GTO is the monogram for the most famous muscle car in high-performance
automobile history - the Pontiac GTO. Also known as "The
Legend" and "The Great One," GTO is the car that
started it all. Prior to 1964, performance cars were full-size
hardtops and sedans with the largest displacement engines available.
They were a little slow off the line, but once all that sheet
metal and chrome got rolling, they pulled like a freight train.
Hot rodders had known for years that you could go even faster
if you put those big engines in smaller, lighter cars. Engine
swaps were standard operating procedure for hot rodders, but
that was backyard tinkering, not corporate engineering.
Factory Hot Rods
The backyard boys were blown away 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 V8 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 Tri-Power
models by a margin of three to one.
Herb Adams Team Associates
Herb Adams and his friends had made a memorable debut in professional
racing in the SCCA’s 1971 Trans Am season opener at Lime
Rock, Conn. With a vintage, seemingly off-street ’64 GTO
sedan, driver Bob Tullius proceeded to pass everything on the
rain-slick track except Mark Donahue in the American Motors/Penske
Javelin. A year later with a genuine ponycar (Firebird) at Mid-Ohio
Raceway, the Adams aggregation gave Pontiac its first big-time
competition victory since General Motors withdrew from racing
nine years earlier. By season end, Pontiac was No. 2 in Trans
Am points and it hadn’t cost the Division a dime.
Long Option List
An extensive list of LeMans options allowed the potential GTO
owner 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
for a factory-built hot rod. The Pontiac GTO launched a whole
new market segment.
Pontiac was on a sales roll, much of it due to its exciting
performance image and desire not to stagnate. Pontiac's General
Manager Pete Estes and Chief Engineer John DeLorean wanted the
new '64 Tempest/LeMans line to stand out from the crowd. A full-size
engine in the intermediate body would certainly do the trick.
Since the 389 V8 used the same basic block and motor mounts
as the already approved 326 V8, such a swap would be a natural.
DeLorean and engineers, Bill Collins and Russ Gee, had experimented
with a 389 in a prototype '64 Tempest coupe. DeLorean and his
crew liked to spend Saturdays at the GM Proving Ground in Milford,
Mich., experimenting with new ideas. The 389 four-speed Tempest
was an immediate hit with the engineers.
Initial sales projections called for only 5,000 units; however,
the GTO was an immense hit with the public as well. The 1964
model run produced a total of 32,450 units.
Naming the GTO
Pontiac already had somewhat of a European racing theme in place
with the Grand Prix and LeMans, so Chief Engineer John 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. All that really mattered was that the GTO was a great car
and the name was very well received.
Ferrari vs. GTO
Initial promotion of the GTO option was somewhat low key. The
GTO wasn't mentioned in the 1964 Pontiac full-line catalog.
A GTO brochure didn't show up until after the first of the year
and by then the car was already a success. Very favorable media
coverage (especially the famous Car and Driver March 1964 Pontiac
versus Ferrari GTO duel) and great word-of-mouth advertising
sold a lot of cars.
GTO vs. GTO: Car and Driver, March 1964
The March 1964 issue of Car and Driver featured a very promising
cover. Artist Tom Quinn's watercolor featured a Ferrari GTO leading
a Pontiac GTO and both appeared to be on a road course, driven
all out. Anyone expecting a direct head-to-head performance comparison
between the two cars was disappointed. Inside was an extensive
article on the Pontiac Tempest GTO and an apology. They tried
mightily to arrange for a Ferrari, contacting "all the GTO
owners in this country and simply could not get one of those lucky
gentlemen and the weather to cooperate simultaneously. As a result,
we drove two Ferrari GTO's, but we were never able actually to
run the Tempest against one of them".They did feel free to
offer an opinion: "the Pontiac will beat the Ferrari in a
drag race, and the Ferrari will go around any American road circuit
faster than the stock GTO". They also said that "our
test car, with stock suspension, metallic brakes and as-tested
348 bhp engine will lap any U.S. road course faster than any Ferrari
street machine, including the 400 Superamerica". The subtitle
contained a small dig: "Ferrari never built enough GTOs to
earn the name anyway-just to be on the safe side though, Pontiac
built a faster one". They did warn their readers however,
that only a carefully optioned Pontiac GTO qualified for the praise.
The article was overwhealming in its praise for the Pontiac, and
contained the tough in-yer-face writing style that car enthusiasts
love and which has made Car and Driver the great magazine that
it is. Keep in mind that the Pontiac GTO was the start of a long
list of affordable performance cars; in 1964 if you wanted to
go fast on a low budget you did not have a vast array of options.
The handling was lauded, as was the Hurst shifter, styling and
value; they pointed out that the best optioned GTO was available
for under $3,800. Today, just the taxes for a performance car
can easily be more. Criticized items include the tachometer and
seats. The handling praise was reserved for GTOs equipped with
the $26.82 heavy duty suspension option; those without were total
slushboxes, not unlike most other American cars of the time. The
Car and Driver staff may not have succeeded in their quest to
match up the two legendary cars, but they did manage to put the
magazine on the map. The issue was controversial and sales skyrocketed.
The April 1984 "GTO vs. GTO" article paid homage to
it's 20 year old predecessor, calling it "The hook on which
we hung a magazine".
GTO vs. GTO: Car and Driver, April 1984
Anyone disappointed that these two fine cars were not directly
compared needed only a bit of patience. Twenty years later,
the April 1984 issue again featured both cars on the cover and
this time the Car and Driver staff pulled off the dream comparison.
They were able to arrange use of both a Ferrari and a Pontiac
GTO on a test track on the same day. The supporting cast included
American driving icon Dan Gurney and the Laguna Seca racetrack;
both names dear to the hearts of car enthusists. The Ferrari
involved was s/n 5575 GT, the last 250 GTO built. The Pontiac
was optioned for competition, lacking power brakes and steering,
but including the tri-power engine and four speed transmission.
Most Expensive Taillight System Manufactured by General
During a Jim Wangers Seminar at the former Pontiac Southern
Nationals held in the north Dallas TX area of Addison, Jim went
into great detail describing the engineering, manufacturing
and delivery hurdles of the one-year-only 1965 GTO Taillight
According to Jim, this was the most expensive Taillight Assembly
Manufactured by General Motors. At first glance it doesn't seem
to be that exotic, but upon closer inspection, the sections
are manufactured from cast/chromed/painted pieces that wrap
the complete rear of the 1965 GTO.
A tremendous amount of free advertising came about when a Top
40 song was written about the GTO. John Wilkin penned the song
"GTO" and a group of Nashville session musicians recorded
it under the name "Ronny and the Daytona's." 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 GTO's key customer group.
GTO competitors, both outside and inside GM, were caught off
guard by the car's 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 GTO's 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.
Read the complete GTO
story in Jim Wangers book "Glory Days".
Ram Air Package
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 GTO's were built and known as the XS package
after the engine block code. (Image
above: Susan and Harry Farley's 389 Auto with
A/C 1966 GTO.)
Several strong competitors had joined the GTO by 1966, but that
didn't stop the GTO from selling almost a 100,000 cars. 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 Pontiac's Coke bottle shape was
born. (Image left:
Susan and Harry Farley in front of their 1966 GTO Pontiac
driven to the Pontiac show in Dallas.)
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 V8. Over 19,000 Tri-Power '66 GTO's were
sold, but they were to be the last multi-carbed Pontiacs. (Image
below: Susan and Harry Farley's beautiful 1966
GTO 389 Pontiac.)
400 Cubic Inches
Appearance-wise the 1967 GTO was very similar to the 1966 model.
The cars were on a two-year styling cycle. Mechanically there
was a lot to talk about. Engine displacement was increased to
400 cubic inches. 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 400-cubic-inch
The standard engine was the 335-horsepower Rochester Quadra-Jet
four-barrel. A not-very-popular, no-cost option was the low
compression 255-horsepower two-barrel for customers who wanted
the GTO image with better fuel economy. Only 2,967 lower-performance
engines 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.
and LastRegularProductionPontiac400's - 1967 GTO 400 4-speed
and 1978 Trans Am 400W72
4-speed WS6 Pontiacs.)
Dual Gate Shifter
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 '67 option. Sales were slightly lower than the
record 1966 numbers, but still very strong at 81,722 units.