Why the forgotten 1974 Pontiac GTO is worthy of the name

Muscle car buffs can be thankful that Pontiac never put the GTO badge on anything but V8-powered, rear-drive cars. Even if the 2004-2006 GTO was an Australian import with a Corvette motor, it still fit the proper format and, as a bonus, was the best-performing GTO ever.

Yet, there was a time when some felt Pontiac crossed a line by putting the hallowed GTO moniker on a 1974 Ventura. For a long time, this “little GTO” took some flack even from the faithful.

That was unfair. Though certainly not in the performance realm of the top GTOs, the ’74 was hardly a pretender. Rather, it was an honest, back-to-basics affordable and fun car at a time when midsize models had become bloated and tilted toward “personal luxury.” This misunderstood baby GTO should be viewed through that lens. The long journey to respect has paid off, and as evidence, ’74 GTOs are bringing some impressive sums at auction.

That sinking feeling

1974 Pontiac GTO
1974 Pontiac GTO Mecum

Thanks in large part to the pinch of skyrocketing insurance rates for young drivers, GTO sales plummeted from 72,287 in 1969 to 40,149 in 1970. And then things got ugly, with just 10,532 1971 GTOs. Ouch. For 1972, the GTO reverted to option-package status on the LeMans, and just 5807 were sold. Double ouch.

Despite the free fall, Pontiac soldiered on, bringing the GTO option back for the new-for-1973 “colonnade” style LeMans coupe. Next to the Euro-flavored Grand Am, though, the GTO seemed like an afterthought, even with a good standard 400-cubic-inch V-8 and optional 455. With 4806 cars built, this was GTO’s rock bottom.

Drastic measures

1974 Pontiac GTO profile

Meanwhile, over at Camp Mopar, Plymouth’s Road Runner was actually doing OK with 19,000 made in 1973, helped by available insurance-beating small block V8s in addition to the stout big block options. And speaking of small blocks, that same year, Plymouth shipped nearly 16,000 Duster 340 “junior” muscle cars, while its Dodge Dart Sport 340 cousin did just over 11,300. The epitome of bang-for-the buck muscle, these two were among the quickest and fastest American cars available that year.

Perhaps that was Pontiac’s light bulb moment. Why not do something like that with the compact Ventura, a Chevy Nova clone (on GM’s X-Body platform) that Pontiac had been selling since 1971? Boom, the 1974 GTO was born.

The 1974 GTO option cost $414-$461, depending on the Ventura body style (coupe or hatchback) and trim level (standard or Custom). So, the starting price was just about $3200 for the base GTO coupe.

The heart of the package was the Pontiac 350-cu-in V-8 with four-barrel carburetor and burbling dual exhausts, good for a 200 hp (net) rating. This low-compression, regular-gas engine had already been available for the Ventura. In fact, the Ventura Sprint with select options yielded essentially the same package, but without the GTO cosmetics.

1974 Pontiac GTO 350 engine

The rest of the GTO package included a three-speed manual transmission with floor shift, 3.08:1 rear axle ratio, chrome tailpipe splitters, F41 Special Performance Suspension, 14 x 6-in. Rally II wheels with E70-14 tires, dual sport mirrors and a blackout grille with parking lamps for a GTO-unique look.

The big surprise was a standard “shaker” hood like the Firebird Trans-Am’s, but with a crucial difference: it was functional on the GTO. (The Trans-Am’s shaker was no longer functional after 1972, due to noise regulations.) Under hard acceleration, a solenoid-operated flap at the back of the shaker would snap open to let the Quadrajet carb inhale cooler air, probably adding a bit of psychological horsepower.

Since the Pontiac 350 used the same basic block as the division’s 400 and 455 V-8s, either of those more powerful choices would have fit just fine. Pontiac, though, was going for lower insurance costs for customers and, yes, better fuel economy.

Options, options

1974 Pontiac GTO badge

Just like GTOs that came before it, the ’74 started out pretty bare bones before adding options. It seemed almost criminal that front disc brakes weren’t standard (as they were on the rival Plymouth Duster 360), and power steering should have been standard with that heavy V-8 as well.

A four-speed stick or three-speed automatic each cost $200, and the Saf-T-Track differential was $45. Air conditioning added hefty $381. Optional bucket seats and fancier steering wheels could improve interior accommodations. One could get a well equipped GTO for under $4000.

In the early 1970s, Pontiac began putting greater emphasis on ride and handling, previously not GTO strong points. Optional FR78x14 steel-belted radial tires came with Radial Tuned Suspension, which Pontiac turned into a marketing phrase as it had with “Wide Track” in the 1960s.

The bottom line: How quick?

Orange 1974 Pontiac GTO

The 1974 GTO may have been down on power compared to its predecessors, but, at 3400 pounds, it was about 400 pounds lighter than previous mid-size models. Motor Trend coaxed the newfangled Goat from zero to 60 in 9.4 seconds and through the quarter-mile in 16.5 seconds at 84 mph. New York-based CARS magazine enlisted legendary Pontiac performance tuner and drag racer, Nunzi Romano of Nunzi’s Automotive in Brooklyn, to compare the ’74 GTO to a ’64 model equipped with a 389 four-barrel, automatic, and 3.55:1 rear axle.

Nunzi wheeled the four-speed ’74 from zero to 60 in 7.7 seconds and down the quarter-mile in 15.72 seconds at 88 mph—very close to the 15.64 at 90 mph he got from the ’64. It wasn’t apples-to-apples with the ’74 4-speed stick versus the ’64 car’s two-speed automatic. Still, that was a good showing for the later car.

For more context, consider Hot Rod magazine’s test of a 1968 GTO with the standard 400, 3-speed automatic and 3.23 gears, a combo that yielded a 15.93-second run at 88.3 mph. That performance was fairly representative for the majority of factory-stock GTOs made, so a well-driven ’74 was in good company.

The X-body GTO impressed road testers with its road manners and ride, which were judged better than GTOs that came before.

1974 Pontiac GTO rear 3/4

The 1974 GTO had just one real competitor, the Plymouth Duster 360 (and its Dodge Dart Sport 360 identical cousin). The Mopar’s 45-hp advantage and slightly lower weight translated into quicker performance, with Car Craft landing a 14.6-second at 95 mph quarter-mile. Motor Trend was slower with 15.84 at 87 mph. The Duster/Dart Sport 360 pair sold a combined 8000 cars for 1974.

Despite the model year getting started with an oil embargo and gas rationing, the ’74 “baby” GTO managed to yield 7058 sales, a nearly 50-percent jump over the admittedly dreadful numbers of the ’73 LeMans version. After that, Pontiac dropped the GTO and flew its performance flag on the Trans-Am. It turned out to be a wise move.

Like the 1960s GTOs, many ’74s were used, abused and thrown away. The problem is, there were far fewer to begin with. Locate a good one, swap in a 400 or 455 to bring this “forgotten” GTO to its full potential, or just enjoy easy cruising with the 350. In all of these cases, the “baby” GTO delivers on the classic GTO promise.

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