That Was Then, This Is Now: The Pontiac GTO

In the inaugural chapter of this column, we looked at the classic and modern editions of what many consider to be the quintessential muscle car, the Dodge Challenger. We discussed the history and development of the original 1970s version, and compared and contrasted it to the modern LC Challenger that debuted in 2008.

While I chose the Challenger to be the first subject largely because I am a Mopar aficionado and a Challenger owner, when it came time to select a vehicle to profile this month, there was really only one car to turn to: the Pontiac GTO.

Though many automobiles can try to lay claim to being the first muscle car by virtue of possessing certain mechanical or design facets, most automotive authorities agree that the Pontiac GTO was, in fact, the progenitor of the species.

Indeed, by combining an intermediate-sized, rear-wheel drive, two-door with a powerful engine, and an affordable price, the GTO created the template which countless others would follow.

First launched as a ’64 model, the GTO enjoyed massive popularity until the oil embargo and stringent EPA standards ended its illustrious run in 1974, seemingly forever. In a surprise move though, General Motors resurrected the nameplate in the mid-2000s.

Without further delay then, I suggest we dive in and review these two distinct iterations of the car that has affectionately been given the moniker, “the Goat”!

Two eras of Goats. (Photos courtesy of the Daily Herald and RMC.)

The genesis of the GTO is one that stemmed largely from a moment of serendipity.

Pontiac, once a leading brand of American cars, had, by the mid-1950s, fallen on rough times. In addition to lagging sales, it was building cars that largely only appealed to a mature demographic.

New General Manager Semon “Bunkie” Knudsen was given the task by the senior GM brass to reinvigorate the then-struggling division and transform it from a “grandpa” brand to something more youth-oriented.

Semon “Bunkie” Knudsen. (Photo courtesy of GM Media Archive.)

In pursuit of this, Knudsen brought in cutting-edge designers such as John DeLorean, Bill Collins, and Russ Gee. Under this new regime, Pontiac styling became leaner, and the cars lighter and more powerful. Successful NASCAR and NHRA campaigns completed the transformation.

That is until 1963, when GM instituted a ban on racing and set a policy that no midsized cars could have engines larger than 330 cubic inches. This would put a serious dent in Pontiac’s resurrection as a performance brand.

John DeLorean. (Photo courtesy of GM Media Archive.)

The solution to this quagmire came from a brainstorming session DeLorean, Collins, and Gee had one day. The designers were looking at a prototype 1964 Le Mans, and, as legend has it, Collins made an offhand comment to DeLorean.

“You know, John, it would take about twenty minutes to stick a 389 in there.”

“Let’s try it,” was DeLorean’s reply.

Thus, the GTO, a name swiped by DeLorean from the Ferrari 250 Gran Turismo Omologato race car, was born. And what started as a flight of fancy became a production reality once the design team noted a loophole in the limited capacity edict – the wording suggested it only applied to base engines, with no mention made about optional powerplants.

Where it all began – the 1964 Pontiac GTO. (Photo courtesy of Amazing Classic Cars.)

With that, the GTO bomb was dropped on an unsuspecting America in September of 1963 as an option package for the LeMans.

Available in coupe, hardtop, and convertible configurations, the GTO package consisted of a 325 horsepower version of the 389, a three-speed manual with Hurst shifter, sport suspension, a thick front anti-sway bar, 7.5 x 14-inch redline tires, dual exhausts, dual hood scoops, and special badging.

Options included a “Tri-Power” version of the 389 with three, two-barrel Rochester carbs boasting 348 ponies, a four-speed manual, a Super Turbine 300 two-speed slushbox, a limited-slip diff, high-performance brakes, heavy-duty cooling, and a handling package.

The LeMans’ crisp styling, mated to a performance powertrain was just what the public didn’t know it wanted. Within a year, nearly 32,500 cars were sold – an unqualified smash hit.

The 1966 GTO. (Photo courtesy of Mecum.)

Such was the GTO’s success that in 1966 Pontiac made the GTO a separate model in the lineup, and bequeathed it with a complete restyle that many consider the iconic GTO incarnation. Cutting-edge “Coke-bottle” styling, quad vertically-stacked headlamps, and a plush interior were just some of the refinements.

By this time, the 389 had received revised cylinder heads and high-rise intake manifolds that boosted horsepower to 335. The Tri-Power setup also received improvements which saw a bump to 360 ponies.

The famed Tri-Power motor. (Photo courtesy of Barrett-Jackson.)

All of these changes resonated with the public, resulting in 96,946 GTOs being produced, the most of any year for the Goat.

This generation remained, with mechanical and aesthetic upgrades, until 1968, when another complete redesign was performed. Crisp lines and right angles gave way to curves and semi-fastback styling.

Other notable changes included a horizontal layout for the headlights which could receive a concealment option, and an “Endura” fascia – a urethane unit that replaced a traditional chrome bumper. A Ram-Air package was introduced halfway through the model year and included revised cylinder heads and a reprofiled cam.

The redesigned 1968 GTO. (Photo courtesy of AmericanMuscleCarz.)

Critics and buyers loved the new Goat, with Motor Trend bequeathing the GTO with its Car of the Year award. Seeking to build upon this success, Pontiac made regular updates to the car in the years that followed.

1969 saw minor sheet metal and trim updates, as well as two new engine options – the 360 horsepower 400 Ram Air and the Ram Air IV. The latter was a robust package that included high-flow cylinder heads, a high-rise aluminum intake, high-flow exhaust manifolds, a four-barrel carb, hydraulic lifters, and a high-lift/long-duration camshaft. Though the factory rated it at 370 ponies, in actuality, it was likely pushing more in the order of 420.

Also notable in ’69 was the release of a special GTO model known as The Judge. A strange nod-of-the-head to a recurring catchphrase on the Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In TV show, The Judge came with the base 400 engine, Ram Air III induction, a Hurst T-handle shifter, Rally II wheels with wider tires, a rear spoiler and decals announcing this was “The Judge.”

The Judge. (Photo courtesy of Sports Car Market.)

1970 is considered to be the premier year for muscle cars by automotive aficionados, as engine output across all makes reached their zenith, and styling seemed to hit the high water mark as well. Few could argue that this didn’t apply to the GTO.

A facelift yielded quad horizontal headlights flanking a dual panel grille for a fresh look, but the real news was the mechanicals. A new engine option, the D-port 455, good for 360 horsepower and a pavement-pounding 500 lb-ft, slotted in between the 400 and the Ram Air IV.

A dash actuated Vacuum Operated Exhaust, designed to relieve exhaust backpressure and thereby increase power, was offered as an option. The addition of a standard rear anti-sway bar along with a beefier front unit were welcomed handling additions, as was an optional variable-ratio power steering setup.

The new face of the 1970 Goat. (Photo courtesy of Wow Muscle Cars.)

Sadly, things began to go downhill rapidly for the GTO beginning in 1971. General Motors issued a new edict reducing compression ratios in preparation for the switch to unleaded gas. As a result, the Ram Air and Ram Air IV options went the way of the Dodo. What’s more, the 400 saw its compression ratio dropped to 8.2:1, reducing output to 255 horsepower, and the 455 HO was fixed at 8.4:1 for a 310-horse yield.

Things got even worse in ’72. Not only was the GTO remanded to being a LeMans option package again, but the convertible was dropped. Sales plummeted by 45%.

1973. (Photo courtesy of Mecum.)

In an effort to stem the bleeding, Pontiac hastily rushed into production with yet another generation of the Goat for ‘73. Receiving rather odd “Colonnade” styling, which included dual headlights, a NACA duct accented hood, chunky, federally mandated chrome bumpers, and a thick pillar that separated the front window glass from the rear quarter windows, the new car was not well received by the public.

Nor was the fact that the 400 and 455 cubic-inch engines were further reduced in compression to 8.0:1, dropping power down to 230 and 250 ponies respectively. Even more of an affront was the fact that the HO version of the 455 was dropped entirely.

GTO production dropped to an all-time low of 4,806.

With the OPEC oil embargo now in full effect, the writing was on the wall for the GTO, and the few remaining muscle cars still on the market. Ahead would be a decade dominated by low-powered, fuel-efficient cars.

The underwhelming ’74 swan song. (Photo courtesy of Mecum.)

The GTO limped into 1974 now as an option on the compact Pontiac Ventura. Offered as a coupe or hatchback, the car was a shadow of what a GTO had been and should be. The lone available engine was a 350 cubic-inch V8 rated at 200 hp and 295 lb-ft of twist mated to a three- or four-speed manual or the three-speed Turbo Hydra-Matic.

As one would imagine, performance was weak, with a period magazine only being able to muster a 9.5-second 0-60 time and a 16.5-second quarter at 84 mph.

Poor sales resulted, and with that, the exalted Goat, the car that created the muscle car craze, disappeared ignominiously into the sunset.

The retro-styled 2005 Mustang. (Photo courtesy of Mustang Specs.)

Flash forward to 2004. A wave of retro-styled and retro-inspired cars had hit the market, capturing the imagination of car enthusiasts everywhere. The Ford Thunderbird, Chrysler PT Cruiser, Mini Cooper, Volkswagen Beetle, Ford GT, and Ford Mustang had all been given the throwback treatment, to much fanfare and strong sales.

Pontiac, itself enduring a period of declining sales and model lineup upheaval, saw this as an opportunity to resurrect a legendary name from the past to generate some heat for the brand. That name would be GTO.

The 2004 Holden Monaro. (Photo courtesy of PeakPx.)

Much like it did four decades earlier, Pontiac decided to make the GTO a spinoff of an existing model. Unlike 1964 though, Pontiac did not adapt a car in their domestic lineup (largely because there wasn’t a suitable one at the time), but instead chose a “captive import” from the Australian GM subsidiary, Holden.

The car they chose was the Holden Monaro, a two-door, rear-wheel drive, coupe. Assembled in Elizabeth, South Australia, the new GTO was outfitted with a formidable powertrain, which included the 5.7-liter LS1 V8 – the same lump found in the Corvette at the time – along with a choice of a Tremec six-speed manual or a four-speed automatic. Output was 350 horsepower and 365 lb-ft.

The 2004 Pontiac GTO. (Photo courtesy of Hagerty.)

Changes to the standard Monaro also included bracing to meet American crash standards, a new front fascia featuring GTO-esque twin grille inlets, and GTO badging. Great attention was paid to the GTO’s exhaust, with Pontiac engineers spending dozens of hours listening to the rumble of a ’64 Goat, and then tuning an exhaust for the new car that sounded just like it.

Performance was brisk, with 60 mph reached in 5.3 seconds, and the quarter mile tripped in 13.8 seconds at 104.78 mph.

The Goat’s interior. (Photo courtesy of Hagerty.)

In spite of Pontiacs earnestness in bringing back the GTO, and performance that was on par with the best vintage Goat, the buying public was having none of it. Critics panned the car’s anonymous, import styling and lack of traditional muscle car cues. A common refrain was that the car was a Thoroughbred which lacked the soul of the original. The price, starting at a rather elevated $34,000 and increasing mightily when optioned up, was also a source of derision.

While GM had hoped to sell 18,000 examples in its first year, dealers found themselves needing to offer steep discounts just to get the cars off their lots. They only managed to move 13,569 GTOs in 2004.

Looking to sweeten the pot on their new car, Pontiac upgraded the Goat’s mechanicals decisively for 2005. Corvette discs and calipers, 18-inch alloy wheels, a beefier driveshaft, revised half-shafts, and most notably, the replacement of the LS1 with the 400 horsepower, 400 lb-ft LS2 were the highlights. Contemporary supercar territory performance resulted, with a 4.7-second 0-60 time and a 13-second, 105 mph quarter mile.

The 400 horsepower LS2. (Photo courtesy of Bay City Motors.)

The performance boost did little to inspire buyers though, and only 11,069 units were sold.

Seeing that their brainchild was a flop that would require an extensive redesign to appeal to the public, Pontiac decided to pull the plug. Changes for 2006 were limited to new colors, blacked out tail lamps, and some small interior improvements.

On February 21, 2006, dealers were informed that GTO imports would end that September. Sales increased to 13,948 examples, but the die was cast. The GTO died a second death.

2006: The end of a legend. (Photo courtesy of BringATrailer.)

Could the new GTO have been a success had Pontiac given it a retro-themed body with cues from Goats of old, like Ford did with the S197 Mustang? We’ll never know for sure, but clearly, the Holden-based GTO failed to rise like a phoenix as Pontiac had hoped. It was a tough but important lesson learned – you can’t simply slap a name on any car and expect it to conjure the past and inspire the faithful.

With the Pontiac division now long gone, any hopes for another stab at a modern GTO have passed with it. After the 2004-2006 debacle, fans of the Goat – the original muscle car – probably don’t mind.


About the author

Rob Finkelman

Rob combined his two great passions of writing and cars; and began authoring columns for several Formula 1 racing websites and Street Muscle Magazine. He is an avid automotive enthusiast with a burgeoning collection of classic and muscle cars.
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