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1964 GTO


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GTO 1964-1967

Shelby Mustang




1964 GTO

The Instant Performance Automobile

Pontiac had hitched its image to performance, and while they still built four-cylinder Tempests and nine-passenger Safari station wagons, the aura of Super Duties and Tri-Power Bonnevilles rubbed off on even the most mundane cars in the product line-up. The success of these pavement-melting Pontiacs was directly related to the division's domination on the tracks. In NASCAR, Fireball Roberts and Joe Weatherly had piloted Pontiacs to the winner's circle before tens of thousands of rabid car enthusiasts. On the NHRA drag strips, Jim Wangers' victory in Stock Eliminator at the 1960 NHRA Nationals drew consid-erable attention from the automotive press. The emerging popularity of Super Stock racing showcased the power of the 389 ci, followed by the 421 ci Super Duty Pontiac engines and drivers like Arnie Beswick, Arlen Vanke and Hayden Profitt.

The racing and performance image carefully cultivated by Pontiac was suddenly threatened by the January 24,1963, GM corporate edict that specified Pontiac and sister division Chevrolet absolve themselves from all racing activities. Any backdoor support of other racing teams carrying the division banner was also to be terminated. With one stroke of the corporate pen, the careful work of five years had just been torpedoed by GM management.

History records success as the convergence of luck and timing, and both of these factors played a part in the birth of the GTO. Ever since the Tempest had arrived in 1961 with its four-cylinder engine derived by splitting the Pontiac V-8 in half, "rope" driveshaft and rear transaxle, the idea of dropping a 389 into the engine bay had been discussed. A handful of 421 powered Tempests had been built in 1963 for drag racing in the Factory Experimental class; however, these cars still utilized the rear transaxle, and were never considered for production. The year before, Pontiac Engineering had even gone as far as submitting an application to the FIA (the international racing federation) for a 389 ci powered Tempest to go road racing.

General Motors planned to abandon the radical drivetrain layout for the Tempest in the 1964, reverting back to a standard drivetrain, powered by a base six-cylinder with the 326 ci engine as an option. Since the 326 and 389 engines shared the same exterior dimensions and used the same motor mounts, Pontiac Engineering began experimenting with a 389 powered 1963 Tempest, simply as an engineering experiment. The work of Pontiac engineers Bill Collins and John DeLorean couldn't have come at a better time. While their project was simply an experiment, they had unknowingly laid the groundwork for a Super Tempest. DeLorean already had a name for it—GTO.

It was Wangers' vision that solidified the creation of the GTO, based on the engineering experiments. Wangers recognized Pontiac would have to transfer its performance image from the race-track and put it on the street, thanks to GM's ban on racing. He also saw the budding "youth market" that he believed would snap up a low-priced car that was the antithesis of what its parents drove. Make it affordable, give it flash, give it image and give it the powertrain to blow away virtually any car on the street. As he had in the past, Wangers passed his idea on to DeLorean of drop-ping the big Pontiac 389 engine into the new Tempest and turning it loose on the streets. It was the recipe for success, and DeLorean recognized it instantly. The engineering experiment was on its way to becoming a production reality.

While the concept of slipping a big engine under a small hood sounds sim-ple enough, no car maker had ever seriously attempted to bring the combination to production. The Pontiac team had one other obstacle—a GM edict that restricted engine displacement and horsepower output in mid-sized cars.
That wasn't all. Any new models had to have the approval of the corporation, and a car that didn't meet corporate guidelines didn't stand a chance of getting the GM nod. DeLorean and Wangers realized options were not subject to approval. They also knew it was easier to ask forgiveness than permission, so a concentrated team effort was made to
get the GTO off the ground as an option on the LeMans.

There was only one other hurdle before the GTO could become reality: it had to be sold to Pontiac management. Regardless of how excited Wangers and DeLorean were about the car, without the backing of Pontiac management, the idea of a high-performance street car would remain just that—a dream.

The GTO's savior would be in the form of Elliot "Pete" Estes, successor to Knudsen as general manager of Pontiac Motor Division. Estes was an engineer and a "car guy." If he could be sold, and if he had the courage to stand up to the corporation once the car was slipped into the hands of the dealer body, the GTO was assured of success. Without his support, it would never see the light of day.

To his credit, Estes stood behind the young Pontiac engineers and the visionary advertising executive. Estes over-came the objections of the sales man-agement team, a group of Pontiac executives entrenched in methods they had used to sell cars since the 1940s. They were certain the car would never sell; dealers would end up eating this colossal failure. The confrontation between the young lions and the old veterans nearly led to fisticuffs, but in the end, Estes pushed the car through the division and to the dealers. The history books will record he was truly the unsung hero of the Pontiac GTO.

Selling the 1964 GTO to a performance-hungry America was no problem. In fact, Pontiac's strategy at first was to introduce the car with a low-key approach, just in case it wasn't the surefire success Wangers and DeLorean believed it to be. "Once the car was out into the hands of the dealers," Wangers recalled, "there was no way the corporation was going to break it down and make the General Manager look bad in the eyes of the dealers."

By January, dealers were taking orders for the GTO, and by the end of the model year, 32,450 copies were roaming the streets, making boulevard fodder of nearly everything on wheels. For the first time, anyone's Walter Mitty fantasies could be fulfilled by simply walking into a Pontiac dealer, plunking down three grand and driving away in a car that was virtually unbeatable.

What was a GTO, and what did it have that no other car offered? While the GTO was essentially a LeMans, sitting on a 115 in. wheelbase, it was a package. Checking off the W62 GTO option delivered a 389 ci engine, replacing the LeMans' 326 ci powerplant. It was topped by a Carter AFB four-barrel carburetor, the high-compression heads from the big 421 ci engine and a moderate-lift hydraulic camshaft. The camshaft used a duration of 273 degrees on intake and 289 degrees on exhaust. Lift measured 0.400 in. for intake and 0.410 in. for exhaust. The package was good for 325 hp at 4800 rpm. A chromed air cleaner and valve covers added visual excitement to an already visceral engine.

In standard form, along with the 325 hp 389, the GTO was equipped with a three-speed manual gearbox and Hurst floorshifter, dual exhausts, GTO emblems on the quarters, trunk lid and front fenders, as well as two chromed, nonfunctional hood scoops. Below deck, the GTO boasted stiffer springs and shocks and a larger front antisway bar. If there was one drawback to the GTO, it was the brakes; they were the same 9.5 in. drums as used with the six-cylinder Tempest. They were admittedly inferior for the tremendous power the GTO possessed under the hood. Ordering the optional metallic linings made a considerable difference in the GTO's stopping power, however. The hotter they got, the better they would work, with little fade.

The legendary Tri-Power was optional for the GTO, with its three Rochester two-barrel carbs and vacuum-controlled linkage. Normal operation was with the center two-holer, but at approximately seventy-percent throttle the two outer carbs would open and produce a ban-shee-like wail as the 389 wound out to produce 348 hp at 4900 rpm. Under wide-open throttle, the GTO accelerated like a rocket. The driver held on to the wheel and it was all he could do to remember to watch the tach and power-shift through the gears.

Wrapped in a lightweight body, even in its most mild-mannered form, the GTO could streak down the quarter mile in the high-fourteens. A Tri-Power version, hooked to the Muncie close-ratio four-speed transmission and 3.90:1 rear axle, could clear the traps in the high-thirteens at a top speed of 108 mph. The 0-60 mph time was in the vicinity of five seconds. There wasn't another car selling at that price that could equal those figures.

While the GTO was affordable, it wasn't Spartan. The interior was luxurious for a mid-sized car, with door-to-door carpeting, plush seats, an aluminum-turned dash applique and the unique GTO emblem above the glove-box door. What made the GTO even more exciting was Pontiac's option list, which according to Pontiac Motor Division, was "as long as your arm and twice as hairy." Judicious use of the order book could build a car for high-speed luxury cruising or for just blowing the hubcaps off the competition on the street. Options included air conditioning, a handsome four-spoke "wood" wheel (actually constructed of plastic), tachometer and several radio choices.

The beauty of the GTO was, like the big Pontiac models, the customer could option out a GTO to suit his preferences. A buyer who was strictly performance-minded checked off the high-performance options to package his GTO for drag racing, where the GTO would dominate the B/Stock classes. For those buyers who wanted the boulevard image of driving a GTO but desired creature comforts, there was a plethora of luxury options ranging from power windows to a power antenna. The ultimate GTO was a combination of all these options. It was possible to literally build a poor-man's Grand Prix from the GTO option list.

The GTO hit the streets and instantly gained recognition as the high-performance car. In Detroit, no other manufacturer was prepared to compete against the GTO until the 1964 model year was virtually over. Oldsmobile fielded the 4-4-2, a competent package but underpowered with its 330 ci V-8. Buick assembled the Gran Sport Skylark by dropping in its 401 engine, but Buick lacked the performance image of Pontiac and sales were far behind the GTO. Although Chevrolet had its potent 409 engine, the Chevelle SS still relied on the 327 small-block; however, it was given a shot in the arm by offering the 350 hp Corvette 327. But it wasn't a big-cube engine, and that was part of the GTO's success.

The other car makers were slow to offer alternatives in 1964. Dodge and Plymouth were building special light-weight full-sized cars, but they were limited in production and quite expensive. They were also purpose-built as race cars, and as such were difficult to maintain and their drivability didn't match the GTO. Ford's Fairlane qualified as a mid-sized car, but the hottest engine offered was the code K 271 hp 289 ci engine. The top performance engine in the new Mustang was the 225 hp 289. The days of high-horsepower pony cars were still a few years away.

To indicate just how good a package the GTO could be. Car and Driver made a comparison of the GTO to its name-sake, the Ferrari GTO. Using two GTOs prepared by Royal Pontiac, Pontiac's backdoor performance dealer in Royal Oak, Michigan, Car and Driver wrote that in their opinion the Pontiac GTO did everything the Ferrari could do for a lot less money. "We made a very bold statement with that story," Jim Wangers recalled. "Here we took the darling of the sports car set, the Ferrari, and put it up against something as gauche as a Pontiac. The whole thing was just great image-building press for Pontiac."

The GTO captured the imagination of America. Although overshadowed by the fabulous Mustang, the introduction of the 1964 GTO opened the door for affordable performance. It appealed to the very market Wangers was in touch with: young buyers who wanted the looks and image the GTO provided. The GTO became much like the Corvette in that it was a rolling personal statement.
The tremendous success achieved by the GTO also meant Wangers' vision had been correct. The GTO carried out its mission, transferring Pontiac's image from the racetrack to the street. Its future and the continued strength of Pontiac as a builder of high-performance cars was ensured.


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1964 GTO


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TITLE: Muscle Car Used Car History Vehicle History Report at Auto Lemon - Used Car History Check

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