Submitted by Bob Paris
Three letters were all that were needed to begin the modern muscle car era – G-T-O. Also known as the Legend, the Great One and, affectionately, the Goat, the Pontiac GTO was the car that started it all. Before the GTO, “performance” cars meant a large displacement engine in a large frame car. Although not quick off-the-line, they were popular because of their rush of power and higher top speeds. Enthusiasts had always known that putting a large engine in a smaller car would increase its performance, but buying such a vehicle straight from the dealer was only a dream until late 1963.
The Pontiac “Skunkworks”
Pontiac Chief Engineer John DeLorean, along with engineers Bill Collins and Russ Gee, were among a group that like to spend Saturday afternoons at GMs Milford, Mich. Proving Grounds “tinkering” with new vehicle models. It was there that the three men discovered that the 389-cubic-inch V-8 offered in the larger Bonneville would fit on the same motor mounts as the less powerful 326 V-8 scheduled for production in the new 1964 Pontiac Tempest/LeMans. This new “prototype” performance car was a hit with the Saturday afternoon crowd at Milford, who enjoyed shocking other engineers with the cars speed and power. Pontiac's General Manager Pete Estes wanted the new 64 Tempest/LeMans line to stand out from the crowd. DeLorean thought that stuffing the larger 389 engine in the intermediate body would certainly do the trick. So, the idea was hatched to offer the larger engine as an option on the 64 model.
Now all that was needed was a name. Pontiac already had somewhat of a European racing theme in place with the Grand Prix and LeMans, so DeLorean appropriated the Italian racing designation Gran Turismo Omologato. The name was closely associated with Ferrari. In English it means, “Grand Touring Homologated.” The Pontiac GTO was a grand touring car homologated (or made) from different parts, specifically the 389 Bonneville engine. It is doubtful whether many GTO owners understood the name or could even pronounce it, but it projected an image of a powerful, exotic, high-performance car.
1964 – The legend begins
Performance enthusiasts were surprised in October of 1963 when the $295.90 GTO option, RPO 382, quietly joined the 1964 Pontiac Tempest/LeMans option list. The heart of the GTO option package was a 325-horsepower 389-cubic-inch V-8 with dual exhausts, a Carter AFB four-barrel carburetor, a mild hydraulic camshaft, and gobs of pavement-grabbing torque. Other standard features included a manual three-speed transmission with a Hurst shifter, a heavy-duty clutch, heavy-duty suspension, US Royal red-line tires, a 3.23:1 rear axle ratio, twin hood scoops, and an assortment of GTO emblems.
The GTO option was available on three LeMans bodies, the two-door coupe, hardtop, and convertible. More hardtops were produced than the combined total of the coupes and convertibles. Engines with the single four-barrel carburetor outsold the trio of two-barrel carbs in Tri-Power models by a margin of three to one. An extensive list of LeMans options allowed the GTO buyer to build anything from a bare-bones muscle car to a loaded high-performance cruiser. Option choices included a four-speed manual transmission, a two-speed automatic, a 348-horsepower Tri-Power engine, Safe-T-Track differential, air conditioning, power seat, power windows, tilt steering, tachometer, metallic brake linings, an AM/FM radio and a Verbra-Phonic rear speaker. In less time than it took to change spark plugs, a young performance enthusiast could check the appropriate LeMans order form boxes to create what was essentially a factory-built hot rod. The Pontiac GTO launched a whole new market segment. Initial sales projections called for only 5,000 units; however, the GTO was an immense hit with the public. The 1964 model run produced a total of 32,450 units.
The GTO was so different than ordinary production cars and evoked such emotion among its admirers that it even inspired a song. John Wilkin penned the song “GTO” and a group of Nashville session musicians recorded it under the name “Ronny and the Daytonas.” The song went as high as No. 4 on the charts during its 17-week stay. Over a million singles and 500,000 albums were sold. The refrain, “three deuces and a four-speed and a 389,” played repeatedly to the GTOs key customer group.
1965 – Styling and engine improvements
GTO competitors, both outside and inside GM, were caught off guard by the cars tremendous success. While everyone else scrambled to market GTO clones, the mildly restyled 65 GTO was an even bigger hit than the 64 model. Even though there was a UAW strike at the start of the model year, 75,352 GTOs were sold in 1965. The headlights were now vertical (like the full-size Pontiacs) and a single hood scoop replaced the dual 64 scoops. Improved camshafts and intake manifolds boosted horsepower ratings to 335 for the four-barrel-equipped 389 and 360 for the Tri-Power-topped engine. The handsome Rally I wheels were introduced as an option.
A big boost to the rapidly growing GTO legend was the August 1965 release of an over-the-counter dealer- or customer-installed cold air induction kit for Tri-Power cars. The kit made the hood scoop functional and gave birth to Ram Air. The Ram Air package continued as a dealer-installed option in 1966. A few factory-built Ram Air GTOs were built and known as the XS package (after the engine block code).
1966 – The GTO stands on its own
Several strong competitors had joined the GTO by 1966, but that didnt stop GTO sales from reaching nearly 100,000. The final tally was an astonishing 96,946 units – pretty impressive for a car that insiders doubted would sell 5,000 two years earlier. The GTO was by now so highly regarded inside GM that it was made a separate model line in 1966. The A-body intermediate platform was redesigned and Pontiacs “Coke bottle” shape was born.
Even though the body was restyled, the 66 lineup included the same three body styles as before. The engine choices were again the 335-horsepower four-barrel version and the potent 360-horsepower Tri-Power-equipped 389 V-8. More than 19,000 Tri-Power 66 GTOs were sold, but they were to be the last multi-carbed Pontiacs.
1967 – More power
Appearance-wise the 1967 GTO was very similar to the 1966 model, as the cars were on a two-year styling cycle. Much was new, however, under the hood. Engine displacement was increased to 400 cubic inches. Interestingly, the front fender emblem retained the original 6.5-liter designation. (The GTO was the first American car to denote engine displacement in liters.) There were four available 400-cubic-inch engines in 67.
The standard engine was the 335-horsepower version with a Rochester Quadra-Jet four-barrel. Additionally, a not-very-popular, no-cost option was a low-compression 255-horsepower two-barrel engine for customers who wanted the GTO image with better fuel economy. Only 2,967 of these lower-performance GTOs were sold in 67.
The first optional engine was the 360-horsepower HO, which added a hotter camshaft, open element air filter, and improved exhaust manifolds. The top engine was also rated at 360 horsepower, but it included the Ram Air package, which was shipped in the trunk for dealer or owner installation.
A new three-speed Turbo Hydra-Matic transmission replaced the two-speed automatic from previous years. The Hurst Dual Gate shifter made the automatic transmission quite attractive. Depending on which gate was selected, the transmission could be shifted manually or automatically. The base transmission was still the three-speed manual with a Hurst shifter. The two optional four-speeds were the wide-ratio M20 and the close-ratio M21. Power front disc brakes were another new-for-67 option. Sales were slightly lower than the record 1966 numbers, but still very strong at 81,722 units.
1968 – Car of the year
An extensive restyling distinguished the 1968 GTO from the previous models. Most notable was the new Endura color-keyed front bumper. The GTO was the first GM car to use this new flexible polyurethane covering that allowed minor dents to pop out without any permanent damage. Optional hidden headlights combined with the Endura nose created a handsome vehicle unlike any previous GTO. The stunning styling, powerful performance, solid engineering, and excellent market timing were all factors that helped the GTO garner the coveted Motor Trend Car of the Year award.
More horsepower was on tap for the new body style. All engines displaced 400 cubic inches, but the standard engine rose to 350 horsepower from 335 horsepower – the no-cost economy two-barrel engine gained 10 horsepower for a 265-horsepower rating. The optional HO engine remained at 360 horsepower, as did the optional Ram Air engine until March 1968, when the 366-horsepower Ram Air II option was introduced.
Considering its high-performance equipment, the Ram Air IIs rating was probably conservative. It came with 10.75:1-compression forged pistons, forged steel crankshaft, new cylinder heads with round exhaust ports, free-flowing exhaust manifolds, a high lift camshaft with the corresponding high-performance valve train components, and a re-curved distributor. The Ram Air II put 445 lbs.-ft. of stump-pulling torque to the pavement via the mandatory limited-slip Safe-T-Track rear end with 4.33:1 gears.
The coupe body style was dropped for 68. Sales were tilted heavily toward hardtops, which sold 77,704 units compared to 9,980 convertibles. The popular hood-mounted tachometer option continued from 1967, too. The Ram Air cars had 5500-rpm redlines compared to the standard 5200-rpm limit. The external tachs helped the GTO project a powerful performance car image.
1969 – Here comes 'The Judge'
GTO engines got even more exciting in 1969 with the introduction of the Ram Air III and Ram Air IV versions. Considerably underrated at 370 horsepower, the Ram Air IV was the zenith of GTO performance. The RA IV used many of the high-performance parts introduced on the 68 Ram Air II, along with the cold air induction system that came with the Ram Air III. Both RA III and RA IV used driver-controlled flapper doors on the twin hood scoops. As powerful as the Ram Air IV was, it still used hydraulic lifters and was far more tractable in traffic than competitors solid lifter engines. The RA IV didnt overheat or foul spark plugs. It was only available with a 3.90:1- or 4.33:1-geared limited-slip differential.
The real star of the 1969 lineup was the GTO Judge. The original intent of the Judge (although its commonly referred to as the GTO Judge or simply Judge; the fender decals said “The Judge”) was to combat the upstart low-price muscle cars like the Plymouth Road Runner.
Pontiacs initial answer to the Road Runner was to be called “ET” or “E/T” – a reference for the drag racing term “elapsed time.” The car was to be based on a stripped-down, bench seat, LeMans coupe with a flat hood and Rally II wheels without the trim rings. The engine was a Pontiac 350 with cylinder heads from the 400 HO engine. Tests of the prototype E/T against 383-powered Road Runners proved that the budget GTO could outrun the Plymouths.
As strong as the 350 was, it wasnt a 400; and DeLorean was adamant about GTOs being powered by 400-cubic-inch engines. He quickly killed the 350 E/T project and requested a car that was up to GTO standards. Ironically, the resulting car turned out to be the most expensive GTO. The Judge option was available on hardtop and convertible bodies. About the only E/T parts that remained were the Rally II wheels without trim rings.
DeLorean is credited with naming The Judge. His inspiration was the hit NBC-TV show “Laugh-In,” which had a recurring bit with the tag line, “Here come de Judge, Here come de Judge.” In retrospect, it may seem odd to name a car after a bit on a comedy show, but “Laugh-In” was very hip with a huge audience of young viewers – the exact demographic DeLorean wanted to reach. This was an era where car companies named models after cartoon characters, came up with names like Boss, Eliminator, Grabber, Rebel, Demon, and Swinger, and painted them outrageous colors such as Panther Pink, Go Mango, Sublime, Banana Yellow, and Plum Crazy. In that light, “The Judge” wasnt out of place.
The initial Judge color was bold and eye catching. Called Carousel Red, it was actually more of an orange hue. The shade was exclusive to the Judge for the GTO line, but the same color was available on Chevy Camaros as Hugger Orange. Approximately the first 2,000 Judges were painted Carousel Red. After February, Judges could be ordered in any GTO color, but approximately 80 percent of the cars sold in 1969 were Carousel Red. Besides the wild color, stripes, pop-art graphics, and hood scoops, Judges came with a massive 60-inch-wide rear spoiler.
Judge engine choices were limited to the standard Ram Air III or the optional Ram Air IV. Four-speeds and the Turbo Hydra-Matic transmission were available. Despite a late start, The Judge accounted for 6,833 sales out of the 69 GTOs total of 72,287 cars. Judge convertibles were rare. Only 108 were produced in 1969, making them one of the car collecting worlds most valuable finds.
1970 – Sales start to slide
The Judge was designed to help boost 1969 GTO sales, and its popularity carried the new model into the 1970 model year. Unfortunately, sales of all GTOs started to slide; only 3,635 Judge hardtops and 162 convertibles were sold, and total 1970 GTO sales of 40,149 units were down from 69.
The 70 GTO was mildly facelifted and, mechanically, they were as strong as ever. The economy two-barrel 400 engine was dropped, but a 360-horsepower 455-cubic-inch with an amazing 500 lbs.-ft. of torque was added. Extra-beefy 12-bolt rear ends were mandatory when the 455 was ordered. The 455 wasnt offered on The Judge until late in the model year, so only 14 hardtops and three convertible Judges were built with the 455.
1971 – Lower compression fore-shadows the end of an era
Increased competition, rising insurance surcharges, and tougher emissions standards hit the muscle car market hard in 1971. The GTO suffered along with all the other muscle cars. Adding to the lackluster sales was the corporate decision to drop compression ratios so all GM engines would be compatible with new low-lead fuel. The standard GTO 400-cubic-inch V-8 compression ratio was dropped to 8.2:1 from 1970s 10.25:1 – down already from 10.75:1 in 1969.
The Judge option barely made it into 1971. Production was halted in January after just 357 hardtops and 17 convertibles were built. All 71 Judges were 455-powered and today they are some of the rarest, most desirable GTOs. It was also the last year for the GTO convertible. Including the 17 Judge versions, a mere 678 GTO convertibles were produced. Ironically, poor sales in 71 have translated to high collector interest today.
1972 – The last ‘true GTO?
Many enthusiasts feel that 1972 was the last of the true GTOs. A new LeMans/GTO body was supposed to have been ready for 1972, but a strike put it back a year. So, the previous body was mildly restyled and used again. Since the GTO had been relegated back to option status on the LeMans, it was available as both a hardtop and a coupe. The GTO coupe production was very limited, accounting for only 134 cars out of the years 5,807 total. The 455 HO engine was still available and ten coupes received it. Five more coupes were fitted with the standard 455 V-8. A Ram Air system was available with the 455 HO engine, which was rated at 300 net horsepower. Customers, however, could still get a big-block, Ram Air, four-speed GTO.
1973 – A new body, another option
The GTO was back in 1973, but as a LeMans option. The LeMans received a new body for 1973. The styling, especially the rear quarter panels and rear quarter windows, was noticeably different from the direction of previous Pontiac A-bodies. The GTO option was offered on the LeMans coupe and sport coupe. (The sport coupe had louvers in place of rear quarter windows.)
Two GTO engines remained – the 400 and 455 – but horsepower was down to 230 and 250, respectively. Compression had been dropped again to 8.1:1. Only the automatic transmission was allowed with the 455, but the 400 could be ordered with a three- or four-speed manual transmission or the automatic. All LeMans options were available on the GTO. The two-door coupe accounted for 494 sales and the sport coupe attracted 4,312 customers, for a total of 4,806 1973 GTOs.
1974 – The end of the line
Another body style change marked the 1974 GTO. The GTO option was shifted to the Pontiac Ventura platform for what turned out to be the GTOs final year for 30 years. The sole engine for the 74 GTO was a 350 V-8 with 7.6:1 compression and 200 horsepower. A four-speed manual transmission was still optional. A rearward facing “shaker” hood scoop, similar to the Firebird Trans Am, allowed cold air into the Quadra-Jet four-barrel carburetor under full acceleration.
Given the toughened insurance and government restrictions, the 74 GTO made a valiant effort to keep the muscle car spirit alive. The smaller displacement engine avoided the insurance surcharges on big-displacement engines. The 1974 GTO sold considerably better than the 73 model. The unique-for-a-GTO hatchback accounted for 1,723 sales and the coupe with its traditional trunk sold 5,335 units. The total of 7,058 was encouraging, but not enough to continue the GTO option.
2004 - The legend lives on
The GTO ceased production after the 1974 model year, but its legend remained as strong as ever. After many beautiful muscle cars were quickly cast aside during the seventies energy crisis, those same cars soon became very desirable collector cars. The GTO was at the forefront of the muscle car restoration hobby. In 1982, the GTO Association of America was established to preserve and promote the original muscle car.
An aftermarket industry evolved to serve needs of GTO restorers. Many of the same people who owned or wanted a GTO in the sixties proudly drive them today. It takes a great car to fuel that kind of desire for 40 years.
The GTO helped to establish Pontiac as the performance and “excitement” division of General Motors. With the rebirth of the 2004 GTO, Pontiac continues to be at the forefront in terms of creating driving excitement for the 21st century.
More than half a million GTOs were produced during its initial 11-model-year run. Totals ranged from a high of 96,946 in 1966 to a low of 4,806 in 1973. Source: General Motors
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