Auto Achievement

The Pontiac GTO

Story Bill Holder / Images Phil Kunz - February 07, 2014 11:00 AM


Nothing gets attention like a row of GTOs at any car gathering.

Phil Kunz

A ’70 GTO (left) and a ’70 Judge provide the examples of the visible differences between the models.

Phil Kunz

The “Mystery Tornado” was a ’64 GTO that had a 421 Super Duty engine.

Phil Kunz

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During the wondrous muscle car years, numerous models were identified by three letters — GTX, GSX, GTS, GTA, SCJ, AMX, and, of course, GTO

GTO actually stands for “Gran Turismo Omologato” which sounds pretty exotic. It originated with the Ferrari 250 GTO which came from the fertile mind of Pontiac Chief Engineer John DeLorean. Jim Wangers is credited with being the proponent of the GTO. From his position at the ad agency working with Pontiac, Wangers pointed the car more toward street performance.

The argument continues today as to whether the GTO was the first muscle car. There were certainly more powerful models that emerged before the first GTO, but this model was the first to be merchandised as a high-performance machine for the masses and to put a large V-8 in a mid-size chassis.

The First Generation (1964-1967)

There were some shenanigans involved with the first GTO. A firm rule from corporate said there wasn’t to be a standard powerplant bigger than 330 cubic inches. The key word was “standard” since nothing was said about “optional” engines. Any howls of corporate protest quickly faded when the initial sales numbers were revealed.

The 326 engine that had been originally selected for the ’64 Tempest LeMans which would serve as the basis for the GTO. The GTO option wouldn't be a new engine, but an existing 389 engine that had been used in the heavyweight Catalina and Bonneville models.

Both single-carb and tri-power (three two-barrel) induction systems were available with more of the single four-barrel versions sold. It was noted by a member of the National GTO Club that today there are many more GTOs equipped with the Tri-Power set-ups now than were ever produced in the factory, a measure of the their popularity in the 21st century.

With the GTO option, there was much more than just the 389 engine. It also included an array of goodies including considerable chroming of parts, GTO badges, a declutching fan, three-speed manual on the floor, hood scoops, larger front sway bar, Hurst shifter, and redline tires. Even more could be acquired on the option list. Over 32,000 checked the GTO option on that initial order form.

The overall shape of the ’65 GTOs remained relatively unchanged from the original. The engine's innards were improved for 1965, along with the addition of a hood scoop. Sales for the model year exceeded 75,000 as corporate celebrated its popularity.


Read more about all 50 years of the Pontiac GTO in the April issue of Cars & Parts, on sale Feb. 25.