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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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 in 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 Driver would revisit the comparison test angle 20 years later, this time securing an actual Ferrari 250 GTO for the event.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 the lyric from the 1964 song “G.T.O.,” written by John “Bucky” Wilkin and performed by Ronny and the Daytonas, the most famous (though not the only) musical tribute to the original Pontiac GTO.