APRIL 2024: A CAR GUY’S 50-YEAR RELATIONSHIP WITH A 1961 PONTIAC PARISIENNE CONVERTIBLE GASSER

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Richard St Denis was a young car guy when he invested in a 1961 Pontiac Parisienne convertible during the early 1970s.

He lives in a western Canadian region well-known for its long, cold winters, a climate factor that worked in his favor because he bought the convertible in mid-winter when it was parked under a pile of snow.

Jim Sutherland

The frigid weather was a bargaining chip because convertibles are not a popular choice for winter transportation in his area. The car also had a tired powertrain, so Richard bought it for “only a few hundred bucks”, in his words.

Richard and his brother decided to upgrade the car from its original 283 Chevy small block by wedging a 409 Chevy big block into the Poncho drop top. Important note: Canadian Pontiac models were essentially Chevys with a different skin in 1961, so the factory powertrain in a ’61 Parisienne was indeed a Chevy product.

The Pontiac’s initial 409 became a boat anchor in a hurry because Richard and his brother tracked it at a local drag strip, among other speed-related misadventures in the car.

The Pontiac also underwent a frame upgrade that gave it the look and feel of a gasser, complete with a straight front axle donated by a vintage pickup truck. The car’s elevated height reflected the popularity of gassers at the time and is a solid conversation topic in 2023.

A second 409 big block was transplanted into the ’61 Poncho and is still running like a top in the car.

Richard told MyStarCollectorCar his wild convertible also drew plenty of attention from law enforcement agencies when he was a young car guy, so he parked it in his parents’ garage to avoid traffic ticket issues, a decision that meant his mother’s brand-new 1975 Mercury Cougar was banished to the great outdoors on the street.

His mother was not onside with the arrangement and joked that Richard ran up a substantial storage rent bill with her. The indoor storage protected the car from harsh winters and is one of the reasons the 63-year-old convertible is still in great shape.

Richard told MyStarCollectorCar the car was originally white before it was painted lime green for many years, and finally orange in a garage by a buddy.

The driving experience in a gasser style car is challenging to say the least, a fact not lost on Richard after all these years. Richard said his Poncho gasser “was like driving an old 4×4”, so he has not taken long trips in the convertible but is happy with the power steering system he added a few years ago.

The ’61 Pontiac was also used as a wedding car by Richard’s brother, as well as a nephew who undoubtedly shares the car guy gene with his uncle.

Richard describes his 61 Pontiac “as not overdone and done on a budget”, a description that suits a gasser built during his younger years when cost was a big factor.

These days Richard’s Poncho convertible makes fewer public appearances, but it still draws a big crowd whenever he attends a show. In fact, Richard’s late wife said it drew too much attention from curious onlookers whenever they went out in it.

A gasser was cool back in the early 1970s and may even be cooler in today’s world. Just ask Richard if you are fortunate enough to see him and his ’61 Poncho gasser at a show.        

Jim Sutherland

BY: Jim Sutherland

Jim Sutherland is a veteran automotive writer whose work has been published by many major print and online publications. The list includes Calgary Herald, The Truth About Cars, Red Deer Advocate, RPM Magazine, Edmonton Journal, Montreal Gazette, Windsor Star, Vancouver Province, and Post Media Wheels Section. 

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