The effect of the calcium channel antagonists nifedipine and FR 34235 on the vasopressor response to alpha-1 adrenoceptor stimulation in the pithed normotensive rat was investigated. The maximal pressor response elicited by the full alpha-1 adrenoceptor agonist SK&F l-89748 was slightly but significantly reduced by 1-mg/kg doses of nifedipine (21 +/- 2%) and FR 34235 (34 +/- 4%). In comparison, the maximal pressor response to alpha-1 adrenoceptor stimulation by the partial alpha-1 agonist SK&F 88444 was markedly inhibited by nifedipine (51 +/- 1%) and FR 34235 (65 +/- 3%). Partial inactivation of the postsynaptic alpha-1 adrenoceptors with phenoxybenzamine (0.1 mg/kg) resulted in a maximal increase in diastolic pressure to alpha-1 adrenoceptor activation by SK&F l-89748 less than that induced by SK&F 88444. After phenoxybenzamine treatment, nifedipine and FR 34235 produced even greater reductions in the maximal vasopressor response to alpha-1 adrenoceptor stimulation by SK&F l-89748 (77 +/- 8 and 85 +/- 1%, respectively). Moreover, an inverse linear correlation (r = 1.00) was observed between the sensitivity of the maximal vasopressor response to nifedipine and FR 34235 and the magnitude of the maximal pressor response. The data suggest that the sensitivity of the alpha-1 adrenoceptor-mediated pressor response to inhibition by calcium antagonists in the pithed rat is inversely related to the magnitude of the pressor response, and they are consistent with the notion that the presence of "spare" alpha-1 adrenoceptors may determine the sensitivity of the pressor response to calcium antagonists.