How Did the GTO Come To Be?
To understand the dynamic of what makes the GTO so unique among muscle car enthusiasts, we need to venture back a couple of years before the 1966 intro. During most of the 1950s, Pontiac was a car company ruled by old aristocrats, who were far removed from the whims and wishes of a younger buying public. The company was hemorrhaging money building cars with outdated styling left over from the late 30s. The company sold only a little over 200k units in 1958, and drastic measures were needed to capture what other manufacturers had already realized, the best, most profitable car markets were the ones striking a healthy dose of excitement in the hearts of young people.
Enter Semon “Bunkie” Knudsen, the son of “Big Bill” Knudsen, the former chairman of GM, with an ambitious plan. Along with engineers John Delorean and Pete Estes, the push began for faster, more powerfully sized vehicles. As a way of marketing directly to the youth culture, Knudsen and the company took these new cars to the track, demonstrating their speed and power to a whole generation of buyers who had abandoned their parents' old relics entirely.
As the NSHRA and NASCAR trophies began to pile up, more people began to notice. (Pontiac won 7 of 9 races in 1957 and dominated the Grand nationals in the early 60s. Pontiac won the Indy 500 in 1962 when Fireball Roberts raced a modified Pontiac Catalina #22 across the checkered flag). Pontiac began to cement its reputation as a revived company. Sales started to improve with the introduction of Bonneville (1959), the Ventura on their smaller B platform in 1960, and Tempest in 1960 made it clear that Pontiac was getting the kind of buzz a revitalized company and cashflow they so desperately needed.
But then, in 1963, GM stepped in and placed an internal moratorium on any of their divisions producing racing vehicles. So, the primary avenue Pontiac had been using to build a name for itself was over. Suddenly, without a way of achieving their objectives, Knudsen, Delorean, and others would need a new strategy if the company that had increased sales by almost 38% over two years (1961 - 63) was to survive.
As the old saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention. During an informal Saturday morning meeting at Milford Proving Grounds, engineers Bill Collins and John Delorean realized that a 389 V8 could easily be installed into the small compact Tempest. Discovering that the GM’s edict applied to only base engines, they offered a specially designed 6.4L 389 cu in as an engine option in the Le Man’s trim package of the Tempest. Hence, the GTO badging was an optional package for the LeMans and was introduced to the public in Sept. 1963. The car was hyped like riding a tiger on wheels, and for the 1964 Model Year, the GTO sold over 32,450 units. The muscle car revolution was born.
What Year GTO was the Most Popular?
Within two years, the GTO (which most Americans had nicknamed the “GOAT”) was split into its separate plate. The success of the LeMans trim level on the Tempest told Pontiac that they had an exceptional offering on their hands and the numbers for the 1966 model demonstrated that. Setting all-time sales records with 96,985 cars coming off the assembly line, production could not keep up with the demand.
1966 saw a radical change for the GTO. Energized by the success of the initial offering, the GM “A” body was redesigned into a more aggressive stance, with a long nose and notable hood scoops, which didn’t aerate the engine as much as they allowed drivers to hear the rumble of the big block V8 better. The scoops were a part of the first generation “Ram Air” system and were designated by an XS on the engine code. In addition, the upgraded single valve springs and restructured fuel lines sought to improve the flow to the carb. There was a Tri-power option for a 3x2, but few of these came off the factory line.
The outer body lines flowed nicely toward an elevated rear and waved toward slightly curved-up rear fenders. Gone were the arrow-like fins of the late 50s Bonneville and Catalina in favor of a more straightforward, crisp, solid approach. With stacked headlights, chrome bumpers highlighted the front and the rear were backed by two separate rectangular, blacked-out grilles inserts, which provided a background to the simple chrome GTO letters positioned near the driver's headlights. This badging remained a classic GTO look for years. On the back of the car, two banks of three by three lined taillights were positioned on either side of the Pontiac name. The taillights were bright and visible and, when lit, set the night sky alight making a bold statement. (This is what Pontiac GTO owners expected most of the competition to see). The car was offered as a two-door coupe, hardtop, or convertible, but the basic version most customers opted for were hardtops, with over 73k sold.
While the standard engine was the 6.4L 389 cu in, producing 335 horsepower, with a four-barrel carb, the car could run down the road at a tempting 120 mph. Car Life clocked the 1966 GTO with a 0 - 60 number in 6.1 seconds, creating even more buzz. The price for speed for the GTO in 1966 was shy of $2800, which many younger buyers gladly paid.
When you opened the wide driver’s door to the GTO, the big, basic three-spoke steering wheel was the first thing to notice after sliding into the seat. Almost overpowering, the aluminum spokes extended to a simple, easy-grip wheel. The instrument panel gave basic information from four separate pods; speedometer, oil pressure, RPM, and tachometer. The ignition was moved to the right of the steering wheel (it had been placed on the left), while the rest of the dash was finished in a simple walnut veneer insert. The car was equipped with power steering and power-drum brakes. Air conditioning was an added option, and controls were positioned above a basic Delco AM/FM radio. New Starto bucket seats with vinyl upholstery were standard, and customers had an option for headrests. The back seat area was perched slightly higher than the front seats and had thinner padding, which did nothing to add to the creature comforts for those sitting there. It occasionally blocked visibility for the driver from the rear window when rear passengers were present. Other options included a cigarette lighter and two switch power top for convertibles.
What Made the GTO so Popular?
A compelling message is often the secret to the success of a product, and Delorean and company were at no loss for how to convince the American public to embrace the new car. Early 1965 brochures dubbed the GTO as the “ultimate tiger,” describing the ride for a “man who wouldn’t mind riding a tiger if someone would only put wheels on it.” The tiger began to appear in television and print ads, suggesting that the thrill of driving the car was the pure power it contained and that only a select few had the stamina or courage to tame the beast. The ads were highly effective and appealed to a younger demographic embracing risk/reward.
Television promoted the car, including appearances on the top-rated series, My Three Sons and I Dream of Jeannie. In addition, Revell made plastic models of the Pontiac GTO, and images of the GTO began to appear everywhere. Pontiac and Uniroyal worked together on the Tiger theme (Uniroyal was supplying the GTO tires at the time - dubbed the Tiger’s paws), and Tigerpaw tires became an instant success. Esso (Exxon) also got into the act and encouraged customers to use gasoline by putting a “tiger in their tank.”
Eventually, the tiger emphasis ran its course, and Delorean was encouraged to find some other means of promoting the car. The ad team launched a campaign labeling the GTO as the “Great One.” However, the ads simply were ineffective by the 1968 MY and a redesign. (Even though Motortrend gave the 1968 GTO Car of the Year award). By this time, Mopar had regained its dominance with the Charger, and Chevrolet was making inroads with the larger, more powerful Chevelle, also marketed by Oldsmobile as the 442. Ford was pushing its new Mustang. The GTO became muddled in an ever-crowded field of muscle car mania and slowly faded into the pack. Yet, it had set the standard for what other muscle cars would be and is forever cemented in the legacy of the American road.