Lovers of classic muscle in general, and GTO fans in particular, will love this superb look back at the original GTO - written by the great David E Davis Jnr, one of the finest ever automotive writers
The year is 1964. Jack Kennedy less than one year gone...Jackie still safe on her pedestal. Narrow neckties...short hair...the Beatles. John Surtees wins the World Driving Championship in a Ferrari. Sam Sheppard gets out of jail. Ringo Starr has his tonsils removed. A.J. Foyt wins Indy - swan song for the old roadsters- after Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald die the worst death there is. The Greeks and the Turks fight on Cyprus. Jackie Stewart and Jochen Rindt show great promise, cleaning up in Formula Two on the Continent. Harpo Marx dies. The Mustang makes its debut and Denise McCluggage describes it succinctly as a “Success car” rather than a “successful Car.” The Navy claims it was bush- whacked by North Vietnamese PT boats in the Tonkin Gulf and, like the innocents we are, we believe them. John Glenn falls in the bathtub. Car and Driver surprises Dan Gurney and an unsuspecting nation by announcing that he will be the magazine’s candidate for the Presidency in the ’64 elections against Johnson and Goldwater.
The Pontiac GTO and the Ford Mustang were both introduced in 1964. ln terms of sales figures, the GTO was no-where near as important as the Mustang. In terms of PR magnitude, the Mustang was launched with a fanfare that makes today’s new-car introductions look like news leaks while the GTO appeared on the American scene like a Methodist minister leaving a massage parlor.
And yet, in purely visceral automotive terms, l remember only that the first Mustang I drove caused me to cut my finger on an exposed sheetmetal edge in the trunk, while my first ride in a GTO left me with a feeling like losing my virginity, going into combat and tasting my first draft beer all in about seven seconds.
l remember that the GTO slammed out of the hole like it was being fired from a catapult, that the tach needle flung itself across the dial like a windshield wiper, that the noise from three 2-throat carburetors on that heavy old 389-cubic inch Pontiac V-8 sounded like some awful doomsday Hoover-God sucking up sinners. Conversely, I seem only to recall that the Mustang was red, or maybe orange . . . it‘s hard to say.
The GTO was not exactly a totally new automotive concept. lt was an intermediate-size Pontiac with a 6.5-liter V-8 dropped in. lt was heavy and, with the brakes on hard at highway speed, the rear axle hopped bad enough to separate your retinas As far as the GTO was concerned, the correct "environment" was enough straight road to really get the mother honked on. It was not a car that anyone would drive to a meeting of the Sierra Club.
But it was obviously something a lot of us needed very badly in 1964. And its effect was so much greater than its PR push or its planned production figures or its basic components would have led anyone to expect. lt was the ﬁrst Muscle Car . . . a violent, virile catalyst-car that set the pace and tone for five or six years of intense horsepower promotion out of Detroit City, the hallmark of a period that seemed like the culmination of all the dreams of all the enthusiasts on all the back roads in this country, but a period that in reality was nothing more than that—the period at the end of one short paragraph of automotive history.
The real difference between the GTO and everything else of its type at the time was muscle. Back in 1964, Ford was pumping millions of dollars into a vast national promotion called "Total Performance," and half the racing shops and all the racing entrepreneurs in the country were benefiting hugely from massive transfusions of Ford money. But Ford couldn‘t make it happen on the street.
Not so, GTO. The basic GTO with the basic hot set-up stuff on it just let you climb inside and then asked you, “How far, how soon, daddy?” So you acted tough and poked it into first gear and nailed it and it bellowed "A-dee-yose, M.F." And suddenly the trees were all blurred and you were looking mighty good —if a little pale.
Fred Lorenzen might run like hell in his Holman-Moody Ford, but somehow the ones you could buy never made your eyes bug out. Pontiac, on the other hand, put it right out there on the street; and the seekers of truth along Woodward Avenue and Ventura Boulevard understood.
They called it the Goat (among other things) and they occasionally bad-mouthed it and chuckled about its antediluvian engine with its silly hydraulic lifters. But they knew that when they got all the way down to the other end and everything was all wound out fit to burst, the Goat would be right there taking care of business.
Unfortunately, General Motors felt compelled to civilize the GTO. By 1966, it was bigger, more acceptable to the honest burghers out there in Babbit City. You could still get a fast one right up through the last months of the 1960s, but you began to get the feeling that Pontiac’s heart wasn't really in it when they started bringing out self-conscious self-caricatures like “The Judge” in the fall of 1968. But by then, all the other Muscle Cars had become cartoons of themselves too, so we can’t really castigate the Goat for what it had become.
Better to praise it for what it started out to be. Let’s just remember that the '64 GTO was the first and in many ways the best. And it gave a lot of future Vietnam veterans a fundamental understanding of E=MC2 they will never forget.
CAR and DRIVER, January 1975. David E. Davis Jr. took over the editorship of Car and Driver in December 1962 and was later promoted to the position of publisher. Davis passed away in March 2011 - his writing & memory will live on for all those who have enjoyed his writing...