GTO – Gran Turismo Omologato or “Get Turned On”
The Ferrari and the Pontiac. What do these two cars have in common? Other than the name GTO? Very little. But both played a big part in the birth of the muscle car. Gran Turismo Omologato. Three beautiful Italian words that changed an entire industry. For years, the name Gran Turismo Omologato was reserved for the fastest, most exotic thoroughbred racing cars and probably the most famous Gran Turismo Omologato bore this insignia: Ferrari.
This is Ferrari’s version of the Gran Turismo Omologato. In September 1964 it was the standard by which all of the other great performance cars of the world were judged. It was a magnificent automobile. No doubt about it. Nothing in the automotive world dared compare itself to this car. Nothing that is but a plain little Pontiac Tempest. Gran Turismo Omologato or GTO for short.
The 1964 Pontiac GTO
This is the 1964 Pontiac GTO. It is, by all accounts, the car that ushered in the era of the muscle car in America. That incredible time when Detroit produced the most outrageous cars to ever hit the street. Today, the GTO is one of the most collectible of all American cars. Restored ’64 GTOs sell for ten times their original sticker price. And thousands of enthusiasts have created an entire industry out of their love and desire to at last own their own little GTO.
Pontiac’s sales brochure on the ’64 GTO called it “a device for shrinking time and distance.” For 1964, Pontiac had taken their sensible economical Tempest compact, given it a gorgeous face lift and offered it up with their 389 cubic inch power plant in an option pack they dared to call GTO. The ’64 design was completely new, from the grill to the gas cap. The Tempest, the Chevy Chevelle, the Olds Cutlass, and the Buick Gran Sport were the new wave of intermediate cars from GM. And they were turning young people on. Unlike the rest of the cute and sporty new breed, though, the GTO was born to be bad.
Dennis Donohue of Marietta, Georgia recalls: “A lot of my friends had 394s, 383 Plymouths but they were all big cars. I was looking to buy one of those, maybe a 426 street wedge, something like that, in 1964 and I saw the first ad for the Pontiac GTO. I believe it was the ad that said, ‘I wouldn’t stay in the middle of the road if I were you, there’s a Pontiac GTO coming.’ I just liked the idea of the mid-sized car with a large engine which was actually the first muscle car.”
The GTO in the Making
Back in the 50s, the fastest cars were the big cars, the ones you saw on the track every Sunday. Pontiac and all the other Detroit automakers had discovered the cars that won on Sunday, sold on Monday. Pontiac’s factory supported teams won more Nascar races than anyone else in the early 60s, including both the Daytona 500 and the Firecracker 250 in 1962. Pontiac was no stranger to nation’s drag strips either. Working through their network of performance dealerships around the country, Pontiac’s engineering department was funneling special parts and information directly to what was, in effect, a factory drag team. By the end of 1962, all these racing activities had vaulted Pontiac from last place in sales among GM divisions, to number two behind Giant Chevrolet. But in January of 1963, GM announced a corporate ban on all racing activities. No more factory support for any kind of racing, either direct or through the dealers. Jim Wangers was one of those “win on Sunday” Pontiac racers. On Monday, though, Jim was advertising executive for Pontiac motor division and the pull out from racing hit him doubly hard.
“The advent of this new policy from the corporation, here was Pontiac suddenly without a stage on which to put their cars. They were suddenly deprived of this organized racing activity from which a very good back up for some aggressive advertising built around the wide track image was coming.” Says Jim Wangers.
How do you continue to be the #1 performance in the country, when you can’t go racing?
All through 1963, Pontiac had two problems to deal with: one was GM’s prohibition on factory support for racing, which in effect gave away their performance image to Ford and Chrysler. Two, their little compact car the Tempest was fast becoming a liability rather than an asset.
“The car that had bowed in 1961 as a real engineering marvel had deteriorated significantly to the point that it was a real troubled car. In 1964, when the new Tempest came into the marketplace, it was felt that what we needed was not just another nice, not just another good car. What we needed was what we called an Oh my God.” Jim Wangers says. At the time, the head of Pontiac engineering was a pretty sharp young fellow named John Delorian. “John was, at that time, the chief engineer of the division. He had a habit of holding ‘What if?’ sessions on Saturday mornings.” Jim Wangers recalls.
That What If? created this car: the GTO. Putting the 389 in a Tempest created the world’s first muscle car and it was an instant hit with everyone, well, almost everyone. As it happens, the GTO almost never made it into Pontiac’s line up. GM’s corporate rule was, engine sizes were limited to one cubic inch per ten pounds of vehicle weight. Here’s this Tempest weighing in at about 34 pounds wet. You see the problem. Jim Wangers explains: “You didn’t have to be a brain surgeon to figure out that a car that weighed about 34 or 3500 pounds couldn’t have anything bigger than a 350 cubic inch V8 engine. But if the car were marketed as a Lamaze with a 326 cubic inch V8 as standard equipment but with the optional GTO package, which carried such things as special appliqué for the instrument panel and hood scoops, however not functional, a couple of those kinds of things and oh yes, incidentally, a 389 cubic inch engine and in fact, the muscle car era was upon us.”
Slick move, huh? And the best part is, it worked. The GTO was in the showrooms. Now all Pontiac had to do was persuade the world that this car was really something special. Jim Wangers and the marketing people were having a lot of fun promoting Pontiacs as win on Sunday race cars. But the job of selling the GTO to the young people of America is one of the greatest success stories in American marketing. Pete McCarthy, racer and automotive writer remembers the campaign: “Even those of us that knew quite a bit about Pontiacs were really not told about this offering and kind of like through the rumor mill. ‘Hey have you heard about the GTO?’ ‘The GTO, what’s that?’ ‘Well, it’s got 421 HO heads. It’s a 389. It’s got tri power.’ ‘Yeah?’ ‘But it’s in a body that weighs about 3300 pounds.’ ‘Oh yeah? How much is it? A fortune? No?’ ‘It really isn’t any more than just a couple hundred dollars more than a loaded LeMans.’ ‘Well, let’s go see one.’” The GTO looked like a wide track tiger. There were bucket seats, a console, first floor shifter, hood scoops and red line tires. Plus, you could get all the luxury options. like air conditioning, vinyl upholstery, and a push button radio, AM of course. Its base sticker price of $2667 was in reach of a high school or college aged buyer. Here’s the kicker. The GTO option for the ’64 LeMans would only set you back another $295.90. All of a sudden, all the other cars at the drive in were last year’s model.
Pete McCarthy explains: “After one of my friends had one and I took it around the block in an aggressive road test, I said, ‘I’m going to have one of these’ and I ordered one about two days later. Before I even took it home I snuck down and put Doug’s headers on it and I completely dino tuned, got street slicks on it, and by the time it came home it was pulling 280 horse power to the rear wheels.” The GTO sent a few shock waves through the crowd at the local done and what it did to the street racers was a life changing experience.
“Woodward Avenue was kind of the place where everybody went. It went right down to Detroit so you had people from the West side, people from the East side and people coming from all over to cruise Woodward Avenue and duke it out a little bit.” Remembers Dennis Donohue.
“There was a fellow down the street who had just paid big bucks for a Corvette. Well, I had my GTO and I knew what I could do and I was looking for him. Took me about 2 months to pin in. Then, one night about 11 o’clock, I saw him all alone up there at a stop light, he took one look at me, I took one look at him and I knew we were going to race. And off we went down the road, fish tailing. You probably heard those cars for six block around. But when I got by them in third gear, I knew I was going to beat him.” Pete McCarthy laughs.
GTO’s promise was incredible performance and a price almost anyone could afford. The key to that promise was the 389 engine. With a cylinder bore of just slightly over 4 inches and a stroke of 3.75 inches, the 389 was already well known to racers, engine builders, and street rodders all over America. This was the engine and the 421 cubic inch super duty version, which had owned the Nascar circuit. At the Bonneville Salt Flats, Mickey Thompson was clocked at over 406 miles per hour using four of these engines in his Challenger I world speed record car.
The 389 going into the GTO was factory rated at 325 horsepower with a single Carter AFB four barrel carburetor or 348 horses with three two barrels. But its real claim to fame was its whopping 428 foot pounds of torque at a relatively low 4200 RPM. Equipped with four bolt main bearings, the special high lift cab shift, heavy duty valve spins and a few other do dads courtesy of the boys in Pontiac’s engineering department, the 389 was already on it sway to becoming a street legend. This was never a very high revving engine, but from stop light to stop light, it was Jack the Bear: “Most of these racers were over in a block or two. I mean, very rarely would you get a street where you could rip 100 miles an hour. You’d get on it for maybe a block or two and if you’d get the bag on the guy at a block you were the big tease.”
This engine in a lightweight body, the letters GTO gained a new meaning in young America In Italian it still meant Gran Turismo Omologato. But in English it spelled, “Buddy, I’m going to blow your doors off.” When GM pulled out of organized racing, it just intensified their presence at the local drag strips across the country And winning at the drags was key to building the image of the GTO in the hearts and minds of young America: “The year before I was racing a 1962 Grand Prix at a fairly high level in stock. We were right on the record with that thing in 1380s at about 99 miles an hour. The first time out with this GTO at Fontana Raceway, never having driven it before, driving it out to the track, I won 1385 at 105.38, which was a staggering performance for something you could buy off the showroom floor.” And the GTO earned it reputation on the drag strip and on the street. But its reputation was helped along considerably by some of the most innovative image building ever created for an automobile.
Jim Wangers remembers: “I remember an ad that the Uniroyal people did when they showed the tiger paw and they said, ‘Where else would you expect to see tiger paws, but on a tiger?’ One of the things we used to laugh about its, if we wouldn’t to burn rubber, all we had to do was just get a Uniroyal tiger paw and started burning rubber and you could burn to infinity. It would never stop until you let off.” The GTO was a great idea, no question. It was a tremendously fun car. And quite a confident piece of machinery, engineering-wise, certainly by 1964 standards. From a marketing standpoint, the idea was brilliant. The whole factory muscle thing. But if the GTO was going to be a success, it was going to have to shake up the established order of things. Since the GTO first rolled out, Pontiac had been raising a few eyebrows in the motor sports establishment for having the audacity to give an American car a two door Tempest no less, the same name as one of the revered sports cars int he world. And Pontiac was loving every minute of it. Jim Wangers recalls: “We created the whole concept as a spoof. Let’s put a Ferrari GTO in competition with a Pontiac GTO. Now I knew enough about the two cars to know that we had no business even being on the same road course with ‘em. But if we could ever hook up in a straight line, we’d probably scare them a little bit.” You gotta admit, no one in their right mind would expect a Pontiac to measure up to a Ferrari in any comparison, with the possible exception of rear seat head room. When the testing was over, the little GTO had done pretty well. “In those days, there was an awful lot of real good timing equipment out. Car and Driver timed the story with hand held stop watches. And I’m going to be very honest with you, you don’t need me to tell you, this car couldn’t run 0 to 100 in 11.8 seconds falling straight off the top of the Empire State Building, but when I saw it in print I wasn’t going to tell them, ‘Hey guys, I think that’ s a little too fast.’” Jim Wangers laughs.
Car and Driver Gives GTO a Big Thumbs Up
In that original car and river test, there were two GTOs present and both of them were Pontiac. Car and Driver explained they wanted to run the two cars together but they were unable to persuade any of the lucky gentleman who owned a Ferrari GTO to participate in their little shoot out. Undaunted, they proceeded to watch the Pontiacs on the track at Daytona and the numbers they published were astonishing. The GTO ran 0 to 60 in 4.6 seconds. It did 0 to 100 in 11.8. It ran the quarter mile in 13.1 seconds at 115 mph. And its handling prompted the editors to state that, “We’ve found that our Tempest GTO with the 384 horsepower engine to be a better car in many respects, and will go around any US road course faster than ANY Ferrari street machine.”
Think they were impressed? Well, there are a dozen or so quotes like this in that article which tells us that they liked the car. But the one that might sum it up best is this one: “Pontiac, God love ‘em, went the hair-chested route and came up with the best American car we have ever driven and probably one of the five or six best cars in the world for the enthusiast driver.” That about says it all. Whether you attribute it to being at the right place at the right time or the most brilliant marketing effort in Detroit history, the GTO succeeded fantastically and started Detroit on a binge of horsepower and performance that lasted over a decade. More than anything else, the GTO was the perfect plan of image and substance. It promised the young buyer the ride of a lifetime and it made good. Today, the GTO is still making good on that promise. GTOs are favorites with car collectors and restorers. And ti’s image as the first muscle car is as strong as ever. Just seeing one on the street, brings back a flood of fond memories.
Dennis Donohue opines: “The ’64 is such a unique car, it’s the first GTO and you get a different look in this car. People look at it and it’s like they saw a ghost or something We wanted to build a GTO to not only replicate the Car and Driver test car. But we anted to build a GTO that was probably the ultimate GTO for 1964. And we have a 421 engine in this. Big car engine. And it has a lot of super duty parts internally in the engine. We created this car to come exactly like the blue Car and Driver car, which is missing in action now and some say it was crushed, some say it was burned, some say it still exists. But it’s a sister car to the red royal bobcat car. And when I saw the pictures of the plate in the magazine i wanted to get it reproduced and I did down in Florida and it’s a 1962 Michigan tag and also I bought from a license plate dealer a 1963 corner tag. And the car is a very well performing car, very streetable car and our best time to date is 12.90 at 107 miles an hour, which is quite surprising for a car that looks extremely stock.”
The GTO – A Car Enthusiast’s Best Friend
The GTO was a car for a person who liked cars. The people in charge at Pontiac motor division, the same people who designed and built the cars that swept the Nascar tracks and took top eliminator at the NRHA drags, wanted to build an exciting car and put it within reach of a whole new generation of car enthusiasts. What they succeeded in doing was to create not just an exciting new car but a whole new class of automobiles: the muscle cars. All those that came after, the Fairlane GTs, the Coronet RTs, the 442s, the Chevelle Super Sports, all owe their lineage to the little GTO. In fact, the GTO set the stage for the great performance revival taking place in Detroit today.
The issue is long settled. Thanks to Car and Driver and John Dolorien, Jim Wangers, and all the midnight street racers to the years, as to whether a car from GM has the right to the name Gran Turismo Omologato. Over the 11 year period that Pontiac made the GTO, 1964 through 1974, over 700,000 cars rolled out of Pontiac assembly plants with those three little letters gleaming inside the left grill. That’s about 695,000 more GTOs than Ferrari ever made and that’s exactly what Pontiac had in mind. GTO, Gran Turismo Omologato. We know what it means in Italian but what it really means in English is “Get turned on.”
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