1964 Pontiac GTO
1964 Pontiac GTO
Photo: Bill Vance

by Bill Vance

Pontiac was not known as an exciting nameplate during the 1940s and ’50s. Side-valve six and straight-eight engines provided adequate, if uninspired, performance.

All of that was to change near the end of the 1950s. In 1956 Semon “Bunkie” Knudsen became Pontiac’s general manager. Bunkie had the right blood lines; he was the son of William “Big Bill” Knudsen, GM’s president from 1937 to 1940. Bunkie was determined to change Pontiac’s image from stodgy to scintillating through improved performance.

A good building block was Pontiac’s short-stroke, overhead valve V-8 introduced in 1955. There were also a couple of other important resources: performance car enthusiasts chief engineer Elliott “Pete” Estes, and assistant chief engineer John De Lorean.

The first step was to assist Pontiacs in National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) events. NASCAR racing takes place primarily in the southeastern United States, an evolution of the fast cars and fearless driving developed by moonshiners in the Old South.

When it was noticed that there was a high correlation between race wins and car sales, the slogan “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday” was coined. Its meaning was not lost on the Pontiac trio. With factory help, Pontiac won 30 of the 52 NASCAR Grand National races in 1961, and 22 of the 53 events in 1962. It also moved into the third place sales slot right behind Chevrolet and Ford.

In 1963 Pontiac’s racing fling was ended when General Motors placed a corporate ban on factory participation in stock car racing. Wanting to keep Pontiac’s new-found performance image alive, Estes, now general manager, and De Lorean, now chief engineer, started experimenting with their intermediate Tempest model that had been introduced in 1961, but hadn’t enjoyed great sales success.

First they tried one of the division’s 5.3 litre V-8 engines in the Tempest and were gratified at the snap it gave the lightweight Pontiac. They then tried their 6.4 litre V-8 in it, and of course, it was even faster.

Satisfied that they had a winner they decided to offer a GTO (named after a Ferrari model, and standing for Gran Turismo Omologato) option in the redesigned Tempest for 1964. Besides the big V-8, it got heavy duty springs, shocks and brakes to handle the higher power. A 4-speed manual transmission was also offered, along with the regular 3-speed manual or 2-speed automatic.

This activity had been concealed from senior GM management by Estes and De Lorean, and by the time the 14th floor found out, it was too late to abort the GTO option. They weren’t pleased, however, feeling that it undermined the spirit of the responsible corporate image that GM was trying to project by pulling out of racing. Pontiac’s pessimistic general sales manager Frank Bridges refused to include more than 5000 GTOs in the 1964 production schedule.

How wrong he was. Estes and De Lorean, abetted by Jim Wangers, the account executive with Pontiac’s advertising agency, had correctly identified a youth market craving performance.

The GTO was an instant sales success and within weeks Pontiac was revamping its production mix to increase the number of GTOs. GM brass, not about to kill a good thing, forgot their original unhappiness. By the end of the ’64 model year 32,450 GTOs had gone out the door, more than six times the estimate of the conservative Mr. Bridges.

The success of the GTO even inspired a song in its honour, “Little GTO” by Ronny and the Daytonas, and choreographed by Wangers. It sold a million records, and the Daytonas soon faded almost into obscurity.

Pontiac had started a whole new class of vehicle, the so-called muscle car. And muscular it was. Car Life magazine tested a 1965 model with the optional 360 horsepower (standard was 325), triple carburetor (Tri-Power) engine and recorded a spectacularly fast zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) time of 5.8 seconds. Muscle cars were geared for acceleration rather than top speed, and this GTO, with a 4.11:1 axle ratio, was all finished at 184 km/h (114 mph).

Other manufacturers followed with their own versions, such cars as the Chevrolet Chevelle SS-396, Oldsmobile 4-4-2, Ford Fairlane GT, Mercury Cyclone GT, Plymouth Road Runner and Dodge Super Bee and high-wing Charger Daytona.

The muscle car era ended in the early ’70s almost as suddenly as it began, killed by brutal insurance rates, a rising concern over safety, falling compression ratios and more stringent emissions requirements. And last but not least, the pony cars spawned by the Ford Mustang were smaller and nimbler, and could be made just as fast as the muscle cars.

By 1972 the GTO was no longer a separate series, having been folded in with the Pontiac LeMans. It disappeared altogether in 1974. In its 11-year history it had brought scorching performance to the low priced field, and established the legend of the muscle car. For that it deserves its place in automotive history.

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