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Looking back 50 years since the introduction of the Pontiac GTO, it is hard to think of another vehicle that had more long-lasting influence than the original muscle car. Sure, Ford’s Mustang made a pretty big splash in its own right and sold more units, but it wasn’t initially marketed as a performance car.
In terms of shaping the minds of car-buyers back then, the GTO had more influence than anything on the road. The truth is, even the Mustang was following Pontiac’s lead, forced to offer a big-block version for ’67 after continually getting its doors blown off by the GTO and the other big-inch intermediates that soon followed.
The Mar. ’64 issue of Car and Driver theoretically pitted a ’64 Pontiac GTO against its Fe
Indeed, Pontiac not only introduced the GTO, they actually introduced an entirely new market segment to the American car-buying public. We call them muscle cars today.
Even after a half-century, the GTO holds such respect among car enthusiasts that its name is often uttered with the same reverent tone reserved for great authors, musicians, and world leaders. Its effect on the American psyche is that deep.
Pontiac’s product planners were a pretty sharp bunch back in the fall of 1963, but even they didn’t know they were about to launch such a game-changer. The response to it was so huge that its influence sparked a reaction that resonated throughout the entire American auto industry. By 1966, all the American automobile manufacturers had their response to the GTO. Some were good, some were hastily slapped together, and others missed the mark altogether. None of them possessed the combination of performance, style, image, and affordability of the GTO.
Truth be told, some of the Mopars were faster but were often outfitted like taxicabs, and let’s face it: the styling was pretty garish. Some of the Fords were attractive, but getting the top powerplants available was nearly impossible. And Chevrolet? It really didn’t have its top game in the intermediate line ready until 1965. Pontiac caught the rest of Detroit with its pants down and it took some of them more than a full model year to react.
Turning a Negative Into Opportunity
Looking back, the events leading up to the release of the GTO were a classic case of making lemonade out of lemons. Pontiac management had no choice but to react to what was coming, but by being smarter than the competition, they took a setback and turned it into opportunity.
It is hard to believe in light of General Motors not-so-long ago bankruptcy, but by 1963 this corporation had so much market share that the U.S. Justice Department was beginning to look into splitting it up and spinning off Chevrolet into a separate company.
As a result, GM cut back its promotional activities to slow down its growth and constrain its market share
One area it backed off of was motorsports, and in January of 1963 it announced its ban on racing. In one fell swoop, Pontiac’s entire marketing strategy had become obsolete and it quickly found itself in a very precarious situation. The positive image that the Super Duty race cars created resulted in an immense amount of dealership floor traffic. While customers were not buying factory racecars for street use, they were buying the image that those race cars projected. Perhaps it was in an attractive new Tri-Power Catalina or a Grand Prix with a four-speed but it was the race victories that were bringing in customers.
With the Super Duty program closed, Pontiac turned its focus to street performance cars. Think about the times and the climate that existed just before the GTO was introduced. Performance cars were largely out of reach for those who really wanted them. A performance-minded buyer had two paths to follow -- a V-8 sports car like a Corvette or Shelby Cobra or a full-sized performance car like a 409 Impala, a 421 Catalina or a 427 Galaxie. The problem was that the price for a sports car or a performance-optioned full-sized car was out of reach for most young car buyers.
Bringing an affordable, attractive, high-performance intermediate dropped the price in two ways. First, base price to base price, the cost of an intermediate was substantially less than a full-sized. Right off the bat, one wasn’t paying the full-sized sticker price before even getting to the performance options. Secondly, the engines didn’t have to be very exotic in order to achieve startling performance. Just sticking in a larger displacement engine provided a huge kick in the pants for performance. This cut cost further, as streetable compression ratios and hydraulic cams could be used, increasing driveability and lowering warranty claims.
Think about it -- just jumping from the top 326 H.O. to the base GTO 389 had a 45hp and 73 --lb-ft of torque advantage in a similar weight package. Order the 389 Tri-Power for another 23 horses on top of that. Add in a four-speed and some gears, and you had a performance package that approached the Super Duty cars, at a fraction of the cost. It was a winning combination from the word go.
The ’64 GTO dealer brochure cover simply said, “A device for shrinking time and distance—P
You have no doubt heard the legendary story of the birth of the GTO -- well, it’s true. Chief Engineer John DeLorean encouraged engineers to come to work on Saturday mornings for some informal meetings. One such Saturday, he and engineers Russ Gee and Bill Collins were there in the Engineering garage. The trio were looking at a ’64 326 Tempest pre-production car on a lift.
Collins said, “You know, John, with the engine mounts being the same, we could slip a 389 in this thing in about 20 minutes.” The rest is history.
There was a little more to that encounter than many realize. Collins revealed in a March 2013 interview that they went on to talk about the GTO from a stock-car racing perspective that morning.
“We were out there driving the to-be-announced ’64 Tempest, which was the upsized A-body that all the Divisions had. Based on our past experience with NASCAR and the Super Duty [full-size] car that Paul Goldsmith drove, we had the [Tempest] up on the hoist … and I mentioned that the 326 and the 389 had the same exterior dimensions and if we stretched the wheelbase 3 inches, I think it would qualify for NASCAR. That was the reasoning for doing it. “So John said, ‘Well, let’s build one up and try it.’
Russ was in charge of the Experimental Department and he had one ready for the next weekend’s ride, and from there, John took off with the GTO and [Jim] Wangers got involved. That’s the way it really started -- not to be a muscle car on the road, but for NASCAR.”
Before the GTO changed the automotive landscape, however, it had overcome the obstacles to approve it for production. The most significant was the GM Corporate edict mandating 10 pounds of body weight per cubic inch. Pontiac discovered a loophole in the rule’s wording: The displacement limit was for base engines, and nothing was said about optional engines. Making the GTO an option package on the LeMans adhered to the verbiage in the rule.
Frank Bridge, Pontiac’s general sales manager, was an old-school corporate employee and opposed the car. Eventually, with some pressure from Pontiac General Manager Elliot M. “Pete” Estes, he relented and committed to a 5,000-unit production run, which would allow dealer pre-orders before GM upper management would have a chance to pull the plug on the car. (Editor’s note: This story is detailed in greater length in Wangers’ book Glory Days.) Within weeks, the 5,000-car goal had been met, and at that point, the suits at GM would have to abide by the plan or face serious backlash from their dealers if they tried to reverse what had been done.