The Pontiac 421 SD is one of those very few cars upon which the great American performance car of the ’60s mythology is based on. Pontiac already was the terror of NASCAR tracks and NHRA strips with its 389 SD, and then in late 1961, it unleashed the first of the big displacement super-performance V8’s, the 421 SD. Rated at 405 hp, but reputed to make more like 465 hp, the SD was unbeatable, and forced the hand of all the others, with a raft of legendary competitors to come: Ford’s 427, Chrysler’s 413/426 and Chevy’s 409. Pontiac upped the ante with the 421 SD, and the horsepower wars were off to their final zenith.
Car Life explains how the new ’62 GP was a “super” Catalina, in the mold of Chevy’s SS, featuring bucket seats, console, floor shifter and a few other bits of eye candy. And even in its base 303 hp 389 form, it was an excellent performer, although one wonders if its 15.9 second 1/4 mile and 0-60 in 7.2 seconds weren’t already indicative of the “super tuning” that all high performance Pontiacs got before being released to the press. I strongly suspect so; it was on page 1 of John DeLorean’s playbook.
The 421 SD was stuffed to the gills with heavy-duty and high performance parts, and crowned with dual four-barrel carbs. As noted above, it was rated at 405 hp, but CL notes that could be upped to 432 with some additional over-the-counter goodies. The tested car had the three-speed manual transmission.
As per the headline, CL stated that “Undoubtedly, the 405-bhp Pontiac is the fastest accelerating stock production-line car we’ve ever driven. 0-60 wasn’t that blistering, at 6.0 seconds. But the 1/4 mile was, in 14.3 @103 mph. “And the engine is just beginning to sound alive alive in 3rd at 103 mph.” Top speed had to be estimated at 135 mph, because the test track wasn’t long enough. “There just isn’t anything like a big, high-winding engine with the volume turned full on”.
Not surprisingly, tire adhesion was a serious problem, and in any gear, even high, if there was a touch of moisture on the road. Starts required feathering throttle and clutch.
Fortunately, Pontiac also offered heavy duty suspension options, as the standard one on the test car was “much too soft and billowy”. The optional 8.50-14 low profile rayon cord tires were recommended “for serious work”. Why else would anyone order a 421 SD unless they planned to do some “serious work”?
Note: the color pictures are recent pictures of a similar car for sale found on the web.
Grace, pace and space. Peak GM
Most super duty 421 came with t-85 Borg Warner 3-speed the y-10 wasn’t really strong enough finally to put air craft quality heat set – stronger meta on them layer in year 4-spred more ptevaliant rotor hydro too weak old 4- speed auto to heavy big drop between second and third heat!?! Logtrkn coyote here 🐺
I have no doubt that the engineers at Pontiac (or maybe at the Royal Pontiac dealership) had this car tuned to its peak and maybe with a few invisible mods done.
I am confused about the transmission they used. The chart lists only 3 gear ratios (with 3rd being direct) and they mention the use of a clutch pedal. I have a hard time believing they got these kinds of times with a 3 speed manual, but who knows.
I have always wondered why the GP shared the 3 speed Roto Hydramatic with the Catalinas and did not get the older 4 speed version used by the Bonneville and Star Chief.
It says in the text it had a “heavy-duty synchromesh 3-speed manual transmission.” With this much power, three speeds was perfectly adequate, although the close-ratio four-speed would keep the revs up in the intermediates. (2.49/1.59/1.00 isn’t far off TorqueFlite ratios, although of course the manual box didn’t have — or especially need — a torque converter.)
I have a hard time believing they got these kinds of times with a 3 speed manual, but who knows.
Over these past some years, I’ve come to realize that a lot of common assumptions don’t hold up to reality. One of the bigger ones is the alleged superiority of the 4 speed vs. the 3 speed manual. This has really been debunked by reading ever more of these vintage reviews.
The four speed’s primary advantage is on the racing track, because a proper close-ratio box allows the driver to select a gear that will result in maximum acceleration out of any given curve or other situation. The more highly tuned (high rpm torque and power peak) the engine, the more beneficial this is. This of course also requires an axle ratio optimized for the given track, or close to it.
Reading reviews of the Corvette during the time just before and after the 4-speed became optional in ’57 makes it quite clear that its benefits were limited. For instance, in acceleration runs, the 3-speed could exceed 60 mph in 1st gear, which invariably made it quicker in the 0-60 than if one had to shift the 4-speed at say 55 mph. And 2nd gear would go to 100, again making it quicker in the 0-100 test then a 4-speed that had to be shifted at say 90 or 95.
In order to utilize a 4-speed effectively at a drag strip or even in most normal driving, you’d have to use a very low axle ratio, minimum 4.56, or even 5.11, which is what the drag racers did. But then the torque multiplication in 1st is so brutal that it’s almost impossible to use unless you have slicks on the back.
American cars with these big, powerful, wide-powerband V8 engines simply don’t need 4-speeds. The testers repeatedly point out that in normal driving, it’s more convenient to just start in 2nd and then shift to 4th at about 20-25 mph. Why bother?
What more could one want than a rocket that goes to 60 in first and 100 in second?
Well, an O/D if one spent a lot of time on fast open highways, which actually was not as common as it is today. There were very few freeways and interstates in 50s, and early 60s, and the 2-lane highways had lots of slow trucks and such. This also explains why cars like the ’56 Chevy from yesterday had a standard 3.70 axle; it was ideally suited to the smooth engine and the driving conditions of the time.
Everyone has it ass-backwards: what really needed 4-speeds were the sixes as well as the small V8s in larger, heavy cars. I kid you not: if I were going back in time and buying one of these powerful muscle cars, I’d get the 3 speed, as long as it was a fully-syncronized one, like the Ford toploader installed in a lot of GM cars after 1963. The whole point of these cars is that you don’t have to shift much! It’s a waste of arm muscles. 🙂
Update: the one way a 4-speed makes sense with a big V8 (in non-competition use) is a wide ratio unit with a very high (low numerical) rear axle, which essentially turns it into a 3-speed w/OD unit.
The dilemma was always matching the gear ratios and axle ratio to the engine and intended use. With really torque-y engines, a higher numerical first gear (whether with a three-speed or four-speed) might give you wheelspin problems unless you had a really tall axle ratio. An ultra-close ratio gearset like the close-ratio four-speed or the Corvette three-speed (which was 2.21/1.31/1.00) would have the opposite problem unless you had a pretty monstrous power-to-weight ratio or a very short (high numerical) axle ratio, at which point you probably had an obnoxious drone at highway speeds, with a big engine churning away like a 850cc Spridget.
Four-speeds for sixes and smaller engines also tended to have the early ’30s problem of real stump-puller first gear ratios that are short enough to be of limited utility. The early Corvair/Tempest four-speed had that problem: You might lug a little starting in second (2.35:1), but first gear was 3.65:1, which with a 3.55 axle was almost 13:1, so first would redline by about 25 mph.
The issue with that Corvair 4-speed was in far from ideal gear ratios. I looked up the ratios for the UK-sourced four speed available in the Falcon for a few years (’62-’63); they are 3.16, 2.21, 1.41. 1.0. That sounds quite ideal to me. Have you ever come across a review of one of these Falcon sixes with the 4-speed?
I generally agree with Paul’s assessment above, but the reality is that it’s all about matching the gear ratios for the intended use. While many of the powerful V8’s from this era would have similar performance utilizing either a 3-speed or 4-speed manual transmission, a 4-speed often still will outperform a 3-speed for 1/4 mile racing if the appropriate transmission and rear end ratios are selected. Cars setup for 1/4 racing will keep the engine closer to peak power after each shift, helping to improve the overall performance. There is a reason that almost all serious drag racers of this era utilized 4-speed transmissions over 3-speeds, and this practice continues in the Pure Stock races today. In 2022, every car that raced in the Pure Stock races equipped with a manual transmission was a 4-speed.
Of course; I made it clear that for racing, the 4-speed was unbeatable. And of course, drag racers were excellent speed-shifters; the length of time it took to shift was/is a pretty critical component of winning a drag race with one of the old manuals.
My point was that for regular driving, the 4-speed is actually questionable in a car with a powerful V8. Think about it; why shift three times to get up to highway speeds when two shifts will do just as well? Or even one. These engines in normal driving are just loafing, and these additional gears are wasted on them, in everything but very serious performance work. And even then, you’d better be a damn fast shifter to take advantage of that additional gear.
I’m simply pointing out that 3-speeds get slagged on way out of proportion to their abilities to work very effectively in the right car.
Like I said, I agree with your assessment Paul about the 3-speed. I guess when I read your original post, I must have (mistakenly) got the impression that your were talking more about the road course race track rather than the drag strip. Zora was more concerned with road course races when he was pushing for a 4-speed in the Corvette and the close ratios of the 4-speed allowed for better performance and flexibility on the race track due to the close gear spacing.
My comment on the gearing was more due to the fact that there were lots of combinations between the close and wide ratio transmissions along with the rear end ratios. A wide ratio 4-speed could have a wider gear spread than a 3-speed making 1st unnecessary in most driving. However, a close ratio 4-speed has a 1st gear not far off a 3-speed, so you wouldn’t be skipping 1st gear. The advantage here wasn’t the wider gear spread, but the extra gear ratio kept the engine in the more optimal portion of the power band when accelerating. This could result in a little faster acceleration, albeit, not nearly as much as most people think in these types of cars with torque laden engines.
That said, I am still on the same page as you that for most general driving a 3-speed with a powerful engine works just fine and uses fewer shifts and still delivers good performance.
Another element of the older cars was the clutch linkage itself. Unlike the current hydraulically operated clutches of today, with a relatively light touch and not too long of a swing of the pedal, the older linkages were typically less user friendly. The older clutch linkages were often strictly rods and levers, without any hydraulics involved, which usually meant higher pedal resistance and longer pedal arcs. In other words, actually shifting the car was not as easy and fluid, at least the clutch pedal part of it. Given, also, the older tire technology and smaller tire footprints, this meant that rough shifting really tended to upset the car at speed. Put it all together, and the less shifting, outside of a race track situation, the better off the driving experience.
Excellent photos of the car. Are these photos from the CarLife magazine story or later shots?
From the web. A car being sold by Mecum. You can’t get really good clear scans of photos from an old magazine.
Regarding the photos, I have this issue of Car Life. There were also tests of the Chrysler 300H, Ford Galaxie 406 and Chevy Impala SS 409. The engine picture for the Ford is of a 390 with a round air cleaner and log exhaust manifolds, not of the 406 3×2 with cast iron headers.The one for the Chevrolet is of a small block V8. Given that Pontiac engines looked the same for all displacements, the picture in the article may not be of the engine tested.They could have used photos provided to them by the manufacturers.
Alluding to a comment made elsewhere herein, Pontiac as well as the others were known to provide highly prepared test cars. It is the opinion of some that in the famous GTO vs. GTO C&D test that the Pontiac had a 421. In another C&D test of 66 muscle cars, the Cyclone had been prepped by Bud Moore and the Fairlane by Holman-Moody. C&D refused to do instrumented testing of a ’68 GTO Pontiac provided for a comparison test because it was blatantly obvious the car was not stock.
My point, I would view these magazine tests with a jaundiced eye.
It’s the inverse of GM’s usual practice of introducing a better engine the year after a new body or model.
Well into Pontiac’s best era for styling and the ’63 would be better yet.
That lumpy faux-convertible roofline is the only sour note and was easily avoided by going for anything but a 2 door hardtop – the crisp dropoff to a slightly wraparound rear window on the 4 door HT and the only slightly more radiused one on the post sedans were both more attractive imo.
Ford also used the faux convertible hardtop ridge above the rear window. Chrysler, for a change, was alone of the Big 3 in eschewing that short-lived styling fad but it was probably more a case of simply not having a roof where it would have worked.
They probably used the Roto Hydramatic in the Catalina and Ventura due to difference’s in the chassis design or pricing structure. The Roto had to cost less to produce than the Super-Hydramatic. Just my best guess.
GM corporate foisted the slim jim on Pontiac to help Olds recoup development costs since no other divisions would take it. I suspect the GP had it because the Catalina floorpan wouldn’t accommodate the larger super hydramatic
Yes, the slim jim was cheaper. Pontiac had to buy these transmissions from the HM division, since it didn’t build its own. As to the floor pans being different, I rather doubt that. The Catalina and Bonneville used the same bodies except for the rear axle being further out back, and a longer tail assembly.
Also, Roto Hydra-Matic was designed by Detroit Transmission Division (which became Hydra-Matic Division in fall 1963). The various patents and presentations are mostly in the name of Walter Herndon, who was engineering director of that division. It came about as a way to reduce the cost of the dual-coupling Hydra-Matic, which was extraordinarily complex.
I owned a 62 Grand. Prix with 389 4-speed. It was a”terror”. One of my favorites.
“… the new ’62 GP was a “super” Catalina, in the mold of Chevy’s SS.”
Excellent point, the full size ’62-’68 GP was not a “unique body shell” as the Riviera or Thunderbird. Was in Impala SS or Olds Starfire class, not Riv.
One thing that caught my eye was the list of available axle ratios, up to 6.14:1(!!) far and away the steepest axle ratio I’ve ever seen on a passenger car. Obviously for drag racing only, but I can’t imagine the top speed was much over 70mph (I’m too lazy to do the math)
Yes, for drag racing. But obviously the top speed was more than 70; it was tailored to be essentially the same as the trap speed in the 1/4 mile, which for a serious drag-prepped stocker would probably be some 110-115 mph. At which point the engine would be running right at about its max. rpm (past its power peak).
Read my comment further up about 4-speed transmissions; it’s necessary to have these kind of axle ratios to utilize all 4-gears on the drag strip.
I found a gear ratio/speed/RPM calculator online. According to Coker Tire, the 8.00×14 tires on this car approximately equal a modern 225/70R14, about 26.5″ in diameter.
Plugging known data into the calculator tells me that with 6.14 gears and a 1:1 top, the engine will be turning 8500+ RPM at 110mph. Swapping on 33 inch tall drag slicks gets the RPM down to 6900.
Back then, 1/8th mile dragstrips were still around, where a 6.14 might work.
1/8 mile strips are still around and plentiful
I haven’t commented on any of these Car Life reviews up to now, but I find them all endlessly fascinating. There was so much going on between model years 1957-63, and it’s a delight to look back on developments as they occurred in real time. I was car-aware for most of this time period but too young to understand the entirety of what was happening.
This car brings to mind Arnie “the Farmer” Beswick who was an actual farmer who couldn’t make the drags in the fall because of the harvest!! He claims the ’62 was his favorite one, although he used Catalina’s. He also got some engine help from Smokey Yunick.
In the early 70s, a college buddy bought a used ‘66 2+2 with the 421 tripower setup. When he got it, only the center 2bbl worked. Not being very mechanically inclined, he rigged up a cable pull to open up the other 2 carbs rather than actually fixing the vacuum system that was supposed to actuate the other 2 carbs. The cable was difficult to pull making operation a 2 person job. This led to more than a few invites to ride shotgun when he had gas money for cruising. Until I rode with him, I didn’t really know much about the 2+2. It was low key design that didn’t give off obvious hipo vibes. By 1966, most Pontiac-sized cars had a big inch engine. But few if any could match the sound & fury of a Poncho 421 tripower. GTOs were much more famous, but their 389s weren’t enough to stay with a big brother 421 tripower. The sounds of all 3 carbs opening up was music. The acceleration rush addictive. Good God that car was fun.
The picture shown is the factory 4 speed manual. Someone is not reporting this accurately.
1962 royal bobcat.
The color pictures are not of the tested car, but are recent pictures of another GP that was found on the web.
Yes. My point.
I have this article. To clear up confusion, the test car used the factory 3 speed Hydra-Magic transmission.
That’s why the times and speeds don’t make sense.
Good catch guys !
To clarify: they drove two cars, one with the base 303 hp 389 and Hydramatic. The test results for that one are not in the stats table, but in the text of the article (and my summary).
The primary test, reflected in the stats table at the end, was of a 421 SD with a three-speed manual. Two different cars; two sets of “times”. If you read the article completely, this will be obvious.
Great styling on this car. Always liked the semi rounded look given off by the rear deck/taillights.
There’s an article in the July 1962 Car Life where they test an actual, official Royal Bobcat, with the lightly massaged Tri-Power 389, close-ratio four-speed, and 3.90 axle.
Yes. I used that article to have Super Car Specialty Scott Tiemann to correctly add the Bobcat package mechanically and aesthetically to my ‘62. May ‘62 Car life.
“ How to build a BOBCAT”.
Sending som pics.
Let me know if they come through.
Or Google. 1962 royal bobcat
I certainly enjoyed the road test of this 1962 421SD Pontiac. Way back in 1961, my brother-in-law bought a brand new 1961 Catalina with a claimed 421 SD tri-power. Since I was only 12 years old at the time, I was over the top impressed with such a fast car. It did have a lumpy idle and I asked him why. He just said “hot cam”. He claimed it to be the fastest car in Fresno, CA during his reign until he raced a ‘62 Corvette fuelie with 4:10 gears. He said by the time the Pontiac was out of first gear, the Vette hit 4th. My brother-in-law claimed 65 in first, 110 in second and a top speed of 130 in third. He rowed a three speed on the column and 3:50 gears out back. He said the 421 was a dealer install when be bought the car. Sounds expensive to me, but being 12 years old I believed anything about this giant of street racing in Fresno, CA.