Royal Pontiac: The original GM performance parts dealer
As the 1950s drew to a close, Pontiac Motor Division was evolving its “grandpa” image to a younger man’s brand. The new general manager, Semon “Bunkie” Knudsen, and his well-assembled team of engineers had developed a highly competitive racing program, which included NASCAR and was growing into NHRA. To support this highly successful program, Pontiac engineers had created a full catalog of special factory racing parts.
With the aggressive focus on racing came an even more enhanced youthful image, which translated into a sales boost that exceeded corporate expectations for the Pontiac rebrand. Naturally, there was plenty of support within Pontiac to corporate involvement in racing and keep those sales growing. One such supporter was an ambitious young Pontiac dealer from Royal Oak, Michigan, named Ace Wilson Jr.
Wilson was an avid race fan and not one to back away from a challenge at the stop light. He felt there were many other young new-car buyers like himself who would welcome having access to Pontiac’s high-performance parts catalog and the knowledge and expertise that the racing program could provide, directly through a dealership’s service department. Wilson was certain this would lead to more new-car sales and increased profits at the dealership level, and he took his idea to the Pontiac suits. They liked it so much they assigned him to develop the project.
Wilson returned to his dealership and began educating his parts department staff on the availability of special high-performance parts from the factory, and then developed and trained a service department that understood the application of these parts for customer use. Wilson also realized the best way to promote this new “Royal Pontiac” brand was to campaign a dealership-sponsored-and-prepped race car. Late in 1959, Wilson and his crew began testing and tuning a tri-power Catalina for that exact purpose. The S/S stock car produced 345 horsepower and was one of the first stockers in the country to exceed 100 mph and break the 13-second ceiling in the quarter-mile. A few months later at the 1960 Winternationals, the “Hot Chief” from Royal Pontiac captured everything in its class.
Success on the track quickly transferred to sales success on the dealership floor at Royal Pontiac. Not only were sales increased for cars, but parts and service also showed increased revenues. The high-performance mechanics, led by Pontiac guru Milt Schornack, took the weekend magic they’d learned while racing and applied it during the work week not only on local racers’ cars but even the daily drivers of customers who wanted a little something extra out on the boulevard. The name Royal Pontiac became widely known and respected, and the team dominated the 1960 NHRA Nationals, grabbing the S/S and Stock Eliminator class titles.
Royal Pontiac continued to dominate Midwest drag strips and national events through 1963. With Pontiac’s corporate withdrawal from racing that year, Royal Pontiac became the go-to source for Pontiac performance for racers of all levels. The dealership had an expansive high-performance parts inventory and hands-on knowledge of what worked in particular performance applications, and it quickly developed a nationwide mail order business to feed Pontiac fanatics’ need for speed.
Royal Pontiac-prepped vehicles were called “Royal Bobcats,” which could host of up to 38 different upgrades and options. The basis of the Royal Bobcats were high-performance tweaks, a unique paint scheme, and Royal Bobcat badging, which was typically added to the rear roof pillar but could vary from model to model.
Eventually, Royal Bobcat badges and performance kits could be purchased by mail order through the dealership’s parts department. These kits were highly successful because they were an inexpensive, straightforward, and track-proven way to significantly improve performance. The kit included rocker arm locking nuts, new rocker cover gaskets, thinner head gaskets (by 0.022-0.025 inches, to increase compression), blocked heat riser gasket, carburetor re-jetting package, a distributor recurve kit with Mallory points and condenser, a new advance stop with lighter weights and springs, and a set of Royal Bobcat emblems.
Royal customers who desired a true strip-ready car could have the Royal mechanics prep their car to a full legal NHRA C/Stocker for an additional $1150 (more than $9000 in the mid-1960s). This package included completely disassembling the engine, then balancing and blueprinting the rotating assembly and assembling it with racing clearances. The heads were then blueprinted to maximum legal specifications, and a set of Doug’s four-tube, equal-length headers were installed, along with an electric fuel pump, weight transfer suspension upgrades, Hurst competition shifter, and M & H Slicks. Prior to delivery, the customer was given detailed break-in, service, and tune-up instructions to keep the car in top performance condition.
Requests from Pontiac enthusiasts from all over the continent poured in, asking the dealership for more information on how to get their Pontiacs to run more efficiently. Milt Schornack decided to start the Royal Racing Team to better meet these requests. Paid membership ensured that each member’s car received personal attention, and they also received newsletters with updated performance options and the latest tuning tips derived from the racing team’s extensive testing at the track.
Royal Pontiac’s expertise and success was so respected that John DeLorean made certain that all press cars released by Pontiac were Royal Bobcat-prepped cars. The most renowned of these press cars was a “ringer” 1964 GTO test car, prepped for a March 1964 Car and Driver article in which it went head-to-head with a Ferrari GTO. This car had a Royal Pontiac-prepped 421-cubic-inch tri-power engine that out-ran the Italian supercar in a 0–100 mph sprint. Because Pontiac V-8 engines are externally the same, no one even noticed that the engine in the test car wasn’t actually a 389. Throughout the ’60s, similar swaps would be a trademark of Royal Pontiac team.
The 1966 model year proved to be the biggest sales year for the Pontiac’s GTO. As Pontiac was gaining record sales, Royal Pontiac’s mail order sales also soared, as more than 1000 Bobcat conversions kits were sold that year. Ace Wilson’s Royal Pontiac had become the pioneer dealership in building “supercars” long before COPO cars existed, and laying the path for others such as Yenko, Berger, and Grand-Spaudling to also sell dealership-prepped performance/race vehicles. Royal had also established itself as the first high-performance mail order dealership, creating a business model for the infamous Baldwin Chevrolet/Motion Performance program and even current-day Chevrolet Performance Parts sealers Hendrick Chevrolet and Scoggin-Dickey Chevrolet.
As the muscle car wars raged on—with the battle cry, “There is no replacement for displacement!”—Royal Pontiac responded by installing warmed-up 428 motors from Pontiac’s full-sized line into GTOs and Firebirds and then releasing them on the Woodward Avenue battle grounds. This practice was frowned upon by General Motors brass, and they let know Ace know about it. Ace’s father, who purchased the dealership for him in the late 1950s, was never a fan of his son’s high-performance marketing plan either. The elder Wilson, along with dealership general manager Tom McQueen, was constantly in Ace’s ear, encouraging him to discontinue the racing program.
With changing leadership at GM and the execs’ disfavor of the once-famous “Royal engine swaps,” Ace saw the handwriting on the wall and knew it was time to step away from the high-performance end of the dealership. In 1970, he sold his Royal Racing Team to John DeLorean’s brother, George, who owned Leader Automotive in Detroit. Ace continued to run the dealership, but without the excitement of the race program—and with the dulling in the Pontiac line—he sold it in 1974, closing the book on the Royal Pontiac story.