Pontiac GTO came to define muscle cars thanks to ingenuity -- and a lot of luck
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You might have been told once or twice in your life that you would do better if you just got out of your own way from time to time. Well, the same holds true in business, especially when good product intuition is smothered in corporate politics and personal agendas.
It's true that the GTO became the icon of the Musclecar era, but few know just how hard it was to make it all happen, except perhaps for one man who had to battle the establishment.
John Z. DeLorean, was, at the time, chief engineer of Pontiac. What he wanted was simple enough: a normally mild-mannered mid-sized sedan powered by a big V8.
The GTO concept developed in early 1963 when DeLorean, along with members of his engineering staff, were experimenting with the Tempest, an economy Pontiac introduced the previous year. The car's four-cylinder engine was inherently rough-running and vibration prone. Coupled with its weak-kneed Chevrolet Corvair-based rear-mounted transmission, the Tempest's drivetrain was problematic to say the least.
As a cure for the car's power deficiency, it was suggested that, since the Tempest's four-cylinder shared the same engine mounts as the V8 from which it was derived, it would be easy to install the big motor into the little car.
A prototype was cobbled together using a 389-cubic-inch V8 (borrowed from Pontiac's full-size Bonneville) and a heavy-duty four-speed manual transmission. The resulting transplant not only made the car quick, but also a blast to drive.
It was also DeLorean who named the car. The term GTO stood for Gran Turismo Omologato, or, in plain english, Grand Touring Homologated. The word "homologation" was used to describe a race car constructed from a variety of parts in sufficient quantities to be approved for production-class competition by the International Automobile Federation (FIA). Why so complicated?
As it turned out, a limited-edition Ferrari was already using the GTO name. But, as the initials could not be copyrighted, it was no problem for Pontiac to adopt them for its newest creation which no doubt brought instant credibility to the car.
The only remaining hurdle was for the car to be approved by senior GM management, which was not an easy proposition at the time.
In the 1960s, it was GM policy that no specific model could have more than 10 pounds of total weight per cubic inch of displacement. Since the GTO weighed about 3,500 pounds, it meant that the 389 engine was too large by nearly 40 cubic inches.
DeLorean's way around this rule was to make the GTO an option instead of a separate model. That somewhat loose interpretation of corporate edict allowed the beefed-up Pontiac to sneak by top management.
Originally, the division's skeptical sales department committed to just 5,000 GTO option packages for 1964. But as the word got out, dealer demand gobbled them all up within days of the official announcement. That not only guaranteed the GTO's success, but it was now too late for the GM brass to change its mind, even if they wanted to. The '64 GTO became a certified hit before it had even arrived at any Pontiac showroom.
So sensitive were the GTO's creators to breaking the engine size rule that initially no mention was made of the car in any of Pontiac's sales literature. News of its existence was communicated in a few automobile enthusiast publications only.
Every GTO-optioned Tempest (base-price of about $3,200) began with a 325-horsepower 389 V8, dual exhaust, floor-mounted Hurst-brand three-speed manual transmission, heavy-duty suspension and front bucket seats. Buyers could also add a more powerful 348-horsepower version featuring three two-barrel carbs, as well as options such as a Hurst-shifted four-speed manual transmission or GM-built two-speed automatic, limited-slip differential, better suspension and a faster steering ratio.
By year-end, total sales of Tempest LeMans hardtops, coupes and convertibles equipped with the GTO option totaled a whopping 32,450, nearly seven times that of the original GM-approved plan.
Part of the car's sales strength was attributed to a period article in Car and Driver magazine, the editors of which created a mythical head-to-head comparison between the Pontiac GTO and Ferrari's equivalent. The fact that this shoot-out existed only in the minds of the magazine's editors (they couldn't get a Ferrari version to test) was of little consequence since the resulting story heaped nothing but praise upon the Pontiac.
That could be partly due to the fact that the GTO used for testing had been fitted with Pontiac's larger 421-cubic-inch engine specially prepared for the occasion.
As a result of the article - which put the Pontiac head and shoulders ahead of the Ferrari - sports-car purists were livid, but subscriptions to both Car and Driver as well as GTO sales soared.
For 1965, the GTO (or Goat, as it was beginning to be called) remained an option, but featured attractive new front- and rear-end styling, improvements to the engine and suspension and new rally-style wheels. That year, total GTO sales exceeded 75,000.
It wouldn't be until 1966 and the arrival of the second-generation Tempest that the GTO would be marketed as a separate model. By then, other manufacturers were scrambling to create their own versions of the GTO in an attempt to cash in on Pontiac's success. But, there was simply no substitute for the original. With a little planning, underhanded inventiveness and a lot of luck, the GTO created the madness for Musclecars that captured the imagination of a generation of drivers.