Then there was the name, GTO. DeLorean was a huge fan of European cars and racing and chose the name. To name an American intermediate for a European racing series, and a Ferrari for that matter, was seen by tweed-wearing sportscar fans as nothing short of heresy. Many no doubt thought to themselves, They might as well put a moustache on the Mona Lisa or call Prince Charles “Chuckie” in his presence. To be sure, it was a brash, controversial move and somehow, just perfect.
In the end, that name set off a firestorm, which translated into free publicity and free-flowing ink in the era’s car magazines. The Mar. ’64 issue of Car and Driver even went so far as to test a ’64 GTO against a Ferrari GTO, and the move put that magazine, Editor David E. Davis, and Pontiac on the world stage in a way that guaranteed the success of all parties involved.
Of course it was rigged. The red GTO that Car and Driver used for acceleration tests featured a 421 Royal Bobcat, not a 389. And the Ferrari? It never showed, so Davis relied on pre-existing performance data and an artist’s illustration on the cover for the matchup that never really happened.
It was the shot heard around the world, and a legend was born.
John DeLorean’s Recollections of the GTO
Back in late 1993, then-Associate Editor Jeff Koch contacted John DeLorean by phone at his farm in northern New Jersey to get his thoughts on the 30th anniversary of the GTO. Sadly, DeLorean passed away in 2005, but his legacy and that of the Pontiac GTO are still very much alive. We are proud to present an excerpt of that candid interview, which originally ran in our Feb. ’94 issue.
High Performance Pontiac: Where did the idea for the GTO come from? There’s some controversy as to the roles that you and Jim Wangers played in it.
John DeLorean: Wangers did a great job promoting it, but the original concept for the car was from one I built for my own personal use. You know, you’re chief engineer of Pontiac, you can do what you want, right? It was a Tempest with a 326 and a Hurst shifter. (George Hurst was in on it, too.) It was a fun car. I’d lend it to friends once in a while and asked them to tell me what they’d thought of it after they’d driven it. And I soon found that every time I lent that car to someone, I couldn’t get it back. I’d practically have to steal my own car back. It was poor man’s market research, but I figured that if a fun-to-drive car like that had that much appeal, they would sell in the showrooms. Wangers had nothing to do with it.
It isn’t often that you find a ’64 GTO painted in Code N Sunfire Red, but that’s how this
This image of a ’64 GTO getting flogged at the Milford Proving Grounds gave the public not
In addition to the two-door hardtop coupe and convertible, there was also a pillared Sport
You know, John, with the engine mounts being the same, we could slip a 389 in this thing in about 20 minutes
HPP: How important was this car in keeping Pontiac’s racy image going after GM stopped racing in 1963?
JD: It was one of the best things we ever did. It was an emotionally powerful car. Every kid in high school wanted a GTO. The kids were screaming at their fathers, so then they knew about it, too. Up until that point, the only people who could afford performance cars were puss-gut Wall Street-types who couldn’t drive ’em. And the young kids who could drive ’em couldn’t afford ’em. The GTO made high performance affordable and opened up a new market.
This ad for the ’64 GTO also appeared in Car and Driver’s infamous Mar. ’64 issue. Pontiac
HPP: Did you have any idea that this car would trigger a horsepower war in Detroit?
JD: I was only thinking about doing the best I could for Pontiac. As it happened, it was extremely profitable, too. We didn’t understand that this would spawn what we now call the muscle-car era.
HPP: What could the GTO have been if the bean counters didn’t get in the way?
JD: A set of disc brakes (variously credited to Kelsey-Hayes and Budd) were tooled at their own expense on the basis that they would amortize the costs over a period of time. They were approved and ready to go, but Ed Cole killed that idea. That car didn’t have nearly enough brake, and the discs would have been head and shoulders above anything in America at that time. It would’ve set disc-brake technology ahead about 15 years, too. The GTO was to be a leader in the high-performance arena. We had a number of items that we wanted to use on the GTO to introduce them. We’d have liked to do some sort of independent suspension for it. We did go ahead and develop an overhead cam V-8 for the GTO, but when they found out (at GM corporate headquarters), they got upset about that, too. A fellow named Mac McKellar worked on that engine. He was a quiet, unassuming guy, but he really knew what he was doing.
HPP: What happened with the Michelin radials that were supposed to come on the car?
JD: Same thing. Ed Cole didn’t let us do it.
Another original ’64 GTO ad, this one showed the standard equipment that raised a GTO abov
HPP: Any truth to the rumor that the American tire companies put pressure on GM to use an American tire?
JD: No, it was just Cole. He was so upset that Pontiac was knocking the fanny off Chevrolet that he stood in the way of everything.
HPP: Did you really think the GTO would be as big as it was?
JD: Oh, sure. The experience with my own personal car was enough to convince me. In fact, someone at Pontiac bet me that we wouldn’t sell our initial allotment of 5,000 cars. Some time later I was treated to a big steak dinner at someone else’s expense, so I guess I won that bet.
Reflections of a ’64 GTO Original Owner
Back in the Oct. ’90 issue of HPP, then contributor Pete McCarthy wrote in his Indian Head column about the performance potential of the ’64 GTO and how obvious it was to Pontiac racers back then.
“Having spent the two years prior to the introduction of the ’64 GTO transforming my ’62 318hp Grand Prix into a high-13-second, 100-mph record holder, it took little thought to imagine the potential of the GTO. With the right options, I figured the GTO could be made to run low 13s at well over 105 mph.
“When I discovered that those sneaky little devils at Pontiac Engineering had slipped on the 421 H.O. (No. 97707l6) cylinder heads, I realized my initial estimate might have been a little conservative. Within a year and with modest changes, the GTO was indeed running high 12s at almost 109 mph. No wonder the GTO was such a sensation!”