What's the best way to showcase your buildup of one of the rarest engines in Pontiac history? How about vintage hot rod meets Factory Experimental in one of the Division's hottest models? That's what Nunzi Romano was thinking when he built this '65 GTO.

Most any enthusiast following fast Pontiacs within the past four decades is likely familiar with Nunzi, as his contributions helped carry the Pontiac performance torch during the dark days of the '70s and '80s. His personal story isn't one that's well known, however.

Nunzi was born in Southern Italy and studied automotive mechanics, cutting his teeth on high-end Italian race cars. He immigrated to America in the late-'50s and has called Brooklyn, New York, home ever since. His first Pontiac, a '55 two-door sedan, was purchased from the Brooklyn-area Pontiac dealer at which he worked, and he began tinkering to improve its performance. His immediate success gained him notoriety as a performance guru with the hot-rod crowd, which led to the opening of his own specialty garage.

As was much of America in the early-'60s, Nunzi, too, was enamored with Pontiac's Super-Duty program, and the GTO when it debuted in 1964. "Pontiac was on top at the time, and I remember talking to a salesman at the dealership about the GTO before it came out," the retired engine builder recalls. "He told me that it was a performance model with scoops on the hood, and that's all I had to hear. I ordered a Starlight Black '64 with a 389 Tri-Power and four-speed manual transmission. I really liked the car and raced it all the time, but the '65 GTO is my favorite."

General Motors' corporate edict on factory-backed racing eliminated the Super-Duty program, so Engineering fought back and introduced super-strong street engines, including the GTO's 389 Tri-Power in '64, the 400 H.O. and Ram Air in '67, the R/A-II in '68, the R/A-IV in '69, the 455 H.O in '71 and the SD-455 in '73 for the Firebird. The 421 H.O. and 428 H.O.s motivated the quick Big-Cars of the day. Many owners brought such Pontiacs to Nunzi for his magic touch, and though they ran well in stock trim, minor tweaking extracted even more performance from them--a feat noticed by members of Pontiac's engineering team.

A Bit Of R/A-V History
Competition amongst manufacturers was fierce in those days, and Pontiac had a reputation as a performance leader. The maximum-performance combination, dubbed "R/A-V," was Engineering's attempt at maintaining its status. Conceptually designed as a 400 (but also available in 303 and 366 ci), the R/A-V featured a reinforced block with four-bolt main caps and forged-steel internals. It was topped by newly developed Tunnel-Port cylinder heads like those Ford used with large, round intake ports and individually spaced exhausts. The combination included a high-lift mechanical camshaft, a cast-aluminum intake manifold, and a Holley carburetor. It was a true high-performance mill with 7,000-rpm capability.

Most likely due to emission regulations and internal procurement, the R/A-V program was abruptly cancelled as it neared introduction. No such engine was ever installed into a production vehicle, but because most components of the combination had been cast and their part numbers cataloged, assembled engines and individual components were sold over the parts counter for several years.

Acquiring The Parts
Nunzi took immediate interest in the R/A-V and began accumulating many of the unique components that remain in his collection today. "I purchased several complete R/A-V engines and cylinder heads back then. I also picked up a few different R/A-V intake manifolds, including a dual-quad tunnel ram and a medium-rise, dual-plane dual-quad unit that's extremely rare. I think it was a prototype used by Pontiac for testing. Others may exist, but I've never seen or heard of one

"I used to talk with a few of Pontiac engineers who were involved with the R/A-V project in those days, and they told me of the combinations that Engineering was working on to beat the competition. I remember hearing about the R/A-VI--a modified 428ci block with R/A-V top-end and a single four-barrel carburetor. The R/A-VII was a dual four-barrel version of that. I don't think either engine made it past testing, though."

Nunzi dreamed of building a unique engine using many of the R/A-V components he owned. "I wanted to put a real piece of Pontiac history into a car that I could take to local shows or cruises, and national Pontiac events, and to play around with. I never really had the time when I was working but had the chance to make that happen when I retired." What better way to create his tribute to Pontiac than by building his own R/A-VII engine?

The Powerplant
Beginning with a modified four-bolt 428ci block, Nunzi bored it 0.035 inch to 4.155 inches and filled the cylinders with forged-aluminum Venolia pistons, Speed-Pro plasma-moly rings, and forged-steel, stock-length Crower connecting rods. A modified Super-Duty 421 forged-steel crankshaft with a 4.05-inch stroke round out the reciprocating assembly, which creates a total displacement of 440 ci.

Atop the engine rests an N.O.S. pair of No. 44 R/A-V cylinder heads that, as Nunzi says, "were laying around since day one." They feature large intake ports that peak around 325-350 cfm at 28 inches of pressure at maximum valve lift. These units retain their original 2.19-inch-diameter intake and 1.73-inch-diameter exhaust valves but feature modern Crower valvesprings and titanium retainers. Combustion chamber volume measures 70 cc, yielding a compression ratio of 12.5:1.

Crower supplied a custom solid-roller camshaft with 260/265 degrees of 0.050-inch duration on a 108-degree lobe center and 0.650-inch valve lift when combined with the company's 1.6:1 ratio shaft-mounted rocker arms. In addition to specifying valve timing, Nunzi also had Crower install a cast-iron distributor drive gear and machine all five journals to accept roller bearings.

Authenticating the R/A-VII project is a super-rare, dual-plane, dual-quad intake manifold that's complemented by a pair of Holley carburetors. At the heart of the ignition system is a modified points-type distributor with a Mallory No. 102X points set. An MSD Blaster 2 canister-type coil generates spark, which Taylor wires transmit to a set of AC Delco R43S plugs. Total spark lead of 35 degrees is reached by 2,000 rpm.

Vehicle Selection
As the engine project neared completion, Nunzi sought the perfect vehicle for it. In his collection was a low-mileage '65 GTO that was originally equipped exactly as he'd have ordered it. Once Montero Red with black interior, it boasted of a 389ci Tri-Power engine, M21 four-speed manual transmission, 3.90 gearing, a Safe-T-Track differential, aluminum front brake drums with metallic brake linings, heavy-duty fan, Custom Sport wood steering wheel, and Rally gauges.

Nunzi first became acquainted with the GTO during the '80s when a customer brought it to him for an engine build. "The car was drag raced all its life," he says. "The body was very straight and rust-free, but the original engine and transmission were gone. I built a high-horsepower 455 for the owner, and he had me install a rollcage in it. He sold the car a few years later, and I ended up with it in the late '90s. It was just too clean and unique for me to pass up."

Nunzi and son Tony disassembled the GTO and mediablasted its body to bare metal. With the help of Matthew Demma, they repaired all the imperfections. "I wanted the car to look like a vintage hot rod," Nunzi says. "You know, in black primer like the '49 Fords and '50s Pontiacs I used to see in the '60s. I also wanted to take it to shows but didn't want to worry about it getting scratched." Tony assembled a makeshift paint booth in Nunzi's shop where he and Matthew applied several coats of PPG Hot Rod Black--a modern matte finish that replicates the look of vintage black primer.

Once completely painted, the crew reassembled the GTO. With the R/A-VII engine resting between the frame rails, Nunzi installed a 30-pound steel flywheel, a Centerforce Dual Friction clutch and pressure-plate assembly, and a BorgWarner Super T-10 four-speed manual transmission with nickel gears and a 2.88:1 First-gear ratio. Careful attention to detail was the order throughout the entire build.

The Result
When asked about the finished project, Nunzi replies, "It's very different and in my own taste, but I wanted to turn back the clock and make it look like something I'd build if I was an engineer back then. It's exactly what I got with the GTO. My son, Tony, and Matthew worked seven days a week over a two month period just to get it done. Friends like Andy Asaro, Ray Batelli, Bobby Jones, and Kenan Taskent helped, too. I'm very happy with everything."

Though Nunzi hasn't measured the R/A-VII's output on a dyno, he estimates somewhere between 635 and 650 hp. "I could have put the engine into any of the cars in my collection, but the GTO seemed the perfect choice. I wanted it to have a manual transmission and that might make it tough to run consistently at the track. I'll probably never make a pass with it, but it sounds great and really runs hard.

Conclusion
This GTO doesn't have a significant historical background as a brass-hat vehicle, nor was it campaigned as a race car by a major dealership, but one pass down the list of optional equipment quickly reveals that its original owner ordered it with the sole intent of maximum performance in mind. The absence of its original drivetrain hasn't kept Nunzi from keeping its performance spirit alive, however. What better way to capture a legendary engine builder's vision of a vintage hot rod than installing experi-mental Engineering components into the Division's flagship vehicle from the performance era? Now that's pure Pontiac history, no matter how you view it!

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