Rising from a modest intermediate car to become one of the most evocative muscle cars of the 1960s, the Pontiac GTO set trends carmakers still follow
In early 1963, senior management at General Motors banned its divisions from involvement in auto racing. However, at the time, Pontiac‘s overall marketing strategy was based on performance, heavily supported by its racing activities. Also, GM bosses ruled that A-body intermediate-sized cars, like the Pontiac Tempest, were limited to 330 CID in engine displacement. The largest available engine in the Tempest to that point was the 326 CID V8.
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The 1964 GTO was devised as a means to circumvent those rules. The workaround was that the GTO would be offered as an option package, not standard equipment, and not come into conflict with the senior management. The GTO name was lifted from the 1962-1964 Ferrari 250 GTO (Gran Turismo Omologato, Italian for Grand Touring Homologated), meaning it was produced in sufficient quantities to qualify for European sports car races against the Shelby Cobra, among others. The use of the Ferrari‘s name was as brash as how the Pontiac GTO was brought to production.
Besides the installation of the larger 325 horsepower 389 CID Pontiac V8 engine from the full-sized Catalina and Bonneville, the GTO package included a bushel-full of go-fast goodies. The $295 package included a four-barrel carburetor, dual exhaust pipes, three-speed manual transmission with a Hurst floor shifter, stiffer springs, larger-diameter front sway bar, wider wheels and tires, hood scoops, and GTO badges.
Optional equipment included a four-speed manual transmission, Super Turbine 300 two-speed automatic transmission, a 348hp engine with the “Tri-Power” intake (three two-barrel carburetors), metallic drum brake linings, and a limited-slip differential, along with others. The first-year sales forecast was for 10,000 units. Instead, the GTO package sold 10,000 units before the end of 1963, with total sales reaching 32,450.
The Tempest line, including the GTO, was restyled for the 1965 model year, adding 3.1 inches to the overall length and about 100 lbs. to its weight, though on the same wheelbase. The most noticeable exterior change was the move to vertically-stacked quad headlights.
The 389 CID engine was upgraded with better breathing cylinder heads, which increased power to 335hp for the base four-barrel engine. The Tri-Power equipped engine was rated 360hp. Transmission and axle ratio choices remained the same as the previous model year. The restyled GTO featured a new (simulated) hood scoop. A kit was offered to dealers to convert the looks-only scoop into a functioning one, though its efficacy was limited.
A 1965 GTO with a Tri-Power equipped engine, close-ratio four-speed manual transmission, power steering, metallic brakes, rally wheels, 4.11 limited-slip differential recorded 0-60 mph in 5.8 seconds, and the quarter-mile in 14.5 seconds and 100 mph, with a top speed of 114 mph. Sales of the GTO more than doubled to 75,342, no doubt assisted by heavy marketing, including a hit surf rock song by Ronnie and the Daytonas (G.T.O.) extolling the virtues of the performance car.
For the 1966 model year, the GTO became its own model series, rather than an option package, with a unique grille and tail lights. The GTO was available in a pillared sports coupe, hardtop without pillars, or convertible body styles. Also, for 1966 the brand’s A-body intermediate line (including the GTO) was restyled, adding curves to where straight lines had been before, though most proportions remained the same.
New interior features included “Strato” bucket seats that were better countered for comfort along with adjustable headrests on both front seats. A new instrument panel was introduced as well, though it continued to feature earlier models’ four instrument pod functionality.
Sales jumped about 50% over the previous year, with 96,946 units sold. This was nearly ten times the original sales estimate. Owners and enthusiasts began calling the GTO “the Goat.” Progressive marketing types at Pontiac wanted to use the new moniker in promotions, but were vetoed by stodgier senior management.
Styling remained virtually unchanged for 1967, but the GTO saw several significant mechanical changes. A corporate policy decision banned multiple carburetors for all cars except the Chevrolet Corvette, so the popular Tri-Power engine was canceled.
Instead, Pontiac increased engine bore to achieve a 400 CID displacement and topped with a new Rochester Quadrajet carburetor, though horsepower remained the same. Breathing through an optional functional hood scoop, the big engine featured a high-performance camshaft and valve springs. A lower-cost engine was offered in the 400 CID V8 with a two-barrel carb and low compression, producing just 265hp. Sales were limited for the lower-cost engine offering.
Two other significant upgrades were available in 1967, both addressing shortcomings of the GTO. The Powerglide two-speed automatic was replaced by the three-speed Turbo-Hydramatic, which featured Hurst’s Dual-Gate shifter. Optional front disc brakes were now available, replacing the substandard drum brakes criticized by journalists and owners alike. A performance-optimized 1967 Pontiac GTO recorded a 6.1 second 0-60 time and the quarter in 14.5 seconds with a trap speed of 102 mph.
GM redesigned its A-body line for 1968, resulting in a shorter, lower car riding on a reduced wheelbase, though weighing the same as the previous model. The front end received the most attention, with the rubber-like color-match Endura bumpers surrounding the hidden headlights.
While engine choices remained the same, the standard GTO powerplant now produced 350hp. A new Ram-Air package with an upgraded engine was available mid-year. An option first available the previous year became more popular: the hood-mounted tachometer now almost exclusively associated with the GTO. At the strip, a four-speed Pontiac GTO with the Ram Air package hit the quarter mile in 14.45 seconds and at 98.2 mph. With serious competition from within GM, Ford, Dodge, and Plymouth, GTO sales dipped slightly to 87,684 units.
The new 1969 model’s exterior saw a few minor changes, saving the most significant changes for under the hood. The low-cost engine and the standard 350hp 400 CID V8 were retained while the 360hp engine was dropped in favor of a pair of new Ram Air engines. The new Ram Air III was rated at 366hp. The other, the 370hp Ram Air IV, featured high flow intake and exhaust, hotter camshaft, and other internal engine upgrades.
1969 saw the launch of “The Judge” trim. It included the Ram Air III engine, Rally II wheels with wider tires, Hurst shifter, Judge decals, and a rear spoiler. The trim was first available only in Carousel Red, though other color options were available later in the model year. The GTO now trailed both the Chevrolet Chevelle SS396 and the Road Runner in sales, with 72,287 sold during the 1969 model year, of which 6,833 were The Judge trim.
The Tempest line got another facelift for the 1970 model year. Hidden headlights were deleted in favor of four exposed, round headlamps outboard of narrower grille openings in the Endura bumper. The suspension was upgraded with a larger front and new rear anti-roll bar, which along with the optional variable-ratio power steering, significantly improved handling and response.
The base engine was unchanged for 1970, but the low-cost engine was eliminated. The Ram Air IV was now a special-order option. A new additional option was Pontiac’s 455 CID V8, rated at 360hp. Its advantage was drivability over the high-strung 400 CID Ram Air engine as well as improved torque.
The Judge remained available as a separate model and came standard with the 366hp Ram Air III 400 CID V8 with the 370hp Ram Air IV 400 CID V8 optional. Insurance companies were seeing a rise in claims against muscle cars, which hampered sales. For 1970, Pontiac moved just 40,149 units, of which 3,797 featured The Judge trim.
With (then low octane) unleaded gasoline on the horizon, GM put a stop to all high-compression engines, resulting in all Ram Air engines’ cancellation. The standard 400 CID engine developed 300hp, while the optional 455 CID V8 with a four-barrel carburetor, 8.4 to 1 compression ratio developed 325hp, though only available equipped with an automatic transmission. The new 455 CID HO (high output) engine was rated at 335hp. A 455 1971 GTO clocked 0-60 mph at 6.1 seconds and a quarter-mile at 13.4 seconds with a trap speed of 102 mph. The Judge returned for a final year, now with the 455 HO as standard equipment, of which only 374 were sold, including 17 convertibles.
In 1972, the GTO went from being a separate model to an option package for the LeMans, marking its sad decline. The GTO package could be ordered on either the LeMans pillared two-door or hardtop coupe.
Horsepower, now rated under the new SAE net methodology, was reduced by estimates of between 20 to 25%, with no changes to the engine. This, among other changes, resulted in a rating of 250hp for the base 400 engine. The optional 455 was rated at the same horsepower, though at a lower rpm, perhaps to disguise its actual output. The 455 offered substantially more torque. Sales of the GTO trim plummeted to 5,811 units, a 45% decline.
The GTO continued as an option Tempest. It, along with all GM intermediates, now featured bulky 5 MPH bumpers, replacing the GTO’s stylish Endura front end. Compression was reduced in the standard 400 CID V8 dropping output to 230hp. The 455 in³ V8 remained optional but was detuned to 250hp and available only with the Turbo Hydra-Matic transmission.
Sales dropped to 4,806, thanks in part to competition from the new LeMans-based Euro-style luxury sport sedan and coupe – the Grand Am, and lack of promotion for this year’s GTO. By the end of the model year, an emerging energy crisis would deal a death blow to consumer interest in muscle cars. Most enthusiasts and Pontiac executives of the period typically agree that 1973 was the worst year for the GTO.
For 1974 Pontiac moved the GTO option to the compact Pontiac Ventura, which shared its basic structure with the Chevrolet Nova. Its target was now the compact muscle market that included the Plymouth Duster 360, the V8-powered Ford Maverick Grabber, and AMC Hornet X.
The $195 GTO package included a three-speed manual transmission with a Hurst floor shifter, heavy-duty suspension with front and rear anti-roll bars, a shaker hood, special grille, mirrors, and wheels along with various GTO emblems.
The only engine was the 350 CID V8 with 7.6:1 compression and a single four-barrel carburetor, rated at 200hp. Optional transmissions included a wide-ratio four-speed with Hurst shifter or the three-speed Turbo Hydra-Matic.
A 1974 GTO with the optional four-speed obtained a 0-60 mph time of 7.7 seconds and a quarter-mile reading of 15.72 seconds at 88 mph. Sales were an improvement over 1973, at 7,058, but not enough to justify continuing the model.
Pontiac had planned to offer a 1975 GTO, again based on the compact Ventura and powered by a Pontiac-built 350 in³ V8. The Ventura and other GM compacts underwent substantial styling and engineering changes, including front and rear suspensions similar to the sporty Firebird/Camaro. In the end, however, the GTO was discontinued following a corporate decision to switch to Buick V8 engines on the ’75 Ventura line, though Pontiac V8s were continued in all other division models.
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The Pontiac GTO was relaunched in the United States in late 2003 as a 2004 model. It was based on the Australian Holden Monaro. The revival was promoted by former GM chairman Bob Lutz, who had read about the Monaro and later drove one while on business in Australia.
The 2004-2006 GTO was produced in Australia, alongside the Monaro, and was powered by the Chevrolet Corvette LS1 V8 engine with a choice of a 6-speed manual transmission or a 4-speed automatic. Initially rated at 350hp, the LS1 was replaced by the 400hp LS2 for 2005 and 2006.
After the 2006 model year, the GTO was canceled with the official reason given that the Monaro could not meet new airbag standards with an extensive (and expensive) overhaul. If the new GTO had been more of a sale success, the upgrades could have been justified.
Turning the Monaro to the GTO required included additional bracing to meet U.S. crash standards, a Pontiac designed front facia, GTO badging, GTO stitching on the front seats, and an exhaust system tuned to reflect the sound of the original GTO. General Motors claimed 0–60 mph in 5.3 seconds and a 13.8 second quarter mile time, subsequently verified by several automotive magazines.
Unfortunately, the Australian GTO never met its sales goals. Faced with tough competition from the more aggressively-styled Chrysler 300, Dodge Charger and Ford Mustang, the GTO did little to distinguish itself along with a high retail price. Total production for all three years was 40,808 vehicles.