speed, performance and power
In the early 60s, General Motors banned its various divisions from any involvement in car racing but while their road car marketing was based on speed, performance and power, the brains in the Pontiac division decided that if they couldn’t race on the tracks, they’d do it on the streets. The Pontiac Tempest was transformed into the Pontiac GTO and the era of hardcore American muscle cars was born.
History of the Pontiac GTO
The Pontiac GTO was conceived by engine specialist Russell ‘Russ’ Gee, chassis engineer Bill Collins and Pontiac’s chief engineer John DeLorean, he of Back to the Future fame. There were small V8 versions of a lot of the early 60s cars – the Buick Skylark, Oldsmobile Cutlass and the Chevy Chevelle – but Pontiac had the guts to drop in a massive 389-cubic inch (6.4-litre) V8 block into the Pontiac Tempest replacing the standard 326-cubic inch (5.4-litre) V8.
The GTO was originally marketed as a big-engined Tempest to get round all sorts of GM policies relating to what type of engines they could use on their body platforms and was exactly that, a big-engined Tempest. At the same time, Ford’s legendary car man Lee Iacocca was doing precisely the same thing with a Ford Falcon and turned it into the Mustang.
The name GTO was supposedly inspired by the Ferrari 250 GTO. The initials stand for ‘Gran Turismo Omologato’ or ‘grand tourer homologated’ meaning it was certified for racing in the GT class. This may have been a sly dig by DeLorean at the GM hierarchy for their blanket ban on racing but some ex-GM staffers aren’t sure this is the true story. The Pontiac Tempest was due a new name and while Ferrari didn’t (or forgot to) patent the GTO name in North America, DeLorean decided to call the car the Pontiac Grand Tempest Option.
Hardcore Ferrari fans weren’t happy that an American car firm with no discernible pedigree jumped on the GTO bandwagon, but jump on it they did and in the decade they were made between 1964 and 1974, they sold by the bucket load.
Pontiac’s sales manager Frank Bridge didn’t believe there was a market for such a car and limited the initial 1964 production run to 5,000 units. They sold almost 32,500.
The options list for the newly uprated Tempest was equally as comprehensive. It included stiffer suspension with valved shocks, dual exhausts, bespoke 14-in rims that were six-inches wide and a heavy-duty clutch. It also included twin air-scoops on the hood which were fake and redundant but looked muscly. The original 325 bhp engine hit 60 mph in 7.7 seconds and for a 60s car with no traction and skinny tyres, it was stunningly good performance.
Over the decade, Pontiac made all sorts of mods and refinements including more power, additional body styles and the introduction of an automatic transmission. In 1969, to compete in the increasingly crowded muscle car market, Pontiac created the ‘Judge’ model with Ram Air decals and a massive, 60-in wide spoiler on the back. It also benefitted from a bigger, 366 bhp Ram Air III engine. They made only 6,725 hardtops and 108 convertibles, hence why these cars in good nick can go for anything up to $135,000 today.
The demise of the half-million strong GTO army, given its ‘look-at-me’ entry into the market was sad. The ’74 version was thrust upon the market during the OPEC oil crisis and while it sold, the numbers were modest because the engines were so enormously massive. Pontiac decided to quietly walk away from a genre of cars they themselves created and switched their focus onto the Trans-Am. Every cloud though…it gave us KITT and another 80s bedroom wall poster.