DERBY — Mention high-performance Pontiac engines and the name “Wilhite” immediately comes to mind among those in the know. And rightfully so.
Tom Wilhite has made his living building some of the strongest Pontiac racing engines to ever rip down a drag strip. He not only builds them, but both he and his wife, Sharon, race them with considerable success.
But not all of the Wilhite’s Pontiacs are built to run a quarter of a mile at a time. They maintain an impressive fleet of street/show cars as well.
Currently, that fleet is heavily weighted with what many consider the original American muscle car, the Pontiac GTO.
“This is probably our favorite one to take on road trips,” says Sharon, indicating a white 1965 GTO convertible with a black top and black interior.
“It’s just a nice driver, you lean back and cruise,” said Tom.
They bought the car nearly 25 years ago from a friend.
“It was pretty much like it is now. We did some engine work and the interior,” said Tom.
The engine work involved stroking the original 389 V-8 to a beefier 450 cubic inches.
But they retained the original 2-speed Super Turbine 300 automatic transmission, which Tom is quick to point out “is not a Powerglide.”
A first-year convertible, their all-red 1964 GTO had been converted to an automatic transmission car by the time they acquired it.
“I wanted a 4-speed,” said Sharon, who got her wish, thanks to her husband. “I love to shift. When you take ‘em out for a drive, there’s nothing like banging them through the gears.”.
“Tom painted the car himself,” she noted, and she found the later model Grand Prix wheels, already trimmed in a matching red. Once a red bucket seat interior was completed, there was no option but to install a new red cloth top on the striking convertible.
The third of their crop of GTO’s apparently had been drag raced at some point in its life. But the ’65 GTO hardtop was well worth saving because it was a rare Tri-Power car with options like a tilt steering wheel and an electrically powered radio antenna, he said.
It, too, got a stroker crankshaft boosting it to 450 cubic inches. The engine hasn’t been put on a dyno, but Wilhite estimates it now produces a stout 525 horsepower. All that power is routed back through a Tremec 5-speed manual transmission, arriving at a set of 3:55 Positraction gears.
The hardtop was a special order paint code and was refinished in the proper Omaha Orange hue, with custom pinstriping along the belt line. Tom speculates the car may have been ordered in that color by a dealer so it could be tiger-striped as a showroom draw. It is equipped with front disc brakes and a Classic Air air conditioning system.
“The orange car is on the naked edge of being too much camshaft and too noisy (on the street),” Tom Wilhite explained.
The fourth car in the lineup is just the opposite, a calm, quiet 1957 Pontiac Star Chief, which looks gigantic compared to the GTOs. It retains the original 347 cubic inch V-8 under its massive hood, with only a 2-barrel carburetor feeding gas to the engine.
“It has a 4-speed automatic, which they called the Jetaway,” Wilhite pointed out. “It does have dual exhaust, but it probably didn’t come that way.”
The Wilhites believe that a set of heavy vinyl seatcovers probably conceal the original 56-year-old upholstery that came on the car new. It is also one of the GM cars that came equipped with an underseat heater, as well as the more conventional heater in the dash.
An all-white car, the Star Chief was in need of some fresh paint on the roof, so the Wilhites decided to paint the top the same deep rose color as the side trim, which gives it a bit more eye appeal.
“It’s a hoot to drive,” observed Sharon, who races a similar full-sized ’58 Pontiac on the drag strip.
The two different types of vehicles require different approaches.
“A drag car is not very sensible to put on the street, and a show car, you should not have to have one foot on the gas and one foot on the brake to keep it running,” says Tom Wilhite.
When building a street car, he added, “We try to maximize performance without killing the durability of the street.”
All four of their street cars will be on display at this weekend’s Pontiac Uprising at Kansas International Dragway, and both Sharon’s ’58 drag car and Tom’s ’59 Catalina will be in action on the strip.