Extreme Performance Enhancers: The Royal Pontiac

Extreme Performance Enhancers: The Royal Pontiac


royal pontiac 1964 bobcat
royal Pontiac 1964 bobcat Image credit Pinterest

Whether it’s automobiles, food, real estate, relationship guidance, body fitness, nothing ever sells like the excess. As human beings, we are programmed to look out for the excess rather than being pleased with what we have or what we could afford at the time. When it comes to the American automobile industry, the excess is what they used to improve their brand image and reputation.

The baby boomer generation born in the two decades following the aftermath of World War II. The first batch of these kids came to adulthood in the early 1960s and the majority of this generation reached adulthood by the end of the decade. Their parents used to live in fear and they had lived through the great depression, World War II, and the economic instability followed by it, and were forever influenced by the shared hardship of that era. However, baby boomers saw things differently. Opportunities and resources were plentiful in the 1950s and the 1960s, and these kids were interested in spending money like no tomorrow. These baby boomers were downright rebellious and always questioned the authority whenever they could.

Many people didn’t understand this new generation. But there were few who got it. General Manager of the Pontiac Motor Division, Semon Bunkie Knudsen, his chief engineer, Elliot M “Pete” Estes, a new innovative engineer called John Z DeLorean and Jim Wangers, a young account manager for Pontiac’s advertising agency, understood what the baby boomers wanted, this led to a historic vehicle design that we got to know as the muscle car.  

Back in the 1960s and early 1970s, Americans used to assess the quality or the worthiness of an automobile based on its acceleration and a top speed over a straight-line track. Drag racing or the quarter-mile knockouts were more famous than any other motorsport at the time.

NHRA banned all of its members from taking part in drag racing to address the safety concern issues. Yet, the automakers were reluctant to give up on performance and straight-line acceleration as the market wasn’t ready to give up the hype.

The average teenagers and the people who would never make it to the mental maturity of a 35-year-old were constantly invested upon showing off their driving skills on the drag strip and whatever the machine they were driving to impress their girlfriends, boyfriends while humiliating their rivals.

Meanwhile, there was an emerging new niche market of enthusiasts who felt that the top-of-the-line factory-built engines weren’t good enough. These people were asking for an excess amount of torque, horsepower, and even more. If these people were not capable of getting that extra performance that they were asking for, then they would go around the dealerships to convince them to give something special through the factory backdoors. Though the average customer never had enough influence to get the factories to give them what they want, some of the dealerships did figure out how to bypass the law to get the ultimate performance.

These dealerships kept practicing many procedures to enhance muscle cars. Some of the most famous of them are the Yenko Chevrolet, Tasca, and Mr. Norm’s. Even those famous dealerships never produced the high-performance muscle cars in gargantuan numbers, yet their fame and reputation reached from the average mechanic to the glorified director boards of billion-dollar automotive manufacturing companies.

The cars that they produced in limited companies and now among the most valuable muscle cars ever built.

The Royal Pontiac.

royal pontiac sales brochure
royal Pontiac sales brochure Image credit GM

In 1959, the Pontiac was led by the visionary division general manager, Semon E Knudsen, also known as the “Bunkie”. The Pontiac Motor Division was a part of General Motors and was always in the shadow of Chevrolet when it comes to producing performance-oriented cars. The spotlight was always on Ford and Chevrolet, the two companies that were so invested in creating something new to take down the other.

Lucky for the Pontiac, Bunkie was a visionary and a brilliant strategist with an obsession with racing and performance-oriented cars. When he took over the Pontiac in 1956, he immediately ordered the top brass to produce ground-shaking products that would shake up the “the pensioners reliable yet boring car” image problem.

The 1957 Pontiac Bonneville is a product of his efforts. The Bonneville, a high-performing convertible, proved to be quite popular while being a financial success as well. Despite the staggering $5,700 sticker price, it sold well.

Then he recruited an Oldsmobile engineer named Elliot M Estes, also known as Pete. Another young engineer was left unemployed following the aftermath of the Studebaker-Packard collapse. This engineer, John Z DeLorean, soon found his place among the engineers of the Pontiac.

For 1959, Pontiac was going to unleash a new breed of cars that belonged to a category called “Wide Track”.  The Wide Track term was a reference to the architecture of new cars that had their wheels stretched as far out towards the corners of the car as possible. The idea behind this was from Knudsen, who wasn’t interested in cars that looked like a football player in ballet slippers.

1968 pontiac gto royal bobcat 3
1968 pontiac gto royal bobcat 3 Image credit Mecum.com
1968 pontiac gto royal bobcat front
1968 pontiac gto royal bobcat front Image credit Mecum.com

Jim Wangers, a young assistant account executive at Pontiac’s advertising agency, MacManus, John, and Adam, had previously worked on Chevrolet and Chrysler advertising campaigns to improve their market appeal. So, he was successful at convincing Pontiac to give him an important role in advertising.

Pontiac solely depended on aftermarket performance product providers to enhance their performance-oriented cars. Knudsen then went on to create a new division within the Pontiac. The Super Duty group was created to develop high-performance parts in-house and to supply them to the right hands. Another problem was the image problem that kept foreshadowing the Pontiac brand as Grandma’s special, reliable yet boring cars that were not worthy of the attention of a teenager nor a rebel at heart.

Jim Wangers, an automotive enthusiast, with his previous knowledge that he got while working with the Chevrolet and Chrysler, saw Knudsen’s plan as an opportunity to convince the baby boomer generation to give it a try. If they were capable of convincing at least a handful of baby boomers to buy their product, then the rest will follow. Wangers presented a proposal to Knudsen and Pontiac Sales Manager Frank Bridge to connect dealerships with the factory through seminars. These seminars were then used to promote specific product themes to convince the interested dealerships to give it a try. These seminars were also used to broadcast the details about performance vehicles, services, parts to the dealerships that were interested in that knowledge.

Knudsen was keen on the proposal but the sales manager Bridge, not so much. Due to this, Knudsen didn’t approve the proposal to implement it at full scale, but he allowed the young advertising guy to give it a go by using a single dealership as a testbed. Wangers chose Royal Pontiac in the Royal Oak, Detroit, which was the closest to the Pontiac factory. 

1968 pontiac gto royal bobcat 1
1968 Pontiac gto royal bobcat 1 Image credit Mecum.com
1968 pontiac gto royal bobcat rear
1968 pontiac gto royal bobcat rear Image credit Mecum.com

He tried to pitch his idea to the then-owner of the dealership, Asa “Ace” Wilson Jr., the son of the co-owner of a successful dairy business, Ira Wilson Diary. Ace Wilson wasn’t interested in diary or business ventures at all. He was a lover of women, wine, and cars. His father bought a small Pontiac dealership in Royal Oak and installed his son there to keep him productive. When Angers walked into the showroom in September 1959 with the proposal, Ace Wilson Jr. listened, and grew excited. He was a lover of cars after all. On that day, he signed up for this experiment.

One of the first steps taken at Royal Pontiac was to create a new performance division within the dealership. A showroom salesman, Dick Jesse, an enthusiast of high-performance cars, was chosen as the head salesman at the performance division.  After that, the customers who were looking forward to buying something faster were directed to Jesse.

The secret formula to improve the performance was various modifications. Modifications included changing camshaft timing, a new ignition system, thermostat, new spark plug gap, carburetor jetting, thin head gaskets, etc. These modifications resulted in a serious performance increase. All of these modifications were included in the Royal Bobcat package.

1968 pontiac gto royal bobcat engine 1
1968 pontiac gto royal bobcat engine 1 Image credit Mecum.com
1968 pontiac gto royal bobcat engine 2
1968 pontiac gto royal bobcat engine 2 Image credit Mecum.com

All the Pontiac-built car models from the Catalinas to Grand Prix could be fitted with the Bobcat performance package. Not all Royal Bobcats had a Tri-power carburetion though. Some came with the four-barrel carburetor that was more practical as it was more efficient and faster on 389 than three two barrels.

Royal Pontiac also entered into drag racing events with good results. This attracted more and more customers to the dealership as well. Wagners with much time on his hands also shared the driving duties behind the wheel of the Catalina cars sponsored by Royal Pontiac. In 1960, Wangers won the NHRA Top Eliminator class with a quarter-mile run of 14.15 seconds at a top speed of 100.44 mph. With this win, drag strip enthusiasts flowed into the dealership.

The Catalinas and the Grand Prix were full-size models. The GTO was the first mid-size muscle car to be fixed with the Royal Bobcat package. The GTO was debuted in 1964. The Hot Rod magazine got their hands on a stock GTO and the reviewers were underwhelmed. Wagners was furious about this and ended up confronting John DeLorean, who was the head engineer at Pontiac by then. Wangers would equip a pair of media test vehicles with Pontiac Super Duty performance parts. The GTO that was supposed for drag strip testing, Wagners had the Royal Pontiac replace the stock engine with a HO 421 engine from a Bonneville. This engine was given the Bobcat treatment as well. Wagners forgot to tell the journalists that this wasn’t a stock GTO. When the authors of the Car and Driver tested the car, they were very pleased and wrote all about it in their magazine thus starting the legend of the GTO.

royal pontiac sales brochure 2
royal Pontiac sales brochure 2 Image credit GM

In the 1960s, the Royal Pontiac was busy, providing Pontiac performance cars across the country with the help of a booming mail-order business.

And on the factory at the dealership, the mechanics were busy with replacing the stock engines with 428 HO engines. Pontiac had a surplus of 428 HO engines and was more than happy to trade out the 428 HO engines for the stock of 400 engines and an extra sum of money. Anyone could get their stock 400 engine removed to replace it with a Bobcat 428 for a cool $650. This performance option was popular with the press and the public.

John DeLorean moved to lead Chevrolet in 1969 and suddenly the future of performance-oriented cars at Pontiac was at risk. In 1970, Royal Pontiac was sold to a Chevrolet dealer, and soon Jim Fresard bought the dealership and sold it again back in 2008 to invest in a new venture.

Ace Wilson Jr. died on March 18, 1984. He left behind a legacy in the American performance car industry as his dealership was the first true performance dealer on American soil, selling street-legal high-performance cars not track cars. Ace Wilson Jr. and Jim Wagner collaborated to create some of the best performance cars at the time while making a big amount of profit.

1968 pontiac gto royal bobcat interior
1968 pontiac gto royal bobcat interior Image credit Mecum.com
1968 pontiac gto royal bobcat rear 1
1968 pontiac gto royal bobcat rear 1 Image credit Mecum.com

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