Proof that Kia is finally for real
The original Pontiac GTO and the new Kia Stinger have more in common than you think
Shakespeare wrote that misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows. Well, so does a mission. Who doesn’t like a good adventure flick where a motley band of otherwise mismatched oddballs find themselves joined together on the same path toward a common goal? Without this ancient story trope, as old as Homer’s Odyssey and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and as fresh as Avengers: Infinity War, the latest movie superhero cluster-bomb, fiction would be a lot more boring.
So, in tribute to Homer and Chaucer and their modern analog, Stan Lee, here we have two mismatched characters that really don’t belong in the same story together but were put on this earth to fight the same battle. Late in 1963, Pontiac announced option package RPO 382, called Gran Turismo Omologato, a $295 upgrade that was meant to breathe life into the otherwise staid Tempest LeMans mid-size commuter and, more important, breathe life into the Pontiac Motor Division’s very geezery image. In 2017, Korea’s Kia Motors launched the Stinger, an uncharacteristically shapely and urbane executive express with up to 365 horsepower from a twin-turbo V-6, the option of all-wheel drive, and a sticker that tops out around $50,000. And Kia created this car precisely because nobody expects such a thing from this company.
Yes, that Kia, the company that still makes cut-buck crap cans for rental fleets, according to the folks who haven’t been paying attention. Well, like the GTO, the Stinger is here to make you pay attention. We don’t yet know if the Stinger will be an icon in the pantheon of automotive history, as the GTO assuredly is. Yet the Stinger is rattling a few preconceptions about what Kia stands for.
We gathered both, a two-owner 1964 Pontiac LeMans GTO hardtop coupe with a history that will melt even the hardest hearts, and a brand-new Kia Stinger GT fresh from dealer prep, for a day on the roads of coastal California. The goal wasn’t to compare them or shoot spit wads at their relative deficiencies, but to see firsthand how two car brands embarked on a mission to reinvent themselves and found they are banded together in spirit despite being separated by thousands of miles of land and ocean, lightyears of culture, and 54 years of history.
You’re scoffing, we can hear it. Pontiac is a storied name with an 85-year historiography that rolls up everything from the Royal Bobcats to the Burt Reynolds Bandit to the Bonneville and Star Chief coupes to the sensational Strato-Streak V-8. Kia is a punchline, the answer to a joke about America’s cheapest import from a country whose national dish is pickled cabbage. But bear with us here, because by the end of this trip, we hope you’ll see the parallels that we do between Pontiac in 1964 and Kia today, and marvel at an industry that never stops trying to score the big coup through unexpected changes in strategy.
Pontiac was indeed all those wonderful things mentioned above. It was also a marketing gimmick born in a corporate boardroom in the early 1920s with the hardly inspiring mandate to “dominate the field of low-priced sixes.” The rollout of Pontiac at the 1926 New York auto show was cornball all the way. The city’s Commodore Hotel got renamed the “Wigwam” for the occasion, the unveiling was designated as the “Pow Wow,” and the lunch menu bore the title “Heap Big Eats.” The executives of the more upscale Oakland Motor Car Company, from which Pontiac was being spun off as a cheaper alternative, promised dealers that the new, low-price 6-27 coupe and landau coach would bring them “much wampum.”
And priced at $825, or $200 less than the cheapest Oakland, the new Pontiacs did okay. But by 1930, the wampum was running dry as the Great Depression began to settle in. Even so, it was parent Oakland that got the ax from the GM board. Pontiac survived the first of its many brushes with the woodshed simply because the public saw it as a bargain in a bust economy, doing a better job than Oakland of squeezing into the crevice between the top-of-the-line Chevy and the bottom Buick model. When flathead eights were introduced across the line, the 1933 Pontiacs once again traded on the unexciting promise of large-car features for less, being advertised as “the big straight-eight in the low-priced field.” It was an unromantic role that was to dog Pontiac for decades.
Until the GTO.
Randy Cooper is a retired Los Angeles pharmacologist with a pristine 1964 Pontiac LeMans Sport Coupe hardtop painted Gulfstream Aqua. As Cooper exhaustively documents on a signboard he carries in the trunk, the car rolled out of GM’s assembly plant in Fremont, California, on March 13, 1964, equipped with the Gran Turismo Omologato package, which included the big four-barrel 389 V-8 with 325 horses, dual exhaust, 750×14 redline tires, and “exterior ident.,” denoting the all-important GTO badges. The car also had the 77W four-speed, which added another $188.30, and a decent pile of options that included a push-button radio ($62.41), a tachometer ($53.80), a Verba Phonic rear speaker (also $53.80), a center console ($48.15), and the sport steering wheel ($39.27). Oh, and, of course, it had the Saf-T-Track limited-slip diff, for $37.66.
Totaling $3518.03, this gussied-up hardtop LeMans was almost as expensive as a Bonneville convertible from the same year. But unlike the big Bonny, this GTO was a throttle jockey’s dream, and bound for the Utter Pontiac Company on South La Brea Street in Los Angeles. It soon landed in the hands of 17-year-old Jerry Joe Allen, the only son of Clyde and Ruby Allen who, perhaps astonishingly, co-signed for the car, and who all lived together with Jerry’s sister, Joan, on North Poinsettia Place, a quiet tree-lined side street of small prewar bungalows just off Santa Monica Boulevard on the fringes of Hollywood.
In other words, the freshly minted LeMans went to the kind of young car nut Pontiac was hoping to lure with the GTO, was hoping would join an army of youth that would finally reshape Pontiac’s stodgy brand image. And that army stood ready. The year 1964 would later come to be seen as the final year of the baby-boom generation, a population explosion that had produced an unprecedented 77 million children, the oldest of whom were ready to buy cars.
As the 1960s wore on and the youth culture took over, GM’s forward thinkers—guys like Pontiac general manager Semon E. “Bunkie” Knudsen, whose job it was to reinvent Pontiac and who didn’t give a damn about a 1957 industry-wide gentleman’s agreement against supporting racing; John Z. De Lorean, the flashy engineer Knudsen hired away from Packard; and Jim Wangers at the division’s ad agency back in Detroit—discovered an axiom about the business that still holds true: You can sell an older buyer on a youth car, but there’s no way a kid will touch anything seen as a fogy-mobile. So if Pontiac wanted to add to its existing stock of customers from the millions of new ones coming down the pike, it needed to create cars for the youth.
Knudsen started it all in 1960 by waking up slumbering Pontiac dealers with a new Super Duty line of racing equipment available at the parts counter. Word got around. You wanted to race, you went to the Pontiac dealership. In late 1962, as Pontiac’s new image was taking flight, the GM board struck back, banning all racing activities by all the divisions, and Super Duty was strangled in its crib. Furthermore, the suits decreed that every GM car would follow a formula of no more than one cubic inch for every 10 pounds of curb weight, meaning that Pontiac’s relatively light mid-size cars were restricted to a displacement of 340 cubic inches.
De Lorean, his new boss Pete Estes, and a few fellow engineers were desperate to keep the momentum going. For 1964, Pontiac was replacing the mediocre “rope drive” Tempest with a new, stronger Tempest, the upscale two-door version named—as if to thumb its nose at the board—after a town in France known for its 24-hour endurance race. A fortuitous decision made years earlier to develop all of Pontiac’s V-8s from a common block meant that the 389 would slip neatly onto the mounts designed for the 326. Estes believed he could sneak it past the GM board as an option rather than a separate model, because at a company so big that it had over 50 percent of the U.S. market, such things were possible. Money talks, and once the GTO’s sales numbers came back, no more sneaking around was required.
Alas, as we all know, youth is fleeting. A few short years after buying his GTO, Jerry parked his beloved car at his parent’s house after being drafted into a very different kind of army and marched off with many of his generation into a hopeless war in Southeast Asia. On June 19, 1970, in the jungles of Cambodia and amid small arms fire, it became a war from which Jerry Joe Allen would never return.
War in Asia shaped the future of our other car as well, as it comes from a nation wracked by war that is, technically, still at war today. Kyungsung Precision Industry began as a pipe and bicycle-parts supplier in a Korea emerging from the wreckage of World War II and started building whole bicycles in 1952 under the Kia name. “Kia” comes from the merging of several Korean letters that roughly translate as “coming out of the East.” The young company somehow survived the Korean War, the ghastly deprivation that followed, and the constant social strife and military coups that churned South Korea, evolving in 1962 into a local small-time producer of rebranded Mazda trucks. Kia moved into cars in 1974, again assembling Mazda designs, and Ford eventually got involved through its partial ownership of Mazda. If you recall the original boxy Ford Festiva and later Ford Aspire, two munchkin-sized price leaders sold from 1986 to 2002, you are familiar with Kia’s first cars in the States.
As did Pontiac, Kia started life in America trying to fill a narrow fissure. In Kia’s case, its ultra-cheap cars were wedged between a better new car and a better used car. It was not a glamorous beginning, nor did it create much wampum, and when Hyundai was forced by the Korean government to merge with a bankrupt Kia during the 1990s Asian financial crisis, Kia’s mission became even cloudier. Hyundai already had a full line of cars being marketed as bargain alternatives to Toyotas and Hondas (and used cars), and Kia was merely excess baggage, a me-too brand using Hyundai’s platforms thinly cloaked in different sheetmetal. There was talk of Kia’s being Hyundai’s “youth brand,” but no sooner had the words escaped the mouths of executives than the headquarters would dump on Kia’s U.S. dealers models like the Amanti or K900, two plush Buick knockoffs from the Korean home market.
Kia’s floundering came to an end with the 2009 launch of the Soul. Boxy cars were hot then, and the Korean answer to Toyota’s Scion xB and the Nissan Cube was a runaway sales success, quickly eclipsing the xB and the Cube and everything else Kia sold. It was the start of a massive product overhaul, propelled in part by some major poaching of European talent, including former Audi stylist Peter Schreyer, who had been nabbed in 2006 to head Kia’s design studio, and 32-year BMW veteran Albert Biermann, who in 2015 left what must be one of the best jobs in the auto industry, head of BMW’s M performance division, to work his chassis magic in Korea.
The Stinger, a rather large fastback (and hatchback) sports sedan sized like a BMW 5-series but priced like a 3-series, is the first full collaboration of Korean engineers with Biermann and Schreyer’s design team. Frenchman Gregory Guillaume is credited with the exterior shape and says it is meant to evoke the original Maserati Ghibli as well as other grand European GTs he saw as a boy heading to the south of France on the motor routes.
Well, if it isn’t exactly John Z. and crew cooking up a hot option package under the noses of an unwary management, as a backstory, the Stinger’s tale is decent. And here we have perhaps the oddest of bedfellows, a freshly minted Stinger GT in Revenuer Red, plumbed with turbos and wired to the gills with electronics, sitting next to a 54-year-old Pontiac GTO, reborn and returned to the road to honor a long-lost soldier.
Randy Cooper is a past GTO owner (a ’66) and car collector. In search of a new project back in 1997, he spotted the following ad in the local classifieds: “PONT64 GTO, 4sp, 389, orig owner, needs restoring, $2000.” He says he couldn’t dial the phone fast enough. Jerry’s sister, Joan, had finally decided to sell her late brother’s car, and about 70 people had already called. The now weather-beaten and inert car resonated particularly with Cooper, who had attended Fairfax High School, the rival to Jerry’s Hollywood High. He and Jerry would have been about the same age, Cooper having gotten married five days after Allen’s reported death in Cambodia. After a day of anxiously waiting by the phone, Cooper learned that he had won out over 10 “finalists,” and he immediately threw the GTO into a nine-month restoration.
Nobody who claims to like cars can avoid being seduced by the simple shape of the Pontiac. Design guru Harley Earl had retired from GM, the chrome orgy of the ’59 fin-mobiles standing as his final contribution. His successor, Bill Mitchell, only 46 when he took over and eager to make a mark, started by skimming the fins and peeling the chrome off in sheets. It’s hard to imagine nowadays, when car styling seems stuck in a duplicative rut dictated by aerodynamics and regulation, that the same company that released the 1959 Cadillac Eldorado also built the 1960 Chevrolet Corvair. GM and its rivals were beginning to embrace an era characterized by the strict geometric symmetry of the New Formalism school of architecture, which produced building after building of glass-and-steel blocks. In turn, the cars of the 1960s would henceforth have straight, swept lines and a minimum of needless frill.
Slide in behind the wheel of Jerry Joe Allen’s old GTO, and that serious New Formalism is there, too. The big grandfather-clock dials of the 1940s and the sci-fi absurdity of the 1950s are gone; simple white-on-black gauges get the job done behind a spaghetti-thin steering wheel designed as much for the power-steering age as the jet age. The Tri-Power 389 idles with that burbling thumpa-dump familiar to so many who grew up in the deep soda-shop era, and the car moves off with a snort on the center primary carb and pulls hard once you’re into the outer secondaries.
By today’s standards of short shifters, the white ball in your right hand is a long way from the transmission and has a considerable flight path between gears. But in the day, kids like Jerry could get the car shifted as quick as lightning, and it was a skill that separated the talkers from the winners out at Pomona and Lions. Although brakes have come a long way since then, too, the GTO is not afraid to be thrown around a little. It has its limitations and today feels like just another example of massive Detroit iron that works best in a straight line. In the context of the day, however, when Mom and Pop were cruising around in squishy barges on bias-ply tires that rarely saw the far side of 60 mph (and needed nearly half a minute to get there), you can see how this cubed-up little Pontiac caused a teen fever.
The Stinger might not cause the same sensation among the millennial generation, even larger than the Boomers at 100 million, but it’s hard to deny that it exudes some swagger among its peers in price. Rolling on low-profile tires, the Kia gives the pavement a close hug. The sloping taper to its roofline, the low hood, and the long reach from the front wheels to the doors are all styling code for rear-wheel-drive performance. Inside, as in the GTO, it’s all about circles, with two large gauges complemented by three round punch-outs for the center vents. Some things never change; across five decades, a circle still connotes speed and performance and cool.
The Stinger is more modern in the way it cocoons the driver with its organic dash and high center console, and it’s more like a jet fighter than any car built in the actual jet age (except maybe the Thunderbird). A full-color display sits atop the dash like a drive-in theater screen in the desert. Rows of buttons supply à la carte control of the climate system and other functions. The cargo area beneath the hatchback seems generous until Randy Cooper opens the GTO’s trunk, which is about the size of your average hot tub.
South Korea didn’t open its first permanent racing circuit, Everland Speedway, until 1995, so unlike neighboring Japan, which has a high-performance tradition going back to the A6M5 Zero fighter plane, Korea is late to the game. The Stinger’s immediate predecessors were known for steadily improving design, build quality, and amenities but also for lifeless controls, loose structures, and a singular lack of enthusiasm for movement. The Stinger thus has extraordinarily small shoes to fill, but it stuffs them. This Kia finally feels like a car designed by people who care about cars. The steering is tight and immediate, and the brakes are solid, the whole car primed for a run up snaking asphalt. The pull from the twin-turbo 3.3-liter V-6 is mighty if the voice isn’t quite as luscious as a 389 V-8’s with triple Rochesters. Body control in corners is sophisticated, the suspension digesting the road with a polished aplomb until now not found in cars from that mountainous peninsula in the north Pacific. Yes, the structure could still be stiffer, but it’s clear the Koreans have turned a corner.
As with the Pontiac and Kia brands, the ballsy Stinger is here to fill a crevice, or the gap that lies between the Dodge Charger and any machine from a German luxury brand. It’s here to lift the Kia brand’s prestige and credibility, not so Kia will be a Lexus contender, but so it’ll be easier for dealers to move Optimas and Sorentos to A-rated customers and gain the kind of healthy margins that built empires out of Toyota and Honda. As with the GTO, it’s not just about fun and games; there’s a mission to accomplish.
Jerry Joe Allen didn’t live to see his mission completed. A few years ago, Randy Cooper invited Jerry’s best friend to see the restored GTO. Ron Horvath was there the day Jerry and his dad picked up the car from Utter Pontiac, and he remembers the subsequent double-dates and Jerry’s quick hand on the shifter. But sitting in the reborn Goat was too painful, so he passed. The car is no longer just a car, it’s a vessel full of memories for the people who knew Jerry. They won’t be around forever, either. Cooper opened the hood to show us the plaque he has added to the otherwise stock GTO, a car destined to outlast its second owner as well. It reads: “Made especially for Jerry Joe Allen, 8/30/47 to 6/19/70.” It seems that Randy Cooper is now on a mission, too.