What was the first muscle car? After WWII, 409-equipped Impalas, Olds Rockets and V8 Studebakers carried the performance torch, but the segment’s combination of performance and brash styling wouldn’t come together until Pontiac released the GTO.
Performance Borne of Red Tape
Due to safety concerns, GM pulled out of racing support in 1963 and limited engine sizes on their production cars. This was a serious problem for performance-oriented Pontiac; although they were supporting Royal Pontiac’s NHRA team under the table, they needed something in the showroom to stand out from the competition. Chief engineer John De Lorean and engine designer Russell Gee figured out they could sidestep regulations by offering a bigger engine as a package. Normally, these packages were kept secret to qualify as “production” for racing purposes, but this new model would be openly advertised.
GM’s limit for engines in A-body cars was 330 cubic inches (5.4 L,) but by ordering a “GTO,” named after Ferrari’s 350 GTO, buyers could get a Tempest with a 389. Funds were limited, so the car’s attitude had to be conveyed using off-the-shelf parts including a Hurst shifter, fake hood scoops and dual exhausts.
Production was initially limited to 5,000 units in case sales fell flat. Instead, the response was so overwhelming that an additional 27,000 had to be produced to meet demand.
1965: The True GTO is Born
GM lifted the displacement limit, leading to new high performance A-bodies like the Chevelle SS and Gran Sport, but the segment would be defined by the new, fully-funded “goat.”
The Tempest-based GTO was now its own model. The revised 389 had 335 hp and 431 lb-ft. of torque for the base 4-barrel engine, while the optional triple-carburetor Tri-Power was rated 360 hp and 424 lb-ft. of torque. A new single fake hood scoop could be altered to become functional while an optional 120-mph speedometer and an 8,000 RPM Tach looked the part, even if the motor was reluctant to rev.
Magazines of the time clocked 0-60 mph times of around 7 seconds, but their cars weren’t necessarily stock. Royal Pontiac had spun its NHRA success into “Bobcat” engine performance kits, and Pontiac made sure that their press cars had these kits installed. Over 1,000 kits made it into owners’ hands that year.
Sales were up to 75,352 units with over 20,000 equipped with the Tri-Power motor, firmly establishing the name. The GTO would continue to get upgraded, reaching peak performance with the 455 HO and looks with the over-the-top Judge before insurance rate hikes and emissions regulations ended the muscle car craze.
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