Pontiac launched the Detroit musclecar era with the '64 GTO; within a year, nearly all carmakers had their version of a packaged performance car. What made the times fun was the fast and furious competition between the car manufacturers. It seemed that every few months a different car company was releasing a performance variation that upped the ante. In March 1968, Pontiac threw down the gauntlet and announced the Ram Air II option for the redesigned GTO (and the '68 Firebird 400). The first ones rolled off the assembly line on May 20, 1968.
The GTO's new-for-'68 body design was a winner with the critics and the public. The basic package was a head-turner, and like all Pontiacs it could be tricked out to the customer's liking. The 350hp GTO could be a stylish cruiser with enough grunt to easily light up its bias-ply redline tires, or a bruiser with the optional 360hp Ram Air package. But the Ram Air II option was released for serious street-machine Pontiac fans and speed freaks who wanted a competitive Stock Eliminator drag-racing machine.
Not all GTOs were created equal from a quarter-mile performance standpoint. A base 350hp GTO with an automatic and 3.23 rear gears was a high-15-second car in the quarter-mile. But a 360hp Ram Air GTO with four-speed and 4.33 gears was a mid-14-second car in the quarter-mile. That was the performance range of most musclecars of that time.
The Ram Air II option, however, was another story, and it was rich with drag-racing potential. There were no other extras, such as wings, spoilers, suspension or braking enhancements. The package was something of a sleeper in that there were no Ram Air II badges or other callouts to indicate what was lurking under the hood of the Ram Air IIs.
The price of the Ram Air II option was around $630—that's about $4,200 in 2013 dollars
A Pontiac press release dated May 15, 1968, explained the differences between the Ram Air II and its Ram Air predecessor: The new package started with free-breathing Round-Port heads (on the exhaust side), with a recalibrated Quadrajet four-barrel carb connected to the standard Ram Air induction kit.
The valves were lighter, and the standard cam was replaced with a 308-/320- degree duration, 0.470-inch lift camshaft. (This was Pontiac's first computer-designed camshaft; the same camshaft was used later in '69-'70 Ram Air IV engines.) The crankshaft and pistons were forged steel and the cast-iron exhaust manifolds were less restrictive. Compression was the same as the standard Ram Air engine: 10.75:1. Lastly, the ignition system was the same as the Ram Air's, only with some additional advance. An M21 four-speed transmission and 4.33 rear gears were mandatory.
The price of the Ram Air II option was around $630—that's about $4,200 in 2013 dollars.
(Coaxing more power from an internal-combustion engine is always about breathing. The whole Ram Air lineage that Pontiac started in 1965 as an over-the-counter performance-parts kit was about stuffing more cold air into the engine for additional horsepower. When the Ram Air option was ordered on a GTO, the underhood hardware to connect the air cleaner to the underside of the hoodscoops was shipped in the trunk of the car for installation by the dealer.)
Since Ram Air II GTOs were only produced in May to July 1968, there were very few magazine stories or published road tests on them. High Performance Cars magazine Tech Editor Roger Huntington wrote about one of them in an article titled, “The Machine to Beat—on the Street or in D/Stock,” that covered the technical details and offered some insight into the potential of the car.
Royal Pontiac's performance-chief Milt Schornack built a '68 Ram Air II GTO test car for Stock Eliminator drag racing. Using a prototype engine, the stock close-ratio four-speed, 3.90 rear gears, a set of Doug's Headers, 8.50-14 M&H Super Stock 7-inch cheater slicks, plus the usual Royal Bobcat super tune-up, Milt was clicking off 12.77 e.t.'s!
Pontiac left a lot of red meat in the Ram Air II engine. Even if you were driving a regular GTO, just knowing the Ram Air II GTOs could give Hemis and big-block Fords and Chevys a run for the money on the dragstrip and from stoplight to stoplight added bragging rights for all GTO owners.