1964 Pontiac GTO – The First Muscle Car

Like many successful ventures, the 1964 GTO or “goat” as it is affectionately called, was created due to an unforeseen circumstance. In early 1963, General Motors sent out a memo that put an end to racing. The Pontiac Catalina with the Super Duty 421 had ruled NASCAR winning 52 out of 105 races in 1961 and 1962. This translated into Pontiac moving up to third place in sales and the slogan “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday” was never more apparent.

It would be a huge understatement to say that the memo came as a monstrous shock to Pontiac executives as they realized no more racing would mean no more Super Duty 421 Catalinas and that would mean no more performance image to the young guys who were buying their cars. They had the image now and didn’t want to lose it. They knew it was the young guys who have pushed them into third place in sales and they were the guys who were keeping them there.

Drastic measures were call for and in May 1974 CARS magazine printed a history of the 1964-1974 Goat with a conception of how those measures may have become a reality. It was reprinted in Popular Mechanic in 2002. It certainly created a legend that would live for the past 45 years.

They wrote that the Pontiac executives were in a meeting trying to figure out what to do to protect the sales figures that the performance had built for them, when Jim Wangers walked in. He was the account executive for the Pontiac advertising agency and a hot rodder, drag racer and part-time product planner for Pontiac. When asked if he had seen the memo and what could they do about it. Wangers said “Look, I’ve got this crazy idea. It may work and it may not. I think we should give it a try”.

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When asked what the idea was he answered “it’s just an old hot rodder’s trick but I think it could work. It would be an engine swap. He further explained “we’ve got the new intermediate A-body series coming out in the fall. The Tempest will be a compact with a 115-in. wheelbase. Instead of offering just the 326 engines, let’s drop in one of the big 389s from the full-size cars, put on some heavy-duty suspension components and call it something with a racing ring to it such as GTO–like the Ferraris.” The name Gran Turismo Omologato was boldly taken from the Ferrari GTO. Roughly translated, it means a production grand touring machine sanctioned for competition.

When told that the GM front office just gave the order for no more racing and that they would never go for it, Wangers explained that they wouldn’t be racing it and that they weren’t building a race car. They would be building a high-performance street machine. There’s a big difference. And besides, we don’t exactly have to yell about what we’re doing. Let them find out after the model is out.”

“What about the engineering side of it. Will it work?” was the next question. Wangers answered “I’m almost positive it will work but let’s ask John. They asked John DeLorean who was Pontiac’s chief engineer and when he answered

“no sweat” the ’64 Pontiac GTO was born. To create the GTO, Pontiac also went around GM’s ban on intermediate sized cars having engines over 330 cid. In a move that didn’t require corporate approval, Pontiac made its 389-cid V-8 part of a $296 option package for the new Tempest.

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The GTO not only had a legend grown around it but it spawned a whole breed of car completely dominated the automotive industry until the safety, insurance and emissions advocates sounded the muscle car’s death 1971.

Buyers just couldn’t get enough of the early GTO. Original production plans called for about 5000 units just to test the market, but by January 1964, barely into the model year, 10,000 had been sold and dealers were happily putting together waiting lists of performance-hungry customers who couldn’t wait to get their hands on one. By the end of the model year, there were 32,450 proud GTO owners.

The ’64 GTO gave you a choice of two engines. The standard one had 389 cubes and 325 hp with a single 4-barrel Carter AFB or you could have the same engine with three 2-barrel Rochester carburetors that raised the output to 348 hp. You could also order it with a 4-speed transmission.

The Big Bang in the evolution of modern muscle cars was the 1964 Pontiac Tempest GTO. This is where it began: a midsize automobile with a big, high-power V-8 marketed as an integrated high-performance package — the very definition of the muscle car.


Popular Mechanics http://www.popularmechanics.com/automotive/reader_rides/1271751.html

How Stuff Works http://musclecars.howstuffworks.com/classic-muscle-cars/1964-pontiac-tempest-gto.htm

Muscle Car Club www.musclecarclub.com/musclecars/pontiac-gto/pontiac-gto.shtml

UltimateGTO http://ultimategto.com/cgi-bin/statsexplorer.cgi?