Reference: > Research > 1961 > Chevrolet > Road Test 1.
Reference: > Research > 1961 > Pontiac > Road Test 1.

The following article appeared in Modern Motor December 1961.


The latest models of the Chevrolet Bel-Air and Pontiac Laurentian, released in Australia by G.M.H. within a few weeks of each other, are identical twins under the skin. Their basic body shape, too, is identical; it's only the number and position of "wrinkles" in that skin which sets them apart.
This being so, we decided to dispose of both cars in one road test - and since the Chev is by far the bigger seller in this country, I'll start with that. Whatever is different in the Ponty will be dealt with at the end of the story.

Sensible Approach

The Chev I would describe as "plain but nourishing" - like the sort of food they used to promise us at summer camp in those far-off days when I went to school (which, believe it or not, I did). Plain because the price has gone up £104 over the previous model's without any extra frills for the money; nourishing because, regardless of what I said about the Dodge Phoenix last October, I now think this Chev is the best American car sold here for people who have that big-car bug.
The Reasons?
G.M.H. have remained conservative with the Chev. They've kept the 4.6-litre V8 engine to the same power output figure as last year - 170.b.h.p. at a modest 4200 r.p.m. This is considerably less than the 230 b.h.p. of the Phoenix and 250 b.h.p. of the Rambler Ambassador. But it is quite enough for sparkling performance with good fuel economy - and, I would judge, low maintenance.
In U.S.A. the Chev is available with 170, 220 and 250 b.h.p. engines. It's no problem to tickle the extra out of it. But those high-powered American V8s with single camshafts buried in the "Vee" and operating a forest of pushrods to overhead valves, are not the most efficient and durable of engines.
We must remember that Americans buy a new car every two years or so - the factories put out an article designed to be trouble-free for that period. The makers are not concerned with what happens after that. This planned obsolescence has gone so far in the states that a big Australian bus operator, just back from a trip, tells me there are practically no mechanics in training. A Dealer generally does no more than give a car he's sold its first service; then the owner is on his own. He may often go up to 70 miles to find a workshop garage when things go wrong.
We keep our cars longer; and this 1961 Chev, with its relatively low-stressed engine, should give better service. Take a bow, G.M.H.

Performance, Handling

The engine is always silent and smooth, never fussy. Not once did it ping on its 8.5 to 1 compression. My figures weren't quite as good as with last year's car: a maximum speed of 98.4 m.p.h., 0-60 m.p.h in 14.2 seconds, 40-60 in 7.7 seconds. But they'll be enough for most - and they do not outrun the car's handling and stopping powers.
A very nice 171/2 feet and 34cwt. of sedan.
Perhaps she's not quite as sure-footed as the Dodge, but the low geared (5.5 turns lock-to-lock) steering has a very handy self-centering action. Once you've wound up for the corner, just press the throttle as you're leaving, and the wheel slides through your hands to straighten the car. Once again, the action is so light at all speeds that higher gearing wouldn't call for any great effort by the driver - and it WOULD be nice not to have to turn the wheel so many times.
The ride seemed more even than last year. You didn't get that float on wavy bitumen, and rough stuff didn't cause pitching. Suspension layout is exactly the same - front independent by wish-bones and coil springs, solid back axle carried on coils.

Body and Controls

Indeed, everything else about the Chev is the same, except for the price, body shape, and decoration. The car is a little shorter and narrower: an inch has been cut off the overall length to make it 17ft. 5.3in., and 2 1/4 off the width to bring it to 6ft. 6.4in.
The brake pedal commands 185.6 sq. in. of lining area. Stopping is certain and true - unless the brakes are treated really hard. Then they fade, and recovery is none too quick. But they are much better than most American stoppers. The test car's brakes were fitted with power assistance - an option at extra cost. They were smooth in action at all speeds, with very low pedal effort.
But I think that both a power unit and a heater could be included in the new £2579 price tag. The Rambler has both for less money.
The Powerglide automatic transmission is as smooth and quiet as most. It uses intermediate and top only in the drive range: fixed low has to be selected on the steering column quadrant to bring in first. An intermediate hold would be a handy thing if one were fresh out of brakes. Low can't be selected above 28 m.p.h. Intermediate is held in only by the accelerator kick-down - otherwise it gives way to top anywhere between 15 and 72 m.p.h.
"Hunting" between intermediate and top when throttle openings are constantly being varied (as when climbing a stiff, twisting hill road) is hardly apparent because of Powerglide's smoothness and the ample horses available - but you do lose the extra acceleration which a fixed intermediate hold would allow.
Inside, main features are beautiful hide-covered bench seats that easily seat six adults, and soft, thick carpet. The driving position is good. Plenty of seat adjustment, wheel set well away from the chest and not too high. The transmission hump is so small that a centre passenger in front is hardly inconvenienced at all.
The dash is decently padded, and the strip-type speedo, flanked by fuel and water-temperature gauges, is set nicely for consultation.
Boot has been neatly arranged. A big well in the floor has been left by moving the fuel tank, and the spare is located on a shelf right behind the back-seat squab. Much handier - and, of course, the luggage space is enormous. The sill is lower, too.
But you could expect a bit more for your money. For instance:
  • A vanity mirror on the sun-visor.
  • Courtesy light worked by the back doors as well as the front.
  • Central Armrests.
  • Heater-and-demister.
  • A few more instruments.
  • Power Brakes.
  • Glad to see the manifold-operated screen-washer, though. Operating button is set in the two speed electric wiper control. Very quick in action - and the wiper blades overlap to keep the centre of the screen clean.
    Price increase aside, this is a pretty good motor-car.

    Now, The Pontiac . . .

    Compared with the Chev, Pontiac's 1961 Laurentian comes as a pretty expensive status symbol.
    As we've pointed out, the engine, transmission and basic body shape are identical in the two cars. Inside, even the dash styling is identical. And for £2752, tax-paid, all you get over and above the Chev's specifications are power steering and power brakes. Plus a clock - I nearly forgot it, it's so far away from the driver across the dash - and reversing lights.
    But not even a heater-demister. Very, very poor.
    That's not much more in the way of real equipment. Say it costs £80 all in - that's £93 you pay for the snobbier G.M. name and a few bright-metal furbelows, pressed and twisted into more unlikely shapes.
    There was no point in putting the Pontiac against the stopwatches. Power output and, practically speaking, weight are the same. What goes for the Chev's brakes goes for the Ponty, too (the Chev had power assistance fitted as an extra, remember?).
    But the Ponty is worth study, if only for the power steering. Obviously, there can be no degrees of deadness. But I can't convey my meaning without calling this the deadest steering system I've seen. There is absolutely no sense of contact with the road transmitted from the front wheels to the hands. You often have to guess which way the wheels are pointing as you wind in and out of turns.
    Worst of all, there is no self-centering action ( which CAN be retained with power steering - the Ford system, as used on the Fairlane, is one example). However many of the fistfuls of wheel at 51/2 turns lock-to-lock you grab, so must you grab back again to straighten out. I can hear you power-conscious drivers saying that you get used to power steering. You can get used to anything.
    But if G.M. insist on building-in this deadness, why don't they use a higher-geared box when power steering is fitted? There is no effort at all at the wheel. Finger pressure will scrub those big 7.50 by 14in. tyres from lock-to-lock with he car stationery.
    Look at it this way. Power is used primarily to cut down effort - yet the very number of turns of the wheel needed to round a corner is wasted effort. Silly, ain't it?
    And the Chev handles well despite low-geared steering, because it has strong self-centering action. The effort needed at the wheel would hardly inconvenience the most elderly of lady drivers, either.
    This Ponty's steering is power without glory.
    Modern Motor is an Australian motor magazine published [in 1961] by Modern Magazines Pty.Ltd.
    Reference Sources and Acknowledgments
    Magazine: Modern Motor, December 1961; Author: Bryan Hanrahan; Copy of Magazine: OzGM Collection. © All Information and material on this site is copyright. Reproduction without written permission and acknowledgment is prohibited.  Version 12, .