Possibly one of the most legendary Pontiacs to ever heat up the asphalt, the 1969 Royal Bobcat Pontiac GTO Ram Air V all started with a befuddled father unclear to how to knock some sense into his unruly, street racing son. Asa Wilson Sr. decided to get his progeny, Asa Junior – known to friends and fellow racers as “Ace” – off the streets of 1950’s Detroit by buying him a Pontiac dealership. While seeming unimaginably drastic, the decision to purchase a car dealership with a fully-equipped service department was Asa Senior’s attempt to tap into his son’s interests.
The Wilson family was quite wealthy, making their fortune via the Ira Wilson and Sons Dairy which was as large as it was successful. Breaking from the family business, Ace was more interested in head-to-head racing. While the senior Wilson failed to understand his son’s lust for high performance street machines, and while father and son failed to ever meet eye-to-eye, Ace’s efforts elevated Royal Pontiac to one of the brand’s most profitable dealers during its short lifespan.
Located in Royal Oaks, Michigan, the newly opened Royal Pontiac quickly became the stomping grounds of groups of street racing kids. Droves of performance-loving teenagers and young adults were regularly found hanging around Royal’s service department just wanting to see what the gearheads at Royal were up to. Royal had quickly risen towards the top of the national performance dealership list with its close-nit participation with Pontiac corporate.
A decade before the ’69 Royal Bobcat Pontiac GTO was a reality, a major core shift within Pontiac’s management occurred. In 1959, Semon “Bunkie” Knudsen was made general manager. Despite an image of selling “stodgy, underperforming cars,” Bunkie demanded that Pontiac’s engineers eke out 100 more horsepower out of their V8, which “lead to the development of over-the-counter high-performance parts in 1959,” said former Pontiac marketing guru and GTO founding father Jim Wangers.
Next, Knudsen contacted Wangers to help and to try sell Pontiac as a performance brand on a wider scale. Meeting strong internal resistance, Knudsen killed his initial proposal of selling a three-day seminar to all 27 Pontiac dealer zones, but pulled Wangers aside and told him to go out and find a dealer willing to take on the task of helping make Pontiac a full-fledged performance brand. When Wangers gave Ace Wilson Jr. the sales pitch, “[Ace] was so enthusiastic about it, he went ballistic and would not let me out of his office until he signed a contract,” Wangers recounted. “I told him besides selling high-performance parts, he had to put a car on the dragstrip and he did.”
With full factory support, Royal successfully campaigned a ’59 Catalina in the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA). On Labor Day 1960, the Royal-tuned Super Dutys won three races at three separate venues. Right then, Royal Pontiac had solidified itself as the performance Pontiac headquarters. Customers seeking high-performance Pontiacs came in droves to the Royal Oak, Michigan. Initially, and because of their prior success, 99-percent of the “Royal Bobcats” sold were Catalinas. Wangers recalled, “We had to come up with a special emblem so we took the letters we needed to spell BOBCAT from the block letters PONTIAC and BONNEVILLE and they fit right into the pre-drilled holes on the Catalinas.”
Fortuitously, when GM pulled out of racing in 1963, Royal Pontiac jumped at the opportunity to modify and tune Pontiacs on a far larger scale. As Royal’s customization efforts swelled, so did Pontiac’s efforts into performance with the introduction of the GTO. Almost immediately, Royal was performing their famous “Supertunes” on new ’64 GTOs. Already the most powerful mid-sized car on the market, Royal took the GTO – rechristening it the Bobcat GTO – and created a street machine worthy of national notoriety.
At its peak, Royal Pontiac was selling more than 1,000 Royal Bobcat conversions per year. Royal’s best year was 1966 thanks to their modded GTO and Grand Prix. Surprisingly, Ace sold more Royal Bobcat kits through the mail than by physically installing them, making them, in essence, the first high-performance mail order dealer.
The mail ordered kit consisted of a large box packed with thinner head gaskets (0.022-0.025-inches), blocked heat riser intake gaskets, a distributor re-curve kit, which included Mallory points and condenser with a new advance stop with lighter weights and springs, larger jets for the carburetors, rocker arm locknuts, colder-running Champion J10Y spark plugs, and the necessary valve cover and valley pan gaskets to perform the modification. The kit also included Royal Racing Team club decals, Royal Bobcat body stickers, a “GR-RRR” license plate, and Royal Pontiac license plate frames.
Considered the lowest level of Royal’s “Bobcat” performance modification packages, those who craved more power opted for a car prepared and sold directly through Royal Pontiac and featured a unique paint scheme of a white valence panel, hood stripe, rocker panels stripes, and trunk lid over Crystal Turquiose with all the Royal Bobcat badging.
Beginning with the Royal Bobcat performance kit above, Royal went a little further by blueprinting, CC’ing, and milling the cylinder heads. This was to equalize the compression and chamber volume for all eight cylinders. Working with the thinner head gaskets, this modification spiked the cylinder compression well over 11-to-1. Additionally, Royal measured and shimmed the valve springs so all 16 springs were at the exact same height. While nothing groundbreaking, these efforts provided a level of quality control unattainable in mass-produced vehicles.
But it was in 1968 when Royal started installing the venerable 428ci engines into GTOs (against GM’s pleas, demands and threats). This level was the most drastic, and subsequently, the most expensive of the Royal Bobcats. The Ram Air V was a special 400ci block with newly designed high compression tunnel port heads and a special high rise intake manifold. Available only as an “over-the-counter” engine, the 428 was the stuff of Pontiac legend. If so equipped, the Royal Bobcat GTO RAM V came to the Royal Oaks dealership hollow from the assembly line.
The factory did not install the engine (as it was adamantly against GM’s plus-400ci policy), but did build it exclusively for Royal Pontiac and provided the full RAM AIR V motor separately. Skirting the cubic-inch policy, the official Pontiac factory paperwork read “Engineering Development Demo” with a cost of $2300 while the completed car was selling for around $3400. Since Royal Pontiac purchased the rolling body from Pontiac’s factory floor, Royal was the first owner to title the car. Even though there were a little over 200 RAM AIR V engines produced, most were sold disassembled or to a small selection of well-connected persons and race teams.
A prototype GTO equipped with the 428 package reportedly clocked a 5.2-second 0-60 mph time and a quarter-mile pass of 11.5 seconds at 123 mph. In early 1969, a Royal Pontiac-prepared GTO, driven by Royal’s Milt Schornack, showed the world – and Popular Hot Rodding – how potent a mid-level Bobcat GTO (running a Royal-blueprinted Ram Air IV 400ci) truly was.
The ’69 GTO was equipped with power disc brakes, a manual 4-speed, a 3.90 posi, a Schiefer Rev-Lok pressure plate and clutch, Doug’s Headers (with 2-inch primaries and 3 1/2-inch collectors), and 8.00-8.50 x14 Goodyear cheater slicks. With open headers and slicks, the big Ram Air IV Goat ran a 12.62-second pass at 109.52 mph. In street trim – closed pipes and street tires – the same GTO ran 8-tenths of a second slower at 13.42 @ 108.42 mph on a very cold day for testing with stiff head winds.
By the end of 1969, Ace had had enough of the infighting with his demanding father and Pontiac’s general manager, Tom McQueen, who equally despised performance and wanted Pontiac to have nothing to do with it. So, in 1970, Ace sold his Royal Racing Team to John DeLorean’s brother, George and walked away from the very thing that made Royal Pontiac a spot on the map.
Despite this turn of events and the years that would prelude the dealership’s closure, Royal Pontiac was able to turn a bland, run-of-the-mill brand of equally unexciting cars into a family of rip-snorting, in-your-face street performers. No other dealership could be more instrumental in Pontiac’s Apollo-rocket ascent into the stratosphere of muscle car hierarchy, and the few existing Royal Bobcat GTO Ram Air V’s are evidence of it.