THE ORIGIN OF THE PONTIAC GTO
The Horsepower Wars had been raging through the 1950s and continued right into the 60s. By 1963, General Motors felt it was bad for business, so they made it a policy that no mid-sized (A-body) GM car could have bigger than a 330 cubic inch engine in it. This news came just as word of Ford’s new Mustang began to leak out. Pontiac was trying to establish itself as a high-performance brand and wanted to cash in on the public’s taste for more power. The GTO was their response, and the brainchild of three talented Pontiac engineers, Russell Gee (engine specialist), Bill Collins (chassis expert) and John Z. DeLorean (chief engineer). The challenge was how to get around GM’s edict opposing big engines in midsized cars.
BREAKING THE RULES
They got around it with a clever ploy. The GTO was to be built on the mid-sized Pontiac Tempest/LeMans body, replacing the 326 cubic inch V8 with the 389 out of the full-sized Pontiac Catalina and Bonneville lines. The ploy was to make the GTO simply an option package on the Tempest that included as part of it the larger engine, along with some cool styling enhancements over the standard Tempest. Of course all of this was aimed at the newly-discovered, burgeoning ‘youth market’.
This first-year is a unique, stand-alone design. The new-for-’64 Tempest was then to be completely restyled again the following year, and of course, the GTO was based on the Tempest. It came in 3 body styles: a 2-door Coupe (with post), a 2-door Hardtop (postless), and a convertible.
The whole Tempest line, and the GTO with it, got a reskin for 1965 that included a 3 inch stretch in length and stacked headlights replacing the side-by-side quad headlights of the ’64.
Pontiac’s entire mid-sized lineup was totally restyled again for 1966 giving it a more aggressive look. The most notable difference from the 1965 is the ‘kick-up’ in the belt-line (the line where the doors meet the side glass).
Sharing the same basic body with the ’66 Tempest and GTO, there were subtle changes in styling, but the real news was under the hood, where the 389 got punched out to 400 cubes.
1968 marks the beginning of the Second Generation of GTOs, and it brought a much more rounded, aerodynamic shape, and one that would become a Pontiac trademark, along with the twin snorkel nose cone.
The most obvious visual difference between the ’68 and ’69 is the ’68 has front-side vent windows and the ’69 does not. A new option package called “The Judge” capitalized on a Sammy Davis, Jr. comedy routine on ‘Laugh In’ where he said “Here come the Judge!” The Judge was actually meant to be a bargain GTO, stripped of content, to lower the price.
The entire Tempest line, including the GTO got a major facelift that eliminated the hideaway headlights in favor of 4 exposed round headlights flared into the sculpted Endura nose.
Unfortunately, as we now know, the First Muscle Car Era peaked in 1970, but Pontiac did its best to hold on to what muscle it could, continuing to produce several hot 400s and a 455.
The taming down process was starting to take its hold as horsepower waned. The GTO ceased to be a stand-alone model, and went back to being an option package on the Pontiac Tempest, just like it was in 1964 when it all got started.
For the third year in a row, the Tempest/LeMans & the GTO got a new body, longer & wider than the last, introducing the new “Coke bottle-shape”. A new interior, and lots of new features & options, the coolest of which was the hood-mounted tach.
The last year of the First Generation. The 389 gets punched out to 400 cubes, the Tri-Power goes away, and smog & safety equipment arrive for the first time. All in all, the 1967 GTO still has the magic.
The first year of the 2nd generation, in keeping with GMs big move away from boxy, sharp-edged designs, was much more rounded and aerodynamic. The one-piece Endura impact-resistant nose was new, and would become a Pontiac trademark.
Another great year for “The Great One”. The top engine is now the 400 Ram Air IV with a ‘claimed’ 370 hp, but that was probably understated. For the first time, GTO sales exceeded those of both the Chevy Chevelle SS & the Plymouth Road Runner.
Yet another facelift. Unleaded gas forces an across-the-board drop in compression & horsepower takes a nose-give. Ram Air III & IV are gone. Judge hangs on briefly then disappears. 455 H.O. is the only ray of sunshine.