GTO: Pontiac's Great One
GTO: Pontiac’s Great One. Click image to enlarge

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By Russell Purcell

Just as they turned out the lights at General Motor’s Pontiac division, Motorbooks Publishing released the definitive book about the now-extinct brand’s most iconic vehicle, the Pontiac GTO. GTO – Pontiac’s Great One has been masterfully written by Darwin Holmstrom, and the catalogue of photographs shot and assembled by noted muscle car photographer David Newhardt is truly a feast for the eye.

The birth of a legend

When John Delorean, Pontiac’s Chief engineer in 1963, helped devise a plan to mount a high-performance 389 cubic-inch V8 in the rather mundane Tempest, little did he know that this project would result in the birth of the iconic GTO; the car responsible for kicking off the muscle car era.

While the “true” GTO (Grand Turismo Omologato) models were only produced for about a decade, the car’s development and evolution was fast and furious during this period, and this book does an excellent job of tracking and documenting the many variations. A wonderful fold-out timeline chart provides an efficient, visual reference of the changes, and the associated captions provide informative details such as engine displacement and horsepower ratings, as well as production numbers.

Embracing racing

The author gives the reader a look at some of the early steps taken by brand managers to give Pontiac an image makeover. In 1956, Pontiac’s new boss, Semon “Bunkie” Knudsen, was given the directive to increase sales. He was quick to realize that in order to succeed there would have to be some major changes made in the house of Pontiac. The goal was to abandon the “stodgy, conservative image Pontiac projected.” In 1957, Knudsen set-up Pontiac’s “Super Duty” group, a division of the company responsible for building parts for customers wishing to prepare their Pontiac automobiles for track use. Initially, most of the interest came from the NASCAR stock car crowd, but eventually, customers looking to enter NHRA drag racing events were calling for Super Duty parts as well.

Enter Jim Wangers, a young advertising executive who took it upon himself to help Pontiac develop its performance image. His efforts to train dealers how to sell performance parts for their cars proved fruitful, and soon hot Pontiacs were staples at tracks all over the country.

The image change was in full force and the Pontiac’s market share was experiencing an upswing when GM brass self-imposed a ban on company involvement in racing activities in 1962. This move was taken in an effort to slow down General Motors’ market penetration, as there was an inherent fear that the U.S. Justice Department would step in and break the company (GM) up if it continued to expand its control over the automotive marketplace.

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