To understand how the GTO came about you have to go back to 1951 and the introduction of the Chrysler ‘Firepower’ 331 cubic inch hemi V8. By the mid Fifties Chrysler 300 coupes were dominating Nascar with their hemi, which was also laying waste to opposition at drag strips. In 1957 the AMA agreed to de-emphasise racing leading to manufacturers gradually withdrawing from competition.
Pontiac was hit hardest by the ban. With sales slipping in the mid Fifties Pontiac was facing extinction. GM had placed Semon ‘Bunkie’ Knudsen at the helm to see if he could stem the flow of customers to other makes. Knudsen commissioned market researchers to discover what the brand symbolised to the people, this at a time when market research was a little known science. He discovered that Pontiac meant nothing – they had no image to speak of. Seeing this as an advantage, Knudsen decided he would re-invent Pontiac and market it towards younger buyers.
Years before Lee Iacocca signed off on the ultimate youth car - the Mustang, Knudsen realised there were millions of young people soon to be of driving age and decided it was to them he’d target the new Pontiac image.
With the new 1955 V8 as a basis for performance, Knudsen’s team were directed to go all out in their quest for NASCAR supremacy, leading to Pontiac wins at Daytona in 1957, 58 and again in ’59. The new ‘Super Duty’ V8 was virtually unbeatable at drag strips when equipped with a staggering variety of go-fast accessories available from the factory. Chrysler’s hemi had a formidable new opponent - one that could beat it too; performance packages were available at select dealerships so that buyers could equip their car for racing without affecting the warranty. In a few short years Pontiac had risen from 6 to 3 in new car sales.
All was going well through the early 60s until GM ordered all divisions to abide by the AMA ban on racing. Suddenly, Pontiac were left high and dry. Without racing to back up sales success, unable even to use racing in advertisements and promotions, Pontiac had to find a new angle, and fast. Enter the GTO.
Pontiac engineer John Delorean and dynamic advertising executive Jim Wangers approached Chief Engineer Peter Estes with a proposal to drop the 389 V8 into the Tempest. The smallest in the Pontiac range, the Tempest was a four cylinder car, though admittedly a large four – a 3.2 litre unit that was effectively half a 389. At that time GM had a company-wide ban on engines over 330 cubic inches in anything other than full sized models. Wangers and Delorean suggested offering the GTO as an option package to get around the ban. Wangers dreamed up the marketing hype and the name, not to mention the overall ensemble offering bonnet scoops, stiff suspension, twin exhausts, tacho, bucket seats and floor shift. The GTO was clearly intended to appeal to younger buyers. As it was only ever an option – it’s often forgotten that the original GTO was never actually a model in its’ own right.
Development was carried out virtually in secret. Estes was in on the project and kept it from upper management until they’d sorted out all the details. The GTO was eventually revealed to the Board, but with the 326 V8 so as not to cause a riot. The 389 was to be an option within an option. Even with the 326 the board reacted with antagonism and outrage. The meeting came close to degenerating into a fist fight as Board members swore the car would never sell.
A compromise between the warring parties was reached thanks largely to word of the car leaking to dealers, who had already begun to send in orders. The Board approved a limited run of 5000 cars, a figure that was laughably inadequate as 32,000 GTOs poured on to the streets in that first year. It was the most successful new model Pontiac had ever released, and Wangers said later that they would’ve sold double that number if they’d been available. In 1964 his point was proved as Pontiac sold over 60,000 units. The GTO had become an instant legend. Bands wrote songs about the car, it was offered as the prize in numerous lotteries and appeared on the backs of cereal packets. Delorean, Wangers and Estes had invented the packaged muscle car.
The GTO set the tone for the next decade as every marque bar Cadillac and Lincoln frantically released their own performance packages. Within a few short years American roads were alive with factory muscle in lurid colours sporting GT stripes, scoops, mags, tachos, stiff suspension and high performance V8s.
Pontiac had unintentionally given Americans a brand new toy to play with. Factory muscle was based on five seater, two door sedans making for practical, dual purpose machines. They may not have handled all that well, and were almost always short of stopping power, but they were fun.
Throughout the 1960s the GTO strived to stay ahead of the game, being the first to offer a Hurst shifter as a factory option, then later the Endura coated front, signalling the end of chrome. By the late the sixties the GTO had lost much of its’ gloss, merging into a market crowded with lookalikes and wannabes. But the followers would never have existed without the GTO – the first, the most legendary of all muscle cars. Long live the GTO.