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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.
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!”