1966 Pontiac GTO Tin Indian Part 3

This is a continuation from yesterday’s Part 2

Part 3

“Actually Pontiac Historic Services had not quite materialized yet. A gentleman named Fred Simmonds had unearthed old files at Pontiac Motor Division (PMD) of General Motors Corporation (GMC or GM), and shortly thereafter, those files would be turned over to Jim Mattison who would launch the business Pontiac Historic Services. At one point during the fall of 1989, Merle had occasion to talk with Fred Simmonds, and, in the course of the conversation, mentioned that he wished he could see the original build sheets for his cars, so he would know what options they were assembled with and where (to what dealership) they were first delivered. Simmonds offered to do a bit of research, so Merle sent him the vehicle identification numbers (VIN’s). Soon the information arrived in the form of photocopies of the original build sheets. Basically, a build sheet is a dated purchase order that gives instructions to the factory about how to build a car and where it is to be delivered afterward. The instructions are in code, and the translation of the numbers into words is not always immediately obvious without research. The build sheet for the green car was vibrant with blue marker. Anticipating Merle’s excitement, Fred Simmonds had parenthetically listed several of the build sheet codes and identified them: “Safe-T-Track Performance Ratio (733), 4.33 axle (74 S), 4-speed close ratio (778), HD Metallic brakes (484)”; and finally “(08-197)” the codes designating zone (section of the country) and delivery dealership were followed by big, bold, believe-it-or-not, capital letters: “KNAFEL PONTIAC, AKRON, OH.”

The solution to the puzzle that Merle hadn’t been able to solve in 1979, was almost all there in bright blue marker. I, of course, was then, as I often am now, when it comes to figuring out “car stuff,” clueless. The clues did though definitely mean something to Merle, and for anyone as much at a loss as I was, I will try to interpret them as best I can.

“Safe-T-Track” was Pontiac’s name for its anti-slip option. While most of us today are probably used to more sophisticated methods to avoid loss of traction such as computer directed traction control and anti-lock brakes, something similar is still in standard use on rear wheel drive vehicles. In conventional rear wheel drive vehicles, the rear wheels are driven by the differential (also true of the front wheels on front wheel drive vehicles) which allows smooth operation even though one wheel revolves faster than the other when cornering. In such a conventional or older rear end, when quick acceleration occurs, a tire can lose traction, and the power, seeking the path of least resistance, goes to that wheel that is slipping. The Safe-T-Track or similar mechanism diverts the power to whichever wheel has traction. In the ‘60’s such an option had obvious benefits especially in certain situations. When a driver put the pedal to the metal, if a tire lost traction and began to spin, the tire and the car went nowhere without letting way up on the gas pedal to slow the wheels down and regain traction first. With anti-slip such as Safe-T-Track, traction could be regained without backing off nearly as much. Thus time to accelerate decreased because time to get good traction decreased.

“4.33 axle” refers to the rear axle and the ratio of the rear end. This was the highest ratio available at the time this car was ordered. What the number means is that the driveshaft turns 4.33 times for each rotation of the tire. The higher the number the more efficient the use of power from the engine, the easier the motivation of the car, and thus, the faster the acceleration from a standing start. Ultimately a 4.56 rear axle was reportedly installed and ran in this car.

“4 speed close ratio” refers to the transmission. Even though we rarely see them in average new cars today, almost everyone still knows what a 4 speed, manual transmission is. In this particular transmission, the gears are very close together so that the engine does not drop in revolutions per minute or RPM’s and continues to deliver a relatively consistent amount of power to the drive shaft even as shifting occurs.

“HD metallic brakes” are just what they appear to be, heavy duty brakes that work efficiently to stop a vehicle traveling at high speeds. Alas, my little green car was never intended to be a mother’s machine. This, in short, was a factory built racecar. It would never do to put a little lady behind its wheel again. It would have to be restored to its former glory, and therein was still concealed the most elusive part of the puzzle.

During the ‘60’s Knafel Pontiac sponsored the largest muscle car racing team, and probably the most successful Pontiac racing team ever. It boasted a huge support system including two transport trucks, three airplanes, a motor home, fully equipped engine, body, and chassis shops, and several race drivers, including, at various times, Arlen Vanke, Bill Abraham, Larry “Doc” Dixon, Norm “Sonny” Tanner, and Arnie “The Farmer” Beswick. All this backup contributed to the superior achievements of Knafel’s Tin Indian trademarked Pontiacs on the tarmac. The name Tin Indian would seem to have evolved naturally from the auto make, but it and other nicknames given to individual cars were also a byproduct of Bill Knafel’s love for Indian legend and lore.

In fact Bill Knafel and his team were instrumental in a number of cooperative efforts with PMD including the original muscle car the 1964 GTO. Knafel proudly depicted  his 1963 Tempest, dubbed Running Bear, as the GTO prototype. Mr. Knafel  continued to stay  in touch with John DeLorean,  whom he called “the real Mr. GTO,”  who was general manager at PMD while Knafel was experimenting in Ohio, and whose brainchild evolved into the GTO option on the 1964 Tempest  Lemans . Mr. DeLorean himself responded  to a question about the origin of the GTO as a “simple” question to answer. When he was head of engineering at PMD, he built a car for his personal use, “just to have a little fun driving” and put a “big engine, a shifter and all that stuff in it” – – a very congenial man, even more amiable to my way of thinking because he used  my kind of language with people like me.  ” Stuff ”  is one of my most often used descriptors for car paraphernalia! At any rate, when he lent his special car to friends on the weekends, he had a hard time getting it back, so he decided that there must be a market for this type of car,  and thus the venture began. About the Knafel racing enterprises and Bill Knafel, he said , “He was successful in the drag strip area, so we supported him….he was the pro.“ Thus, out of this cooperation eventually came a series of drag strip champions.

Apparently the guys in the Knafel shop were good. The cars that they raced were repeated winners, garnering national and world championships, and setting more new records than any other team during that era, but Merle’s memory kept backtracking to a particular picture that he had seen on several occasions. At that time it had most recently appeared in the June, 1982, issue of Thunder AM (now High Performance Pontiac). It was a photograph of a 1966 GTO hardtop: hood, roof, and trunk lid laden with trophies, winner of 27 championships in one year, possibly the most successful drag racer, and surely the most successful Pontiac drag racer of its time, having included among its accolades both a NASCAR and an NHRA stock eliminator title. This car, originally known as Tin Indian V, was further described in the 1982 article as “whereabouts … unknown.”

Merle thought that he knew exactly where the car was. The kid from whom he had originally bought the green car had told him that it was once the fastest GTO on the east coast, and he had thought, “Yeah, sure,” and proceeded on his way. Knafel had raced more than one GTO in 1966. But still, whereabouts unknown? Perhaps not. Fred Simmonds’ big blue letters and his own intuition told him that he had to be sure. He contacted Bill Knafel who was then running an automotive consulting business in Akron, Ohio. Mr. Knafel was, at first, understandably hesitant and, unfortunately, no longer in possession of any original paperwork for the ’66 Tin Indian. At last he and his son John, now curator of the Tin Indian archives, unearthed a picture of the firewall and cowl tag (a metal plate containing various codes and serial numbers) of Tin Indian V. The cowl tag numbers, like VIN numbers, are unique to the vehicle on which they appear. The cowl tags of Tin Indian V and the green car matched.

Because confusion about who drove Tin Indian V (sometimes called “The Original Tin Indian” as if it had been the only one, when, in reality, it was one of a series of Pontiacs so designated and raced by Knafel) has surfaced in magazine articles over the last twenty years, I would like to set the record as straight as I can, at this late date. I know that this information may not seem important to many wives and friends who exist on the periphery of this hobby, but I hope that most drag racing enthusiasts and historians of automotive Americana will agree with me that accuracy is always preferable.

There were three drivers who were actually involved with the car:

Bill Abraham, Arlen Vanke, and Larry “Doc” Dixon. Abraham’s role is difficult to ascertain because, sadly, he died in a highway accident in the early ‘70’s. If he drove the car at all, he probably did so during late 1965 when it was new to the dealership. Arlen Vanke had worked for Knafel, left, and returned for the 1966 season. Merle had read and heard about him prior to the discovery of the green car. His general impression was that he possessed the stuff of which legends are made. His wizard like ability to get the most out of a vehicle, engine and all other parts, was remarkable. It is to Arlen Vanke that much of the credit for the ’66 Tin Indian’s success belongs. Until the late summer of 1966, it was his car. He prepared it, and he drove it. He was at the wheel when it won the Jr. Stock Eliminator titles at both the NASCAR Winter Nationals in Daytona Beach and the NHRA Spring Nationals in Bristol, Tennessee. While NASCAR sponsored drag racing for only a short time and records of those races are virtually nonexistent, documentation of NHRA events is much more accessible. Both the August, 1966 issue of _Hot Rod_ and the August, 1966 issue of _Car Craft_, in articles about the Spring Nationals, extol Vanke’s virtues complete with pictures of Tin Indian V. The June 17, 1966 issue of NHRA’s newspaper _National Dragster_ is even more explicit in a short article entitled ”Arlen Vanke Drives Pontiac to Junior Stock Eliminator” and in a picture of Tin Indian V below it captioned “ARLEN VANKE ROCKETS TOWARDS JR. STOCK TITLE.”

Vanke, himself, considers Bristol, Tennessee, 1966, to be one of his finest moments. He prepared and took five cars to Bristol and won in four classes, not to mention the stock eliminator title. The reason that he only won in four classes is that two of his cars won in the same class. He declares his “final moment of glory” to have occurred there. He remembers qualifying for the stock eliminator run with a time of 12:22 (seconds, for the uninitiated), the next closest time having been 12:72 – – not even close by drag race standards. When he pulled into the staging lanes, no one, including a 1966 GTO sponsored by rival Royal Pontiac of Royal Oak, Michigan, driven by Milt Shornack, would pull in behind him. The other drivers were, of course, disqualified.

At this time, the car was painted white and lettered mostly in black. After national success, Knafel decided to repaint the car and join Quaker State’s “Beat the Champion” program. This is when the top surfaces of the car became black, and it began to boast huge gold and silver Mylar (a strong, thin manmade fiber) letters – “all the ginger” as Arlen Vanke aptly puts it. At this point, Vanke, less than excited about what he possibly considered excessive display, parted with Knafel, and Larry “Doc” Dixon became the car’s full-time driver taking it through its paces at approximately twelve to fifteen Quaker State sponsored events. It is a picture of the car, as it appeared at this point in time, that continues to reappear occasionally in various hobby or racing magazines. And it is because of the familiarity of this picture that Merle finally decided to paint the car to be identical to it even though the car actually looked considerably different while Arlen Vanke was tearing up the tarmac with it, making it famous.

Of course drag racing then was not exactly the same as drag racing now. Although I have heard the lament that real drag racing ought to be car against car, I think this is more an American Graffiti  type of reaction to the sport than a logical, considered one. Some boomers and more of their parents remember a time when a straight stretch of road was actually quiet and deserted enough that two cars could square off and run a quarter mile in a dead heat without much danger of crashing head on or getting caught. Those days are gone and with them, I suppose, some of their glamour. Still there is a relatively safe outlet for that urge for speed and glory since quarter mile drag racing, as it is run today, has been adjusted to accommodate the backyard mechanic who could not otherwise afford to compete.”

Go to Part 4

Image borrowed from: http://www.diecast-pub.com

Jeremy Nutt

Hi, I'm Jeremy.

5 thoughts to “1966 Pontiac GTO Tin Indian Part 3”

  1. Love those 66 Pontiac’s they were fast . My son owns a 1973 Catalina and it will smoke the tires, the other one he had was powered by the 400 block this one has a 350. He was at a loss about why it would not start after a rebuild of the heads and then found out he had used the wrong torque spec s for setting the lifters . 40 is to much, about 28 will do the job. This is a long winded article but worth the read if you are a Pontiac fan.

  2. Some better research is required – Vanke did NOT win Stock Eliminator at the Spring nationals – that was Jere Stahl in a Street Hemi – 11.80 @119.2 over Mike Schmitt.

    Vanke won A/Stock Automatic – after Olson fouled on the line –

    (Source – Super Stock – Drag racing the family sedan Pge 176 & Junior Stock, Page 48)

    1. Correction – Vanke won Jr Stock and A/S at the 66 Spring Nats, Stahl won Top Stock. The article is correct. Apologies for the confusion.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *