lot of similarities inside as well. Coupe front doors are very similar to Corvair coupe doors except for the sculpted outer skins. I would not be surprised if the inner door panels interchange. The bucket seats on coupes are structurally the same as Monza buckets. Visors, mirrors, things like that look quite similar. The Tempest uses a dash mounted shifter for its automatic just like the Corvair.
My dad had a 63 F-85 V8 wagon, with a three-on-the-tree! He kept it one year and traded it in on a 64 Dynamic 88 wagon, with AC even!
Folks on these pages have often talked about the ’65 Ford LTD as “the beginning of the end” of The Sloan Ladder (and similar at FoMoCo and Chrysler Corp.)
I’ve often thought that GM’s “senior compacts” of 1961 was really the beginning of the end. A loaded ’61 Impala likely costs more than the Y-bodies, thus a buyer in a certain price range had to make a choice, the likes of which they’d never faced before – a smaller Buick or Olds vs a loaded big Chevy. And when that buyer thinks the Chevy is a better choice than a Buick, the whole idea of the ladder comes into question.
Had a mint low mile ’61 Special with aluminium v8 for a while as a DD in the ’80s. It was a nice driving mini-full-size car, but didn’t like the lowness and ditched it for a ’71 Fury II one of the best cars we ever had.
When Olds started thinking about fwd around late 1958 they had intended it to be put in an F-85 size car and early fwd research was done on a car that size with early versions of the upcoming alum V8 but later fwd was dictated to go into the ’66 Toronado. It would have been more interesting and differentiating if they had followed though with their original intention.
If Olds had gone forward with a FWD compact or intermediate, it would almost certainly have been for a second-generation F-85. They were still at a fairly nascent stage of development in early 1960, when the 1961 cars were being readied for production.
Car magazines started to question the Big 3 in 60’s, because they wanted more “small and sporty” cars. And, when performance era declined, they went “all in”. Gas Crisis I and II fueled the fire.
When FWD compacts arrived for 80’s, C&D was predicting “USA roads will finally be dominated by smaller, fun to drive cars, like Europe!”
Decades later, roads now dominated by bigger vehicles and not so ‘fun to drive’ UV’s.
Regarding Brock Yartes, while he lobbied for “fun to drive cars”, etc, he also wrote a piece saying “Los Angeles should build more freeways”, aka “a freeway every mile”.
Eh, it’s worth pondering how LA’s traffic troubles would have been had they stuck with the freeway master plan of the 40s, as it is it’s only partially complete, with dead ends and broken links jamming arterial traffic into surface streets. I can’t say I disagree with Brock on that one.
I think the whole compact car phenomenon in the us proved to be a Goldilocks experiment, people eventually found the “just right” size to be intermediate/midsize which is pretty much the same size as these senior compacts. Compacts and subcompact popularity ebbed and flowed with economic conditions, but outside of the enthusiasts who like tossing a lighter car around, most normal people who bought bought them out of necessity/compromise. With vehicles across the board being pretty efficient in recent times it’s no surprise compacts are largely going extinct. People still equate size with value, not in the long/low/wide large sedan format of yore but in interior/cargo volume.
“People still equate size with value..”
True, why pickups are now GM/Ford’s gravy train, and Jeep is jewel of Stellantis, [Chrysler name is a zombie].
Lots of great info here ~ these were under my radar when new apart from the Pontiac Tempest with it’s interesting 1/2 a V8 4 cylinder mashup .
IIRC they used a two speed PowerGlide slushbox (?) .
The roto-hydramatic’s slow shifts, I wonder of that was deliberate as B-O-P’s weren’t considered ‘low cost’ cars so they’d be expected to have ‘big car ride’ even if they were smaller .
I wonder if a Corvair or other steering box could have been fitted to reduce the lock to lock turns ? .
I kinda like how these look, I’d prolly still buy a Corvair instead but getting one and putting it back on the road might be a fun thing to do .
? Were the doors on all three interchangeable ? .
Sort of. Pontiac used the Corvair differential, so the automatic Tempest used a version of the Corvair Powerglide, modified to let the propeller shaft drive the converter through the shaft that on Corvair automatics ran the front oil pump.
Not exactly. The main reason the three-speed Hydra-Matic shifted so slowly was the way it changed gears, which involved emptying the fluid coupling on the 1–2 and then refilling it on the 2–3.
Even the Corvair steering box was considered slow, the aftermarket sold quick steering gear box’s for Corvair. The BOP manual boxes were slow so that the steering would be easy. The power steering option would be faster I believe.
The power steering box brought the overall steering ratio down from 26.2 to 20.8:1, so it was quicker, but it still needed more than four turns lock to lock.
The stock Corvair wasn’t any better, but there were aftermarket kits with different steering arms that would give about three turns lock to lock, at some cost to turning radius. Not sure if there was anything similar for the Y-bodies.
A perfect solution would be the variable ratio power box, but that didn’t exist then.
THANX GUYS ! .
My ’61 Corvair had the usual quick tip in so it didn’t feel terribly slow to me .
The transaxle details are good to learn too .
More FREE LEARNING ! keep it up .
Not even a little bit. I’d head to the Dodge dealer instead and pick up a Lancer with 10 more cubic inches and two fewer cylinders in its much less problem-prone aluminum engine and a vastly better automatic transmission; spend a week correcting the factory’s careless build, and wind up with a considerably superior car.
My uncle bought a ’61 Special 4-door sedan as his first new car, replacing a used Forward Look Desoto that turned out to have had its odometer rolled back. The Special was problematic and was replaced within 3 years by a ’64 Rambler Classic wagon.
My 4th grade teacher traded in her blue and white ’56 Oldsmobile for a ’62 F-85 coupe, which she kept until 1969 (she lived quite close to our house, so I often saw her coming and going).
My aunt and uncle got a new ’61 Special and also had issues, and repairs cost more “since it’s a Buick”.
Traded in for 1965 Fury III, and uncle was Mopar guy for 20-some years. Last car was Panther based Marquis wagon, since didn’t want a minivan. After uncle passed, my Aunt got new Buick Century and had good luck, and now has Envision.
The BOP trio do not share a body shell with the Corvair. The overheating problem with the aluminum 215 was primarily caused by the lack of alumigard corrosion inhibitor in the antifreeze. Rover bought the engine, used the inhibitor and produced the engine (almost unchanged) successfully for many years. It is now the SBC of Europe and Australia and won two Formula 1 championships in the process
The BOP trio do not share a body shell with the Corvair.
We could debate the exact definition of “body shell”, but the BOP trio’s body was very much a direct evolution of the Corvair’s body, and shared a number of key hardpoints. The most expensive parts of a body to tool are the inner side structure with their door openings and the inner doors, along with the cowl. All or most of these key inner body parts were shared. Perhaps its easier to see in these pictures. Take a close look at the door openings and such.
Here’s the wagons. The reason the BOP wagons used a top-hinged tailgate was because the Corvair wagon had to use one, due to the higher rear floor to clear the engine.
Look closely at the rear doors and the C pillar. Essentially identical.
All these cars’ bodies were tooled and built by Fisher body. Sharing expensive key body parts and their tooling was essential to spread costs.
Here’s the rear view of the wagons.
This is for Ford rather than GM, but the exploded views give a visual sense of the array of pieces in a unitized body shell of this era and how they can be shared while producing different-looking cars:
Basically, the tooling for each one of those pieces was $$$, and opportunities to spread those costs about were eagerly sought.
” a smaller Buick or Olds vs a loaded big Chevy?”
Well, GM mid-size cars did end up high in sales, with 1976 Cutlass line being #1 for model year 1976. Lots of folks in Chicago went for Cutlass/Regal in place of Impala by the 70’s. Caprices did well along with Olds/Buick full size cars.
GM dealers competing with each other instead of imports hurt the “ladder”, but by 70s/80s/90s, “mid-luxury” didn’t realty have meaning to average buyers.