The Great One: Pontiac’s -and America’s- Legendary GTO

It wasn’t the fastest, the most powerful or the mostoutrageous muscle car, but Pontiac’s GTO remains at the very top of the muscle car pantheon because it was the first: the car that gave birth to the genre. Truth be told, muscle cars were an invention of marketing, not of technology, and the GTO was the first car to offer muscle to Baby Boomers.

The official birth of Pontiac’s GTO occurred the day that chief engineer John DeLorean and staff engineers Bill Collins and Russ Gee decided to mount a high-performance 389-cubic-inch V-8 engine in the Tempest. But the seed was planted in 1956, when Semon E. “Bunkie” Knudsen assumed control of Pontiac. GM management gave Knudsen five years to turn around the brand or it would be eliminated.

Knudsen understood that Baby Boomers were about to reshape the U.S. auto market. And he knew that speed and competition excited people who loved cars. He told his staff that the division was going stock car and drag racing — a tall order, given Pontiac’s reputation as GM’s grandma-car division. But Pontiac had a proper V-8 engine for racing, the Strato-Streak V-8. Though early versions had top-end oiling problems, a thorough redesign in 1958 made it one of the best-breathing V-8s anywhere, and Pontiacs began to win often, both in NASCAR’s Grand National series and at NHRA drag strips. Thanks in part to racing success, Knudsen not only made Pontiac profitable, but by 1961 it was the third biggest brand in America, after Chevrolet and Ford. As a reward, Knudsen was promoted to head of Chevrolet and Pete Estes became division manager at Pontiac.

But just as Knudsen’s investment in racing was starting to bear fruit, GM ordered Pontiac to cease all support of racing for 1963. GM didn’t want the publicity or the increased sales it brought, because the Department of Justice was threatening to break up the company under the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, the federal law designed to prevent one company from monopolizing an industry. Without racing to showcase its cars, Pontiac lost its primary tool for reaching the exploding youth market. In response, DeLorean proposed a passenger car that would take the division’s high-performance reputation to the street. This brings us back to that spring day in 1963, when DeLorean, Collins and Gee decided to bolt a 389 into a prototype Tempest coupe. DeLorean named the resulting car “GTO,” which stood for “Gran Turismo Omologato,” in an attempt to link this sporty Tempest’s image to contemporary European race cars.

Bending The Rules

Conceiving, naming and developing the GTO was easy; the hard part was getting corporate approval.
GM limited cars to 10 pounds per cubic inch, which meant that the largest permissible power plant for the 3,400-pound Tempest would displace 340 cubic inches. But the committee overseeing displacement to- weight ratios only scrutinized new models and didn’t inspect option packages, so Pontiac made the GTO an option package for the two-door LeMans version of the Tempest. Pontiac sales staff generated 5,000 orders before GM management found out. And with 5,000 customers expecting cars, GM management couldn’t easily kill the GTO.

Pontiac rolled out the GTO in late 1963. The “W62 GTO Package” box on the order form transformed the LeMans. The only visual differences were a pair of non-functional hood scoops, “GTO” lettering on a blacked-out grille, quarter panels and trunk lid, and “GTO” emblems on the front fenders, which listed the engine’s displacement as “6.5 LITRES,” another touch of European flair.

The 389-cubic-inch GTO engine was the biggest V-8 mounted in a mid-size GM car up until that point. The top engine option, available after December 1963, added a trio of Rochester two-barrel carburetors and bumped power output to 348 ponies. Pontiac offered the GTO in three body styles: a two-door post coupe, a two-door hardtop and a convertible. A base LeMans coupe with the GTO option started at $2,776, the hardtop cost $2,852 and the convertible$3,081, making the GTO affordable to almost anyone with a down payment and a job.

The GTO was one of the fastest production cars of 1964. Its only real street competition consisted of cars like Ford’s 289 Mustang, Chevrolet’s 327-cid Chevelle SS and Plymouth’s 270-cid Barracuda. A stock GTO was the hottest game in town for 1964.

Hard To Kill

Pete Estes’ outlaw division had slipped the car past GM’s corporate police — barely. The corporation wanted to limit sales to the initial 5,000 units, and Pontiac deleted the GTO from its full catalog of 1964 models. But word-of-mouth generated strong interest and GTO sales for the 1964 model year totaled 32,450 units. Buoyed by this unbudgeted financial windfall, GM management had a change of heart.

Pontiac gave the GTO a few styling tweaks for 1965. The front end received stacked headlights, echoing those used on Pontiac’s full-size cars, and the twin fake hood scoops gave way to a single center-mounted faux scoop. Carburetion changes and a new camshaft bumped the top Tri-Power engine to 360 horsepower at 5,200 rpm. For the first time, Pontiac offered a dealer-installed Ram-Air package that made the hood scoop functional. Pontiac sold 75,352 GTOs for the model year.

For 1966, General Motors redesigned all of its A-body cars, and the GTO became a separate model rather than an option package. The 1966 cars featured voluptuous “Coke bottle” bodywork with curved side glass that gave the cars a less boxy shape. Pontiac’s stylists recessed the rear window in a tunnel, creating a sleeker roofline. Under the hood, cylinder heads were redesigned to accept the smog-reducing air pumps fitted to California cars. The division sold 96,946 GTOs for the 1966 model year, the best year ever for the GTO.

GM banned multiple carburetors on everything but the Corvette for 1967, so Pontiac enlarged the GTO engine to 400 cubic inches, the maximum capacity GM approved for its intermediate cars. As a result of increased displacement and an improved carburetor and heads, the optional single four-barrel H.O. engine produced the same 360 horsepower as the old Tri-Power setup. But the top dog was the Ram-Air engine, with special cylinder heads, an even hotter camshaft, a 4.33:1 rear axle ratio and an open hood scoop with a ram air pan that directed only outside air to the carburetor. Just 751 of these hardcore GTOs were sold in 1967.

The GTO received a top-to-bottom redesign for 1968 and included optional concealed headlights. Offered only in hardtop and convertible body styles, the new car featured an Endura bumper, which consisted of a body-colored urethane foam bumper bonded to a metal frame. Early in the model year, Pontiac experienced production problems regarding fit, matching paint color and bonding the material to the base metal. As a result, 2,108 GTOs were built with chrome LeMans bumpers.

The H.O. version of the 400-cubic-inch engine returned virtually unchanged, although the big news was the new Ram-Air II engine. Like the original, Ram-Air II included dealer-installed fresh-air intake equipment, but now it also included new roundport cylinder heads with polished valves, a wilder camshaft and freer-flowing exhaust. In street races across the country, Ram-Air II GTOs bested cars with higher horsepower ratings.

Motor Trend magazine picked the GTO as its 1968 Car of the Year, and sales jumped to 87,684 units, despite a hefty price increase.

Here Comes The Judge

Though mildly facelifted for 1969, the big news was under the GTO’s skin. In addition to the base 350 horsepower, 400-cid engine, the new Ram-Air III engine was released. Rated at 366 horsepower, the Ram-Air III was essentially the old H.O. engine, with cast iron “headers” similar to those used on the 1967 Ram-Air engine. The round-port Ram-Air II engine became the Ram-Air IV, now fitted with four-bolt main bearing caps, a two-piece aluminum intake manifold, and revised rocker arms to increase valve lift. Pontiac rated the Ram-Air IV at an insurance-friendly 370 horsepower, but in the real world it offered a lot more than four additional horsepower over the D-port Ram-Air III engine.

Most importantly, in 1969, Pontiac offered “The Judge” package with the Ram-Air III engine, Hurst T-handle shifter knob, hood-mounted tachometer, radical rear spoiler and bold tri-colored side stripes and tri-colored psychedelic “The Judge” lettering on the front fenders. Named after a skit on the popular
TV show Laugh In, the original goal of “The Judge” was to offer a brash, lower-cost street brawler along the lines of Plymouth’s Road Runner. However, by the time it hit the market, it became a $332.07 upscale option. The first 2,000 cars were all painted in Chevrolet’s Hugger Orange, which Pontiac called Carousel Red, before other Judge colors were introduced.

Pontiac sold 72,287 GTOs in 1969, as the entire muscle car market experienced a decline. Insurance rates were skyrocketing, emissions regulations were on the way and half a million potential GTO buyers were serving in Southeast Asia.

GM management finally allowed engines larger than 400 cubic inches for the 1970 model year, so Pontiac engineers enlarged its the 428-cubic-inch engine to 455 cubic inches. The new 455 H.O. was a torque monster, cranking out 500 foot pounds at 3,100 rpm, but the engine used D-port heads rather than the roundport heads from the Ram-Air IV and generated just 360 horsepower at 4,600 rpm. The 400-cubic-inch, 370-horsepower Ram-Air IV remained the top engine.

For the 1970 model year, the GTO’s basic shape remained the same, but everything from the cowl forward was new. Muscular bulges appeared over the wheel openings and the Endura nose became more prominent. The Judge option now cost $337.02. The changes were not well received: GTO sales fell 44.5 percent, to 40,149 units. But Pontiac wasn’t the only manufacturer with challenges in 1970, as all muscle car sales fell again.

By 1971, both the Ram-Air III and the Ram-Air IV engine were gone; the top GTO engine option was a new 455-cubic-inch H.O. round-port engine, which was standard on Judge models. The 455 H.O. was essentially an enlarged version of the previous Ram-Air IV engine with a lower compression ratio (8.4:1), and rated at just 335 horsepower. Beyond the numbers, the 455 H.O. is perhaps the best-performing GTO engine of all, with huge torque down low and the excellent round-port heads for breathing higher up the tach. The Judge remained on the GTO option list in 1971, but Pontiac sold just 374, while the regular GTO only found 10,532 buyers. But 1971 was the last year for the convertible and also the GTO’s final year as a stand-alone model; for 1972, it would again become an option on the LeMans order sheet.

Horsepower ratings fell precipitously in 1972, the result of detuning to meet impending government-mandated pollution-control equipment, but also because of a change in the way manufacturers measured output, from SAE gross horsepower, to SAE net ratings. GTO sales declined yet again, to 5,807.

Bowing out

When GM redesigned the A-body line for 1973, Pontiac’s Trans Am and Grand Am were the division’s premier performance cars, and the GTO was relegated to a trim package for the LeMans, selected by just 4,806 buyers. For 1974, the GTO package migrated from GM’s A-body platform to the Ventura, effectively making the GTO a tarted-up Nova. Sales rose slightly, to 7,058, but were dismal enough to convince Pontiac to kill the GTO.

Pontiac revived the GTO for the 2004 model year using the Monaro, a rear-wheel-drive sports coupe built by Holden, GM’s Australian division. The resulting GTO was powered by a Chevrolet LS1 V-8 rated at 350 horsepower. It was a solid performer, but sold just 13,569 units. Its biggest issue was that the GTO faithful didn’t like it, and import car buyers didn’t get it. For 2005, Pontiac punched a couple of Ram-Air-style holes in the hood, bolted a wing to the rear deck, and borrowed the 400-horsepower LS2 V-8 from the C6 Corvette. Still, just 11,069 sold. In 2006, sales rose to 13,948, but that wasn’t enough. Before it could be redesigned, GM killed the Pontiac division and concluded the GTO story.

The GTO may be gone, but we still have the cars to remind us of a time when automobiles didn’t drive themselves. Pontiac’s GTO not only earned its nickname, “The Great One,” it also created the muscle car genre and became an instant icon. And that’s a story to be told for generations.

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