Story and photos
by Brian Earnest
John Mingesz probably had much in common with a lot of other car shoppers when he decided to pull the trigger and buy his 1967 Pontiac LeMans Sprint. Mingesz had a GTO in mind and fully intended to bring home a “Tiger,” but when he came across his six-cylinder LeMans, he unexpectedly found a lot to like.
“I bought it in ’98, and at the time I was looking for a ’66 GTO,” said Mingesz, a resident of Cudahy, Wis. “I heard about this car and decided to go take a look at it. The body was real nice, the paint was good, but it ran really bad. It had an intake leak.
“But it just needed some freshening up. I knew it was going to need some engine work done to it, but the body was so nice. My intention was to build a high-performance engine for it, but I decided to research the car and I found out how original it was and I thought, “I can’t change it. I’ve gotta keep it original.’”
It’s not that LeManses in general were scarce in 1967 — Pontiac built nearly 76,000 of them — but ones that came equipped with the Sprint package like Mingesz’s car are certainly few and far between these days. Production figures on the Sprints are elusive — educated guesses range from a few hundred to a few thousand — but the cars are not common these days. And they are certainly rarer than GTOs of the period. “I’m still looking for the ’66 GTO, though,” Mingesz joked.
The LeMans was the upscale family member of the Tempest lineup, and it got a handsome restyling for 1966 that included a classy “Coke-bottle” profile, split grille and stacked headlights. Those touches all came at the direction of Pontiac’s chief engineer John DeLorean, who was determined to update Pontiac’s image and inject some European flair and performance into the Poncho lineup. Part of that change was the introduction of the new “IOC-6” overhead-cam straight six-cylinder engine as standard fair in the Tempest and LeMans. The base one-barrel six wasn’t bad — it offered 165 hp — but the hotter 215-cid “Sprint” was even better, rivaling many of the smaller V-8s on the scene at the time for performance and giving the midsize Pontiacs an interesting twist.
The new six-cylinders debuted in 1966 and were available again the following model year when they could be ordered for the first-year Firebird. In addition to the swifter four-barrel six-cylinder, the Sprint package included a front stabilizer bar upgrade and stiffer front shocks, a heavier-duty clutch, a three-speed floor-shifted manual transmission and Sprint decals and badging. This was all in addition to some of the LeMans goodies that dressed up the Tempest, including a choice of bucket or notchback bench seats with armrests, Morrokied upholstery, carpeting, front foam seat cushions, an ashtray lamp, a cigar lighter and a glovebox. Two-door models had vertical air slots on the rear fenders.
The six-cylinder OHC-6 was standard in the Tempest and LeMans intermediates from 1966-69, and it may have been slightly ahead of its time. At 215 hp — eventually that number grew to 230 by 1969 — the hi-po Sprint engine was nothing to sneeze at, and some observers at the time felt that the lighter Sprint Tempest and LeMans offerings were more balanced and outperformed their V-8-equipped versions. But the American buying public was all about V-8 power during the 1960s, and the GM sixes never gained a big following. Perhaps if Pontiac had not offered a 326-cid V-8 with 250 hp for less money than the four-barrel Sprint engine, the six would have been a long-range winner.
Adding to the Sprint package’s rarity today is the fact that many cars have had their engines swapped out over the years. Plenty of Pontiacs apparently started out their lives with an IOC-6, but eventually got a V-8 transplant at some point. “Part of it is they didn’t hold up for those first two years,” Mingesz said. “They had a problem with two much oil going to the cam, which would wear out the cam and tappets. Cams would wear out because there was just too much oil pressure up there.”
Mingesze was one enthusiast who was determined to keep his six-cylinder in place, but that required re-boring the cylinders and installing new pistons he said actually fit in a 327-cid Chevy engine. One thing that Mingesz caved on when it came to originality, however, was the transmission. His car’s two-speed Super Turbine 300 eventually had to go. In its place now is a Turbo-Hydramatic 350, which debuted in 1969 as a successor to the Super Turbine 300. “I enjoy it more now. It’s more fun to drive,” said Mingesz. “It was kind of a sled with that Super Turbine 300 in there. But once we put in that Turbo 350, it’s a lot better. The low end got a lot better and top end got a lot better.
“I’d say now it’s got the power of a small V-8, for sure.”
Mingesz said beyond the engine work and new tranny, he’s done very little to his LeMans. The car originally came from New Mexico, which would help explain the great condition of its undercarriage. At some point, the car made its way north, but he isn’t sure how or when. Along the way, somebody gave it some new maroon paint — “whoever painted it did a great job,” Mingesz noted. Mingesz supplied the car with a new headliner and carpet, but the seats and the rest of the interior are original. “I fixed up some of the trim. A lot of it was pitted and in poor condition,” he said. “I had the tail light bezels re-plated. I bought a few pieces here and there. I try to find original stuff if I can.
“As far as I know, none of the underside has ever been touched… The [black and white] parchment interior is original. The car came with the Sprint package and had bucket seats, but pretty much nothing else. No power steering or power brakes. It was a pretty straightforward car. It’s pretty much just the way it came, other than the Rally II wheels. It had hubcaps [originally].”
All things considered, Mingesz admits he’s gotten a lot more car, and a lot more fun, from his LeMans Sprint than he ever bargained for. He says having a six-cylinder under the hood makes his LeMans much more of a conversation piece, “and now that gas is over $4 dollars a gallon, that six-cylinder is looking real good! I just put 200 miles on it, and burned probably half a tank, so it seems like it’s doing pretty good.”
“I bought it with about 85,000 miles on it, and now it has 100,300 miles, but I don’t worry about it all. I worry about not putting enough miles on it! I’ve got a ’72 Corvette at home and I hardly drive that anymore. I drive this car much more.”
When he takes his LeMans out to car shows and other hobby gatherings, Mingesz finds no shortage of people who fondly remember the Sprint-optioned Pontiacs, but he’s still waiting to run into somebody who has one today. “Myself, I haven’t seen another Sprint Tempest or LeMans,” he said. “I think I saw a Tempest on eBay once, but that was quite some time ago.
“But everybody wants to talk about it. A lot of guys in my age bracket, or 10 years either way, they had friends or parents or somebody that had a similar car. It gets a lot of reaction.”
If you don’t subscribe to Old Cars Weekly magazine, you’re missing out on the only weekly magazine in the car hobby. And we’ll deliver 54 issues a year right to your mailbox every week for less than the price of a oil change! Click here to see what you’re missing with Old Cars Weekly!
Got a car you’d like us to feature as our “Car of the Week“? We want to hear from you! E-mail us and tell us all about it.
The Big Book is back! Get your copy of the ultimate auto reference book: Standard Catalog of American Cars: 1805-1942
The Old Cars Nation!
Follow Old Cars Weekly and Buck the Panel Truck on Twitter and Facebook. Click the icon to visit