The 1961 Pontiac Ventura 389 was a natural result of evolution in muscle cars. Pontiac enlarged its 370-cid V-8 in 1959 to create the Ventura 389, its signature engine for much of the '60s. A 345-bhp tri-power option was offered from the start and over the next few years, dealer-installed "Super Duty" factory mods pushed it to 363 bhp.
Introduction of the 389 coincided with the emergence of Ace Wilson's Royal Pontiac dealership in Royal Oak, Michigan, as the quasi-official street-performance arm of the factory. It specialized in the hottest factory parts and in super-tuning Ponchos. A four-speed 363-bhp Catalina prepped by Royal and driven by Pontiac marketing executive Jim Wangers was NHRA Super/Stock champ with an ET of 14.1 at 100 mph.
Pontiac downsized its midrange Catalina and Ventura for '61. Wheel-base dropped from 122 inches to 119, and bodies were shortened by four inches. Most customers winced; rodders cheered. The cars were 200 pounds lighter, and the 389 was strong as ever. Pontiac now offered a wider array of serious performance equipment than any manufacturer, including aluminum front bumpers, radiators, and body parts. Late in the model year, Super Duty 389 hardware was applied to about a dozen 421-cid V-8s intended for pro drag racing.
Other race-ready big-blocks were available in small numbers at the time. But of cars within reach, few blended speed and style like a 389 Catalina or Ventura. Two-barrel versions had as much as 267 bhp, four-barrels had up to 333. The top box-stock choice was the 348-bhp tri-power.
Hardtops had GM's graceful "bubble-top" shape, Venturas came with "Jeweltone Morrokide" upholstery, and buyers could order a host of sporting accessories. A Borg-Warner four-speed manual was now a $306 production item, having previously been a special-order factory option. And Pontiac now authorized dealers to install genuine Hurst shifters for the three-speed manual.