CONCORD, N.C. (Aug. 23, 1999) - Pontiac’s GTO, the car that gave birth to the American musclecar, will be celebrated through a special display at Lowe’s Motor Speedway’s Food Lion AutoFair, Sept. 16-19.
When Pontiac created the GTO in 1964 by shoehorning a 389-cid V-8 from its big Catalina into the mid-size Tempest/LeMans, it was simply trying to give some youthful appeal to the otherwise stodgy two-door. With this single stroke of the corporate pen, the company inadvertently gave birth to the entire musclecar phenomenon of the ’60s.
In standard trim with four-barrel induction, the GTO turned out 325 horsepower. GTO buyers lucky enough to get the optional Tri-Power three-carburetor setup enjoyed a neck-snapping 348 horsepower at 4,900 rpm.
The power-to-weight ratio was unlike anything the American public had seen since the first V-8 Corvette in ’55, and the GTO immediately became the darling of speed-crazed young car buyers with aspirations of dragstrip victories. Car buyers snapped up more than 32,000 GTO coupes, hardtops and convertibles in that first year.
Its raucous image and “instant legend” status among the high-octane crowd caused Ronnie and the Daytonas to immortalize the new Pontiac in the song “Little GTO.” The GTO name was knowingly (maybe even jokingly) lifted from Italian automaker Ferrari, whose own ’50s-era GTO race cars had dominated European race tracks, including LeMans. (The three letters originally referred to the Ferrari’s status as a Gran Turismo Omologato racer — a race car that has been homologated for competition in the GT class by the factory’s production of so many units for public purchase.)
Aware that other car companies were preparing similar performance packages for their mid-size offerings, Pontiac provided a more stylish and aggressive GTO in ’65 by giving a facelift to the base Tempest. The top-line Tri-Power V-8 increased power output to 360 hp. Sales figures for ’65 more than doubled those from ’64, despite new competition from the likes of Buick’s Gran Sport and Oldsmobile’s Cutlass-based 4-4-2.
The Tempest received a complete redesign in ’66, which meant a new look for the car that owners affectionately began calling “The Goat.” Perhaps the most recognizable styling cue of the ’66 and ’67 GTOs is the “Coke bottle” profile, so named because Pontiac’s designers incorporated muscular haunches over the car’s rear wheels that, coincidentally, mimic a bottle of the famous soft drink lying on its side.
Displacement of the GTO motor increased to 400 cubic inches for ’67, with the hot performance option being a Ram Air package that churned out 360 hp at 5,400 rpm. Beverage-oriented styling must have made performance-car buyers thirsty for the GTO, because nearly 100,000 were sold in ’66 and a respectable 88,000 left dealer lots in ’67.
A complete redesign for ’68 gave the GTO hidden headlights, an innovative “Endura” rubber nosepiece, a stockier body and twin hood scoops — a combination that kept the Goat at the top of the now-crowded musclecar field with sales of 88,000.
The standard GTO was joined in ’69 by an optional performance package known as “The Judge.” This rare factory supercar could be ordered with a special Ram Air III or Ram Air IV induction system for the 400 V-8. Despite help from The Judge, the musclecar market was oversaturated and Pontiac’s strong lead only amounted to 72,000 GTO sales that year.
A mild facelift for ’70 gave the GTO more of a family resemblance to Pontiac’s Firebird. Two large openings were flanked on either side by twin round headlights. Gone was the stealthy, covered look that graced the previous year’s model. Also gone was the affection the public had for mid-size cars with big-block engines. Rising insurance premiums and federal emissions standards were killing sales of every musclecar. The ’70 and ’71 sales figures for the GTO (including The Judge) were 40,000 and 10,000, respectively.
Pontiac realized that the sales trend would only continue to decline. For ’72, the GTO model was no longer a separate series, instead being offered as an option package on the LeMans hardtops and convertibles. Only 5,800 GTOs were sold that year.
Things got worse for the once-revered name in ’73, when its appearance on the newly-restyled LeMans coupe generated almost no excitement and only 4,800 sales. The GTO was offering a 400-cid V-8 motor for the last time, albeit with only 250 horsepower.
The GTO’s swan song was in 1974, when the initials were attached to a lukewarm Ventura (Pontiac’s version of the Chevy Nova). The only motor available, a 350-cid V-8, produced 185 horsepower. Strangely, sales picked up in the model’s final year, with more than 7,000 buyers driving home in the last remnant of a legendary line.
In an ironic way, Pontiac had brought the GTO to a full-circle conclusion by once again mating a large V-8 (for its day) with a truly mid-size body. Considering that the American performance car scene would only continue to decline until its rebirth in the mid-’80s, many enthusiasts feel Pontiac was right to limit the GTO’s lifespan to those 11 model years.
Food Lion AutoFair hours are 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Thursday through Saturday and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sunday. Ticket prices are $8 for adults; children under 12 are admitted free when accompanied by an adult. Parking for the event is $5. For more information on the four-day event, contact the speedway events department at (704) 455-3205.