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12 seconds to Yuma – 1961 Pontiac Catalina

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Junkyard ’61 Catalina becomes a time machine for one veteran racer. Photos by Matthew Litwin.

The kid needed this one.

He now realized that he shouldn’t have made that bet, and how. But he had ripped through the first few rounds of Optional/Super Stock that weekend with hardly a challenge, and he considered himself nearly invincible going into the semifinal.

Even though that Chevy gave him a good run in the semifinal, he still thought he had the class in the bag, so when those outta-town guys approached him, asking to see under the hood of his bubbletop Pontiac, he got a bit cocky.

“You can see it if you buy it,” he told them.

The lead stranger countered: “Put your money where your mouth is, kid.”

So they struck a deal: If he won the final round, he’d take their money. If he lost, they’d take his engine.

He waited until they got well out of sight before he popped the hood and placed a bag of ice on the dual-quad intake. He saw the strangers go up to the guy with the ’60 Starliner whom he’d face in the final round. Looked like they cut the same deal with him.

At the starting line, he looked over to the guy in the Starliner. His opponent caught his eye and nodded in the kid’s direction. Now the kid knew for sure he’d be in for a tough race. As he nudged up to the staging lights, he made up his mind–all or nothing. He’d blow the engine if necessary; those scam artists weren’t getting his 421 alive.

Mike Bretsch of Sarasota, Florida, could probably imagine a similar story. But it’d be more believable–Mike actually raced during Super Stock’s heyday; he actually collected timeslips from the same shacks that handed slips out to the celebrities of drag racing.

So while looking into the empty engine bay of a 1961 Pontiac Catalina bubbletop in a junkyard in Black Canyon, Arizona, those days inevitably came rushing back to him. Mike recalled racing his parents’ 389-powered 1961 Bonneville–with their permission, no less–from the time it was new through 1964, when he bought himself a brand-new GTO and moved up from E/Stock to A/Stock.

“I actually started racing in 1957, before I had my driver’s license,” Mike said. “My parents had a ’53 Studebaker, and my father drove me to the local track we had in Toledo. When we got to the track, I took over and raced it. I think I was in something like I/Stock back then.”

Mike’s racing career lasted through 1971 on four wheels, then took to the water through 1982, but he remained a part of a Top Fuel team for years afterward.

In the 1990s, Mike came across a 1961 Bonneville much like the one he had raced 30 years before, so he bought it and began its restoration.

“It was really rough,” Mike said. “Really rough. But I bought it because it brought back all those memories.”

On the hunt for parts, he heard about the junkyard in Arizona. Mike lived in Ohio at the time, so he arranged for the junkyard owner to set aside about $2,500 worth of parts. “When I was on the phone with him, he told me about this Catalina he had, and that he only wanted $1,500 for it,” Mike said. “He told me to bring a trailer, but I’m thinking, ‘If I’m spending less for the whole car than I am for the pile of parts, what am I getting for $1,500?'”

Regardless, Mike took a trailer out to Arizona and found himself staring into the empty engine bay of the Catalina. As the junkyard owner told the story, he’d found the Catalina 10 years prior, sitting alongside a house near Yuma. The junkyard owner asked the old man who lived in the house about the hardtop, and the old man said it belonged to his son. “All he found out was that the son, the original owner of the car, bought it to go racing, that the son put a dual-quad engine into it, and that the son had since died,” Mike said. “He didn’t say, but I suspect that the son died in Vietnam.”

The junkyard owner bought it, along with a couple of other cars, and partially dismantled it to restore for his own son. “It was basically a body on a frame,” Mike said. “The front end parts were in the shed and he bought it without a driveline, but the interior was still in it. When I heard it had a dual-quad engine in it, though, I knew it had to have been a 421.”

True, you couldn’t order a ’61 Catalina–or any ’61 Pontiac, for that matter–from the factory with a 421. The 389, introduced a few short years before, remained the top V-8 on the options list, and even the NHRA technical specifications showed a 348hp Tri-Power version as the most potent 1961 Pontiac engine. Yet late in the model year–even late in the racing season–Pontiac let its Super Stock racers know they could order up a dual-quad 421 over the counter.

Ostensibly rated at 373 horsepower, the 421 was more than simply a bored and stroked 389. Where the regular 389 used 3.000-inch main bearing journals and two-bolt main bearing caps (the Super Duty 389 added four-bolt main caps), all 421s used 3.250-inch journals and four-bolt caps. The 421’s intake and exhaust valves measured 1.96 and 1.66 inches, respectively. Forged crankshafts, forged connecting rods and solid-lifter camshafts filled the 11.0-compression 421s, and single or dual-quad intakes topped the engines.

According to Charles Morris’s book, Factory Lightweights: Detroit’s Drag Racing Specials of the ’60s, Pontiac really only offered the new engine to factory-supported racers like Mickey Thompson and Arnie Beswick; any car equipped with the engine would have had to run in the Optional/Super Stock class, which the NHRA would later rename Factory Experimental. The presence of this engine–along with a few super-secret under-the-counter aluminum front-end parts–led the NHRA to require homologation of such racing specials in 1962.

So one can only guess what a kid from Yuma was doing with that engine, racing against some of drag racing’s top drivers. Conceivably, he could have simply swapped an aftermarket dual-quad intake onto the Catalina’s stock 389. Or he could have swapped a dual-quad 421 into the car later, once the engines became a little more widely available.

Instead, Mike chose to believe that the kid bought the car solely for drag racing–he knows it was ordered with the four-speed, a 3.90:1 rear-axle ratio, standard five-lug wheels and heater delete–and persuaded his local dealer to sell him a 421 once the engine became available. With all that in mind, Mike loaded up the Catalina, brought it home, and then spent the next eight years building what he describes as a tribute to its era.

Mike started by separating body and frame, then inspecting the body. The junkyard owner had started to cut out the floor for some reason, and Mike didn’t think he could repair the damage done. Fortunately, his Bonneville, as trashed as it was, had a perfect floor, thanks to an early owner who had the foresight to undercoat it. So Mike decided to make the Bonneville, originally bound for restoration, into a parts donor; he cut out the floor at the spot welds, then transferred the floor to the Catalina.

The rest of the body remained straight and rust-free, thanks to its Southwestern origins, so Mike stripped the body down to bare metal and had it repainted in its original Bamboo Cream by Steve Trombley at Steve’s Auto Service in Temperance, Michigan. He only made one alteration to the body: a Ford truck air scoop bolted to the hood in the style of early Super Duty drag cars. According to Pontiac lore, Beswick spotted the metal scoop–facing backward on a Ford heavy-duty truck–then persuaded his contacts at Pontiac to make their own version, add a Pontiac part number to it and thus make the part legal for Super Stock. Mike was able to find an NOS version of the scoop gathering dust in a Ford dealer’s stockroom in Rhode Island.

Before placing the body back on the chassis, Mike powdercoated the frame and suspension components. He left the suspension and four-wheel drum brakes stock, but added 4.10 gears to the stock rear axle. Mike replaced the Arizona-bleached interior with a Ventura tri-tone fawn interior, to which he added a Sun Super Tach and oil pressure and water temperature gauges.

He then turned his attention to the engine and started assembling a 421 from several pieces. He found an actual 421 block, though he never determined its source, bored it .030 inches over and filled it with a 421 crankshaft, Super Duty forged connecting rods, Pontiac forged aluminum pistons and a McKellar #10 solid lifter camshaft.

The heads seem to be a story in and of themselves. “They’re some kind of Super Duty head, I think,” Mike said. The 1.65:1 ratio stamped-steel rocker arms, which Pontiac used only on 1960-’63 Super Duty engines and 1969-’70 Ram Air IV engines, pop open 2.11-inch intake valves and 1.77-inch exhaust valves, the same sizes that Pontiac used on 400, 428 and 455 V-8s. Passersby at shows say the heads look like 670 heads, used on 1967 400 V-8s, but Mike’s been able to find no casting numbers he can make sense of–just a 2 and a G. With the heads’ 62cc combustion chambers, Mike said he now has a compression ratio of about 11.5:1.

Mike worked for more than 30 years in Champion Spark Plugs’ dyno room as an engine builder and dyno operator, so once he bolted a deep (11 quart) Super Duty oil pan, an Offenhauser dual-quad intake manifold, a pair of 500-CFM Carter AFBs and Nunzi Romano-built headers to the engine, he strapped the 421 to a dyno and recorded 500 horsepower and 498-lbs.ft. of torque. “That’s pretty much what they always said a stock Super Duty 421 was really worth,” Mike said.

To back the 421, Mike found a Super Duty aluminum-case four-speed T-10, which both Romano and Beswick recommended over either the stock iron-case T-10 or the stock three-speed manual. Mike then turned to a friend who works at Dana Corporation and had him build a driveshaft with NASCAR-spec universal joints.

Mike left the headers open on purpose. Same reason he mounted Firestone bias-plies and cheater slicks on the steelies. “At first, I intended it to be a street car, but after about 2,000 miles, I wore the clutch out–the cam that’s in it doesn’t do anything until about 3,000 RPM.”

Thus, Mike keeps it trailered for show duty, with the occasional pass down the drag strip.

“I think I built it the way that kid, the original owner of the car, would have built it,” Mike said. “The way these cars were really built back then.”

1961 Pontiac Catalina 1961 Pontiac Catalina 1961 Pontiac Catalina 1961 Pontiac Catalina 1961 Pontiac Catalina 1961 Pontiac Catalina 1961 Pontiac Catalina 1961 Pontiac Catalina 1961 Pontiac Catalina 1961 Pontiac Catalina 1961 Pontiac Catalina 1961 Pontiac Catalina 1961 Pontiac Catalina 1961 Pontiac Catalina 1961 Pontiac Catalina 1961 Pontiac Catalina 1961 Pontiac Catalina

My parents’ Bonneville was also a bubble-top, and I always liked the body style, so when I saw this one, it really caught my eye. I wish it had been a full-fledged race car, with all the documentation, but it is what it is. And it’s probably better this way, because I could build it the way I remembered these cars.

So my intention with the car was to allow people who grew up in that era to see it and remember those days, which were very special to me and my fellow drag racers. And I do love driving it into a show, with the open headers, and seeing all the heads turn as I come in.
— Mike Bretsch


Pontiac Oakland Club International
P.O. Box 68
Maple Plain, Minnesota 55359
Dues: $35/year • Membership: 8,800

+ Very safe: Everybody gives you a wide berth when they hear open headers
+ Environmentally responsible: What better way to recycle a junkyard car?
+ Holds its value: And what exactly are memories worth?

– Also very safe because you can’t drive it on the streets
– Fuel efficiency? Don’t ask.
– Would be worth more if we knew its actual race history

500 Horsepower @ 5,800 RPM
498-lbs.ft. torque @ 4,500 RPM
1/4-mile: 13.29 seconds @ 105.12 MPH


Base price — $2,766

Type — Pontiac OHV V-8, cast-iron block and cylinder heads
Displacement — 421 cubic inches
Bore x Stroke — 4.123 x 4.00 inches
Compression ratio — 11.5:1
Horsepower @ RPM — 500 @ 5,800
Torque @ RPM — 498-lbs.ft. @ 4,500
Valvetrain — Solid valve lifters, stamped-steel 1.65:1 rocker arms
Main bearings — 5
Fuel system — Two 500-CFM Carter four-barrel carburetors, Carter mechanical pump
Lubrication system — Pressure, gear-type pump
Electrical system — 12-volt
Exhaust system — Nunzi Romano headers, with 1 3/4-inch primaries and 3 1/2-inch collectors, run open

Type — Borg-Warner T-10 aluminum case four-speed manual with Competition Plus shifter
1st — 2.20:1
2nd — 1.66:1
3rd — 1.31:1
4th — 1.00:1
Reverse — 2.26:1

Type — Hypoid with Safe-T-Track limited-slip differential
Ratio — 4.10:1

Type — Saginaw recirculating ball, manual
Ratio — 24:1
Turning circle — 46 feet

Type — Hydraulic, manual
Front — 11-inch drum
Rear — 11-inch drum

Chassis & Body
Construction — Steel body-on-frame
Frame — Perimeter-style
Body style — Two-door hardtop
Layout — Front engine, rear-wheel drive

Front — Independent, unequal-length A-arms; coil springs; telescoping shocks; 3/4-inch solid anti-roll bar
Rear — Upper and lower control arms; coil springs; telescoping shocks

Wheels & Tires
Wheels Stock stamped steel:
Front — 15 x 5 inches
Rear — 15 x 5 inches
Front Firestone bias ply, 7.10 x 15 inches
Rear Hurst cheater slicks, 29 inches

Weights & Measures
Wheelbase — 119 inches
Overall length — 210 inches
Overall width — 78.2 inches
Overall height — 55.8 inches
Front track — 62.5 inches
Rear track — 62.5 inches
Curb weight — 3,720 pounds

Crankcase — 11 quarts
Cooling system — 18 quarts
Fuel tank — 25 gallons
Transmission — 1.5 quarts

Calculated Data
Bhp per cu. in. — 1.17
Weight per bhp — 7.44 pounds
Weight per cu. in. — 8.69 pounds

Of the 113,354 Catalinas built in 1961, 14,524 were two-door hardtops.

1/8-mile ET — 8.40 seconds @ 85 MPH*
1/4-mile ET — 13.29 seconds @ 105.12 MPH*

*On street tires. Since mounting cheater slicks, Mike said he made a pass at about 12.5 seconds.

This article originally appeared in the March, 2012 issue of Hemmings Muscle Machines.