When Pontiac launched its unique Y-body small-car lineup in 1961, the base model was the Tempest, but later in the model year the uplevel LeMans was introduced. It brought a bit more flair to the quirky compact platform, which was a direct response to imports like the Volkswagen Beetle, as well as home-grown compacts including the Falcon and even Chevy’s rear-engine, air-cooled Corvair.
The 1961-63 Pontiac Tempest/LeMans was a technological marvel for its day, featuring a rear transaxle connected to a front-mounted engine via a “rope drive” torque transfer system housed in a torque tube. It was an ingenious concept that contributed to a front/rear weight balance of nearly 50/50, which worked with an advanced four-wheel independent suspension system to deliver excellent ride quality and sharp handling. The features that distinguished the original LeMans from the Tempest were bucket seats and additional luxury amenities.
The quirkiness of the original Tempest/LeMans line extended beyond the drivetrain layout to include the engine itself. Dubbed the “Trophy 4,” it was a four-cylinder essentially made of a Pontiac 389 V-8 cut in half (the right cylinder bank). In 1963 12 special Super Duty models – six LeMans coupes and six Tempest wagons – were built for racing in NHRA’s Factory Experimental class and were equipped with 421 V-8s and a unique “Powershift” transaxle that essentially married a pair of two-speed automatics. Only a handful of these weird and wonderful cars remain and they’re among the most valuable of the factory race cars of that era.
Into the A-body… and GTO
Pontiac re-launched the Tempest/LeMans as a midsize car, or “intermediate,” in 1964. The quirky rear transaxle, rope drive system and even the half-a-389 four-cylinder were dropped in favor of a more conventional front-engine/front-transmission layout. Engine choices included a Chevy-derived 215-cid straight six and Pontiac’s 326 V-8. Of course, Pontiac’s larger 389 would find its way into the LeMans in 1964, too, as part of the GTO option package. Its profitable sales of about 32,500 prompted GM to drop its edict on large engines in smaller cars and the muscle car era was off to a rousing start.
While the GTO became a star of song and screen, the LeMans quietly carried on its mission of stylish, affordable performance. In 1966 an overhead-cam six replaced the Chevy-based six and the 326 was replaced in 1968 by a larger 350-inch V-8, ratcheting up the car’s performance across the board. The “OHC” six, as it was called, brought back some engineering innovation to the brand, as it was the only American overhead-cam engine on the market.
Changing With the Times
The 1964-73 LeMans was built on GM’s A-body platform, which featured a strong perimeter frame and coil-spring suspension. It’s long, lean look was updated in 1968 with a rounder, semi-fastback style that lasted on the A-body platform through 1972. The Tempest was gone after 1971, leaving LeMans to carry on alone from 1972 onward.
In 1973, the car was reborn with the more formal “Colannade” hardtop design of GM’s other intermediate, but built on modified A-body frame that accommodated new 5-mph bumper regulations. It was arguably the sportiest of the new, safety-minded Colannade cars, with the LeMans Sport model and GTO option package leading the pack. The GTO moved to the Nova-based compact platform for its final year in 1974, while the A-body LeMans would live on through 1981, remaining one of the sportiest midsize cars on the market.
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