The Pontiac GTO is often credited with being the progenitor of the classic muscle car. While the individual components were nothing new, combining a massive V8 into a sporty coupe body shell along with a few performance-enhancing extras added made for a very desirable recipe, which took the American market by storm. Competing automakers soon made competing models.
Based on the A-Body platform, which covered a range of Pontiac models, the GTO was available with a dizzying array of options – either factory fitted or aftermarket supplied. Initially offered in 1964 as an optional package to existing Pontiac Tempests, the GTO became a model line in its own right in 1966. Performance was quick for the day, especially with the right option boxes ticked, and handling was respectable thanks to a few rudimentary suspension modifications.
It was no match for Ferrari’s GTO, from which some say it took its name, but the Pontiac GTO was a great muscle car in its own right, approaching performance motoring from a somewhat different angle.
Which one to buy?
The Pontiac range received a raft of changes throughout its production run, and with constant updates to the styling and running gear it can be quite a job picking a model that you prefer. Some changes were minor while others transformed the look and performance of the cars year on year. Production tailed off dramatically in the last few years and performance was slowly strangled due to stringent emissions regulations being introduced in the early ‘70s. The last year of production in 1974 saw major changes to the GTO, as it was moved to the Pontiac Ventura body style with much reduced power output and as such is not recognised by most GTO fans as the real deal.
An optional performance package was offered by a Pontiac dealer for the majority of the 1960s called the Bobcat tuning kit. The contents of the kit varied over the years however they all succeed in further increasing the power outputs of the GTO range.
Choosing the right car with so many factory changes along the years can become extremely tricky, especially if you are set on a specific version or model year. Rather than getting fixated on finding the your ideal spec GTO, look for a car in your preferred body style with the gearbox you want - focusing more on the condition and service history of the car.
While the GTO range was a step up from the general range of wallowy handling V8s that populated America’s freeways in the 60s, they did have their fair share of issues. Slow steering was a common complaint early on, and woefully inadequate brakes were also an oft mentioned issue preventing them from emulating their European counterparts in the twisties. The combination of narrow cross ply tyres and huge torque added up to a loose rear end in full throttle or slippery conditions.
The Tri Power triple carburettor option, convertible body style, manual gearbox and limited slip differentials were all sought after options on the 60s GTOs and continue to be so today. As a lot of the options on the GTO cars could be bought as aftermarket items, it is important to check that the car that you are looking at is a genuine GTO and not a standard car with some of the period options fitted.
Performance and specs
1964 Pontiac GTO Tri Power
Engine 6362cc OHV V8 Triple Carb
Power 348bhp @ 4900rpm
Torque 428lb ft @ 3600rpm
Top speed 120mph
0-60mph 6.5 seconds
Gearbox Four-speed manual
Dimensions and weight
First Generation GTO
• Engines are tough units and are basically modified versions of the standard 6.4-litre powerplant found in Pontiac’s larger bodied cars. Timing chains could give problems due to plastic teeth on the upper gear, something that will most likely have been attended to over the life of the car, but worth checking. Regular servicing and oil changes keep these relatively lightly stressed engines going for years.
• Carburettor linkages on automatic models was by vacuum system and a number of these have been converted to the more reliable and smoother acting mechanical linkages on the manual gearshift cars.
• Gearboxes ranged from two and three-speed automatics to three and four-speed manuals. Full synchromesh on the manuals was offered from ‘65 and all variants stand up well to the torque output of the 6.4-litre engine.
• The chassis can suffer from rust extensively, as can the body panels. The floor panels, the area around the rear windows and the boxed in sections behind the front wheels in the convertibles are the worst problem areas.
• Suspension bushes and springs take a lot of punishment from the weight of the car, so a thorough check should be done to ensure that everything is in good order.
• The interior and seats are durable, and the trim finishes are hard wearing. Finding replacement dashboard trim parts may take some searching.
1964: Pontiac GTO launched as option package for Pontiac Tempest, available in two door coupe, hardtop and convertible body styles. A number of optional extras such as LSD, four-speed manual gearbox and uprated ‘Tri-Power’ triple carburettors were offered. A Bobcat performance package was also available for the 389 engines
1965: Restyle carried out on Pontiac range including engine and running gear upgrades
1966: Pontiac models get own model number, with new interior and exterior changes. Tri Power option discontinued mid-year. This was the best year of sales, with 96,949 units built
1967: Further styling, safety and engine changes, including four barrel carburettors. Two-speed automatic transmission replaced with three-speed TH-400 unit
1968: Second generation Pontiac GTO launched. Major changes to styling with smaller changes to running gear. Bobcat performance package still available as an aftermarket extra. Numerous safety items were made standard such as the impact absorbing Endura front bumper and three-point seatbelts.
1969: New model called ‘Judge’ introduced, a stripped out version with the more powerful Ram Air III engine option. Minor interior changes took place. Headrests become standard equipment
1970: Facelift to entire line-up, hidden headlight option discontinued. Upgraded suspension aided handling, reducing understeer and lean. Variable Ratio power steering introduced
1971: Lowered compression ratios across the board due to new emissions regulations. Judge derivative was discontinued in February.
1972: The Pontiac GTO once again becomes an optional package, instead of dedicated model on the Le Mans and Le Mans Sport coupes.
1973: Heavy duty chrome bumpers introduced to meet new regulations and further reductions in compression ratios leading to lowered outputs.
1974: GTO package was moved to the more compact Pontiac Ventura body style making this both the third generation and final year of production. GTO upgrade was now a smaller capacity 5.7L V8 and performance was markedly lower than before.
Clubs and websites
• www.poc-uk.org - UK-based Pontiac Owners Club, with user forum
• www.gtoaa.org - The GTO Association of America, useful for sourcing difficult to find spares
Summary and prices
Finding a GTO of any description in the UK will require scouring the car clubs and specialist dealers as they are very rare. Prices vary greatly and a lot of stock is put into condition and desirable options that are fitted. You are unlikely to find a car that has not had some level of restoration carried out on it, and the lowest prices of ones that require some work start at around £20,000. Top spec, convertible and Tri-Power or Bobcat=spec cars can sell for between £35,000-£70,000, however values do vary greatly. There is a very strong GTO following in the US and for a far wider choice of cars, it would be wise to source one from overseas.
The Pontiac GTO is a real slice of American motoring history, it combines all the aspects of what makes a muscle car into a very desirable package. Values are solid and depending on the model can be quite reasonably priced.
Words: John Tallodi