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The GTO Origin Story

1964 Pontiac LeMans GTO front 3/4

One of the most interesting facets of a superhero’s story is the origin—the tale of how the hero became super. The superhero formula is often simple and familiar. The unsuspecting soon-to-be hero is living life day to day, and then suddenly tragedy strikes. The tragedy then motivates the character to resolve the situation, perhaps breaking a rule or two and pushing the boundaries in a laboratory, which usually leads to some sort of freakish accident in the lab—and bam, pow! We suddenly find the hero dealing with newfound power.

John DeLorean
John DeLorean
GM Heritage Center

The superhero car that started the muscle-car era, the Pontiac GTO, has its own similar superhero origin story.

In the mid 1950s, Pontiac brought on Semon “Bunkie” Knudsen as general manager to revamp the struggling division and transform its old-man image to a more youthful persona. To accomplish this feat, Knudsen teamed with Pete Estes and brought in brilliant young engineers such as John DeLorean, Bill Collins, and Russ Gee. Under the leadership of Knudsen, Pontiac styling became leaner, more powerful and with a lower wide-track stance. Pontiac took its new designs to the track, battling it out with other Detroit automakers in NASCAR and NHRA. By the early 1960s, Pontiac’s transformation was complete and all was good… until January 1963. GM brass instituted an internal ban on racing that ended the successful game plan that Pontiac had used to propel itself into the #3 sales position. What would Pontiac do without racing to stoke the fires of its sales inferno?

The solution came from a secret underground laboratory in Milford, Michigan. OK, that might be a little too dramatic. In reality, DeLorean, Collins, and Gee would meet most Saturday mornings at the Milford Proving Grounds for casual gatherings referred to as “what if” sessions. It was during one of those sessions that the elite engineering crew put a prototype 1964 LeMans coupe on a lift and examined the drivetrain components. As legend has it, Collins coolly suggested to DeLorean, “You know, John, it would take about 20 minutes to stick a 389 in here.” DeLorean responded, “Let’s try it.” Since the external dimensions of Pontiac blocks were the same size, with the same mounting provisions, the swap to the larger displacement 389 was relatively simple.

1964 Pontiac LeMans GTO ad
1964 GTO advertisement
1964 Pontiac LeMans GTO rear 3/4
GM Heritage Center

Soon after this “what if” session, DeLorean was driving the very first “GTO,” a LeMans coupe powered by a classic 389 topped with a tri-power and bolted to a four-speed transmission. DeLorean put some of the most influential players at Pontiac and GM behind the wheel of the new creation. The LeMans test mule was said to be so much fun to drive that DeLorean often had difficulty getting the car back after he had loaned it out. At this point, the biggest obstacle DeLorean faced to get the car into production was GM’s internal policy regarding big engines in small cars: in the GTO’s case, a corporate edict mandating 10 pounds of vehicle weight per cubic inch of engine displacement. The team slyly discovered a loophole in the wording—the displacement limit only applied to base engines; there was nothing written about optional engines. So the LeMans with the GTO option package, which included the 389 V-8, adhered to the rule because it was offered only as an option. DeLorean reached out to Jim Wangers, vice president at Pontiac’s advertising agency, McManus, John, and Adams. DeLorean asked Wangers to promote the sensational car to a whole new generation of young Americans and show them the meaning of driving for fun. Wangers was so successful in promoting the GTO-optioned LeMans that Pontiac took 5000 dealer orders before the GM Corporate folks knew the car existed. There was no turning back.

The Pontiac GTO was introduced to America in September 1963. And with that, Pontiac had taken its heroic racing battle off the track and brought it to the street, where it would once again do battle against arch rivals Ford, Mopar, and even Chevrolet. The ultimate muscle car superhero was born.

GTO badge detail
GM Heritage Center