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The original musclecar

by Ken Gross

Editor's Note: Ken Gross is a well-known and respected automotive journalist whose expertise extends from new cars to vintage hot rods. He may be best known for his knowledge of classic cars and as the former director of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.
For the Modern Classics series, we asked Ken to write about "affordable" classics. Here's his selection criteria: "We are speaking of cars many people would love to have—head-turners, trend-setters in their time, cars that people still see that make them smile, cars that were definitive in their own right, stylish and fun to drive. I wanted cars at least 25 years old that can be registered and insured cheaply and not subject to annual inspections. I tried to choose models that had a good chance of further appreciating. Tastes may vary, as may peoples' own definitions of 'affordable.'" This month's selection is the original Pontiac GTO.
Detroit took full revenge on the hot rod and sports car communities in October 1963 with the introduction of the Pontiac Tempest Le Mans GTO. Ignoring an internal GM edict on engine displacement in midsize cars (330 cid was tops), Pontiac's engineers shoehorned a 389-cid V-8 into a lowly Tempest, and the term "musclecar" was coined. Earlier efforts, like Chevy's 409, had used full-sized bodies; Pontiac's GTO, an option in 1964, packed plenty of punch in a light, maneuverable platform, inspiring a rockin' Ronnie & the Daytonas hit, "Little GTO."

Pontiac's optional three-carb Tri-Power package is highly prized by GTO collectors and restorers.

Tempests were available with a 250-bhp, 326-cid V-8; GTOs got the lusty 325-bhp engine with 10.75:1 compression and a 4-barrel carb. Hotshoes could further go for the 348-bhp three-carb Tri-Power package. GTOs were available as a hardtop, a sports coupe, and a convertible. "Three-on-the-tree" was standard; Hydra-Matic was optional, but most desirable is the close-ratio Muncie M-20 four-speed with Hurst linkage. A popular option, "exhaust splitters," were four tailpipe extensions that exited behind the rear wheels. You could also get metallic brakes, a limited-slip diff, a heavy-duty radiator and quick steering.
After "Car and Driver" road-tested a highly tuned "Bobcat" GTO, prepared by Ace Wilson's Royal Pontiac in Royal Oak, Michigan, and dubbed it "the best American car we've ever driven," the cat was literally out of the bag. "Car and Driver's" then-controversial cover illustrated a Pontiac GTO running against a legendary Ferrari GTO. Circumstances prevented an actual match between the two. But when the testers blazed a 4.6-second, 0-60 time on stock tires, praises rang high. That article jump-started GTO sales.
Pontiac's initiative scooped the competition. For 1965, there were GTO-specific styling updates, still more available horsepower and other speed and handling goodies. Sales more than doubled and rivals rushed to copy. GM waived its displacement cap; the GTO became a regular Pontiac model in 1966, and a legend was born.
Early GTOs suffer from floorpan rust and carcinoma below the rear window. The 389 engines often fall prey to stretched timing chains. Beware: Not every GTO was a heavily-optioned road racer; counterfeiters often add the good stuff. An original bill of sale is the best provenance. For Tri-Power, add $5,000; at about $25,000, convertibles are 35 percent more expensive than coupes.

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