PONTIAC 389 SUPER DUTY

Pontiac downsized its midrange Catalina and Ventura for 1961, dropping the wheelbase from 122" to 119" and reducing overall length  by four inches. The result was a 200 lb weight reduction, which helped performance. While Chevrolet was getting the lion's share of the industry's publicity for the new 409, Pontiac continued to dominate on the track with the 389. The newest and best version was called the Super Duty.

The Super Duty Program was started in late 1961 and was available to qualified drivers as a Dealer Installed Option, therefore serial number documentation is hard to find for 1961 Catalina or Ventura Super Duty cars. The program was a great success at the 1961 Indy Nationals and at Nascar Tracks, winning multiple drag racing and oval track competitions. These wins put Pontiac back into the spotlight and gave the Super Duty nameplate a new meaning.


Pontiac had introduced its new 389 cid V8 in 1959, and it would remain Pontiac's signature engine through the 1960s. 

 

The hottest 389 generally offered to the public was a tri power version rated at  348 bhp. This engine would, in 1964, appear as an option for the new GTO. Race parts were quickly developed for racers like the Petty family, but generally this stuff was not offered to the public. These parts were sold from 1959 through 1961 for "off road use only" to circumvent GM's edict against racing. Things changed in 1961. 

If you knew how to use an order form and had a cooperative dealership, you could find yourself looking under the hood of your Catalina or Ventura (most popular for racing) one cold  morning wondering what the hell you had gotten yourself into. Yeah, it looked good. No, it wouldn't start because it was the temperamental  "Super Duty" version which was rated at a ridiculously conservative  363 bhp. 

Late in the model year, Pontiac applied 389 Super Duty hardware to about a dozen 421 cid V8s intended for drag strip duty. Furthermore, Pontiac offered a wide range of performance modifications including aluminum front bumpers, radiators, and body parts. A Borg Warner four speed manual was now a production item.


Introduction of the 389 Trophy V8 coincided with the emergence of Ace Wilson's Royal Pontiac dealership in Royal Oak, Michigan, as the quasi official street performance arm of the factory. It specialized in the hottest factory parts and in super tuning Pontiacs. 

 

A four speed 363 bhp Catalina prepped by Royal and driven by Pontiac marketing executive Jim Wangers was the NHRA Super/Stock champion with an ET of 14.1 at 100 mph.  No 409 Chevy could touch the Pontiacs.




In addition to the superior performance offered, Pontiacs were known for their glamorous bucket seat interiors. Hardtops had GM's graceful "bubble-top" shape, Venturas came with "Jeweltone Morrokide" upholstery.

 

 Buyers could also order a host of sporting accessories. A Borg Warner four speed manual was $306, having previously been a special order factory option.  Pontiac also authorized dealers to install genuine Hurst shifters. 

 


The 1961 Pontiac Ventura 389
Specifications


Wheelbase, inches: 119.0
Weight, lbs: 3,685
Number built: NA
Base price: $3,200

Standard Engine
Type:  V8
Displacement  389 CID
Fuel system: 3 x 2 bbl.
Compression ratio: 10.75:1
Horsepower @ rpm: 348 @ 4800
Torque @ rpm: 430 @ 3200

Representative Performance
0-60 mph, sec: 8.2
1/4 mile, sec @ mph: 15.5 @ 93 

At the beginning of the 1961 model year, the only change was a quarter point more compression on the Super Duty heads, although there were a couple of new camshaft grinds from Pontiac Engineer Malcolm McKellar, who figured heavily in the development of all the early high performance pieces. Ratings were raised to 368 horsepower at 5600 for both the tri power drag strip version and the single 4 barrel NASCAR version. Both actually put out well over 400 horsepower.


This was another trick Pontiac played. While  the other Detroit manufacturers were advertising  inflated horsepower ratings for their engines, Pontiac's ratings were  very conservative. They either reflected the true output of the engine or underrated it.
This was before factoring of engine ratings; NHRA  used  advertised horsepower ratings and  shipping weights to determine classifications. By underrating their engines, Pontiac  enjoyed favorable classification and could run against engines putting out less power. 


However, the winds of defeat were starting to blow around Wide Track Boulevard. Ford's  401 horsepower 390 was doing a  job on  the 389/368 Pontiacs. In addition,  Dodge and Plymouth were using the big Chrysler 413 engine in the smaller Dart and Fury bodies. Pontiac had to do something.


Just prior to the September 1961 NHRA Nationals at Indianapolis, Pontiac introduced a new 421 cubic inch engine rated at a ridiculously low 373 horsepower. The only people who could get them were the Mickey Thompson crew. I believe they only went into 1962 models because of the date they were introduced. 

The engines were so new that NHRA had to make a special class for them; Optional Super Stock. Other cars in the class were Chevy's new dual quad 409 and Ford's new 406. Hayden Proffitt, driving  Mickey Thompson's 1962 Catalina,  beat everyone with a 12.55 / 110.20 run,  unheard of in 1961.  By comparison, Lloyd and Carol Cox won the S/SA class with a time slip reading 13.80 / 105.63 with their 368 horsepower 389.


The Super Duty 389 was continued into 1962 for NASCAR racing and was rated 385 horsepower with one 4 barrel carburetor on an aluminum intake manifold. Other than the bore and stroke, both the 389 and new 421 were basically the same engine and used many similar parts. Both had 4 bolt mains, high capacity fuel pumps, heavy duty clutch, special front harmonic balancer, heavy duty bearings, dual point distributor, etc. The 389 had split flow exhaust headers made of cast iron. The 421s came through with the same headers cast in aluminum to save weight. 


Cylinder heads were the same for both the Super Duty 389 and 421. They used 1.92 inch intake valves and 1.66 inch exhaust valves and had large ports. These were a lot better than the standard heads but not as good as the '62 1/2 421 heads with still larger ports and 2.02 and 1.76 inch valves. The new heads also used 1.65 : 1  rockers which boosted breathing capacity.


With the Super Duty 389, a 3.42 rear axle ratio was standard. With the 421, you got a 4.30. If you didn't like these ratios, Pontiac's option book listed anything from a 2.56 to a 6.14. About halfway through the model year, the Super Duty 389 was phased out and replaced by a single 4 barrel version of the 421 rated at 385 horsepower. Nothing could touch it on the NASCAR tracks. 



Royal Pontiac 
The Performance Dealership



The story of Royal Pontiac reaches back to the late 1950s, when Ace Wilson Jr. purchased a Pontiac franchise in Royal Oak, Michigan, a suburb on Woodward Avenue halfway between Detroit and Pontiac. Wilson's new Pontiac store was located on North Main Street, not far from Jim Wangers' home in Royal Oak.



Wangers, already established as an advocate of high performance, had been pushing for a network of Pontiac dealers across the country which would become performance dealers specializing in sales and service of Pontiac Hot Chiefs. Wangers was turned down several times, but  Frank Bridge, Pontiac's general sales manager, eventually agreed to allow Wangers to find one dealer willing to experiment. If the dealer would agree to stock special cars and  parts and get involved in  activities like drag racing, Bridge promised to find a way of supporting it. The catch was, the connection had to be covert. "I don't want anyone to know about it," Bridge told Wangers.

Wangers hooked up with Wilson and things began to happen. "Wilson liked racing," Wangers recalled. "He liked performance, he was a relatively new Pontiac dealer and he thought this was a swinging idea."

Within six months, Royal established a reputation as the dealer that stocked the fastest cars, had  service technicians that knew how to work on them,  and had a parts department stocked with an assortment of aftermarket and factory performance parts. Wangers took the Royal name before the national press in 1960 when he piloted Hot Chief Number 7 to the Stock Eliminator title at the NHRA Nationals in Detroit. Below is a model of the 1962 version, which turned 12.38 in the 1/4 mile.



Wilson saw  the potential in the sales and service of high performance Pontiacs. "In this day and age of professional drag strip racers," stated Royal's 1963 brochure, "car dealers who sponsor Super Stocks are a dime a dozen. At Royal Pontiac, there's a difference. Most dealers who sponsor these hot jobs at the drag strip are content to sit back and wait. They figure a winner or even reasonable success at the strip will mean that all the local enthusiasts will "knock down the doors" to do business at their dealership. This just doesn't happen. At Royal, we go a step further. A successful Super Stocker at the strip is only the beginning. We want to pass our experience on to you. We want to satisfy your performance needs and problems. We are prepared to offer all the Pontiac factory options plus a custom performance tune up that is guaranteed to outperform any equivalent Pontiac in showroom stock condition. This treatment is called the 'Royal Bobcat' tune up package."



It was this philosophy that set Royal Pontiac apart from the mainstream of dealers who weren't versed in the performance market or were apprehensive about the profitability of  high performance cars. But racing was just part of the Royal story.

"One of the first things I convinced Ace Wilson to do was to package a car that incorporated some of the special services and the special parts that he was putting into these cars and that's how the Royal Bobcat was born," Wangers recalled. "The Bobcat was created in 1961 off of a Catalina, and it's funny how we arrived at the name Bobcat. Back in those days Pontiac was putting their nameplates on their cars in big, separate letters with little holes drilled in the sheet metal. They had model names like Catalina, Ventura and Bonneville. Out of the words Bonneville and Catalina, we came up with the name Bobcat and the letters fit into the same number of holes that Catalina did."

In 1961, Royal removed the individual "Pontiac" letters from the tail panel of a 62 Catalina, and used "CAT" from Catalina, the "O" from Pontiac, and the  "B" from "Bonneville" to spell out "BOB CAT". These cars would turn mid to low 14's at close to 100 mph with stock tires and closed exhaust, and produced approximately 370 bhp.

The Bobcat was a packaged performance car, utilizing many of the performance options offered by Pontiac. Starting with the 389 Tri Power, Royal used the factory's free flowing exhaust manifolds and dual exhausts, aluminum wheels with the integral drums, four speed manual gearbox, and limited slip rear end. Royal then made special modifications to the car to make it a Bobcat. The distributor curve was reworked, as were the carburetor jets. The vacuum carburetor linkage was scrapped for a mechanical setup, and less restrictive mufflers were installed.

To visually set the Bobcat apart, all Catalina nameplates were removed, special paint was applied and the Bobcat nameplate was installed. "It was the first, really packaged supercar," recalled Wangers.

Royal continued on through the GTO era, which is where they gained most of their notoriety. The GTO Tiger and other promotions made them the dealer of choice for drag racers who wanted to drive Pontiacs. 

Ace Wilson sold the performance arm of the dealership in 1969 to George DeLorean's (brother of John ) Leader Automotive. Royal Pontiac was eventually sold by Wilson, and a special era in Pontiac performance was over.

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