The Decline and Fall of the (Little) Pontiac GTO —
An American Failure Story in Pictures and Words, PART I
1. In 1964, when America’s automobile industry was at its peak, producing the sexiest, most coveted cars in the world, the Pontiac division of General Motors proudly announced it had developed "7 New Series" of cars
for the American consumer. Among the 7 new series was the Tempest series, which had a base price of around $3,000-$3,200 ($22,291.36–>$23,777.45 in 2013 dollars), and among the options for the Tempest Series (in addition to the two-door coupe, hardtop coupe, and convertible styles) was the GTO package. which cost an additional $296.
2. In 1964, the Pontiac GTO package included: a 389 cu V8 engine rated at 325 bhp at 4800 rpm with a single Carter AFB four-barrel carburetor and dual exhaust, chromed valve covers and air cleaner, 7-blade clutch fan, a floor-shifted three-speed manual transmission with Hurst shifter, stiffer springs, larger diameter front sway bar, wider wheels with 7.50 14 redline tires, hood scoops, and special GTO badges. Also available was a four-speed gearbox ($188); metallic brake linings, heavy-duty radiator, and limited-slip differential ($75 the lot); and a 348-bhp 389 engine ($115
3. The GTO was the creation of of Pontiac engineer Russell Gee, an engine specialist; Bill Collins, a chassis engineer; and Pontiac chief engineer John DeLorean. After General Motors banned factory involvement in auto racing in 1963, the heads of Pontiac turned its attention to improving the street performance of its cars, and the GTO was a key project. With the nation’s young, speed-obsessed drivers in mind, they promoted the GTO as a special high-performance model (an approach that Ford was mirroring at the same time with the development of its own sporty Mustang model). Initial production of the Pontiac GTO, however, was limited by management to just 5,000 cars.
4. The Pontiac GTO’s name, which was DeLorean’s idea, was inspired by the Ferrari 250 GTO race car. GTO is an abbreviation for Gran Turismo Omologato
, (“Grand Tourer Homologated”), which means officially certified for racing in the Grand tourer
class. It goes without saying that a number of racing purists were cheesed off an Pontiac’s effrontery. Pontiac redesigned the GTO in both 1965 and 1966, adding 3.1 inches to its length in the first year and refining its brakes, antisway bar, and dashboard. In the second year, designers added more body flourishes and curves and gave the car a distinctive “Coke-bottle” look. Also, in 1966 the GTO became, for the first time, its own separate model series independent of the Tempest model. In these early years, sales of the GTO exploded to 75,342 in 1965 and 96,946 in 1966.
5. One of the keys to the GTO’s popularity was GM’s clever marketing, which was based around the ideas of youthful vigor, as reinforced in advertising that called the car a “genuine tiger”
and a “nimble tiger
,” as well as by a focus on hip, youthful musical sound, as evident in a 45-rpm “GeeTo Tiger” single that GM released in 1965—on one side were sounds of a supposed GTO road test
, and on the other side was a "GeeTO Tiger" song performed by "The Tigers."
Later, GM used a Paul Revere and the Raiders song in its "The Judge" commercial of 1969
, and a “GTO Rock” song
in a 1970 commercial. Ironically, GM’s marketers may have hit on the idea of using hip, youthful rock music to push the GTO by accident. Even before the car took off in the popular imagination, in 1964 an erstwhile surf band from Nashville, Tennessee—Ronny and the Daytonas—had embraced the new Pontiac option package in their seminal 60s-car-meets-surf song, "LIttle GTO."
At least GM’s team was smart enough to know a good thing when they heard it.
To be continued….