Earlier this year, we asked readers to participate in our Pontiac Correspondence Research Study. We requested copies of any interesting letters that the Pontiac Motor Division sent in reply to consumer inquiries. We’ve found that such letters oftentimes contain specific insider information that was rarely released or other obscure facts that are generally unknown.
We received a number of reader responses and we’re excited to share the most interesting examples. Check out what you had to share!
If you have such a letter from Pontiac and would like to participate in future installments of Pontiac Pen Pals, please send high-resolution scanned copies of your letters to email@example.com. Otherwise, high-quality color copies can be sent to Pontiac Correspondence Research Study, c/o Rocky Rotella, 9422 Granville Pkwy., La Vista, NE 68128.
Ram Air V Legality
Famed Pontiac drag racer Jerry Steinbrick campaigned a ’63 Super-Duty Catalina for a few years during the early ’70s. Around that same time, he purchased several complete R/A-V engines through the Parts Department at Jackshaw Pontiac in Lakewood, Ohio, when the program was discontinued. He bought individual R/A-V components from racers over the next few years and amassed an impressive collection.
In 1975, Jerry installed a pair of R/A-V cylinder heads on his Super-Duty Catalina’s engine and competed with it on the American Hot Rod Association (AHRA) circuit. It was placed in the Modified Production class, but when he wanted to compete in Super Stock (S/S) in 1977, the AHRA wouldn’t recognize the R/A-V as a factory-produced Pontiac engine and declared his Catalina illegal. To compete in S/S, Jerry had to obtain documentation directly from the Division. He wrote a letter to Pontiac detailing the information he needed on January 27, 1977.
Pontiac National Customer Services Manager J.J. Kane replied to Jerry on February 11, 1977, providing him with the information necessary to make his Pontiac AHRA-legal. “I made arrangements to visit with AHRA tech inspector Vance Brady,” Jerry recollects. “I took a R/A-V cylinder head and intake manifold, and presented the letter from Pontiac to him. He was hesitant to approve the intake manifold, so I argued that if Pontiac made the cylinder heads, they had to make the intake manifold too. He finally agreed and approved the R/A-V. The very next weekend I set three class records in St. Louis, and then a few more at Norwalk a couple of weeks later.”
Veteran Pontiac racer Jim Hand purchased his first new Pontiac in 1955 and began racing immediately after. Several would follow, usually high-performance four-doors that not only competed on the dragstrip regularly, but were family haulers too.
“I had shopped around for a new ’63 Catalina for several months and decided on a four-door hardtop,” says Jim. “Some of the options I ordered included the heavy-duty suspension, heavy-duty three-speed Hydramatic transmission (often referred to as the Slim Jim), and 3.42 rear axle gears, as suggested by the trailer-package sales folder. The heavy-duty Hydramatic was standard for police/taxi applications, so I selected it for added durability, and at no additional cost. The transmission description had to be hand-written in the Other Accessories box on the order form, and the salesman did just that.”
When the Catalina was delivered about seven weeks later, Jim immediately checked the window sticker and didn’t see the heavy-duty transmission he specifically ordered. “The dealership argued that it was built correctly, but I finally persuaded them to raise the car and check the transmission codes—my new Catalina was built with the wrong one. The dealership offered to order a new Catalina for me but couldn’t guarantee that it wouldn’t happen again, and I needed the car for daily transportation. I was very disappointed and wanted Pontiac to know.”
Pontiac’s Safari magazine was a publication that the Division sent to its new car owners. Then-General Manager Elliot “Pete” Estes wrote in it that he appreciated hearing from Pontiac owners. Jim capitalized on that opportunity and on April 19, 1963, wrote a letter to Estes explaining the issue and provided proof.
Estes replied to Jim’s letter on April 30, 1963, and offered a solution. Jim’s local dealer in Kansas City called and told him to take his Catalina to the Fairfax, Kansas, assembly plant the next morning. “While the car was being modified, a foreman took me on a plant tour and I got to walk the entire assembly line. It was quite a treat. Within a few hours, my Catalina was complete and I thanked the mechanic who performed the exchange. He joked, ‘I don’t know what you did, but that transmission came in yesterday by air freight!’”
Jim noticed an big difference in the way the Catalina drove. “The car spun its rear tires much easier from a stop, and the transmission shifted much more positively. I was very pleased with Pontiac’s prompt action, and sent a letter to Estes thanking him and the rest of those involved for the quick and courteous service. I found the Dealer’s Service Department much friendlier, with fine service support later.”
Ram Air V Roll Call
Jerry Steinbrick provided us with another letter he’s had in his collection for a number of years. James Hudson sent a letter to Pontiac asking about valvetrain geometry, how pushrod length affects it, and for an update on R/A-V availability.
Pontiac Engineer Tom Nell replied to James on October 8, 1970, and also revealed information about a new high-
performance engine that Pontiac would formally announce sometime after January 1, 1971. Undoubtedly it was the Super-Duty 455, which finally reached production during the ’73 model year after some concessions for emissions compliance.
GTO Owner Focus Group
Bob Ruley grew up a Pontiac man. “They had a certain allure to me since the first car I knew was my dad’s ’55,” he says. “We had several more over the years, and when I purchased my first car in 1973, it was a ’67 GTO that I bought from my brother.”
Bob purchased a ’69 GTO convertible in 1987 and wrote to Pontiac to obtain any information about his specific vehicle. “This was in the days before PHS Automotive Services, and Pontiac sent me a generic reply, along with the original factory-to-dealer invoice but the pricing was blacked out.”
The GTOAA National Convention was held in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1991 and Pontiac held a Focus Group discussion there. “I attended several other GTOAA events before, but this time Pontiac was there for a specific purpose. Its Focus Group wanted to know what original GTO owners were looking for in a new GTO, and a select number of them were invited to participate. I remember telling them that I liked the idea of having a rear-wheel-drive V-8 and being able to run to the grocery store with the family, and then heading to the dragstrip in the same car.”
On August 1, 1991, T.M. Vivio, a marketing research specialist for Pontiac, sent letters to those that participated in the Focus Group discussion. The letter thanked them for sharing and included two Pontiac-related items as a sign of appreciation. One item, a small pin in the shape of the Pontiac arrowhead, was rather symbolic. “I thought the pin was a very nice gesture on Pontiac’s part. It’s something they gave to new employees, so to receive it meant a lot to me,” adds Bob.
Since participating in the Focus Group discussion, Bob was keenly aware that Pontiac was listening to its enthusiasts. He read a few times in the car magazines during the early ’90s that Pontiac was still considering a new GTO. “I figured that I had nothing to lose by sending a letter to Pontiac in support of the idea. I did, however, reiterate that if they did revive the nameplate, I would like to see it remain true to the original concept from the 60s.” Margaret Brooks of Pontiac Marketing replied to Bob’s letter on February 19, 1993, and explained that the GTO was considered a unique part of Pontiac history, and if a new GTO was ever introduced, he could be assured that it would be worthy of its name.