Last month we told you how 1964 was the year when the Swingin’ ‘60s kicked into high gear – it simply was no coincidence that the Beatles captured the emerging demographic and psychographic that changed America forever. The Fab Four inspired countless teenagers to pick up musical instruments and form their own bands, and it could be said that the 1964 Pontiac GTO did the same thing for the performance car crowd.
To celebrate the anniversary of the GTO’s debut, the Automobile Driving Museum will be hosting a 50th Birthday Celebration for the “Goat” on Saturday, March 8, 2014 with special guest Jim Wangers, the “Godfather of the GTO.”
Beginning with the post-war hot rodding scene in California and the debut of Cadillac and Oldsmobile’s high-compression V-8s from 1949, horsepower grew to be a strong selling feature in the American automobile market. By the time 1955’s “Horsepower Race” was in full swing, every major brand had a V-8 in their portfolio, including Pontiac. NASCAR, dry lake speed runs, and drag racing had become immensely popular with both enthusiasts and Detroit, but GM pulled out of factory-sponsored racing in the middle of the 1963 model year. According to Jim Wangers, “By 1961 and 1962 GM was getting roughly 53% of the entire U.S. auto industry sales, and the U.S. Justice Dept. became interested. They were watching GM, and should GM get close to 60% they would consider breaking GM up…GM thought that one of the ways they could cut that growth was to stop actively participating in motorsports and to cut their dollars there.”
This didn’t bode well for Pontiac, whose image was built on horsepower. “You can sell a young man’s car to an old man,” Bunkie Knudsen, Pontiac’s chief, once said, “but you’ll never sell an old man’s car to a young man.” An engineering team led by John DeLorean dropped a big 389 in the mid-size Tempest and had a blast, but another one of GM’s edicts kept the Tempest’s top motor as a 326. By including the 389 in an option package, Pontiac was able to take advantage of a policy loophole and build a 389 Tempest. With moxie in spades, Pontiac called the performance package “GTO.”
Jim Wangers was Pontiac’s marketing whiz for its ad agency, and his talent for PR gave us Car & Driver magazine’s “GTO vs. GTO” story that helped develop both the GTO and Car & Driver legend. The periodical compared Ferrari’s GTO to Pontiac’s, with the Poncho being the faster of the two with 4.8 seconds in the 0-60 sprint. (It was 35 years later that Wangers fessed up and admitted the Pontiac was a ringer with a 421).
Standard for the GTO package was a four-barrel 389 rated at 325 horsepower and paired with a three-speed manual transmission. A two-speed automatic and four-speed manual were options, the latter the perfect tranny for the optional Tri-Power 389/348. The GTO became so popular that over 32,000 were built.
There were fast cars before the GTO – faster, even – but none of them carried the image that the GTO had, which is why it is considered the first muscle car. The GTO spawned a host of imitators so by 1967, every manufacturer save AMC had their own muscle car . . . but the GTO was The Great One, the one to which all others were compared.
The GTO Celebration at the ADM will feature a presentation by Jim Wangers, a catered lunch, a show featuring the “Best of the Best” muscle cars in Southern California, and a Show ‘n Shine car show open to all performance cars. And, yes, the original ringer GTO from Car & Driver will be part of the exhibit.
Saturday, March 8, 2014
Cars start rolling in at 8 am
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