In 1963, Pontiac created a handful of very special Catalinas, strictly for drag racing, that would be forever known as the Swiss Cheese cars. Here are some rare details on these unusual Pontiacs.
In the early ’60s, the Motor City’s performance wars were heating up. To impress and attract the exploding youth market, Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors all offered special models prepared strictly for drag racing, featuring big, race-tuned V8 engines and exotic lightweight body components.
As the competition escalated, these drag-strip battles produced some wild and crazy factory-built race specials, maybe none more wild than the 1963 Pontiac Catalina lightweights. Famed Motor City journalist Roger Huntington, writing for the May 1963 issue of Hot Rod magazine, took one look at the radically modified Pontiacs and coined the nickname they’ve carried to this day: the Swiss Cheese cars.
Only 14 Swiss Cheese Catalinas were built by Pontiac, and only nine are said to exist today. Due in part to their rarity, everything about these strange cars seems to be shrouded in myth and legend. But fortunately for us, our good friend Tim Divers of Divers Street Rods in Sultan, Washington, winner of the 2008 Ridler Award, among other feats, has performed a ground-up, nut-and-bolt restoration of one of these rare machines, and he carefully photographed the entire process. With his kind permission, we’ll be using his build photos and his expert input to detail some of the fascinating secrets of the Swiss Cheese Catalina. Meanwhile, the photos of the very same car in completed form are courtesy of Barrett-Jackson. Now let’s dive in.
Like many of the factory lightweight drag cars from the Detroit automakers in the ’60s, the Swiss Cheese cars emplyed weight-shaving body components—in this case, thin-gauge aluminum for the inner and outer front fenders, hood, front bumper and brackets, and radiator support. (Plastic side windows were also available as a dealer package, reportedly.) These pieces and some other measures—more on these later—trimmed the big Catalina’s weight down to a claimed 3308 lbs versus the production car’s advertised shipping weight of 3725 lbs, a savings of over 400 lbs right off the top.
With its giant 120-inch wheelbase and 64-inch track, the Catalina came into the game with a significant penalty in size and weight over the standard-size Ford and Chevy and the intermediate-class Dodge and Plymouth. Every ounce was critical, leading Pontiac to some extreme measures, as we will see.
All 14 of the cars were nearly identical: Catalina two-door hardtops, body style 2347, with base blue plastic interiors. The first 12 cars were painted code 92 Firefrost Silver, a special-order Cadillac high-metallic color, while the last two were finished in standard WA2970 Pontiac Silvermist Gray. The car shown here, originally raced by Collingwood Motors in Greybull, Wyoming with the name Tonto VI, happens to be the final example assembled by Pontiac, and it wears Silvermist Gray paint.
Power for the ’63 lightweight racers was supplied by Pontiac’s Super Duty 421 CID V8, here rated at 420 hp at 5,600 rpm but said to be good for closer to 500 hp when properly tweaked. The combination included trick high-flow cylinder heads, a McKellar no. 10 camshaft (named for Pontiac engineer Mac McKellar), and two Carter AFB four-barrels on an aluminum intake manifold. A special “shoebox” intake that resembled a modern tunnel ram-style manifold was available over the counter.
Just to show how far Pontiac was willing to go in the pursuit of weight savings, the exhaust manifolds were cast in aluminum. First made available as dealer items in 1962, they were standard equipment on the ’63 lightweights. Unable to withstand prolonged high temperatures, obviously, the aluminum pieces were considered adequate for brief journeys of approximately one quarter mile, and weighed but 27 lbs per pair compared to 72 lbs for the cast-iron production-line parts.
Just as you’d expect, the Swiss Cheese cabin was free of frills, with a bench seat in blue vinyl and nylon and radio and heater deleted. Body sealer, sound deadener, and insulation were also deleted to pare off a few more pounds. Surprisingly, perhaps, the Hurst shift lever was not connected to a four-speed transmission. Instead, the standard gearbox was a Borg-Warner T-85 heavy-duty three-speed with a trick close-ratio gearset featuring a 2.09:1 first gear. Of course, many racers swapped out the three-speed in favor of the Borg-Warner T-10 four-speed box.
Here’s the soul of the Swiss Cheese Pontiac, if you will, and how it won its name. With the Catalina stripped down to the bare frame, here supported on the blades of a forklift truck, we can see the 120 to 130 large-diameter holes punched in the rails in a desperate attempt to whittle off a few more pounds. Journalist Huntington, who wrote about the Detroit auto industry for decades in a score of magazines, reached for the obvious nickname and a legend was born.
Here’s a closer look at the radical surgery performed on the Catalina’s frame. Note the bottom plate has been completely cut away, transforming the framerail’s box section into a U-section. Meanwhile, the 120+ lightening holes in the sides leave little meat remaining in the frame itself, forcing the body shell to carry the bulk of the chassis loads. Needless to say, the Swiss Cheese cars were virtually worthless for road use, while on the drag strip, racers found that the lightweight frame required frequent patching and reinforcement, especially around the rear suspension area.
This shot of the Swiss Cheese chassis reveals a number of key details. Note the Borg-Warner T-85 three-speed transmission, the alloy bell housing, and the cast-aluminum headers with twin-outlet adapters for the rudimentary street exhaust system. And here’s an intriguing detail pointed out to us by restorer Tim Divers: It would appear that the lightening holes were punched in the frame sections before the frame was welded together.
George DeLorean, the younger brother of GM executive John DeLorean and a Detroit performance legend in his own right, raced a Swiss Cheese Catalina that was as quick as any in the country, running elapsed times in the 12.30-second range at 115 mph. NHRA, drag racing’s top sanctioning body, assigned the lightweight Catalina to the B/Factory Experimental class for vehicles with special features not necessarily available in dealer showrooms. DeLorean also raced a smaller and lighter Pontiac Tempest with a Super Duty V8 in the A/FX category.
The Swiss Cheese Pontiacs enjoyed limited success on the drag strips in 1963. Unfortunately, Pontiac’s racing program that year was grounded before it launched when, on January 21, GM President John F. Gordon and Chairman Fred Donner issued their famous edict that ordered the company out of all racing activities, effective immediately. Today the Swiss Cheese cars are highly treasured on the car show and auction circuits, thanks to their fascinating history and construction, with cars usually changing hands in the half-million dollar neighborhood. The next time you see one of these rare and unusual machines—remember, there are reportedly only nine left—be sure to check it out.