Back in the day, muscle cars were ground-shaking, ear-destroying and heart-pumping beasts. None more so than the Pontiac GTO — the original muscle car.
Taken out of context, Russ, Bill and John don’t sound like particularly impressive names. But throw the cognomens Gee, Collins and DeLorean into the mix, and we’re left with three legends of the automotive world. These guys gave us the Pontiac GTO — the first real muscle car. Thank you very, very much chaps.
Regular readers will know that I’m mad for American muscle and find it surprising when I chance upon critics of these thundering beauties. “They’re no good around corners…” or “they’re too big and thirsty…” are the usual, tiresome complaints. Sounds like they’re running scared to me.
This lot are probably not man enough to grab a Hurst shifter let alone row it, because back in the days of free love and Hendrix, American muscle cars were fire-breathing monsters. The GTO started the trend of arriving everywhere sideways in a cloud of smoke emanating from the burning rear rubbers, wrapped around those gorgeous Rally II wheels.
Gee, Pontiac’s engine specialist, along with Collins, the chassis guy and chief engineer, DeLorean collaborated to create the GTO, which started life as the Tempest. It had a decent enough 326 cubic-inch (5.3-litre) V8 but those three wise men weren’t convinced. They knew it could be better, and so they set about transforming the car and once they were done, it ought to have come with a warning sticker.
A massive 389 cubic-inch (6.5-litre) V8 from the Catalina and Bonneville was shoehorned into the bay of the front-engined, rear-wheel drive Poncho. The GTO moniker came from DeLorean.
He basically stole it from the Ferrari 250 GTO, which drew objections from fans of the Italian beauty. But since GM had banned all use of auto racing in their advertising campaigns since 1963, this was a smart way of creating attention.
The youth market lapped it up even though it was in violation of GM policy. The bigger 389 cube motor went against A-body regulations but since the GTO was just an option package for now, Pontiac’s visionary management team used this as a loophole to get it into production and 5,000 models were built in 1964. It was powerful and (unlike the Fezza) affordable and brought muscle to the masses.
By retaining the refined looks of the Tempest, the GTO really was a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
The 350bhp brute, nicknamed the ‘Goat’ went from 0-100kph in 6.6 seconds. That, back in the early Sixties was as emphatic as today’s CTS-V hitting the same mark in 4.0. The 1965 model year remained as an option for the Tempest but gained vertically stacked headlights, bonnet scoops (which were only for show) and a revised grille.
1966 saw the start of a revolution as the GTO was now available as a stand-alone model. It became the highest-selling muscle car of the year and when the 1967 GTO arrived, it made grown men weep — it was that hot. From the chain link grille to the cleaned up taillights, it was a sight to behold. It didn’t just look stunning; it had stunning power to boot.
Under that pumped bonnet sat a 400 cubic-inch motor (6.6-litre) with a four-arrel carburettor mated to a three or four-speed manual or three-speed auto making 335bhp. You could spec a single four-barrel High Output carb which upped power to 360 horses.
For those wanting yet more grunt, an underrated Ram Air option could be had. These had 600Nm of tyre-melting torque and way in excess of the advertised 360 ponies. Although more potent models arrived later from Ford, Chevrolet et al, the Pontiac GTO will always be remembered as the one that started it all.
If you want one of these iconic cars, then be sure to look carefully because base model
Tempest’s have been cloned countless times to look like a GTO. Specific VIN codes (they all start with the numbers 242 for 1966-71 model years) or some rock solid paperwork (such as the build sheet) will help verify GTO status.