11 November 2013

American GT

American carmakers adopted the GT badge from Europe. Did their cars earn it?

The “GT” badge has adorned the fenders and trunk lids of a wide variety of American cars over the past 50 years. Certainly, a number of cars wore the badge with honor, considering its roots in semi-exotic European sports models. Others used it merely as a cosmetic appellation.

The initials “GT” stand for “grand touring,” or, perhaps more accurately, the Italian version, gran turismo. The term was typically used to describe coupe versions of high-performance sports cars that offered more long-distance comfort and luggage space than their open counterparts.

While big Euro cars like the original Bentley Continental R could be called “grand tourers,” Ferrari was likely the first to designate a model “GT,” with the 250 GT series that started in 1955.

When did America get its first GT? Studebaker fans: Raise your hands.

The 1962-1964 Studebaker Gran Turismo Hawk, perhaps one of the most underappreciated classic American coupes, emerged from a desperate bid to reverse the company’s decline. While industrial designer Raymond Loewy came in to guide the design of a new model that would become the Avanti, Brooks Stevens got the job to revive the Hawk coupe, which had debuted as the 1953 Starlight and Starliner under Loewy’s design supervision.

By shaving off the Hawk’s gaudy fins and chrome and adding a Thunderbird-like squared-off roofline, Stevens gave the old girl a sophisticated, international flavor. A bucket seat interior, center console and full gauge instrumentation gave the car a GT feel. With later models offering the 240hp and supercharged 289hp V-8s used in the Avanti, along with chassis tweaks, the GT Hawk offered pleasing road manners. The Avanti was a breakthrough American GT, but Studebaker didn’t use that badge on it.

Also for 1962, but at the other end of the spectrum, Dodge spiffed up its competent Lancer compact, putting the GT badge on a two-door hardtop model with upgraded trim. The 225-cube “Slant Six” came standard. Though not a real gran turismo, it was a worthy effort to bring sportiness to a segment known for dowdy cars, making it a trend starter. It was a minor hit, too, with about 17,000 sold.

Dodge continued the formula when it replaced the Lancer with the Dart for 1963. A two-door hardtop or convertible, the Dart GT found success, with 34,000 sold that year. For 1964, a quarter of the 50,000 Dart GTs sold had the newly optional 273 cubic-inch V-8.

Was it a real GT? The 1966 model, with the new high-performance 273, moved closer to the concept. The 1968 GT Sport (GTS) with the 340 high-performance V-8 probably nailed it, though most would consider it a junior muscle car.

Ford had meanwhile been calling its sportiest Mustangs “GT,” a thoroughly appropriate move given the car’s all-around performance competence when equipped with a powerful V-8 and the upgraded suspension and interior. The Shelby versions were even more GT badge-worthy.

Ford earned its “GT cred” when its stunning GT-40 race cars conquered the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1966, ’67, ’68 and ’69, humiliating the Ferraris. But the company dropped the GT package from the Mustang after 1969, focusing its efforts on the striped-and-scooped Mach 1 and Boss models.

Ford also used “GT” for the 390-powered 1966 Fairlane and its twin, the Mercury Cyclone. When the Fairlane morphed into the Torino, there was a GT model. Mercury retired the Cyclone name after 1971 but kept the GT badge for a sporty but obscure 1972-1973 Montego fastback model. With the 351 Cleveland 4-barrel, it was a fairly decent effort.

Sometimes “GT” had a third letter accompaniment. Pontiac famously borrowed the GTO (“gran turismo omologato”) from Ferrari, spurring Plymouth to go with GTX for its 1967 muscle car. Mercury, aiming for a European image, fielded a Cougar GT in 1968 and offered a rare GT-E package with a 390-horse 427 (and later, the 428 CJ).

Could a big car qualify as a GT? The 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado was a move in that direction. In 1970, Olds offered a subtle GT upgrade with a 400hp engine. About 5,300 had the package.

More obscure was the 1970-1971 Plymouth Fury GT. With its high-performance 440 V-8, beefed-up suspension and bucket seat interior, the Fury GT was a credible effort, but few were sold.

In 1971, things took a wrong turn when Chevrolet stuck the GT badge on a tarted-up Vega. It was a Vega. No more needs to be said.

The Vega platform, though, spawned the stylish 1975 Chevy Monza and its Buick Skyhawk and Oldsmobile Startfire clones, all sharing a roofline cribbed from the 1971 Ferrari 365 GTC/4. Maybe that justified Olds in using “GT” on its higher-trim model. A 120-horse Buick V-6 provided the pep.

Ford dusted off the GT badge when it revived a real performance Mustang for 1982. This time, the name stuck. Today’s Mustang GT is a bona fide muscle car. Yet, with its all-around performance and admirable comfort, it’s also a modern American gran turismo.

What about the 2004-2006 Ford GT, the homage to the GT-40 race car? It was really a super car rather than a gran turismo. But a 200-mph piece of art like that can take any name it wants.

26 Reader Comments

  • 1
    Chris Sulek San Jose, CA November 13, 2013 at 13:39
    Ferrari was beat by four years with the 1951 Lancia Aurelia B20 GT. By most accounts, this car is considered the first gran turismo using the GT designate.
  • 2
    Thomas A. Susala United States November 13, 2013 at 14:29
    I blame the clowns on Madison Avenue who didn't know GT from pee pee. These same Gray Flannel pimps who were building ad campaigns that attempted to convince the potential auto buyer, "Buy our car and get LAID!," were the same fools that would steal any term that sounded exotic. I remember writing a report in Sophomore high school Speech class that addressed the redundancy of that mindset through out the postwar era.
  • 3
    Brian McAleer Michigan November 13, 2013 at 14:55
    Oh my...you forgot the Pontiac version...the Sunbird. Understandable as many do not remember Pontiac's sister ship to the Vega.....the Astre!
  • 4
    D Mc Lean Portland Oregon November 13, 2013 at 15:16
    Thanks for crediting Studebaker as a forerunner in American GT vehicles. I owned a 1964 Gran Turismo Hawk for 13 years, just sold it recently. The car was fun and, for its era, nimble. Studebaker V8 engines are virtually indestructible. There were only about 1,700 GTs built for the '64 model year, the last year of Hawk production, which was curtailed in December of '63 when Studebaker shut down its US production plant in South Bend, Indiana. The survival rate of these rare cars is very high, I would guess 500 or more still navigate the roads of the world.
  • 5
    George Ward Holland, MI November 13, 2013 at 15:27
    What!? No GTO??
  • 6
    Bill Muros Dallas November 13, 2013 at 15:50
    Actually there was 1967 Cougar XR -7 GT. It had a 390 in it.
  • 7
    Bill Muros Dallas November 13, 2013 at 15:51
    Actually there was 1967 Cougar XR -7 GT. It had a 390 in it.
  • 8
    Mel Greenville, North Carolina November 13, 2013 at 19:23
    Years ago, I owned a 62 Studebaker GT Hawk; I loved the car and wish I still had it. It got a lot of head turns and I always enjoyed driving it. I now have an Avanti and love it; it gets lots of head turns, too.
  • 9
    Jason Fell Tracy California November 13, 2013 at 19:40
    Great article Jim and I agree with everything but, (oh ya have one of the buts out in my driveway), no mention of the Shelby 350GT or 500GT, or the newer GT500. If there is any doubt Shelbys earned the right to have GT on their jewelry, id be glad to take you for a ride in my GT500. You may want to bring a change of undies....... Take care Jason
  • 10
    gene gick lombard, il. November 13, 2013 at 10:05
    I owned a 1964 Dart GT conv.273 4 spd. I also owned a 1968 dart GTs 383 auto. I now own a 1964 dart GT conv. Push button auto. All of these cars were and are great examples of the past era. As far as the GT badging, its in the eye of the beholder, i like it.
  • 11
    Richard Swisher Greencastle,Pa. zip 17225 November 13, 2013 at 22:21
    This a very good article that you wrote from the beginning and all the cars that has the call letters GT & GTS witch open my eyes up because I have original 1969 Dodge Dart GTS 340 motor 4 speed with 2,500 miles on the odometer that I am going to be selling. Thanks again for a great article Richard.
  • 12
    John San Jose November 13, 2013 at 11:10
    This article would be truly great if each car referenced above was done so with a hotlink to an actual photo.
  • 13
    SteveW florida November 13, 2013 at 11:21
    Did they earn it? With occasional exception, the answer is NO.
  • 14
    Herb Renstrom Visalia, CA. November 13, 2013 at 11:43
    I think in order for an automobile to be designated GT or even GTO, it would have to go several endurance touring--i.e. Los Angeles to San Francisco. at least three times without breaking down mechanically. Also, when you get out of the vehicle after a tour, you feel more refreshed and not like you've been riding a roller coaster!!!!
  • 15
    Bruce Johnson oakdale,MN November 13, 2013 at 12:50
    You forgot to mention the Opel GT from 1968 to 1973. This was probably the closest to the European trend, because they were built, in Germany and shipped to Buick dealers. Opel was a division of GM and still are. Ie Pontiac Solstice, and Saturn Sky, were predecessor of the Opel GT.
  • 16
    Dave Cruikshank Reading, PA November 14, 2013 at 01:53
    One that sticks out for me was the Opel GT. Probably missed the cut because it was sold in America but was a true European GT. How about the Canadian built Bricklin, ahead of its time. I always loved the 75-77 Monza Fastbacks especially the rare IMSA package which when equipped with the CA Chevy 350 was pretty good for mid 70's. I've owned many Mustangs including my current 96 SVT Cobra. But the only one I ever had new was an 82 HO GT. I saw it at a mall car show and had to have it. Sold my beloved 76 Saab for it. I know it was used as a rally car and won, was the 260 V8 Falcon ever sold as a GT? I always enjoy reading your newsletters, keep up the good work.
  • 17
    Mikel Smithson Pottstown PA November 14, 2013 at 15:54
    Nice article but what does omologato mean? In any event My son and I finished his '83 AMC Spirit GT. A performance Spirit which was said to be the best handling car AMC mass produced. We like it and so does the show car people. Its a blast to drive.
  • 18
    Randy Abercrombie South Carolina November 14, 2013 at 10:39
    Who cares??? I just want the number of the guy in the 69 Dart GT cover photo. I NEED that car!
  • 19
    Brad Dale Nashville, TN. November 15, 2013 at 10:03
    Glad to see so many American "GT" models were produced. Some were, as stated, not really a true GT but the majority were strong enough in design to carry the name. I had forgotten some of them even though I am a muscle car fan. I also am glad to see the Mercury Cougar get recognition. It is a true muscle car and the GT models did have enough character to carry the GT badge with respect. Might have wanted to mention the Cougar Eliminator. While not marketed or badged as a GT, it carried all the hardware and was a true Muscle car with GT credentials. ( the 67 and 68 Cougar GT had the strong 390c.i. engine and was still available in the Mercury Cougar for the 1969 year ).
  • 20
    Bill Muros Dallas TX November 15, 2013 at 22:26
    Actually there was a '67 Cougar GT powered by a 390.
  • 21
    Jim Koscs Hawthorne, NJ November 18, 2013 at 20:26
    Replying to Chris Sulek: Thanks for the tip on the 1951 Lancia Aurelia B20 GT. I was afraid I'd miss something before the Ferrari 250 GT. -- Jim Koscs
  • 22
    Francis Grim Sherwood, Ohio November 19, 2013 at 11:18
    I bought a 1971 Pontiac GT-37, Christmas Eve 1970. Needs restored but still in the barn after all these years.
  • 23
    Thomas Wood Monson Massachusetts November 21, 2013 at 06:27
    I had a 1969 dart gts with the 340ci,right off the show room floor it wood turn 14.2seconds in the quarter mile at Lebanon valley dragway in new york.I currently own a 1968 dart gts with a 340,these darts were some of the best performing cars dodge ever produced,
  • 24
    Don Cardoza Northern NJ December 4, 2013 at 15:52
    In response to Dave Cruikshank: To my knowledge, NO 260 V8 Falcon was ever called a GT. There was a "sprint" package (actually so labeled) but it was mostly cosmetic (chromed rocker covers and air cleaner, top-of-dash mounted tach, Etc.. The Sprint was killed off by the success of the mustang, which in one sense is a shame! Personally, I believe it was far more visually attractive than the mustang, and without competition from the mustang, would have been a HUGE smash hit!
  • 25
    Bob Blair Sayville, NY December 4, 2013 at 17:50
    "but what does omologato mean?" It is Italian for "homologated" meaning the FIA accredited the car as production car (vs one-off or special). The practice is still in use, but production run minimums are much higher now than the 100 required for homolagation in 1960. If I remember correctly, the original (1957) minimum was only 50.
  • 26
    Jay Tempe, AZ December 11, 2013 at 15:22
    Though it never carried a GT badge the 1961-1973 Volvo 1800s were considered true GTs with Roger Moore driving one in the 1960s TV series The Saint. They were sold mainly in the US and now Europeans are buying them up and shipping them back. The car will truly drive from San Francisco to New York and back without breaking down even today though they are now 40+ years old. And Irv Gordon just proved it in spades by surpassing 3 million miles (yes that's 3 with six zeros behind it) in his 1966 1800S in September to pad his Guiness Book of World Records entry and the car still has the original engine in the car. I agree with Thomas Susala who said the Madison Avenue types don't know squat about what a GT car really is. I found your article interesting but I think you are wrong to equate GT with more horsepower. Today's true GTs though usually are Supercars with lots of HP and probably the best are built by Aston Martin (the Vantage, the Vanquish, etc). I just wish I could afford one. Until I win the Lottery I'll stick with my 1971 Volvo 1800E and 1973 !800ES Sportwagon (aka as a Shooting Brake)

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