With the legendary John Z. DeLorean at the helm, Pontiac was on top of its game in 1968, so much so that when the competition was beginning to catch up, Pontiac countered by completely redefining the game. The innovative '68 GTO ushered in a new generation of design for all musclecars. Indeed, the "Great One for '68" sent the rest of Detroit scrambling back to the drawing boards.

New Look, New Refinement

As great as the '67 GTO was, it was clear, at least from a design standpoint, the A-Body needed reinventing. Vehicles like the Ford Fairlane and Mercury Comet were adopting the GTO's stacked headlamp theme and general proportions. Across town, the '66-'67 Dodge Charger's radical fastback roofline gave the otherwise boxy Mopar B-body a sleek new look. With the competition gaining ground on the expanding musclecar market, GM was wise in redesigning the A-body for '68, and the GTO was easily the most attractive and most innovative of the lot.

The '68 GTO was a game-changer, much like the '61 Jaguar E-Type and '63 Corvette that preceded it. Like them, the GTO was a radical departure from the previous generation of offerings, but was still recognizable for what it was—an icon in the making.

As it had been in the past, the GTO was based on the familiar GM A-Body platform. While the chassis was quite similar to its predecessor, it was not exactly the same. The wheelbase had been shortened three inches, to 112, giving the new Goat a less sedan-like appearance and more pronounced Sport coupe proportions. The overall appearance featured a fuselage-like greenhouse and a semi-fastback roofline that flowed seamlessly into the deck.

Up front, the split-grille theme was highlighted by a new and revolutionary Endura front bumper/grille assembly. Featuring a steel core with a thick rubber-like elastomeric outer layer, the new bumper absorbed impacts up to 4 mph and returned to its previously undamaged shape in a matter of hours. It also integrated the grille into its design, using a plastic, horizontal-bar grille with quad headlamps, and a very clean-looking hideaway option for a few extra bucks.

The hood featured a prominent ironing-board element, which ran from the nose to the base of the windshield. A pair of hoodscoops on its sides augmented it. The hood design was bold, aggressive, and further distinguished the GTO from its A-body siblings within Pontiac and General Motors.

The '68 GTO's body sides featured a pronounced coke-bottle shape, tucking in at the rocker panels that were trimmed with a bright strip that ran between the front and rear wheels and continued on behind the rear wheel wells. In compliance with new federal accident-avoidance standards, new side marker lamps were added front and rear. The rear side markers were shaped in the familiar Pontiac arrowhead, and glowed bright red when lit up.

As mentioned, the '68 GTO's greenhouse featured a fresh contour that accentuated the coupe's proportions. Rear quarter windows were much rounder than before and the backlight was slightly concave and set into the roof just enough to pick up the slightly scooped-out contour of the rear deck. The chrome rear bumper housed the rectangular taillamps, with slotted lenses.

The '68 GTO was completely redesigned inside, with a modern-looking tri-element gauge cluster that put the 120-mph speedometer in the middle position. If the standard gauge cluster was ordered, the left pod was fit with the fuel gauge and warning lamps for oil pressure, voltage, and engine temperature. The right pod had a block-off plate. The turn-signal indicator lamps were to the left and right of the center pod.

If the Rally Gauge Cluster was ordered, the left pod featured fuel, coolant temperature, and oil-pressure gauges, and a voltage warning lamp. The right cluster housed the tachometer unless the hood tach was ordered, in which case the pod contained a rally timer/clock. The dash was trimmed with walnut across to the passenger side and HVAC controls were mounted vertically, just to the right of the gauge cluster.

A bench seat with a folding center armrest was standard in the '68 GTO, but bucket seats and a console were commonly ordered options. Automatics with a console received the innovative Hurst Dual-Gate shifter, while a column shifter was standard for bench-seat cars. Thin-shell bucket seats featured a hard textured back and redesigned upholstery. The collapsible steering column featured a tri-spoke plastic steering wheel. It was one of the few elements carried over from the previous year. A synthetic wood wheel was an option.

Though the look was all new, under the hood the '68 GTO powertrain offerings were essentially carryovers from the previous year. Nevertheless, they benefitted from emissions refinements that translated into additional horsepower.

A new version of the D-port head was released for the '68 model year. It used an open combustion-chamber design that reduced the quench area, which improved emissions. Combined with a dual-diaphragm distributor that reduced timing 10 degrees at idle, the new 400s were clean enough so that a California-specific A.I.R. [emissions] system was no longer necessary.

The new base 400 featured an 066 cam for automatics and an 067 cam for manual transmissions. Both were rated at 350 horsepower at 5,000 rpm. The H.O. version remained at 360 hp. Stick versions received the 068 cam, while the automatics received the milder 067 grind. Even the credit-option 400/2-barrel picked up 10 horsepower to 265, while the Ram Air version stayed at an underrated 360 horsepower at 5,100, with 445 foot-pounds of torque at 3,600. At this point, factory horsepower ratings offered no real basis for comparison.

19681⁄2 Ram Air II

On March 15, 1968, Pontiac announced the Ram Air II. Late orders taken for the early Ram Air engine (known today as the Ram Air I) were filled with the later powerplant. The engine was based on a four-bolt-main 400, with forged pistons, cast rods, and a nodular-iron crankshaft. Boasting a new cylinder head with round exhaust ports and a new computer-designed cam profile (with 308/320 degrees of duration with .470 lift), the Ram Air II was an extremely clever way to significantly boost performance of the Pontiac 400 while maintaining a full exhaust system.

Knowing that even a well-designed dual-exhaust system would cost power, Pontiac engineers left the intake ports of the new heads the same as the regular D-port version, complete with the new combustion-chamber design. They added 2.11/1.77-inch diameter, 5.2-inch, tuliped and swirl-polished valves; 7⁄16-inch, heavy-duty rocker studs; and 11⁄32-inch, oversized pushrod guideplates. Pushrods were 11⁄32-inch and 9.137-inches long, and were designed for use with the production 1.5:1 rocker arms.

Knowing that the exhaust flow of an engine should theoretically be around 85% of the intake, Pontiac engineered the exhaust system to reduce the flow to the proper figure, meaning that the engine performed optimally with the exhaust system installed, as opposed to most other engines that needed the exhaust system uncorked.

The end result was one of the most powerful engines of the entire musclecar era. Rated at just 6 horsepower more than the 400 H.O. or Ram Air I, the 366-horse Ram Air II was, in reality, far more powerful than that. Car Life road testers opined that the engine could well have been making a third more power than its rating would suggest. More modern estimates put the gross horsepower in the 425-plus range.

Promoting The Great One

With new and more stringent rules coming from the upper management offices at GM, Pontiac's ad agency, MacManus, John & Adams, had its work cut out for them. The corporation was prohibiting displays of power or aggressive driving, even requiring that the cars in the ad appear stationary. Of course, the creative folks in charge of the account were masters of staying within the letter of the ruling while completely going against the spirit of it.

To that end, Pontiac released one of the more infamous print ads ever. The two-page spread showed a Verdoro Green GTO with two young men in it, and the car was stopped on a turnaround on Woodward Avenue in suburban Detroit. The ad copy read "The Great One by Pontiac. You know the rest of the story." It was a blatant reference to street racing. After a similarly themed billboard went up near the shoot location and caused the municipalities to uproar, the magazine ad was pulled and the billboard was taken down.

The TV ads fared better. One of Pontiac's most famous marketing moves showcased the GTO's innovative Endura bumper. A 60-second commercial was produced in which gravel-voiced actor Paul Richards explained the new bumper design and then took a large crowbar to it, striking seven times without damage. He then threw the crowbar on the cement floor, and the loud clanging confirmed the crowbar was made of metal and was not a plastic prop. It proved to be one the most effective and memorable ads that Pontiac ever released.

Car of the Year

Speculation for the coveted Motor Trend Car of the Year Award (COTY) was mounting, with the '68 GTO in the running, along with the all-new Dodge Charger and the budget-priced Plymouth Road Runner. In the end, the GTO held on for the win, the fourth for Pontiac in nine years (previously 1959, 1961, and 1965).

The editors said: "Never before has an automobile been so successful in confirming the correlation between safety, styling ,and performance as the '68 GTO. With the new combinations of aesthetic unity, unbroken styling lines, decreased body vulnerability, increased impact absorption, and responsive power, handling, and controllability, it convincingly proves that optimum design/function criteria for nearly all automotive purposes, can be achieved in one unit."

As a result, the award was used extensively in GTO advertising for the rest of the model year and was a huge source of pride for the entire Division and for DeLorean personally.

As well as the COTY award, the Feb. '68 issue of Motor Trend also contained a road test of two '68 GTOs: a base-engine automatic with 3.23 gears and a Ram Air I four-speed with 4.33s. The base car ran 0-60 in 7.3 seconds and clicked off the quarter-mile in 15.93 seconds at 88.32 mph. The Ram Air clicked off a 6.5-second 0-60 and ran a 14.45 at 98.20 mph on slicks, compared to a 96-mph run on street tires. This compared rather consistently to the Ram Air I, four-speed, 3.90-geared GTO tested by Car Life, which ran a 6.6-second 0-60 and covered the quarter-mile in 14.53 at 99.7 mph.

Production Numbers

The production total for '68 GTO was 87,684 units, a jump up from the previous total of 81,722. This broke down to 77,704 coupes and 9,980 convertibles. Ram Air I manual-transmission GTO production was 650 units, while 158 automatics were built. A total of 199 Ram Air II manual GTOs were built, with just 47 automatic Goats produced.

Across town, Plymouth's Road Runner was making headlines and selling very well, with its taxicab-like appointments and potent powerplants. With a loaded Hemi Roadrunner coming in at a price comparable to a moderately-optioned GTO, it was staking its claim in the marketplace, and cutting into GTO sales.

The beginnings of the slowdown in the musclecar era were starting to creep in, but it would be a few more years before the inertia of new federal laws, rising insurance costs, and vehicle-safety advocates would bring the reign of the GTO to a close. Before it ended though, Pontiac would still bring some of its biggest winners to the showroom.

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