Reprint courtesy of Source Interlink Media Archives
It's a treat to read an article written over 40 years ago about a new car and have that article accurately predict that vehicle's rightful place in the historical perspective.
Such is the case with the following article on Motor Trend's Car of the Year (COTY) for 1968 (Feb. '68). MT's editors grabbed onto the personalities behind the '68 GTO, noting their youth and ability to produce remarkable results with small teams free of committee constraints.
As a special treat to readers, the photos that accompany this article include many outtakes that weren't published in the original Motor Trend story. We hope you enjoy this trip back in time. —Don Keefe
Once again in 1968, the traditional criteria used to select the recipient of Motor Trend's coveted Car of the Year Award has been "that combination of engineering, styling and market timing that when perfectly enjoined creates progress sufficient to set an industry trend." The significance of automotive concept, in addition to pure mechanical achievement, was among the prime considerations and, as in the past, contenders must be introduced to the public by January 10th. This year, following careful evaluation of the 1968 product lines of all domestic manufacturers, the winner of the Car of the Year Award was the unanimous choice of Motor Trend's editorial staff.
Pontiac people eat well. Prime rib an inch and a half thick, choice veal with a grapefruit and cheese condiment, filets, grapefruit in V.S.O.P. brandy for dessert... all in the company cafeterias. Maybe that's where they developed their technique.
They're all epicureans ... sophisticated ... they know that the best way to assess the competence of the chef is by his omelette. Turning a proper omelette takes guts and time and some pretty crafty legerdemain, but once it's done you'll stand two heads higher than the next man.
With most people, their eggs shall always be chickens. Never benedicted. Not even a mediocre liver omelette. Just chickens. They're members of The Establishment, so they let things develop in their own conventional, natural, inferior way without any attempt to buck the tide with improvements. Then they all disappear in anonymity.
But lots of people are different. John DeLorean, for instance, is Pontiac's general manager and only 42 years old; Jack Humbert, chief stylist, is 40; Josh Madden, plastics expert, appears to be less than that; and they're all just too far removed from that inglorious moment of being dropped into the dregs of oblivion known as corporate retirement programs, to let it dull their acumen. So they spend their time perfecting that omelette and turning out new ones, because that's where the fulfillment is. The result speaks for itself, and it's considerably more than a plastic-lipped supercar. It's five years of new attempts that have matured into a new-dimension-type automobile that is almost revolutionary without being kooky.
Ever since the GTO brazenly established itself in 1964, it has exuded an undeniable kind of magnetism that distinguishes it from its imitators. It is the important kind of magnetism that seems to be imparted without conscious effort. It was just there, and you somehow knew that if anything new was ever introduced, it would be done by the GTO.
The product itself was already a clue to this. Never before had anyone tapped such a dynamic reservoir of meaningful desires, nor had satisfied them with such a soulful solution. Those youthful heads working on the car were far beyond the rest of us, and they just seem to stay there. About the time everyone else appears to be catching up they introduce another keen discovery and away they go again.
Their timing is uncanny. Right in the middle of the displacement mania, when engine sizes were running rampant, Pontiac offered an overhead cam powerplant and changed the standards of engine sophistication.
But the finest commentary on the fallacies of modern technology has now been presented to the American automotive world by the 1968 GTO - a car that incorporates not only the best taste in GM's "A"-body variations-and an excellent handling and performing supercar package but also the most significant achievement in materials technology in contemporary automotive engineering all combining to substantiate it as the outstanding intermediate of the year, and the outstanding car.
It's a good lesson in the old epigram that you simply cannot create by committee. The flexible bumper concept has been around since World War II, but under the onus of bureaucratic niggling and the inertia of archaic trivia, an efficient and intelligent compatibility between materials technology development and aesthetic values has been impossible.
Pontiac saw that the only hope was to extract itself from this morass of mundane mentalities and start thinking by themselves rather than by corporate priorities. The talent was there, but it wasn't found until Pontiac had the smallest engineering department in the corporation and only five engineers in New Materials Engineering. Parkinson's Law.
For the first time in 20 years, intelligent cooperation between engineering and styling was possible. Each recognized the other's contribution, and most important, the synergism that was possible only through joint effort, finally achieved reality. Styling studios were opened to engineers, engineering labs were opened to stylists, and the entire division became materials-development conscious.
It wasn't merely a naive, vertical attempt at developing an automotive defense system that would simply rebound your adversary. Now, everything was one, and it all had to make sense aesthetically. After all, it had been proved that the human being was more than a utilitarian, corporeal mechanism. He also had cultural and aesthetic standards that any functional object had to meet. So, Pontiac put the body engineer and stylist in the same building, made sure there was intimate intellectual contact and rapport, and assigned both to the same basic projects from the start.
Before long, various experimental foams and non-rigid materials were discovered to possess possible applications values, and under the direction of DeLorean, the stage was set to feed him every new concept there was, regardless of its immediate validity.
The most logical of all new materials applications was the flexible bumper, and if used as a color and styling element, it would also allow for tasteful and different "A"-body designs, a visual body balance and a unified personality that was perfectly consistent with the neo-integrationists of modern automotive artwork in which prevailing philosophies demand elegance to be defined as the absence of ornamentation - a greater unity. Realistic application began in 1964 when the flexible bumpers were attached to push trucks in Pontiac's yards. They not only withstood impact, but weathering and corrosion as well. The basic material, called Endura by Pontiac, had been resolved: high-density urethane-elastomer foam weighing 44 pounds per cubic foot, and with a deflection of 1/2-inch under a 1000-psi. load, with complete recovery in 24 hours after depression by a 4000-pound load for eight hours.
The front surface of the bumper is very hard-virtually indistinguishable from steel, or, perhaps, fiberglass. This rigidity, however, decreases progressively toward the rear of the bumper so the material can compress against the metal fenders and hood where impact absorption is most critical.
Normal harmless testing on the new bumper is done at speeds of 4 mph-more than twice the speed conventional bumpers can withstand. When the new 5 mph standards are invoked, Pontiac will already be able to meet them.
At this point in development, both cost and weight are somewhat of a disadvantage, though very little. Both, however, will soon be solved.
As great an achievement as the bumper material was, Pontiac claims that the development of the paint was even more significant. Inland Manufacturing Division at Dayton had been a recognized factor in foam technology for years, and when named as initial fabricators for the '68 GTO bumpers, it was basically a relatively simple matter of perfecting a paint material for this specific application. It soon became apparent that the only paint suitable for the new bumper would entail an entirely new project for its development. Conventional paints simply did not possess the necessary flexibility.
The advanced quality of the paint and the technology involved is evident in the fabricating process itself. First the paint is sprayed on bare, solid nickel molds that have extremely smooth, plated surfaces. Then a .150-inch thick steel frame is placed into the mold, the cover half is dropped on, and the urethane is injected, heated, cured and removed, all without additional finishing and polishing. There is also no real limitation to color availability, since the present GTO range consists of 17 different hues.
Though further perfection will naturally follow, the ability of the material to conform so easily is a triumph. Indicative of even better performance is the fact that the urethane forms much easier than chrome, so possibilities of design flexibility are enhanced even more.
The rest of the division has already capitalized on the importance of the urethane-type material. Both the Firebird 400 and all "B"-bodies have an Endura emblem protecting them from initial contact.
According to Ken Valentine, staff engineer for materials, "Through the judicious use of materials, we can accomplish so many things where we would otherwise be hamstrung by regulations."
For styling, it liberated many advanced concepts that had been suppressed by conventional materials. You will have to wait a year to see them, but Pontiac claims they will definitely incorporate some of them in 1969.
Endura's contribution to styling is limited only by what the consumer is willing to accept. There is certainly no doubt that it has provided the stylist with a vastly increased scope for designs he has craved for so long. Oh, it will be misused; not every car should have it, nor every bumper. There are applications where our vanity will always demand scintillating accents, and the only way to achieve that is by contrasts to body paint and material. For instance, on limousines and luxury cars, a massive, wide, or regal countenance is normally desired, and this can best be conveyed by a chrome grille, side molding, or some other silly gimmick. But in the burgeoning hedonism of youth markets, the ease and flexibility with which a sculptured, smooth, unified, compact entity can be wrought, is invaluable.
Advantages of the new GTO bumper are already evident in styling, safety and maintenance. Equally as important is that it provides us with an innovation that is a sure way to force the hands of honesty and fairness from the windy temples of the insurance kingdom.
First, this sporty looking exec tools up beside us in his new Mercedes 250SL and checks out our GTO. He moves forward a bit, then drops behind. We see him in our rear-view mirror carefully considering the bright red coupe, and noting the sweet sound from the exhausts. He stays behind all the way to the Hollywood Blvd. off-ramp, and as we leave traffic, he's still checking us out. By the time he's reached the San Fernando Valley, we figure he's thought about the good looks of our machine, a price tag less than half the one he peeled off his window, 5-year/ 50,000-mile warranty, and the fact that no one in a '68 GTO ever checked out his SL.
That gave us the first hint of what we'd be going through during the next few weeks of driving the GeeTo.
The following Wednesday, we made it out to Orange County International Raceway for "street racers" night where all the local hot-dogs gather for grudge racing. While we waited for our turn at the line, a couple of car owners from a few lanes over gave our Ram-Air car the eye and came over. We've got the 4-speed lever in low, the engine is idling at just under a grand, the stock highlift cam is "rump-rumping" through the exhaust system, and the guy up front is getting ready for us. "Okay, just grab a quick look fellas, and then we gotta wail." Fat chance.
By the time we can start engaging the clutch, there's a Coxey's army of hot-rodders circling the coupe, and it would take all of the 360 hp on tap to mow 'em down. What's the use. We shut it off and climbed out. Can't beat them.
We got the feeling there was an army of woodpeckers around. Tap, tap. Tap-tap-tap-tap. "Hey man, this bumper's not rubber - is it?"
"Just hit it with a hammer pal and see what bounces. You'll be pulling your arm back into its socket for a week."
Wherever we took the groovy looking super car, a 15-minute question and answer session developed. First the bit about the rubber bumper (we were always careful not to mention the line about a hammer to a carpenter).
All we had to do was walk in the door, quietly of course, and announce "There's the wildest looking machine parked outside you ever did see." Whoosh! All the old guys with shiny domes (why do they always come in on Saturday?) throw down the girly books and make it out the door so fast it takes the footwork of a ballet dancer to avoid them. What a kicker! By the time the gents file back in, our ears are lowered and we sail out the door smelling of fresh aftershave. A blast of the horn and a spin of wide ovals, and mighty "tiger" disappears from sight.
That trick won't work for long, but it's good for now. We became as addicted to the GTO as onlookers. It goes, rides, handles, steers, stops and looks like a car should. We halfway believe Pontiac took the best parts of all cars made, poured them into a mixing bowl, and stirred up GTO. But they didn't have to. They've been working their way toward this beautiful result for the past four years.
Niceties abound in this machine. Like the Hurst 4-speed shifter that's standard, and the hood-mounted tach that's optional. The first power shift we threw between first and second was so short and quick, we pushed the clutch pedal back in thinking we'd stopped in neutral and blown the shift. Checking the tach is easier than accepting a free drink. It reposes in a straight-forward position, and not far down from line of sight.
Finding instruments is a snap. They're all bunched in front of the driver, and the wood rimmed steering wheel seems fresh from Ferrari-land. The high positioned console storage bin is softly padded on top, and while being too low for use as an armrest will hold gobs of essentials near-at-hand.
There's a quietness inside reminiscent of a church. Tight window sealing as well as smooth suspension pieces keep all road or traffic noise outside where it belongs.
One thing only smokers will criticize is that when the ash tray is open, it interferes with shifting into or out of first or third gear. Why no one at Pontiac found this out during testing is beyond our comprehension. We know for a fact that some of their engineers support the tobacco industry.
GTO is a beautiful road machine. Speeds of 60 to 80 mph are as steady and firm as a drive through the car wash. Any reasonable speed won't upset its balance. We've had GTOs well over 120 mph-under controlled conditions-without noting any skittishness.
Handling maneuvers will make converts of anyone who ever doubted U.S. cars could go-around-corners. In fact, most domestic supercars will do this, but that's another story and this one's for the GTO. Like the fabled tiger connected with GTO, it paws around corners flat and true, then leaps through short straights, ready to have another go at a seemingly hard turn. Only driver inability will reveal any difficulty in the car's handling spirit.
Straight-line performance is just short of stupendous. After finally breaking away from our fan club at Orange County, we dropped a best of 14.80 seconds e.t. and a speed of 96 mph in completely street worthy trim. This means mufflers, air-cleaner, power assist belts, and street tires intact. We pulled off the air-cleaner and bolted on a pair of Goodyear Super-Stock "slicks" on Ansen Top Eliminator wheels and immediately kicked .3-second off this time, with speed going up to 97 mph. A few more passes through the quarter-mile and we knocked off another .05 second, finishing the evening with a 14.45-second reading and a speed of 98 mph. We still hadn't tampered with any part of the engine, and kept the exhaust running through the mufflers.
Earlier GTO's were outrunning us, but no other comparable car could finish the quarter first. It took a modified GTO to beat us, and we even had the pleasure of getting to a few of these by "reading" the Christmas Tree Chrondek starting lights a little better than their drivers.
We were asked, frequently, "What's the gas mileage?" Not to be facetious, our only reply was and can be, "if you have to ask, there's not much use in knowing." Quite frankly the car isn't built to go far on a gallon of gas. Our low reading was 7.0 mph, while the high was 14.4. This car had the 360-hp Ram-Air 400-cu.-in. V-8 with a 4.33 rear axle gear, and the 14.4 came as more of a shock than the 7.0. Mileage gets progressively better as the power descends through the range of GTO engines, hitting an all-time high with the 265-hp, 2-bbl. 400 V-8.
We had the pleasure of running-in our test GTO, as well as some with milder engines and more creature comforts such as air-conditioning and automatic transmissions. We've owned several other new cars that wore thin on our temperaments soon after their newness wore off - which usually wasn't long after noticing the first scratch. This wasn't the case here. Even when we'd clocked thousands of miles, the GTO still appealed to us as a "new" car, with the thought of its becoming "old" a nearly impossible happening.