With the previous model year being such a radical redesign, the'69 GTO bowed with only a mild makeover from'68, yet it would prove to be a defining year for the model and for the musclecar era. As the decade closed out, Pontiac added a new image-builder that really took America by storm.

Styling Updates

Since the GTO’s body was so completely reinterpreted the year before, Pontiac designers wisely stuck to refining some of the details. Up front, a new chrome-trimmed egg-crate grille design was added into the same Endura bumper cavity, and hidden headlamps again returned as an option. New rectangular turn signals were set into the lower valance and tiny round marker lamps were set into the leading edges of the lower front fenders. The rear marker lamps returned for'69, this time mimicking the elongated chevron shape of the familiar GTO fender badges.

The doors lost their familiar wing windows, as a result of the GTO’s new Astro Ventilation system. This change, while somewhat annoying to smokers, actually did a great job of cleaning up the look, giving the'69 edition a more modern appearance than the'68, where the small vent windows looked somewhat out of place.

The'68 GTO’s tail was also revised—a new decklid and rear bumper design moved the taillamps out of the bumper and placed them in nacelles cut into its top contour, with the decklid flowing down between them. The taillamps were substantially wider than'68, with a slotted contour moulded into the lenses.

Inside, the GTO’s basic dimension remained from the year before but new upholstery patterns and a new dash design were used. The new dash featured a textured plastic insert in the gauge cluster that matched the grain of the dash. The basic tri-element gauge cluster design was carried over from'68. The standard gauge cluster center housed the 120-mph speedometer, while the left pod housed the fuel gauge and warning lamps for oil pressure, voltage, and engine temperature. The right pod had a block-off plate.

The optional Rally Gauge cluster was very similar to the previous year. 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 and then it was home to a rally timer/clock. The lower portion of the dash was trimmed with walnut. The HVAC controls were mounted horizontally, just above the radio.

One other change was the replacement of the Hurst Dual-Gate His and Her shifter for automatics with a GM-sourced Rally shifter. Though the two were very similar in operation, offering a full manual mode in addition to regular automatic operation, the newer shifter wasn’t as impressive-looking, but was quite a bit cheaper to manufacture.

Powertrain Offerings

While the powertrain offerings were, for the most part, an extension of the previous year’s offerings, some refinements and upgrades were made. The manual-transmission base 400 received the slightly hotter 068 cam, while the automatic version remained unchanged, as was the step-down-option 400/two-barrel, still available only with an automatic transmission.

The 400 H.O. of 1968 was upgraded with a Ram Air system and became the 366-horsepower Ram Air III, one of Pontiac’s best all-around street engines. Manual transmission versions received the hot 744 cam for part of the year, but a running change had the milder 068 cam substituted to increase driveability.

Transmission availability started with the M-13 Dearborn three-speed manual transmission, while Muncie M-20 wide-ratio and M-21 close-ratio four-speeds were available, as was the three-speed Turbo 400 automatic. Rearend ratios ran the gamut from 2.56-4.33, with Safe-T-Track limited slip available at an extra cost.

The Ram Air IV Debuts

The top engine offering for the'69 GTO was the new 400 cubic-inch Ram Air IV, and while it was a brutal performer, it was not the best street-performance engine that Pontiac ever offered. It was temperamental. It lacked the low-end torque that Pontiacs were known for and was only available with 3.90 and 4.33 gears. Gas mileage? Don’t ask—8 mpg was considered good. Nevertheless, the Ram Air IV was a blistering performance engine that offered at least as much acceleration as many of the competitions’ engines with a decided displacement advantage.

The engine came from a discussion Pontiac General Manager John Z. DeLorean had with Chief Motor Engineer Malcolm R. "Mac" McKellar. DeLorean asked what it would take to extend the operating range of the venerable 400 to 6,500 rpm. Knowing that moving the rpm range up that high would indeed yield considerably more horsepower than the 400 ever made, McKellar also knew that it was likely to cause some driveability problems not normally associated with the torque-happy Pontiac V-8. Charged with the task, McKellar and his team forged ahead.

Extending the rpm range to 6,500 rpm meant that the new 400 was going to require additional airflow. Taking the basic design of the'68½ Ram Air II engine, including the four-bolt block and forged pistons, McKellar redesigned the cylinder heads, adding a new taller intake port design while retaining the Ram Air II’s round exhaust port. While valve sizes stayed at 2.11 inches for the intakes and 1.77 inches for the exhausts, the new intake port design offered significantly more volume and offered a straighter shot at the valve.

The exhaust gases were routed through special streamlined exhaust manifolds, which were essentially a carryover from the Ram Air II. Though rated at 370 horsepower at 5,500 rpm, just 4 more hp than the Ram Air III, it was good for at least 50-60 hp more, with a wider power band than the Ram Air II. The engine was plagued with durability problems, mostly centered around the production cast connecting rod. The truth was, at 6,500 rpm, there was little, if any, safety margin, and one missed shift could mean a rod kicked through the oil pan or block. It has been reported by the late John Sawruk that one service-replacement engine was built for every Ram Air IV engine factory-installed in a Pontiac, which explains why parts were fairly easy to obtain right through the '70s.