Three Deuces, Four Speeds: The Rise and Fall of the Pontiac GTO

As many of our readers are probably aware, General Motors announced at the end of April 2009 that the venerable Pontiac division will become extinct in late 2010. This week, we take a look at the rise and fall of the car that many consider the definitive Pontiac: the 1964–1974 Pontiac GTO.

1964 Pontiac GTO headlights

BLAME IT ON BUNKIE

As we have previously discussed, until the mid-1950s, Pontiac made some of America’s duller cars. They were solid, dependable, and not unattractive, but they were staid and dull to the point of invisibility. By 1955, sales were slumping badly and the division needed help if it was to survive.

That help arrived in July 1956 in the form of a new general manager, one Semon E. Knudsen. “Bunkie” Knudsen, as he was known, had a long family history with General Motors. His father, “Big Bill” Knudsen, had headed Chevrolet from 1924 through 1937 and subsequently became president of GM. During the war, the Roosevelt administration recruited the elder Knudsen to manage the conversion of civilian industry to military production. Bunkie joined the corporation in 1939 as a junior engineer for Pontiac. He rose through the ranks, doing stints at the Allison and Detroit Diesel divisions before returning to Pontiac in 1956. At the time, Bunkie, then only 43, was the youngest general manager in GM’s history.

To aid him in resuscitating Pontiac, Bunkie persuaded corporate management to let him hire E.M. (Pete) Estes, then the assistant chief engineer of Oldsmobile, as his chief engineer. Estes, in turn, hired an engineer named John DeLorean from dying Studebaker-Packard. Like their new boss, Estes and DeLorean were young, energetic, and supremely confident.

Knudsen, Estes, and De Lorean set about transforming Pontiac’s moribund image with a new focus on performance and sport. Under Knudsen’s auspices, Pontiac won its first NASCAR race in February 1957, a feat that stunned onlookers accustomed to thinking of Pontiacs as cars for dowagers. In March of that year, Pontiac introduced its first high-performance “Tri-Power” triple-carburetor engine. (Pontiac’s setup was very similar to that of the Oldsmobile’s 1957 J-2 engine, whose top-secret development Pete Estes had related to Knudsen after arriving at Pontiac.) This was followed by the Bonneville, a pricey, limited-edition convertible featuring Rochester mechanical fuel injection, a real novelty at the time.

1964 Pontiac GTO engine
In Pontiac parlance, “Tri-Power” meant three Rochester two-barrel carburetors with a vacuum-operated linkage (which buyers frequently replaced with a progressive mechanical linkage). In 1964, the GTO’s optional Tri-Power engine was rated at 348 gross horsepower (260 kW), 23 hp (17 kW) more than the Pontiac GTO’s base engine. In 1965 and 1966, new cylinder heads increased its rated output to 360 hp (269 kW). A GM policy decision forced the cancellation of the triple-carburetor setup for all cars other than the Corvette after the 1966 model year.

In June 1957, the members of the Automobile Manufacturers Association (AMA) voted to cease all manufacturer participation in competition. The AMA ban was essentially a gentleman’s agreement calling for automakers to withdraw from active support of racing (which most did, at least officially) and to cease promoting performance or speed (which many did not). Although the ban became GM corporate policy, Knudsen was not dissuaded and Pontiac cars and engines — officially run by private teams, but with considerable factory support — remained extremely active in American motorsport. Pontiacs swept the first six places in their class at the Daytona Beach Pure Oil Performance Trials in 1958 and were very active in NASCAR. While Pontiac won only one NASCAR Grand National race in 1959, they scored six victories in 1960, 32 in 1961, and 21 in 1962.

Combined with an aggressive new advertising campaign by MacManus, John & Adams, Pontiac rose from obscurity to become one of the American industry’s most successful marques. By 1962, it had ascended to No. 3 in total sales behind only Chevrolet and Ford.

In November 1961, Knudsen was rewarded with a promotion to general manager of Chevrolet, GM’s biggest and most powerful division. Pete Estes took his place at Pontiac, while John DeLorean became chief engineer. (Bunkie went on to become executive vice president of GM in 1966, although he resigned in 1968 to become president of the Ford Motor Company.)

THE PONTIAC TEMPEST IN A TEAPOT

Although its performance was not as vivid as that of the hotter full-size cars, one of the Knudsen-Estes-DeLorean team’s most interesting technological achievements was the Tempest, Pontiac’s Y-body “senior compact,” introduced along with its Buick Special and Oldsmobile F-85 cousins in 1961.

If the corporation had had its way, the Tempest would have been a re-skinned, re-trimmed version of Chevrolet’s rear-engine Corvair, but Knudsen and Estes were reluctant to dilute Pontiac’s hard-won image with such an obvious exercise in badge engineering. Instead, DeLorean and Estes gave the Pontiac Tempest an unusual front-engine/rear-transaxle layout, connecting engine and transmission with a unique flexible, curved driveshaft, woven from strand steel. The Tempest was powered by one of America’s few four-cylinder engines of the era, created by lopping four cylinders off of Pontiac’s standard V8. (Interestingly, this approach was later adopted by Porsche for its four-cylinder, rear-transaxle 924/944/968.) The “rope-drive” Tempest involved many compromises, but it allowed Pontiac to offer a technically sophisticated package for a relatively modest investment and it won a host of engineering awards.

Unfortunately, none of the senior compacts sold as well as GM anticipated. The Pontiac Tempest sold about 100,000 units in 1961, which was less than one-third the volume of the Corvair. Worse, although it ingeniously recycled as much existing tooling and hardware as possible, the Tempest still cost more to build than a conventional car and had higher warranty costs to boot. Buick and Oldsmobile managers, meanwhile, protested that the senior compacts were too small for their customers, particularly with the 1962 introduction of Ford’s intermediate Fairlane, which offered a somewhat bigger, more orthodox package for similar money.

As a result, the corporation decided that for 1964, the senior compacts would be replaced by a new line of bigger A-body intermediates using orthodox body-on-frame construction. In Pontiac’s case, it meant the demise of some of the division’s most advanced engineering, but the A-body Tempest would be considerably cheaper to build.

1964 Pontiac GTO fenderbadge
Although the badges claim “6.5 Litres,” the actual metric displacement of the original Pontiac GTO’s 389 cu. in. engine was 6,372 cc (sometimes quoted as 6,375 cc). Pontiac offered the 389 from 1959 to 1966 in various states of tune. Like all Pontiac V8s until the late seventies, it was a development of the 287 cu. in. (4,706 cc) engine introduced back in 1955, expanded in both bore and stroke. In 1967, the GTO’s engine was bored out to 400 cu. in. (6,554 cc), which remained its standard engine (still in various states of tune) until 1973.

HOT CHIEF

Much of Pontiac’s racing involvement in the early sixties was focused on the stock-car scene, but the fastest-growing form of motorsport in that era was drag racing. NASCAR was a very popular sport in some parts of the country, but drag racing was something kids could emulate on the street, which had an appeal all its own. Naturally, that was exactly the sort of thing that the AMA and GM’s anti-racing executives were afraid of, but its potential promotional value was obvious.

Amateur hot-rodding went back at least to the 1930s, but by the late fifties, it was a growing cottage industry. Young people had an unprecedented amount of disposable income and it was not at all uncommon for a teenage boy to spend a few hundred dollars on a used car and then add $1,000 worth of aftermarket add-ons and speed parts.

In 1959, Jim Wangers, a young ad exec with MacManus, John & Adams, concocted a scheme to allow Pontiac to promote street performance and drag racing at a grassroots level. Wangers approached Bunkie Knudsen with a proposal for a traveling “performance seminar” that would go to each of Pontiac’s 27 zone offices to instruct interested dealers in how to promote and sell performance and performance parts. The dealers, being independent franchises, were not bound by the AMA ban or GM internal policy and could promote the speed equipment Pontiac had already developed for racing in a way the division itself could not.

Knudsen found the plan interesting, but Pontiac’s general sales manager, Frank Bridge, strongly opposed Wangers’ idea. Knudsen was reluctant to antagonize Bridge, a well-connected GM veteran, over what he saw as a minor issue. Knudsen finally told Wangers that while he couldn’t authorize the full program, he would allow Wangers to try it — quietly — with a single dealership. “Find a guinea pig,” Knudsen told him.

Wangers contacted Asa (“Ace”) Wilson, Jr., the owner of Royal Pontiac, a dealership in the Detroit suburb of Royal Oak, not far from Wangers’ home. Wilson was interested and agreed to get involved. His mechanics soon developed a series of highly tuned Catalinas for the strip. Wangers himself drove one of those Catalinas, dubbed “Hot Chief 1,” to win the 1960 National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) Top Stock Eliminator title.

The next step was to develop a package that Royal could sell to customers. In 1961, Royal’s “Performance Center” introduced the Bobcat, a package for the Catalina that included a high-performance 389 V8 and special paint and badges. Thanks to the great publicity generated by Royal’s drag cars, Royal sold a modest but respectable number of Bobcats, some to customers very far from Royal Oak. (Royal also developed a Bobcat version of the 1963 Tempest, which was capable of 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in a brisk 6.5 seconds, although it had more power than the Tempest’s transaxle could withstand.)

1964 Pontiac GTO side
The Tempest was 203 inches (5,156 mm) long on a 115-inch (2,921mm) wheelbase, which made it about 10 inches (254 mm) longer than the 1963 “rope-drive” car. Curb weight ranged from 2,930 lb (1,329 kg) for a six-cylinder base model to about 3,650 lb (1,656 kg) for a well-equipped GTO convertible. When the GTO first appeared in October 1963, it was available only as a pillared “sport coupe” like this one or as a convertible. The GTO option wasn’t available on pillarless hardtops until late November. Although the pillared couple was slightly cheaper, lighter, and more rigid, the stylish hardtop eventually accounted for the majority of GTO sales. More than 56% of 1964 Pontiac GTOs were hardtops.

BANNING THE BOMB

In January 1963, GM chairman Frederic Donner issued an edict demanding that all divisions — by which he primarily meant Chevrolet, Pontiac, and Oldsmobile — immediately withdraw from racing and abide by the 1957 AMA ban. Donner was well aware of the under-the-table racing support and he wanted it stopped.

Why was GM management so hostile toward racing and performance? Certainly, Chrysler and Ford were happy to promote competition; Lee Iacocca announced Ford’s “Total Performance” campaign only three months after Donner’s memo. GM was a far more conservative company than Ford or Chrysler, to be sure, but its bigger concern was a deep-seated fear of government intervention. General Motors in those days controlled around half the U.S. market and GM’s senior executives worried constantly that the Justice Department’s anti-trust division might step in to break them up. GM management was extremely wary of doing anything that might antagonize its critics in Washington, particularly with ominous rumbles about safety and emissions regulation already mounting on both coasts. The corporation simply had too much to lose.

In any case, the reiterated racing ban was both good and bad news for Pontiac. Its cars were about to face new rivals on the track with which even the mighty Super Duty engines could not easily cope. The ban provided an excuse to pull out without losing face. On the other hand, it was a sledgehammer blow to Pontiac’s marketing strategy, which depended on racing to bolster the division’s racy, high-performance image.

In response to this crisis, Jim Wangers wrote a memo to John DeLorean, with whom he’d developed a good working relationship, saying, “As ugly as it sounds, we need to take racing off the track and put it on the street.” Wangers pushed strongly for Pontiac to develop a hot street car aimed at the growing youth market. Since performance-minded young buyers were already sinking a lot of money into their cars, a properly developed package could give Pontiac a piece of that lucrative but underdeveloped market.

While Wangers’ concept centered around what he described as “a special lighter version of the Catalina, with a stripped interior,” DeLorean had a different idea: a high-performance version of the new A-body Pontiac Tempest.

SUPER TEMPEST

According to Wangers, the concept for the “Super Tempest” originated in a casual conversation between John DeLorean and assistant chief engineers William Collins and Russell Gee. While inspecting the chassis of a pre-production car at the Pontiac engineering garage in Milford, Michigan early in 1963, Bill Collins remarked to DeLorean, “You know, it would take me about a half an hour to stick a 389 into this car.” Russ Gee agreed and DeLorean told them to do it.

As Collins had suggested, the engine swap was easily accomplished. Unlike Chevrolet, which had distinct big-block and small-block engines, Pontiac’s 326 cu. in. (5,340 cc), 389 cu. in. (6,372 cc), and 421 cu. in. (6,902 cc) V8s were all versions of the same basic engine and were largely identical externally. It took Collins and Gee only a week to pull the mild-mannered 326 from an early-production 1964 Tempest coupe and install a 389 in its place. Although the A-body Tempest was bigger and heavier than its rope-drive predecessor, the big engine gave impressive performance. DeLorean liked it so much that for a while he used the car for his daily commute.

Pete Estes also liked the Super Tempest concept. It could be built relatively cheaply and would give Pontiac the kind of high-performance street car that Wangers had been telling them to build. The main problem was that GM policy limited the new A-body cars to engines of no more than 330 cu. in. (5.4 L) and one advertised horsepower per 10 pounds (4.5 kg) of curb weight. Putting the 389 engine into the Tempest would be a clear violation of that rule. GM policy also stated that any new models needed senior management approval, which in the wake of Donner’s memo was not likely to be forthcoming.

Estes’ solution was to simply not ask for permission. While new models needed management approval, new option packages were within the purview of the division’s general manger. If they made the Super Tempest package an option for the Tempest rather than a separate model, they might get away with it. It was politically risky, particularly if it didn’t sell, but he thought it was a good concept and its marketing logic was sound. Estes told DeLorean to proceed.

1964 Pontiac GTO front 3q
The original Pontiac GTO was based on the Tempest Le Mans, the Tempest’s upper-level trim series, sharing its plusher “Morrokide” vinyl upholstery and bucket seats. Unfortunately, the GTO also shared the Tempest’s drum brakes, whose lining area was among the skimpiest in the industry. Knowledgeable buyers could specify sintered metallic linings, which greatly improved fade resistance, but could be erratic in normal driving. The owner of this car has converted to discs, which were not optional on the GTO until 1967.

PONTIAC GTO: THE ITALIAN SANDWICH

With Estes’ approval, DeLorean told Russ Gee and Bill Collins to prepare a production version of their development mule. Knowing that all hell would break lose if senior management caught wind of it too early, DeLorean swore everyone involved to secrecy. This caused Russ Gee a few nervous moments when Oldsmobile engineer Dale Smith spotted him testing the 389 Tempest on the Milford track. According to Jim Wangers, Smith was so surprised by the Tempest’s ferocious acceleration that he flagged Gee down and demanded, “What the hell have you got in there?” Gee, terrified that their plans were about to be discovered, told Smith that he was just testing some new transmission gearing and axle ratios. Smith either bought Gee’s story or decided not to press the issue and nothing further came of it, but Gee lost a lot of sleep that night.

The engineering was simple enough, but the package still needed a name. For the past several years, Pontiac had used names inspired by racing — Bonneville, Grand Prix, Le Mans — so DeLorean suggested calling the new car the Pontiac GTO, borrowing an FIA designation that had recently been used by Ferrari for its contemporary GT racer, the 1962–1964 250 GTO.

With that, the main obstacle became Frank Bridge. Bridge hadn’t liked Wangers’ performance seminar concept and was no more pleased with the GTO. Estes finally cajoled Bridge into accepting an initial build of 5,000 cars, but Bridge gloomily predicted that it would be hard to sell even that many. At Bridge’s insistence, the GTO package was initially available only on the Tempest Le Mans sports coupe and convertible; he didn’t want to commit any of the more popular (and more profitable) hardtop coupes to what he saw as a lost cause.

1964 Pontiac GTO lettering
The abbreviation GTO stood for Gran Turismo Omologato, Italian for “Grand Touring, Homologated,” meaning a car homologated for racing in the grand touring class. Before its meaning was dulled by application to dozens of mundane cars, “GT” generally meant, in the terms of the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), a closed, two-seat, high-performance car that could be used either on the street or for racing.

TIGER BY THE TAIL

Production of what DeLorean called “an Italian sandwich” began in October 1963. Known on the order form as RPO 382, the 1964 Pontiac GTO was a $295.90 option package that included the 389 engine (which Pontiac badged as “6.5 Litre”) with a gross rating of 325 horsepower (242 kW), along with a stiffer suspension, a three-speed manual transmission, slightly bigger tires, and various dress-up pieces.

One important detail was that all manual-shift Pontiac GTOs had Hurst shifters as standard equipment. Jim Wangers had met George Hurst during his drag-racing exploits and later introduced him to DeLorean and Estes. Including aftermarket equipment on a production car was not something Detroit usually did, particularly as standard fit, but a Hurst shift linkage was a status symbol among racing cognoscenti. From a marketing standpoint, making every stick-shift GTO Hurst-equipped sent all the right signals. (Indeed, by 1967, even the GTO’s optional automatic was offered with a Hurst shifter.)

1964 Pontiac GTO hood scoop
Critics were generally complimentary of the Pontiac GTO’s clean styling, but its fake hood scoops earned more than a few harsh words. The two pot-metal scoops of the 1964 GTO were replaced by a single central bulge on the 1965 car, a scoop that could be made functional with the optional Ram Air kit. Pontiac always rated the Ram Air engines very conservatively, but they were significantly more powerful than their lesser brethren thanks to hotter cams and the effects of breathing cooler, denser outside air.

For years, Pontiac had offered the longest and most comprehensive option lists in the business and the Pontiac GTO was no exception. Buyers intending to use the car for its intended purpose would want the four-speed manual transmission ($188.30), Safe-T-Track limited-slip differential ($37.66), tachometer ($53.80), heavy-duty suspension ($3.82), and a few sundries like windshield washers ($17.27). You could also order the Tri-Power engine rated at 348 gross horsepower (260 kW) for $115.78. A full load of options would add about $1,000 to the tab, although even at $3,800-odd, the GTO was not outrageously expensive for its time.

With as much power as the bigger Pontiac Catalina and considerably less weight, the GTO was a fast car. Even the slowest combination — a base-engine convertible with the optional two-speed automatic — was capable of 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in a little over 7 seconds with a top speed of around 115 mph (185 km/h). With a well-tuned Tri-Power engine and four-speed, 0-60 times of around 6 seconds were feasible. More importantly, as far as the street-racer set was concerned, a Tri-Power GTO could run the standing quarter mile (about 402 meters, to our metric readers) in the high 14-second range with trap speeds close to 100 mph (161 km/h). That was performance only a few other stock cars of the era could match at any price. It also made the GTO highly competitive in the NHRA’s B/Stock class.

The GTO’s performance in anything other than straight-line acceleration left much to be desired. The standard package did not include any improvements to the Tempest’s brakes, which were barely adequate for the standard six-cylinder cars, much less a far more powerful model. Thanks to its firmer suspension, GTO’s handling was a little better than a standard Tempest, but that wasn’t saying much. Slow steering, mediocre weight distribution, so-so rear axle control, and inadequate tires could make the GTO a real handful, particularly in the wet. Even by the standards of its day, the GTO had far more engine than its chassis could handle.

THE CAR AND DRIVER TEST

While Pete Estes, John DeLorean, and Jim Wangers understood what the Pontiac GTO was supposed to be, the same was not true of many in Pontiac’s sales organization. When Hot Rod‘s Ray Brock tried to get a GTO to road test in the fall of 1963, the Los Angeles zone office had none available. In a valiant effort to assuage Brock’s obvious annoyance, the zone manager — whom Wangers describes as “a nice guy who wouldn’t know a good performance car if it ran over him” — offered to let Brock test the car the manager’s own wife had just bought: a yellow GTO convertible with the base engine, automatic transmission, and every convenience option on the order form, including wire wheel covers. It was therefore the heaviest and least-powerful version of the GTO and, Wangers said, about as far from a high-performance street machine as you could get. Brock’s review raked the GTO over the coals, saying that it was inferior to the 1964 Chevrolet Impala SS327 he had tested earlier that year. After this debacle, Wangers strongly advised DeLorean that Pontiac should control what cars went to road testers.

The negative impact of the Hot Rod review, which appeared in the magazine’s December 1963 issue, was overshadowed by a glowing write-up in Car and Driver, which ended up being one of the many successful promotional stunts surrounding the GTO. At the time, Car and Driver was still rather obscure, having changed its name from the original Sports Cars Illustrated only about two years earlier, and its editor, former ad man David E. Davis, Jr., was hungry for publicity. His efforts to obtain a GTO were nearly as frustrating as Ray Brock’s until Jim Wangers stepped to provide two test cars. To ensure that their raw performance could not be criticized, Wangers arranged for both cars to be prepared by his old friends at Royal Pontiac, which had become Pontiac’s unofficial performance headquarters.

The cover of the March 1964 issue of Car and Driver presented the test as a comparison between the Pontiac GTO and its Ferrari namesake, although inside, Davis admitted that the magazine had been unable to obtain a Ferrari 250 GTO to test, rendering the comparison a purely hypothetical one. That did not stop him from asserting that the Pontiac was faster than the Ferrari, which at least in this instance was probably true. The acceleration figures the article for the Pontiac were certainly in the realm of exotic sports cars: 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in 4.6 seconds, 0-100 mph (0-161 km/h) in 11.8 seconds, and the quarter mile in 13.1 seconds, formidable even today.

Car and Driver freely admitted that neither of its test cars was in stock condition. Both had ostensibly received Royal Pontiac’s new Bobcat kit, a performance tuning package that shade-tree mechanics could install in a few hours at a cost of around $70. Again, this much was true, but what Davis did not reveal was that only one of the two cars had the standard 389 cu. in. (6,372 cc) engine. The other car, the one used for acceleration tests, was actually equipped with a bigger 421 cu. in. (6,902 cc) engine that had been heavily modified for acceleration runs. The big-engine car was naturally much quicker, although it was shortly crippled when it threw a rod bearing on the road course; that fact also went unmentioned.

Even with the 421, Jim Wangers maintains that the magazine’s acceleration results were purely fanciful and their claims that the GTO handled like a Ferrari absurd. “I stood there and watched them come up with these numbers,” he recalls. “I wasn’t about to stop them, but I knew they were ridiculous.”

In any case, the road test produced a furor. Car and Driver received angry letters about it for years afterward, but Davis and Wangers were unrepentant. The controversy did exactly what they wanted it to: It sold magazines and it sold GTOs. (Car and Driverwould revisit the comparison test angle 20 years later, this time securing an actual Ferrari 250 GTO for the event.)

1964 Pontiac GTO rear 3q
Unlike the 1961–1963 “rope-drive” cars, which had independent rear suspension, the 1964 GM A-bodies had a live rear axle located by four trailing arms. Oldsmobile’s Cutlass 442, which used the same body shell and same basic suspension, added a rear anti-roll bar, which the Pontiac GTO didn’t adopt until 1970. The stuffed animals in the rear window of this car are two tigers and a goat. Despite Pontiac’s heavy promotion of the “tiger” theme, the GTO quickly earned the nickname “the Goat,” something that did not amuse GM senior management in the slightest.

SELLING THE SIZZLE

The initial allotment of 5,000 Pontiac GTOs sold out by Thanksgiving 1963. An additional 5,000, now including some Le Mans hardtops as well as coupes and convertibles, sold out by January. By the time the model year ended that summer, the total had reached 32,450. By GM standards, that was still negligible and some of those sales had been at the expense of the more expensive, more profitable full-size cars. Nevertheless, the GTO had ensured that the Pontiac name was on the lips of every car-crazy teenager in America. It also contributed to strong overall sales. Pontiac’s total sales volume climbed from fewer than 590,000 in 1963 to almost 740,000 in MY1964, which was most assuredly not negligible.

Inevitably, Pete Estes was called on the carpet for violating the engine-displacement policy. However, senior management was not about to sack a division manager who had just managed one-year sales growth of more than 25%. Estes was slapped on the wrist and ordered not to do it again, but the displacement limit for the A-bodies was hastily raised to 400 cu. in. (6.6 L). Sales of the facelifted 1965 GTO jumped to more than 75,000 units while Pontiac’s total sales topped 801,000. Later that year, Estes was chosen to succeed Bunkie Knudsen as head of Chevrolet.

The GTO’s sales success was further bolstered by an extensive promotional campaign, primarily orchestrated by Wangers. DeLorean, recognizing Wangers’ flair for marketing, gave him a budget and made arrangements with his agency to allow him to spend about 50% of his time developing promotions for Pontiac. The Hurst shifter had been one marketing coup; the Car and Driver test was another. Wangers followed them with a host of merchandising deals: GTO cologne, shaving cream, and aftershave from Max Factor; GTO driving shoes from Thom McAn; and GTO songs by Ronny & the Daytonas and The Tigers. He also arranged for the GTO to be featured on the new Monkees TV series.

Even the GTO’s “GeeTO Tiger” advertising nickname was the result of a marketing deal. When tire supplier U.S. Royal decided to brand their new red-line tire as the “Tiger Paw,” they approached Pontiac, which had used tiger-themed advertising in the past, about a cross-promotional arrangement. The deal ultimately gave Pontiac a one-year exclusive on the Tiger Paw tires — limiting even the sale of replacement tires to Pontiac GTO owners — in exchange for marketing the GTO as the Tiger. “John DeLorean asked me if I felt it had any promotional opportunities,” Wangers explains. “Obviously, the answer was yes.”

In short, the Pontiac GTO became more than a car: it was a brand. “Pontiac, of all the cars on the market, was a promotional image, a concept,” says Wangers. “It was the kind of thing that you personified yourself with.”

Developing so-called lifestyle brands is all the rage today, but it was very unusual for Detroit in the sixties — particularly at GM, whose marketing efforts were seldom cutting-edge. Wangers says many old-school Pontiac executives were very hostile to his promotional concepts. “There were a whole bunch of guys in marketing and sales who thought the whole Thom McAn thing was an insult to Pontiac,” he recalls, “not really understanding who our market really was at that time.” Although the GTO never sold as well as the Ford Mustang, which debuted a few months later, the Pontiac was arguably more effective in terms of marketing impact.

1965 Pontiac GTO front
The 1965 Pontiac GTO shared the same basic body as the 1964 edition, but a restyling stretched its overall length to 206.1 inches (5,235 mm) and added a few dozen pounds to its curb weight. The base engine now claimed 335 hp (250 kW) while the optional Tri-Power was now rated at 360 hp (269 kW). Forward-jutting stacked-quad headlamps, which add a rakish touch, were shared with other 1965 Pontiacs, inspired by the styling of the 1963 Grand Prix.

DEFINING A MARKET

Like the Mustang, the Pontiac GTO was widely imitated. By 1967, it was challenged by Ford’s Fairlane GT/GTA, Plymouth’s GTX, and the Dodge Charger, as well as internecine competitors like the Chevy SS396, Buick GS400, and Oldsmobile 442. The only American marques that did not enter the new “Supercar” segment were Cadillac, Imperial, and Lincoln. Some of these rivals beat the GTO in certain areas: The 442 handled better; the big-engine Dodges and Plymouths were faster; the Plymouth Road Runner and Ford Fairlane Cobra were cheaper. Nevertheless, the GTO remained the standard-bearer for its class and the one to beat.

Pontiac kept the interest of young buyers with a steady stream of new features. For 1965, it was the first Ram Air package, a functional hood scoop and hotter cam (initially an over-the-counter kit sold through dealers, although it later became a regular factory option). For 1966, the news included optional red plastic liners for the inner wheel wells and red-painted brake drums, which could be color-coordinated with the standard redline tires. For 1967, it was a flashy hood-mounted tachometer and a Hurst “Dual Gate” shifter for the optional Turbo Hydra-Matic, providing a separate shift gate for manual control. For 1968, it was a body-colored Endura front bumper that would pop back into shape after minor impacts. Many of these were just gimmicks, but they kept the attention of the press and customers.

1967 Pontiac GTO hood scoop
This 1967 Pontiac GTO has the optional Ram Air engine, which included this functional hood scoop (you can just see the edge of the engine air cleaner through the right slot), a hotter cam, and stiffer valve springs. It cost $263.30, and while it officially had the same 360 gross horsepower (269 kW) as the non-RA engine, it was a good deal stronger. Car Life‘s October 1967 test car, equipped much like this one, ran from 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in 6.1 seconds and, with only the driver aboard, ran the standing quarter mile in 13.9 seconds at 102.8 mph (166 km/h). The radical camshaft and short rear axle ratio, however, made the Ram Air unpleasant in normal driving.

The Pontiac GTO’s enviable status was achieved with little support and frequent interference from GM management. The middle-aged men on the 14th Floor had no particular understanding of the tastes of buyers under 25 and responded badly to many of DeLorean and Wangers’ ideas and stunts. GM president James Roche was never happy with the GTO’s aggressive tiger advertising theme and ordered DeLorean to tone it down. When that didn’t work, GM issued a blanket directive banning all divisions from performance-oriented advertising and ordered Pontiac to submit all of its ads for management approval prior to release. There was also a new ban on multiple carburetors for any car other than Chevrolet’s Corvair and Corvette, putting an end to Pontiac’s popular Tri-Power option. Despite those internal obstacles, Pontiac sold almost 97,000 GTOs for 1966 and almost 82,000 for 1967.

1967 Pontiac GTO dash
One of the Pontiac GTO’s strengths was its comfortable, well-planned cockpit, which could be equipped with full instrumentation (less only an ammeter/voltmeter), a tachometer, and an attractive simulated-wood wheel (although the one in the photo above is an aftermarket replacement). Note the word “could”; the instrument package was an $84.26 option this 1967 GTO hardtop does not have, hence the accessory gauges and tach. The console contains a Hurst Dual-Gate shifter for the three-speed Turbo Hydra-Matic, a handy $68.46 option that allowed a modicum of manual control of the automatic transmission.

TWILIGHT OF THE GODS

By the end of the decade, some astute observers noted that the Pontiac GTO concept was beginning to lose steam, hemmed in by a changing market and GM’s own internal restrictions. Almost everyone was trying to get a piece of the youth market and what had seemed audacious five years earlier was becoming old hat.

Tellingly, in 1969, Ace Wilson sold off Royal Pontiac’s Performance Center (interestingly, to a company owned by John De Lorean’s brother George). Meanwhile, John DeLorean followed Pete Estes to Chevrolet. Shortly after De Lorean’s departure, Jim Wangers left MacManus, John & Adams. “The day after he left Pontiac and went to Chevrolet, I was done,” Wangers says, adding that he almost immediately began to clash with Pontiac executives who had resented him and his relationship with DeLorean and Estes.

In 1970, GM finally removed many of the restrictions on the A-body Supercars, including the displacement limit. The divisions, including Pontiac, quickly responded with some of the biggest and most powerful engines ever offered for street use. The GTO, however, was no longer among the first rank. It was still a fast car, but it could not match rivals like the Buick GS 455 Stage 1 or Chrysler’s Hemi-powered Plymouth Barracuda and Dodge Challenger.

In fact, Pontiac had originally planned to fit the 1970 GTO with the ultra-hot 455 cu. in. (7,488 cc) Ram Air V engine using the “Tunnel Port” heads of the rare 400 cu. in. (6,554 cc) Ram Air V crate motor (and the abortive 303 cu. in. (4,964 cc) SCCA Trans Am engine). Sadly, the big Ram Air V was canceled after GM president Ed Cole warned the divisions that compression ratios would soon have to be reduced in preparation for the transition to unleaded gasoline.

“There was no way they could make it work without serious compression,” Wangers explains. “It was an incredible powerplant. Unfortunately, they killed the engine and the only 455 they had [for 1970] was a glass-bottomed station wagon engine.” Pontiac subsequently developed the 1971 455 H.O., a compromise design with a lower compression ratio, but it was too late. “By that time, the market was pretty seriously compromised,” Wangers says, “so it didn’t really make a whole lot of difference.”

By 1971, the entire genre was rapidly heading for limbo. Contrary to popular belief, it was not emissions and safety standards that ultimately brought down the Supercars, but rather the skyrocketing price of insurance. Over a typical three-year car loan, a young buyer of one of these cars might spend nearly as much on insurance as on car payments. The under-25 set at which the Pontiac GTO and its ilk were aimed could no longer afford them.

1970 Pontiac GTO front 3q
In 1968, the Pontiac GTO’s overall length and wheelbase were shortened and a new styling theme gave it a marked resemblance to the smaller Pontiac Firebird. For 1970, the GTO retained the same basic shape and Endura nose, but reverted to exposed, horizontal quad headlights (many 1968 and 1969 GTOs had hidden headlights, which disappeared behind the grille as on the contemporary Dodge Charger). The 1970 car was slightly shorter than the 1964–1967 cars, but had put on weight. A loaded example with the 455 cu. in. (7,488 cc) engine and air conditioning weighed over two tons.

As a result, GTO sales tumbled from about 72,000 in 1969 to fewer than 11,000 in 1971. For 1973, the GTO, which had been a separate model since 1966, reverted to an option package on Pontiac’s restyled “Colonnade” Le Mans. It very nearly got the new 455 (7,488 cc) Super Duty engine also used in the contemporary Firebird, with 310 net horsepower (231 kW), but general manager Martin Caserio canceled the SD455 GTO at the last minute. GTO sales for 1973 were grim: fewer than 5,000 units.

For 1974, Caserio transferred the GTO option from the midsize Le Mans to the compact Ventura, Pontiac’s version of the Chevrolet Nova, perhaps hoping to tap into the sporty-compact market uncovered by Plymouth’s popular Duster. The only engine was now the 350 (5,798 cc) with 200 net horsepower (149 kW). Sales totaled around 7,000 units, well short of the 10,000 units Pontiac hoped to sell, and the division finally pulled the plug.

Pontiac itself fared little better in the seventies. It held onto the #3 sales slot for 1970 and then slipped to fourth. By 1972, it had fallen behind a newly resurgent Oldsmobile, which outsold Pontiac every year through 1986. Pontiac finally regained the #3 position in 1987, thanks in large part to a resurgent performance image.

Pontiac resisted the temptation to revive the GTO name for 30 years. It finally succumbed in 2004, with a new GTO based on the Australian Holden Monaro. Unlike Oldsmobile’s final 442, the nouveau Pontiac GTO was rear-drive and had V8 power. It had excellent all-around performance, but it was heavily criticized for its anodyne styling and lack of character. Sales were disappointing. Only 40,745 were sold before it was canceled in 2006, although like its sixties predecessors, it will no doubt be a collector’s item. With the Pontiac division’s demise, there will be no more.

2004 Pontiac GTO front 3q
The 2004 Pontiac GTO was based on the Australian Holden Monaro, which was in turn a shortened, two-door version of the Holden Commodore sedan. It was fitted with the 350 cu. in. (5,665 cc) LS1 engine also found in the contemporary Corvette, making 350 hp (261 kW). The LS1 enabled the nouveau GTO to accelerate from 0-60 mph in less than 5.5 seconds with a top speed of 168 mph (270 km/h). In 2005, the LS1 was replaced with the 364 cu. in. (5,967 cc) LS2 with 400 hp (298 kW), enough to trim 0-60 times to less than five seconds.

REQUIEM

While we are very fond of the 1965-1967 Pontiac GTOs, which we consider some of the nicest-looking and most appealing American cars of their era, we have to admit to regarding the GTO concept with a rather jaundiced eye. For all the nostalgia that it now evokes, it was a straightforward engine-swap job dressed up with a lot of feverish hype. The most impressive thing about the GTO, to our mind, is the degree to which Jim Wangers and John DeLorean understood their market. In retrospect, many of their tricks and gimmicks seem hokey, but they hit the bull’s eye with remarkable accuracy.

What is also remarkable is how resistant GM management was to that insight. Today, any major automaker would kill for the demographics of the original GTO. The median age of Pontiac GTO buyers was 25, compared to 43 for the industry as a whole, and median income was about 10% higher than the norm. Rather than being lauded for that achievement, DeLorean and Wangers were treated as troublesome malcontents whom senior management often tried to reign in, if not squelch.

GM’s apparent obliviousness to the tastes of the Baby Boom generation and their children ultimately cost it — and Pontiac — dearly. “It took us about 12 years to build it [Pontiac’s image],” laments Jim Wangers, “and about 35 years to kill it. There hasn’t been anybody there except maybe Alex Mair in the late seventies who really understood it. They haven’t had a good management team in 35 years.”

If you’ll pardon our cynicism, we think that the lesson to be drawn from Pontiac’s sixties success is just how simple it would have been for GM to revive the division’s failing image. The strategy Wangers, DeLorean, and Estes concocted 45 years ago was not particularly expensive (certainly much less so than going racing), nor was it complex. All it really required was a little wit, a little insight, and a little style — and no one has ever been able to put a price tag on that.

# # #


NOTES ON SOURCES

Our sources for this article included the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Encyclopedia of American Cars: Over 65 Years of Automotive History (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, 1996); Philip Bauman, “The Ram Air V,” Muscle Cars August 1987, pp. 30–35, 82–84; Arch Brown, “SIA comparisonReport: Corporate Rivalry: Pontiac GTO vs. Chevelle SS396,” Special Interest Autos #125 (September-October 1991), pp. 22–29; John Gunnell, ed., Standard Catalog of American Cars 1946-1975, Revised 4th Edition (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2002), and “The Glorious ‘Goat’: 1964 Pontiac GTO,” Special Interest Autos #49 (January-February 1979), pp. 38-43; John F. Katz, “1970 Pontiac GTO ‘The Judge’: A Law Unto Itself,” Special Interest Autos #132 (November-December 1992), reprinted in The Hemmings Motor News Book of Pontiacs: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, eds. Terry Ehrich and Richard Lentinello (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2001); Pete Lyons and the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Ferrari: The Man and His Machines (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, Ltd., 1989); Alex Meredith, “SIA comparisonReport: 1966 GTO vs. 1967 4-4-2: First-Generation Muscle Machines,” Special Interest Autos #122 (March-April 1991), pp. 18–26; Jan P. Norbye and Jim Dunne, Pontiac, 1946–1978: The Classic Postwar Years (Osceola, WI: Motorbooks International Publishers & Wholesalers, 1979); the Old Car Brochures website, oldcarbrochures.org; Terry Pellegrin, “Gran Turismo: Burning rubber in Pontiac’s ferocious 1965 Tri-powered GTO,” Special Interest Autos #175 (January-February 2000), reprinted in The Hemmings Motor News Book of Pontiacs; Pontiac Motor Division of General Motors, “A device for shrinking time and distance: Pontiac GTO” [ad insert], Motor Trend April 1964, nn; “Answers That Sell: 1964 New Product Facts” [dealer literature], 30 August 1963; “Low-priced-car buyers rejoice! You’ve got a new choice. 1964 Wide-Track Pontiac Tempest.” [brochure, ca. September 1963]; and “Four leading car experts report on Pontiac’s Break Away Squad for ’69—” [brochure], September 1968; Stan Rarden and Paul Zazarine, “The Engine That Never Was,” Pontiac Enthusiast March-April 2004, pp. 44-45; Richard Rauch, Rich’s Classic Pontiac Server, 1997–2001, www.pontiacserver. com, accessed 7 July 2009; J. Patrick Wright, On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors: John Z. DeLorean’s Look Inside the Automotive Giant (Chicago, IL: Avon Books, 1980); Paul Zazarine, GTO 1964-1967 (Muscle Car Color History) (Osceola, WI: Motorbooks International Publishers, 1991); and phone conversations with Jim Wangers on September 8 and September 17, 2009, in which Wangers offered additional details and corrected many minor factual errors in the original draft (all quotations from Jim Wangers in this article are from those conversations).

We also consulted the following period road tests: “Pontiac Tempest GTO,” Car and Driver March 1964; “Pontiac Tempest GTO,” Car Life, June 1964; “Tempest GTO: Let the Buyer Beware!” Road Test December 1964; John Ethridge, “Ferocious GTO,” Motor Trend February 1965; “Pontiac Tempest GTO,” Car Life May 1965; “Pontiac Tempest GTO,” Car and Driver Buyer’s Guide 1966; “Pontiac GTO,” Sporting Motorist October 1966; “It’s Still … Six for the Money and Eight to Go! Pontiac Sprint & GTO,” Car Life May 1966; “Driving the Hot ’67s: Pontiac GTO,” Motor Trend October 1966; Steven Kelly, “Testing 2 Tigers,” Motor Trend January 1967; “Crossbreed Bomb,” Hot Rod May 1967; “Hail to the King! The Super/Supercar: Ram Air GTO,” Car Life October 1967; “Pontiac GTO,” Motor Trend December 1967; Eric Dahlquist, “Class – With a Capital GTO,” Hot Rod February 1968; “Car of the Year,” Motor Trend February 1968; Terry Cook, “Hot Flash! New Pontiac GTO Ram-Air Kit,” Car Craft April 1968; “Pontiac GTO: It’s the Wildest,” Car Life May 1968; Steve Kelly, “Here Come de Judge,” Hot Rod December 1968; “The Judge,” Car Life March 1969; “Pontiac GTO 455,” Car and Driver January 1970; “Pontiac Judge,” Road Test March 1970; “Torque vs. Speed,” Car Life April 1970; Ed Orr, “Pontiac’s Decisive Judge,” Motorcade April 1970; Jim Brokaw, “Sayonara Supercar,” Motor Trend June 1972; Joe Oldham, “G.T.O.,” and “Like It Was!” Cars 1974; all of which are reprinted in GTO Muscle Portfolio 1964-1974, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1998); Ray Brock, “GTO Le Mans,” Hot Rod December 1963; “David E. Davis, Jr., “Pontiac GTO: The Original Muscle Phenomenon,” Car and Driver January 1975, reprinted in Car and Driver on Pontiac 1961-1975, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1986), pp. 90-93; “6 Super Cars!” Car and Driver April 1966; “The American Muscle Car,” Road Test June 1967; and “Six Econo-Racers,” Car and Driver January 1969, reprinted in The Great Classic Muscle Cars Compared (Muscle Portfolio), ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1999); Eric Dahlquist, “History of the GTO,” Hot Rod June 1976; Roger Huntington, “The Screwdriver Tune-Up: judicious tuning transforms the Royal Bobcat into a Woodward Tiger!” Car Life June 1963, pp. 72-74; “New from GM: Pontiac Enlarges the Tempest,” Car Life Vol. 10, No. 9 (October 1963), pp. 31-33; Joe Oldham, “Archival Ponchos: The Complete History of Pontiac Performance,” Cars April 1973, pp. 24–30, 94, 112; L.F. Titwillow, “Son of Bobcat,” Car Life April 1963, pp. 63–65; “Top Performance Car of the Year,” Cars April 1973, pp. 21–24;

The idea of testing the Pontiac GTO against the Ferrari was revisited in Don Sherman, “GTO vs. GTO,” Car and Driver Vol. 29, No. 10 (April 1984), pp. 40–47, and Kit Foster, “Déjà Vu for the First Time: ’64 Pontiac Tempest GTO vs. ’64 Ferrari Series II GTO,” Special Interest Autos #161 (September-October 1997), pp. 16–23, 62–63.

Some details on the modern GTO came from “Pontiac GTO Review” (Edmunds.com, www.edmunds. com/pontiac/ gto/review.html, accessed 8 July 2009); Tony Quiroga, “Goat and Pony Showdown: 2005 Pontiac GTO vs. 2005 Ford Mustang,” Car and Driver January 2005, pp. 46-53; Aaron Robinson, “Road Test: Pontiac GTO: Lusty performance disguised in a phone-company fleet car,” Car and Driver December 2003, pp. 54–57; and Mark Wan, “Holden Monaro, HSV Coupe, Pontiac GTO,” AutoZine, 25 November 2001 to 16 April 2005, www.autozine. org/Archive/ Holden/old/ Monaro.html, accessed 6 July 2009.

This article’s title was suggested by a lyric from the 1964 song “Little G.T.O.,” written by John “Bucky” Wilkin and performed by Ronny and the Daytonas. We actually first heard a cover of the song by Alex Chilton on his 1994 album Black List.


18 Comments

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  1. There’s a interesting angle here. At the time the rope-drive Tempest was on the market, [i]Popular Science[/i] had a cover story on piezoelectric elements, which were new at the time.

    According to the article, instead of a conventional speedometer cable, the Tempest had a cam on the transmission whose rotational speed was proportional to road speed, actuating a piezoelectric element. The pulses from the piezoelectric element were sent to a sort of fluorescent tube in the speedometer. The length of tube that lit up was proportional to the frequency of the pulses.

  2. First, I just found your website today, and have spent severable enjoyable hours catching up. Great stuff! Thank you.

    My first car (in 1967) was a ’62 Tempest. With it’s torquey 4-banger, terrific weight distribution due to the transaxle and independent rear suspension, it was a remarkably able little car. I sold it to buy a ’63 Catalina 389/4 barrel which, while faster in a straight line was not nearly as much fun to drive.

    I’m glad you mentioned the bad press the 2004 Holden GTO received. Every review I read stated it was a great performing car, but lacked the visual impact each writer considered necessary to earn the GTO moniker. Well, I can only believe they were comparing it to the bloated and gaudy “The Judge” model era.

    As this excellent article makes clear, the ’64 – ’67 Goat was nearly indistinguishable from a garden variety Pontiac Tempest. That “sleeper” quality was part of what made it so desirable. How many more of these neo-GTOs would Pontiac have sold without the nearly universal panning of its subtle styling? I agree that the Holden GTO will be a collector car.

  3. As a kid from NW Pennsylvania, I spent summers in Newport Beach, California with my two brothers. Inside of a single days travel, part by bus, part by plane, we would be transported from cool,crisp, hill country air, rife with the smell of goldenrod, to the warm, salty coastal breeze of Southern California in the summer time. Aside from the impossibly tiny bikinis visible at every turn, and the European and Hispanic populations, the other most significant difference was the incredible automobiles. Our home town had a Porsche that was never driven around town and a Benz that was kept garaged down the alley from our house. But in CA, My Dad and all his friends were car crazy. And GTOs in particular. Dad would own 3 to 5 of them at a time. He dealt in them and turned them often. Dad didn’t let us drive his GTOs, but once, in the summer of ’85, Dad’s friend Patrick let me drive his ’66 GTO hardtop in light metallic blue with black guts and a 4 speed, sitting on a set of original torque thrust rims. Slightly jacked up in back, the car had serious street credibility. I took the car for a blast down Harbor Blvd feeling elated and joyous as the old Goat snarled through the gears. It seemed the Car Gods had convened on my behalf and life had taken on new meaning. I remember driving the car well, not stalling or losing control. I felt as powerful as the car beneath me, firmly gripping the factory faux wood wheel. I was hooked for life. Fast forward to 2005. The new GTO has gotten it right, in my opinion. Scoops on the hood and dual exhausts, LS2 and 6 speed tranny. Taut, understated body styling, interior quality and fuctionality, killer stereo, big brakes and tires… Let me take a look at this car. Down to the dealership and there sits a new GTO in light metallic blue. Salesman brings the keys and up on the freeway we go. I remember 1st and 2nd gear but it was 3rd where I screamed “WOW!!” at the salesguy who seemed not scared in the least as we rocketed past 80 mph before I dropped in on 4th gear for a cursory moment then on to 5th. Sitting comfortably in the suede and leather bucket seat while gripping a fabulous leather wrapped wheel with my left hand while my right rested harmoniously on the shift knob a moment of clarity arrived. This car is not the ugly duckling the auto media has portrayed it as! It’s not the lack luster effort of under-enthusiastic Pontiac engineers! It’s not the red-headed bastard son of a drunken one night fling with toothless hillbilly princess fresh off the mechanical bull and still sweatin’! This GTO is awesome! More powerful and faster than the ’66 I flogged up and down Harbor Blvd. Better brakes and tires! Better sound system and seats! A/C so cold my teeth chattered! Taut, muscular body with a stance like Cassius Clay! Totally refined and yet more brutally capable in every aspect of it’s muscle car-ness. And you silly freaks of the auto media pan the car for it’s shape?!?! You “experts” missed it completely and need to go back to your jobs at Consumer Report where you can write about kitchen appliances and water pic toothbrushes. The essence of the performance automobile is a total stranger to each and every one of you. Leave the car writing to we the passionate.

    1. The neo-GTO is not an unattractive car (although I don’t much care for the hood scoops tacked on to later examples) and it was certainly better than the various GTO-badged concept cars GM showed over the years. I also give GM full marks for reintroducing the GTO name on a credible performance car, rather than slapping the badge on a Quad 4 Grand Am, as Oldsmobile did with the Quad 442 14 years earlier.

      The main things is just that the first-generation A-body Tempest/Le Mans on which the original GTO was based was a better-[i]looking[/i] car than the Monaro, which is pleasant but generic. Was the old A-body a better [i]car[/i] than the Monaro? Certainly not. But the A-body Tempest/Le Mans benefited from Pontiac design chief Jack Humbert’s eye for detail; stylist Bill Porter, who did the 1970½ Firebird, noted that Humbert had a real talent for the subtle tweaks that would make an okay design really sharp. Granted, for a muscle car, looking innocuous is no bad thing, but looks do sell cars.

  4. Yo Admin!!(Done in my best Rocky voice impersonation) Have you ever floored an old or new GTO and run it through the gears? I ask because you seem stuck on the aesthetics of the car whereas the feel of the car- any car, great or not- is its truth and essence. The old GTO yowled so loud upon romping the throttle that the cockpit filled with the din of 8 big dogs barking so loud you were literally consumed by the sound! Combined with the rear end hopping like fire-walkers at an Anthony Robbins seminar, and tires screaming for mercy, the experience was transcendent. Though the cars were a handful to control at the peak of acceleration, the experience was sublime as you felt the car’s truth and essence. It was the GTOs ability to create that experience through it’s extreme performance characteristics that made it so special! The new GTO more than captured that essence. It did, in fact, improve upon the experience in every way. The most important factor in assessing an automobile is the driving feel not the shape of the body.

  5. I still have my ’66 GTO, hardtop, bought new in April of that year. 3 deuces and a four speed, of course. No other car has ever so completely captured my enthusiasm. And there have been some very good fast cars along the way.
    GM still didn’t get it in the 2000s. They said, rather pompously I thought, that the neo-GTO was not aimed at the old GTO fans. So they ignored all the pre introduction feedback. Well they were right. The old GTO fans didn’t like it, and it tanked. I feel a certain self satisfaction in the result. It performed great, but it didn’t look the part. Ford is fixing to do the same thing with the Mustang, I think. The wonder of the original GTO was that it promised an experience, and it delivered.

  6. It was interesting to hear you recount the stodgy attitudes of the Pontiac and GM upper management, and one of your observations caught my eye, Aaron. This was the observation that GM execs worried about the Federal Government possibly taking a dim view of GM’s market share in light of anti-trust laws. I have heard that this was one reason why GM divisions were so eager to cut the marketing throats of their companions — GM thought it best to let their divisions slug it out to avoid unwanted attention from the Justice Department.

    I had a ’64 GTO with a ’69 GTO 400, on which I installed Tri Power. This car had a 3.50 rear end and was the third and last A body Pontiac I had.

    The first A body I had was a ’65 GTO, 389 Tri Power with a 3.73 rear end.

    Both of these cars were hardtops.

    The second car was a 67 Lemans 2dr post. It originally came with a 326, but had a blown engine. I bought it to install the Tri Power 389 from my ’65 GTO after I wrecked it.

    All three cars had 4 speeds.

    The ’64 was by far the quickest of the lot. It weighed 3460# with 2/3rds of a tank of gas, as weighed on the scales of the local seed company. When Pontiac enlarged the 389 and 421 to 400 and 428 in ’67, it was more than just a small overbore. The real improvement was done in the heads. This was very obvious to me by noting the performance of my ’65 389 and ’69 400 — there was a world of difference. Nowadays, you can consult the head flow figures and understand quickly why this was so. Pontiac made a large improvement in head flow, starting with the ’67 heads.

    I sold the ’64 to a young kid who took it to the strip and reported a best time of 13.95. By this time, I had installed a part of bars on the rear axle that moved the upper control arm pivots higher, which did away with wheel hop and lifted the front smartly at launch for great weight transfer.

    Once, I was out cruising the drag in the ’65 and came upon a pair of early 289 Mustangs who were terrorizing kids with their moms’ Ramblers, and soundly smoked both of them. By the time I was ready to wrap up and go home for the night, I noticed a ’70 Mustang following me. I confidently turned onto the Interstate entrance ramp and noted that he was quite far back, as I had put my foot into it. Over the roar of my clunky Poncho bursting its guts to get onto the Interstate, I could hear the Mustang winding up, and quite soon, He flew around me as if I was in mom’s old Rambler. I later found out that this sleeper, complete with dog dish hubcaps, was a massaged 429 SCJ. Talk about being out of one’s league!

    Even though I installed the Tri Power on my ’64 with the ’69 400, it was more for looks than anything else. Most 3×2 dual plane intakes cannot have good flow, due to the end carb passages passing through one plane to another. The three Rochesters had about the same flow potential as the Quadrajet anyway, and Pontiac’s QJet intake was known to flow fairly well.

    So, even though some may cry in their beer because GM’s upper management banned Tri Power from Pontiac and Oldsmobile (some ’66 442s had a Tri Power setup, as well), I’m sure that no performance was lost and some was quite likely gained by the ’67 QJet intake system. (I say this with the reservation that I consider the QJet a total abomination as a carburetor, and also note that the fabled Teutonic engineers installed a near-copy Solex on their V8s somewhat later. This speaks for itself, regarding MB’s engineering tastes in my book!)

    My personal opinion remains that the ’65 GTO is one of the very best looking Pontiacs, period. Granted, all GTOs appeared at the dawn of Pontiac designers infatuation with scoops, scoops, and more scoops, it least the early GTOs were not subjected to the baroque monstrosities that blighted Pontiac from the 70s onward. The ’65 was crisp and clean front and rear, while the ’64 always appeared more akin to the early 60s GM fare, and the rounded rear fenders of the ’66 and ’67 with their sail panel rear lights had the beginnings of untidiness. Your mention of the ’65 drawing inspiration from the earlier Grand Prix is appropriate, I think. I liked the styling on those, as well.

    Ram Air V: In the typical Detroit engineering copycat game (you know, Chevy copies the canted valves from the Polysphere and Ford copies Chevy in the 385/Boss 302/Cleveland), The Ram Air V ripped the Tunnel Port head arrangement of the 427 TP Ford.

    Hot Rod and Pontiac performance: My firm conviction is that Hot Rod Magazine was totally in bed with Chevrolet, so such a review is to be expected from that source.

    The Fabulous Mythical SD 455: I was interested in getting one in ’73, I confess. However, check out the production figures for them. The SD 455 was only a come-on to lure buyers into the showrooms, where they most certainly could not get a Firebird with a SD 455. These were reserved for corporate execs, preferred customers, and automotive magazine reviewers, who, in those days of smog barges, loudly bayed the glories of SD 455 performance like a bunch of delirious hounds under a treed bobcat. Apparently, the shenanigans of Wiggins and the 421-powered Tempests were not forgotten in Pontiac marketing circles, no matter what corporate directives came down from on high.

    1. I don’t know if the SD 455’s production was deliberately limited (in the manner of the first Chevrolet SS 396) or if it was just a dead duck in terms of sales potential. The engine itself was a $521 option and a full-kit SD Trans Am was a $5,000 car that was way too expensive for most people to insure. Most of the other serious performance engine had the same problems and went the same way.

      The 400 definitely had better breathing than the 389. Even without looking at flow rates, looking at the side-by-side cutaway diagrams Pontiac released of the porting makes that pretty clear.

      GM was definitely terrified of an antitrust suit, which is something that had happened to several other big companies in that era. It’s easy to criticize GM management for being over-cautious, but they were well aware that they were a huge target on a bunch of fronts — safety, emissions, and later CAFE, as well as the risk of being broken up. There were things smaller companies might get away with that GM would probably have been pilloried for.

      1. I do know that some SD 455s came in Formula 400s, as well, but this was only a fraction of the SD 455 equipped Trans Ams. So, I’d infer that someone was able to order them under some set of conditions.

        You raise an interesting point re: the 375hp 396/402. Hardly any were made. I suppose quite a few folks went to the show room wanting one, but ended up being talked into a 350 hp version. GM seems like they were so parsimonious with their Hi Po gear, where Ford was more liberal and Chrysler sold Hi Po 383s and 440s to anyone in anything — at least, this is my impression of those times.

        1. I wasn’t referring to the 392/402, but the original 1965 Z-16 package, of which Chevrolet built only I think 201 copies. That was definitely a limited edition conceived mostly to get Chevrolet some positive press attention in the Supercar sweepstakes, since the L65 small block (introduced after the start of the 1965 model year) hadn’t done it and the regular SS 396 wouldn’t be available until the new model year.

          I believe you could theoretically order the SD 455 in a Formula as well as a T/A, although the point remains. The engine itself was expensive and once you added desirable or required associated options, you would have priced yourself into the stratosphere even before you got an insurance quote.

          I think it’s important to draw a distinction between models or options that were deliberately limited — homologation specials, promotions, etc. — or that were hastily pulled from the market either before or shortly after introduction and ones that just didn’t sell well. Also, I think then as now there were some things that were tough to order not because the factory necessarily discouraged it, but because dealers were reluctant to order features or combinations of features that would make the car trickier to sell if the original buyer backed out. Heavy-duty suspension often fell into that category and manual transmissions still do. (The last time I bought a car, one major local dealer told me that not only didn’t they have the car I was interested in with manual shift, they would not get one for me under any circumstances!) That has more to do with dealers and salespeople than manufacturers, however.

          1. Check on the Z-16; I wasn’t following you.

            Yes, the Formula was a fairly loaded car, as well. That would have been what I was interested in, but SD 455s were unobtainium to the public. I wish I could quote production figures. I received them in a stock holder’s report back then. (Really! GM would send a nice color brochure outlining the details of each division. I wish I would have saved that.)

            Regarding what you say about the dealers, I have experienced this. I bought a ’77 Chevy short bed step side with a 454 in it, and it took some time before I found a dealer who would sell it to me. The claim was that it was not available, something that I knew wasn’t true, since my Dad had bought a loaded long bed for trailer towing. The dealers simply didn’t want to sell one that was stripped to the bone to me. I didn’t even order a radio for it.

            But for the few SD 455s that were made in 73, and considering all of the executives that lined up for them (I had read that somewhere), they surely could have made a few more with little risk, I would think.

            But regarding my observation about Mopar, especially: Do you suppose that Chrysler’s willingness to drop 375 hp 440s and hipo 383s into anything the customer desired was because they were not worried about Government attention?

          2. One of the reasons dealers are sometimes very recalcitrant about non-standard combinations is that dealers are essentially financing the vehicles in the showroom (floor-plan financing), so salespeople are encouraged to sell the cars in stock rather than ordering something else. They won’t necessarily tell you that, so, “My manager is yelling at me to clear out the trucks we’ve got so we don’t eat another month of finance charges,” becomes, “That combination isn’t available,” or “That option has been discontinued.” Dealers do sometimes trade inventory with other dealers, but salespeople’s willingness to do that is highly variable. (I was eventually able to get the car I wanted because another dealer in the area handed email/Internet inquiries to the fleet guys, who were much more laid back than the salesmen on the floor and were accustomed to working the regional network to get customers the specific packages they needed.) Nobody wants to get stuck with a stripped-down model or a weird option combination that’s going to be harder to move. I think the only reason dealers have really stripped-down basic models at all is to be able to have something to point to if the FTC or local regulators show up asking about the low, low advertised prices.

            All of the U.S. automakers were nervous to some extent about government attention — it was an era in which federal regulators were making all kinds of new demands, many of which the industry considered unduly onerous and all of which got Detroit’s hackles up on general principle. It was Chrysler, remember, that went to court to challenge the roof crush rules that would have outlawed convertibles. However, I think that Chrysler was in less danger of being singled out than GM was.

            The reasons for the limited production of the SD 455 are complicated. First of all, it was kind of unusual that it was built at all. The engine was developed as sort of a pet project by Herb Adams and a couple of other enthusiastic engineers and hadn’t really gone through the usual channels. According to Adams, the word got out (in some fit of youthful enthusiasm, I assume) and people started bugging dealers about an engine that wasn’t on the books. The general manager at the time, Jim McDonald, agreed to produce the SD 455 as an image leader for the Firebird and the GTO, leading to Cars preemptively awarding the latter its 1973 Car of the Year Award.

            However, shortly after the Cars issue went to press, McDonald left to succeed John DeLorean at Chevrolet. Martin Caserio, McDonald’s replacement, had no enthusiasm for high-performance engines, saying they weren’t the sort of thing GM needed in an era more concerned with safety and emissions control. As if to prove his point, barely two months later, the EPA took exception to Pontiac’s EGR shutoff system — which was part of how the SD 455 was able to pass federal emissions testing — and ordered Pontiac to remove it, leading to the engine’s rated output going from 310 to 290 hp. Through some miracle, Caserio was eventually persuaded not to kill the engine outright, but the SD 455 GTO was canceled before it went into production and by the time any SD 455 engines went into production F-bodies, it was quite late in the model year. As a result, there were only 295 cars in MY1973, plus the preproduction car. There were about 1,000 more (that seems to be the most common figure, although I’ve seen several contradictory numbers) for MY1974.

            So, it was an engine Pontiac as an organization hadn’t really set out to build, offered at prices few people could afford for a market that was almost gone, reluctantly approved by a manager who wasn’t keen on it from the start, and over which Pontiac actually got its hand slapped by the EPA, shortly before the OPEC embargo put the final nail in the coffin for the muscle car era. In view of all that, it’s amazing Pontiac built as many as they did.

  7. Aaron, thanks for this — it makes sense to me. I appreciate your taking the time to tell the story.

    1. The other thing that’s worth emphasizing is that thanks to a combination of early rumors, long press lead times, and the various delays in deciding whether or not the SD 455 would even be sold, the enthusiast crowd was aware of the SD 455 well before Pontiac had actually built any production cars so powered. I’m quite certain some Pontiac fans who knew (or knew people who knew) Herb Adams and crew knew about the new engine well before Martin Caserio did! It was one of those cases of the hype outrunning the car.

  8. Good article, and very close to the truth. The part that is wrong is right where it talks about the Pontiac Tempest name being the “Italian Sandwich”. If you read between the lines you will see the facts. The Letters GTO stand for Grand Tempest Option car, I do know that GM Management was trying to curtail ‘Muscle Cars’ and I do know that DeLorean wanted the name either Super Tempest or as in the Grand Prix, the Grand Tempest, which the article clearly states is an Option Car. Ferrari has nothing to do with the Grand Tempest Option. I am going to die soon and you people had either ‘get’ it or forget it. Read between the lines. The name was kept as GTO and not pushed in the face of Management.

    1. I really don’t think there are any lines to read between here. “GTO” was a familiar racing classification well before the Pontiac iteration (or for that matter the Ferrari), so the connection would have been pretty hard to avoid even if Pontiac had taken pains to publicly deny it, which they didn’t. I wouldn’t be terribly surprised to hear that DeLorean and/or Estes had at some point suggested some more innocuous explanation for the acronym when talking to nervous senior executives who didn’t know anything about racing — I’ve never seen anything to indicate that DeLorean or Estes did such a thing, but it would be in keeping with some of the other subterfuge surrounding high-performance GM cars and the corporation’s uneasiness about same — but it wouldn’t have held up for long once senior management saw the press clippings. I don’t think there was any particular ambiguity within Pontiac or its ad agency about what GTO was intended to mean.

      1. I can see it now. Sometime in the fall of 1963, Pete Estes is called up to the GM HQ bldg.:

        Frederic Donner: “Pete, is there any truth to this Car and Driver Magazine article about a Pontiac Tempest racing car called a Gran Turismo Omologato?”[holds up magazine]

        Pete Estes: “What???? Let me see that. [thumbs through magazine and hands it back with a quizzical look on face]. No Sir, I don’t know where Car and Driver got that, but it is 100% fantasy, most likely made up to sell magazines.”

        Donner: “Then what do the initials G.T.O. stand for?”

        Estes: “Sir, GTO is simply an abbreviation for Grand Tempest Option, that’s all. The Italian connection is just a coincidence. You can pick up the phone and call DeLorean if you don’t believe me.” [said with a wink and crossed fingers behind his back]

  9. very educational. loved it. i owned gtos in the late 70s 66,69. found you run them hard you will throw rods. keep writing what you do. maybe a mustang in the future. email it to me if you do thanks Keith

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