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From Clandestine Project to Icon of Muscle: The Genesis Of The Pontiac GTO

Before the Pontiac GTO was an icon, it was a secret, a project that was artfully maneuvered through GM's corridors of power by a cadre of men convinced that the mothership's ban on high performance machines was not only a serious market mistake, but also a crime against humanity.

Why the cloak-and-dagger routine? While the '60s are often presented as the peak of performance for Detroit's muscle-mad engineers and designers, at General Motors the outlook was quite different. After withdrawing from official participation in any form of racing in the late 1950s (stemming in part from the Automobile Manufacturers Association's decision to back out of motorsports after the fatal crash at Le Mans in 1957 that claimed the lives of 83 spectators), the company adopted an inconsistent approach to high speed shenanigans.

Unofficial programs assisting teams that had previously been affiliated with the General continued in one form or another for several years after the "gentleman's agreement" made with the AMA. Some divisions, including Pontiac, pushed things as far as it could by providing more direct help that flew in the face of the ban. In fact, Pontiac's Super Duty group, initially assembled by the brand's head honcho Bunky Knudsen, was the most flagrant of these efforts, allowing the company to dominate the strip and oval while many other automakers sat on the sidelines.

By 1963, that advantage had dissipated as the rest of the usual suspects, tired of seeing themselves dusted by Pontiac, once again revived their racing programs. At GM, however, things went in the opposite direction, as the company was scared of talk in Washington about a possible anti-trust action against it. Not only did General Motors once again back away from spending money on racing, but it also imposed an edict that limited the performance of its street cars: no more than 10 lbs of car per cubic inch of engine displacement.

Bucking the Formula

Anyone familiar with the muscle car formula will instantly recognize the problem here. After all, the key to a truly successful classic street machine is a big motor in a little car, the very concept that GM's new prohibition was meant to head off at the pass.

Pontiac GTO Front

Fortunately for Pontiac fans, Knudsen had loaded the brand with a group of men who were far more interested in what they could get away with than what was written in the rulebook. With engineers such as Russ Gee, Bill Collins and John DeLorean in the mix, alongside the company's head ad man and longtime evangelist Jim Wangers, a team was in place that would not only form the genesis of the GTO but also exercise the muscle needed to get it built—and then make sure dealers knew how to hawk it.

The plan was simple. The Pontiac Tempest, which had been aimed at economy-oriented buyers, provided the relatively lightweight A-body platform that would serve as the perfect landing spot for the company's 389 ci V8, an engine that just happened to share its mounting points with the Tempest's base six-cylinder engine (and more milquetoast 326 CID V8). With 325hp in stock form, when matched with a manual gearbox (three or four speeds) and a set of Tri-Power carburetors (which bumped output to 348hp), the beefed-up Tempest (in LeMans coupe form) could hit 60 mph in 5.6 seconds—still a quick number by today's standards.

Sliding It By on the Sly

DeLorean dubbed the car the GTO, and in order to get Pontiac chief Pete Estes to sign off on its production, the team made the car an options package for the Tempest LeMans, rather than its own actual model. This sleight-of-hand allowed the GTO to hoodwink GM's small engine/small car policy, and, combined with Wangers' approach to selling the skunk works muscle car (using groundwork he had previously laid during his successful promotion of the Super Duty program), the car was an immediate hit.

Pontiac GTO Red

How popular was that first-year GTO? In 1964, 32,450 were sold, a far cry from the mere 5,000 that the Pontiac brass had figured would make it out the door. That number would double the next year, and the by 1966, the Pontiac GTO had left the Tempest nest and was winging its way across the finish line as its own unique model. All of this heat was more than enough to get GM to take off its blinders about street performance, and the rest—including the Chevrolet Chevelle SS, Camaro and Firebird—was history.

It's hard to imagine today that a major automaker would ignore a profitable market segment out of concerns for its public image, or that the government might swoop in and chop it into bite-size pieces. Still, it's not that much of a stretch to imagine a small group of engineers, frustrated by the seemingly endless stream of SUVs lining showrooms, working together after hours on an actual car rather than a high-riding faux-truck, each one determined to present their vision of pure driving pleasure to a seemingly indifferent world.

Want to know how the Grand National came to be? There were quite a few turbo Buicks that paved the way.

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