By editors at Edmunds.com
The start of the classic "muscle car" era is often dated as the moment the 1964 Pontiac GTO went on sale. Hey, it's as good a date as any, but it's not as if Pontiac's "Goat" was anything particularly original. The American love affair with V8 engines was already at least 32 years old (back to when the 1932 Ford, the first affordable V8, was introduced), and midsize V8-powered cars were available from every domestic manufacturer.
But what the GTO had was attitude — a bigger V8, hood scoops (phony ones), the rumble of dual exhausts, a Hurst shifter, racy trim and a name stolen from Ferrari. Not just any Ferrari name either, but that of what many consider the greatest Ferrari of them all, the 250 GTO. Those three vaunted letters stood for "Gran Turismo Omologato," which translated means "Grand Touring Homologation." In other words, the Ferarri GTO was produced only so that Ferrari could race in a "production" GT class, which the GTO dominated.
Naturally, the Ferraristi were up in arms about an American carmaker giving a midsize coupe with no pedigree the same name as their legendary sports car. So the Pontiac GTO was arrogant, and it would remain so throughout its 11-year first life. Whether that arrogance is part of the resurrected and Australian-made 2004 GTO is open to debate.
The basis for 10 of the first 11 years of GTOs was GM's "A-Body" platform upon which midsize cars for every General Motors marketing division except Cadillac were built. In 1964, that meant that the A-Body chassis was found under the Buick Skylark, Chevrolet Chevelle, Oldsmobile Cutlass and Pontiac Tempest lines. Sportier versions of each of those cars were available with small (for the time) V8 engines, but only Pontiac dared to install a truly large V8 in its Tempest in '64. And when a Tempest had a 389-cubic-inch V8 under its hood, it was a GTO. Other features added to the Tempest when the GTO option was selected included a firmed-up suspension and visual tweaks such as hood scoops, fancy wheels and chrome dual exhaust outlets.
All the A-Bodies used a conventional ladder-type frame with an A-arm and coil spring front suspension, and a neat four-link coil spring rear suspension that made for solid traction and respectable handling by the standards of the day.
Motor Trend summed up what made the GTO special in its first test of the '64 model. "The '389' engine isn't the only thing that makes a Tempest into a GTO," the editors explained. "Pontiac has wisely made this a complete performance package by including such goodies as stiffer suspension with specially valved shock absorbers; a seven-blade, 18-inch fan complete with cut-off switch; dual exhaust system; special 14-inch wheels with six-inch wide rims (fitted with red-stripe performance tires); and a heavy-duty clutch and pressure plate for gearshift cars. In addition to all this, special trim and identification medallions tell onlookers this is a 'GTO 6.5-liter' automobile. Twin (fake) air scoops adorn the hood of the GTO and are found on no other Tempest model." The first GTO was also quick with Motor Trend's four-speed, 325-hp convertible lunging from zero to 60 mph in 7.7 seconds and blasting through the quarter-mile in 15.8 seconds at 93 mph.
By today's standards, that's only so-so performance, but it was quick back then — particularly in light of the scant traction allowed by the era's skinny bias-ply tires.
Pontiac's '64 GTO options list was a long one. The most regal option was the three-carb version of the 389 (dubbed Tri-Power) that sent 348 hp to the pavement. While a three-speed manual transmission was standard in the GTO, wide- and close-ratio four-speed manuals and a two-speed automatic were optional.
Although the GTO package was considered an option on the Tempest in '64, the word "Tempest" is hard to find on the car and "GTO" was in the grille, on the rear fenders and on the rear deck lid. Pontiac built 7,384 GTO "post" coupes (with framed windows), 18,422 hardtops (no frames around the windows) and 6,644 convertibles. Only 8,245 GTOs in total had the Tri-Power option.
The basic body shell of the 1965 GTO carried over from the '64, but the front end was redesigned and featured stacked dual headlamps, a recessed grille without horizontal bars, chrome ribbed tail lamps and a new single, but still nonfunctional, hood scoop. Inside, the '65 GTO shared its interior with the upscale "Le Mans" version of the Tempest and could be had with a new set of "Rally Gauges" that included a 120-mph speedometer, 8,000-rpm tach and water temp and oil pressure gauges. Considering the Pontiac V8's deserved reputation as unwilling to rev high, the 8,000-rpm tach must have been someone's joking attempt at paradox.
The best news for '65, though, was more power. A new chrome air cleaner on four-barrel cars bumped the 389's output up to 335 hp, while a new camshaft and a modified intake and heads bounced the Tri-Power cars up to 360 hp. The GTO was again available in three body styles, and Pontiac built 8,319 post coupes, 55,722 hardtops and 11,311 convertible GTOs for '65. That's a total of 75,352, which is 42,902 more than the 32,450 GTOs it built for '64. And the company built a lot more Tri-Power cars as well — 20,547 of them.
For 1966, the GTO was treated to its second body style — a more voluptuous form that was, of course, shared by the Tempest and Le Mans coupes and convertibles on which it was based. The front grille now pinched in noticeably at the center, and the rear window on coupes was tunneled between buttresslike sail panels. Inside, everything was restyled as well, with four pods containing the instrumentation and a real wood veneer over much of the dash.
Mechanically, however, the '66 was, at least at first, pretty much indistinguishable from the '65. The four-barrel 389 was still rated at 335 hp and the Tri-Power option was still worth 360. But midway through the model year, Pontiac added the XS Ram Air package for the Tri-Power engine. Though nominally rated at the same 360 hp, the XS Ram Air engine's output was likely closer to 380 thanks to a hotter cam, stiffer valve springs and a true cold-air induction system. The cam and springs came factory-installed, but the cold air components were shipped in each car's trunk and it was up to the owner to modify the hood scoop to be functional, and add the Ram Air tube and insulation that sealed it to the hood. Somewhere between 25 and 50 of these XS Ram Air cars were produced.
Pontiac may not have sold a lot of XS cars, but the company shipped a whole bunch of GTOs otherwise. A total of 96,946 GTOs were built for '66 — 73,785 hardtops, 12,798 convertibles and just 10,363 pillared coupes. Of those nearly 100,000 GTOs, only 19,045 came with the Tri-Power engine.
The 1967 GTO changed little in appearance from the '66 model, but the newer car had a chrome mesh texture in the grille, revised rocker panel trim that now covered the bottom part of the doors and new taillights that consisted of four narrow rectangles on either side of the car. Also available were new five-spoke "Rally II" wheels. That's all minor stuff. But mechanically, the car changed for the better in many ways.
Most significant of those changes was an engine enlargement to 400 cubic inches (though it was otherwise still the old 389). A low-compression, two-barrel economy version of the 400 was available, producing just 255 hp, but the standard four-barrel engine was still rated at 335 hp, while a new high-output (HO) 400, still with a four-barrel Quadra Jet carb, carried a 360-hp rating. Beyond that lay the 400 HO Ram Air, also rated (conservatively) at 360 hp. The Tri-Power option was gone.
Among the other changes for '67 was a new three-speed automatic transmission that could be operated manually through a Hurst "dual-gate" shifter. Additionally, a hood-mounted tach was now available, and front disc brakes hit the options sheet. And for the first time, Pontiac considered the GTO as its own separate model and not as an option package for the Tempest.
A healthy 81,722 GTOs were built in '67, with 7,029 of those pillared coupes, 65,176 hardtops and 9,517 convertibles. Of those cars, only 2,967 had the lackluster two-barrel 400, 13,827 got the 400 HO and just 751 were Ram Air equipped. If you want a rare GTO, look for a '67 Ram Air convertible. Only 56 were built.
All of GM's A-Body cars (even the four-doors) received all-new fastbacklike bodies for 1968. The GTO was no exception. The rounder body may have polarized opinions, but it was modern-looking. "So here's the new GTO," the editors of Hot Rod magazine wrote at the time. "Last year you would have thought it a Firebird. In fact, you might think it so this year. But it isn't."
Pushing the envelope of futuristic styling, Pontiac accentuated the new body's flowing lines further by keeping chrome to a minimum and fitting a body-color "Endura" front end. Dual horizontal headlamps were standard, but hidden headlamps were optional and popular. And if a buyer was still convinced the grille and bumper should be covered in chrome, he could order up the chrome front grille from the Le Mans and still keep the GTO badges. Only two body styles were offered, hardtop and convertible, with the pillars being left to lowlier Le Mans and Tempest models. And 1968 would be the last year for the "6.5 Litre" front fender emblem used since the GTO's introduction.
The wrapper was all new, but in the engine bay things were very familiar. The low-performance, two-barrel 400 was still around for no good reason, and the base four-barrel 400 was now rated at 350 horses. The HO and Ram Air 400s continued at 360 hp. But later that model year, in March 1968, Pontiac announced the Ram Air II 400, which used new cylinder heads, revised compression and a higher-lift cam to knock out 366 hp. Actually, it was probably a lot more than 366 hp, but that's what the company advertised.
Despite a whole slew of competition, 1968 was another solid year for the GTO. Pontiac pumped out 87,684 '68 GTOs through its dealers' doors — 9,980 convertibles and 77,704 hardtops.
The 1969 GTO was a mildly restyled '68 with a new grille texture, deletion of the familiar GTO fender badge and some interior refinements. "Interiors show 'safety-mindedness,' meaning there's more padding on the dash and less wood trim on the GTO," Hot Rod reported. "Two Ram Air options are offered for GTOs. One is the conventional pre-'69 hood scoop-fed fresh air system, now called Ram Air III. The Ram Air IV option — new in '69 — has intakes in both the grille and hood. Hood inlets on Ram Air GTOs and Firebirds have a cable-operated valve to allow closing the outside feed in the event of bad weather. A new version of the GTO makes its debut and is aimed for the 'economy' supercar market, first entered in '68 by Plymouth. It's yet to be formally titled, but the new thin-pillar coupe has all the regular GTO suspension and performance equipment plus Ram Air in standard form. A wide horizontal rear deck spoiler sets the car off, and current plans call for the first few thousand editions to be painted a special orange color."
What Hot Rod didn't know at the time was that the "new version" of the GTO they described would eventually appear as "The Judge." Though originally intended as a budget machine to take on Plymouth's Road Runner, by the time it showed up in showrooms in January 1969, it was a more expensive and visually aggressive GTO. Named after Sammy Davis Jr.'s "Here Comes The Judge" skit on TV's Laugh-In, The Judge was a parody of the muscle car overdecorated with stripes, spoiler, blacked-out grille and goofy "The Judge" fender decals. At the time, it was often derided as cartoonish — but there were a lot of cartoonish muscle cars being made back then. And with the Ram Air III, 366-hp 400 V8 standard, at least there was some performance aboard to back up the visual silliness.
The first 2,000 Judges were painted "Carousel Red," which was GM-speak for orange, but after that it was available in any GTO color.
From a performance standpoint, the best news for '69 was that new "Ram Air IV" version of the 400. At 370 hp, the Ram Air IV had special heads with round exhaust ports, an aluminum intake manifold and a special cam. It was the most powerful engine yet put into a GTO and that makes it, by far, the most collectible of all '69 GTOs. Only 700 '69 GTO coupes were built with the Ram Air IV option, and only 297 Judge coupes were so equipped. For real rarity, look to the drop tops; a mere 59 GTO convertibles were lucky enough to carry the Ram Air IV option during the '69 model year, and just five (FIVE!) Ram Air IV Judge convertibles were built.
Though the Ram Air IV option was rare, the '69 GTO itself wasn't. A total of 72,287 '69 GTOs were built, with 58,126 of those being hardtops, 7,328 of them convertibles, 6,725 Judge hardtops and 108 Judge convertibles.
Until the 1970 model year, GM's policy had been to restrict all the A-Body vehicles to engines displacing 400 cubic inches or less. The lifting of that restriction would produce such legends as Buick's GS 455 Stage 1, Chevrolet's Chevelle SS 454 LS-6 and what are generally considered to be the best Pontiac GTOs made during the classic muscle car era.
The 1970 GTO could be had with engines displacing up to a full 455 cubic inches. The basic 455 was rated at "only" 360 hp, but it made a stout 500 pound-feet of torque. That's more twist than in any previous GTO, and other driveline components were strengthened to withstand the punishment, including the adoption of GM's "12-bolt" rear end. The 455 was also available with Ram Air, though it wasn't part of the Ram Air III and Ram Air IV family (both of which continued in '70 on the GTO in 400 cubic-inch form, with the III rated at 366 horses and the IV at 370). The two-barrel 400 was excised from the GTO program for '70, and the base engine became a 350-horse 400 four-barrel.
As the 1966 GTO's body was a revision of the '65's, so too was the '70's an extensive reworking of the '69's. It had the same dimensions and window shapes, but was more voluptuous in the details. The new front end took the four headlights out of the grille area and set them in deep bezels to either side. The front bumper continued to be made of the color-keyed Endura material.
The Judge continued into 1970 with new graphics including "eyebrows" along the fenders, and like other GTOs, it was available with the 455. As before, The Judge continued to be offered either as a coupe or convertible.
"If Oldsmobile, Buick and Chevrolet were going to have engines over 450 cubes in their A-Body cars," the Car and Driver editors wrote upon driving one of the first 455-equipped GTOs, "then the GTO had to have one, too. They could have screwed on the big port heads and plugged in the long duration camshaft from the Ram Air IV; that stuff will all fit. It probably would have made the GTO go like a nickel rocket, too, but they knew better than to do that. The business of collecting up the spent GTOs that would have fallen along the wayside after a short, dazzling flash and reloading them on warranty was out of the question. Consequently, the 455 is a torquey, low-revving device that makes very little ruckus and works great with an air conditioner — which is the way the test car was set up." Still, stirring the close-ratio four-speed stick, the magazine managed to spur the two-ton Goat to 60 mph in 6.6 seconds and through the quarter-mile in 15 seconds flat at 96.5 mph. That's about as well as any stock 1970 GTO ever ran for a magazine test, but shy of the epic 13-second quarter-miles being laid down by cars like the LS-6-equipped Chevelle SS 454.