15 GTO facts you might not know about America’s original muscle car

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RM Sotheby's/Nathan Deremer

In the early spring of 1963, during a “what if” session at GM’s Milford, Michigan, Proving Grounds, a small team of Pontiac engineers led by John Z. DeLorean realized the 389-cubic-inch V-8 from the full-size Bonneville would fit easily in the new midsize Tempest. A week later, they were doing burnouts in the first prototype, and the car widely accepted as America’s first muscle car, the 1964 Pontiac GTO, was born. Though the marque is deceased, the model remains as popular as ever. Here’s a look back at the GTO’s many milestones during its initial 10-year production run.

01: Gas, tires, and oil

1965 Pontiac Tempest LeMans GTO badge
RM Sotheby's/Nathan Deremer

To name his new creation, DeLorean—welcoming a little controversy—took the name of a Ferrari legend. Although guys on the street said GTO stood for “Gas, Tires, and Oil,” it actually means Gran Turismo Omologato, or, in English, Grand Touring Homologated. The term was owned by the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) sanctioning body, which dictated how many cars a manufacturer had to build for the model to be legal, or homologated, for Grand Touring competition.

“Ferrari never built enough GTOs to earn the name anyway,” wrote Car and Driver in 1964. “Just to be on the safe side, though, Pontiac built a faster one.”

02: GOAT

GOAT Over the years, the GTO did gather quite a few nicknames. Many, including “The Tiger,” “The Great One,” and “The Humbler,” were created by Jim Wangers and his team of advertising copywriters responsible for the muscle car’s marketing. The Tiger campaign began in 1964, with The Great One appearing in 1967. The Humbler copy launched in 1970. Somewhere along the way, the guys on the street began to call GTOs “Goats.” Only it wasn’t a reference to “Greatest of All Time,” it was a play on the letters and a term of affection. By 1969, it even appeared in a corporately controversial GTO advertisement championed by DeLorean and Wangers.

03: Hidden headlights

GTO Headlight Option
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In the late 1960s, hidden headlamps were all the rage, appearing on cars from brands including Ford, Dodge, and Chevrolet. In 1968, along with GM’s other A-body models, the GTO received its first major redesign. Unlike the Chevy Chevelle, Olds Cutlass, and Buick Skylark, the Pontiac got hidden headlamps. The optional feature lasted just two years, but the GTO’s impact-resistant color-matched Endura rubber front bumper stuck around through 1972. Developed by the Dayton Rubber Company in cooperation with Pontiac, it was exclusive to the GTO, but Pontiac also used the Endura bumper on the 1970–73 Firebird.

04: Most powerful

440 Ram Air IV Engine
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Unlike many of the GTO’s competitors, Pontiac never built a GTO with an output rating of over 400 horsepower. In fact, the most powerful production GTOs were the 1969–70 models with the optional Ram Air IV 400-cubic-inch V-8, which made 370 horsepower at 5500 rpm and 445 lb-ft of torque at 3900 rpm. During the final days of the Pontiac brand, the reinvented Holden-based GTO of 2005–06 was powered by GM’s 6.0-liter LS2, which was rated at 400 horsepower at 5200 rpm.

05: First functional hood scoop

GTO Ram Air Vents
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“We find the GTO quite handsome, except for those phony vents that GM Styling’s Bill Mitchell insists on hanging on everything. Unlike the Stingray, the GTO has only the ones on the hood, so we can say it could be much, much worse,” wrote Car and Driver in that first road test back in 1964. Although every GTO from 1964 to ’74 had factory scoops, most were not functional. In 1965–66, however, you could order Pontiac’s Ram Air kit over the counter at dealers, and it came with a functioning scoop. GTOs with open hood scoops were available from the factory beginning with the 1967 model with the Ram Air 400 option. It cost an extra $263.30, and just 751 were built.

06: Least powerful

In 1974, you could still buy a true muscle car from Pontiac. It just wasn’t a GTO. It was the 290-hp Trans Am with the Super Duty 455. The ’74 GTO was packing only 200 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque, down from the 230-hp 400 and 250-hp 455 offered in 1973—making it the least powerful GTO. Interestingly, it had near-identical performance to the ’64 GTO; famed Poncho tuner Nunzi Romano ran the quarter-mile at 15.72 seconds at 88 mph in a ’74—a hair off the 15.64 seconds and 90 mph he did in a ’64.

07: Last convertible

1971 Pontiac GTO Judge Convertible front three-quarter
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When the GTO was launched in 1964, three body styles were available: coupe, hardtop, and convertible. Although the 1972 GTO was much the same as the 1971 model, the convertible version was discontinued. However, buyers could still get a LeMans Sport convertible with the same engines offered in the GTO. Both the 1973 and 1974 GTOs were one-year-only body styles, with no convertible offered, but you could order a rear-mounting tent for your ’74 hatchback, which—theoretically—converted it into a camping rig.

08: Worst-selling year

1973 Pontiac GTO
Mecum

After a slight sales rebound in 1968 with the new body style, GTO sales continued to fall. In 1970, just over 40,000 GTOs were sold. And that number dropped sharply in 1971, to fewer than 11,000. The muscle car thing was winding down quickly. Only 5807 GTOs were sold in 1972, and the new 1973 model failed miserably, selling only 4806 and making it the worst-selling GTO of all time. Surprisingly, with sales of around 7000, the 1974 model, which was offered as a coupe or a hatchback, sold better than the two previous model years.

09: Best-selling year

1966 GTO Hardtop Coupe front
RM Sotheby's/Darin Schnabel

From 1964 to 1966, the GTO basically owned the muscle market, while everyone else was playing catch-up. In 1967, however, the competition began to get fierce. Chevy launched the Camaro, and its big-block SS Chevelle had found its legs, along with Oldsmobile’s 4-4-2. Pontiac also had the new Firebird, and the Dodge Coronet R/T and Plymouth GTX were now in showrooms. The Plymouth Road Runner was a year away. As a result, Pontiac sold more GTOs in 1966 than any other year—96,946. In 1967, despite its larger 400-cubic-inch engine, sales fell to 81,722.

10: The Judge

Like the Plymouth Road Runner, The Judge was meant to be a budget GTO, a street racer special. But The Judge, launched in 1969, actually became the most expensive GTO. It was introduced to the press at California’s Riverside Raceway on the same day as the first Trans Am, December 8, 1968. The name, taken from a popular skit on the hit NBC TV comedy Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, was another DeLorean deal. It was originally going to be called the GTO E/T, as in Elapsed Time, but DeLorean thought that name was silly. The Judge lasted three model years, and a 1970 Judge painted Orbit Orange, provided by Pontiac, starred in the 1971 car flick classic Two-Lane Blacktop.

11: No replacement for displacement

For its initial 10-year production run, the GTO used four different displacement versions of Pontiac’s iron-block V-8. Unlike Chevrolet, Ford, and the Mopar brands, Pontiac did not have small-block and big-block engine architectures. From 1964 to ’66, the GTO’s engine displaced 389 cubic inches, or 6.4 liters, as it said on fender badges. In 1967, it grew to 400 cubic inches (6.6 liters). The 400 remained through 1973, along with a 455-cubic-inch (7.5-liter) version, which was optional. In 1974, only a 350 (5.7-liter) engine was offered.

12: Little GTO

In the early 1960s, many groups had hit songs about cars. Ever the marketer, Jim Wangers wanted a song about the GTO and started pitching the idea to record labels. John Wilkin, an employee at Buckhorn Music in Nashville, loved the idea and wrote a song. After a few suggestions from Wangers, Wilkin formed the group Ronny and the Daytonas with some studio musicians and released the single, “G.T.O.,” in spring 1964. By September, it was No. 4 on the charts, and more than 1 million copies sold.

13: The GTO that never was

GTO Magazine Cover 1973 April
Royal Publications/Hi-Performance Cars

On June 28, 1972, Pontiac announced the 310-hp Super Duty 455 engine and said it would be available in the Grand Am, the Grand Prix, the Trans Am, the Formula, and the GTO. Later that year, after driving a prototype SD455-powered GTO at GM’s Milford Proving Grounds, Martyn L. Schorr and Joe Oldham from Hi-Performance Cars magazine were so impressed, they selected it as the magazine’s Top Performance Car of the Year. They put it on the cover of the April 1973 issue and called it the new King of the Street. Schorr even ordered one for himself. But the car never happened. Pontiac never built a production SD455 GTO in 1973, and the magazine had honored a car that didn’t exist. The engine did see production, but only in the Trans Am and Formula in 1973 and 1974.

14: Most affordable

1973 Pontiac GTO Side
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The average value of a 1973 GTO with the base 400 engine is $9700 in #3 (Good) condition, making it the most affordable classic GTO in today’s car market. Most buyers chose the automatic, so add 10 percent for four-speed cars and another 10 percent for air conditioning. Also expect to pay more for cars with the optional 455 under the hood. Only 544 were made, all with the automatic.

15: Most valuable

1969 Pontiac GTO Judge Convertible rear three-quarter
Mecum

Today, a 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO is the most valuable car in the world. One sold privately in the past couple of years for a reported $70,000,000. The most valuable Pontiac GTO is the 1969 Judge convertible with the 370-hp Ram Air IV engine. A mere five were built, all with a four-speed transmission. Today, they have an average value of $430,000 in #3 (Good) condition, while the best in the world is worth about $550,000.

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