The Full History of the Pontiac LeMans

1965 Pontiac LeMans
1965 Pontiac LeMans. Photo by Mark Gittelman

In 1964 the Pontiac division of General Motors launched one of its most memorable automobiles. Of course we're talking about the GTO. Many believe that this model is responsible for kicking off the muscle car wars of the mid-60s. The horsepower arms race would continue until the death of the muscle car in the early 70s. Pontiac first listed the GTO as an optional performance package offered on the 1964 LeMans.

This is where it gets a little confusing. They originally considered the LeMans moniker as a luxury trim level upgrade on the 1961 Tempest. Therefore, when one of these cars whizzes by you at 60 MPH, it's hard to tell if it's a Pontiac LeMans, a Tempest or a GTO. Here we'll concentrate on separating these three models from each other. We'll also discuss the second generation LeMans platform responsible for spinning off the legendary GTO.

The Importance of the Pontiac Tempest

The first Pontiac Tempest hit the street as a 1961 model in the fourth quarter of 1960. Although the exterior sheet metal looked somewhat like a Corvair the automobile was actually quite different. You're probably familiar with the lead designer on the Tempest project.

A gentleman by the name of John DeLorean had a major influence over this brand-new model from Pontiac. The styling became so successful, they turned him loose to design the Lemans and its ultra high-performance version the GTO.

The success of these automobiles propelled Mr. DeLorean to the top position of the Pontiac Motor Division. He would remain there until GM moved him over to the Chevrolet division in 1969.

They put him in charge of straightening out the mess that the Corvair created. His successful mission culminated in the first generation Chevrolet Monte Carlo, the redesigned Chevy Nova Super Sport and the Chevrolet Vega.

Timing on the release of the Vega would prove to be perfect with the impending gas crunch. In just three years GM sold 1 million units. John DeLorean left General Motors in 1973. He formed his own unique manufacturing facility and his cars eventually took us all back to the future.

Timeline for the Pontiac Tempest and Lemans

Some sound financial and design decisions gave the Pontiac Tempest an advantage in its first few years of production. The all-new in-line four-cylinder Trophy engine produced 120 hp. At the same time it pulled down fuel economy ratings in the 20 mile per gallon range. This engine is actually half of a 389 Trophy V-8 engine. The shared parts allowed Pontiac to produce the new engine without much retooling.

In 1962, a power pack version of the four-cylinder engine with a compression ratio of 10:25.1 pumped out an amazing 166 HP. In 1962 Pontiac launched a more upscale version of the Tempest with more power and luxury items. They offered the Lemans trim level in a two door Coupe and convertible only.

Four-door sedans and, station wagons continued to carry the Tempest name. Strong sales of the upscale model prompted the company to launch it as its own standalone model in 1963.

The standard engine moved up to Pontiac's all-new 326 cubic inch 260 HP V-8.

Second-generation Pontiac LeMans

In 1964 Pontiac shifted the LeMans over to the larger sized A-body platform. The company started treating the mid-sized unit as a luxury car on a budget. Those looking for performance could choose the GTO option package. The larger engine bay of the A-body allowed for the installation of the 389 V-8.

At the time you could find this engine in the top of the line Pontiac Bonneville and the larger Catalina. The Trophy V-8 produced horsepower just shy of 350 when wearing a tri-power carburetor setup. In 1965 Pontiac applied some sharp looking design upgrades to the LeMans and GTO. They made the car 3 inches longer and it now had a low profile hood scoop. Pontiac took the quad headlamp set up and stacked them vertically instead of horizontally as in the year before.

With the horsepower wars beginning to ramp up, the engine also got a power massage. Now rated at 360 HP the 1965 GTO reported quarter-mile times in the low 14 second range. In 1966, the GTO became its own standalone model. However, the Lemans continued on until 1981 in the Coupe, four-door sedan and station wagon versions. The name resurfaced again in 1988 when they attached it to a small economy car built by the Daewoo Company. It was mercifully retired for good in 1993.

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Gittelman, Mark. "The Full History of the Pontiac LeMans." ThoughtCo, Nov. 10, 2015, thoughtco.com/history-of-the-pontiac-lemans-726111. Gittelman, Mark. (2015, November 10). The Full History of the Pontiac LeMans. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-the-pontiac-lemans-726111 Gittelman, Mark. "The Full History of the Pontiac LeMans." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-the-pontiac-lemans-726111 (accessed November 20, 2017).