One of the most famous cars in decades, the Pontiac GTO left the market after 14 years in 2006. But why let something good fade away?
The Pontiac GTO started as a classic muscle car back in 1964 after the 1963 voluntary car racing ban. At this time, Pontiac’s marketing was based on their performance which meant the lack of racing would take a toll on the brand. Switching their focus on street performance, Pontiac’s greatest minds transformed the Pontiac Tempest into a sporty, high-performance model to appeal to the pedal-to-the-metal drivers. And so the GTO was created.
For those that don’t know the Pontiac GTO was inspired by Ferrari’s 250 GTO, or Gran Turismo Omologato, which was an officially certified grand touring racing car. John DeLorean (yes, that DeLorean), decided the name would fit the newest Pontiac even though it would never become officially certified as a grand touring racing car. But it would become one of the fastest Pontiac models ever made, so that’s something right?
The first-generation GTO was produced from 1964 to 1967 as a package option on the Pontiac LeMans, an upgraded trim-level of the Pontiac Tempest (Is that meta enough for you yet?). A floor shifted, three-speed manual transmission, a 6.4L V8 engine rated at 325HP, and a four-barrel carburetor, the GTO packed a punch but lacked in quick handling and steering. Despite these shortcomings, the GTO sold 32,450 units in its first year.
In 1966, the GTO became its own model within Pontiac’s line of vehicles. Pontiac continued to stretch the GTO in both length and width as they redesigned their entire line of vehicles on the GM “A” bodyline. With a “coke-bottle” look and more curves, the GTO began to form some personality beyond its Tempest days. The GTO was one of the auto industry’s first models to change from metal to plastic front grilles. Both engine and carburetor choices remained the same, with the Tri-Power option leaving the market midway through the year. The interior dashboard was redesigned with integrated instruments for more intuitive use. Sales continued to rise to 96,946 units in 1966. By 1967, sales were slightly down from ‘66 with 81,722 units sold despite upgrades in carburetors and safety equipment, but Pontiac continued to innovate down the right track.
The second generation of GTO was more of the hard and fast, sleek styling. Built on the A-body line, the 1968 GTO was exactly what muscle cars are made of. A unique feature on the second-generation GTOs is the Endura front bumper that was designed to absorb impact at low speeds without damaging it. Hot Rod called the ‘68 GTO the “best-balanced” car built by Pontiac and the acclaim would continue.
1969 was the year of The Judge. The GTO made an appearance in the movie The Punisher which led to Pontiac’s most esteemed advertising theme: “The Judge can be bought.” Originally, the Judge was meant to be a low-cost GTO without any fancy features or flash but sold for $332 which was more expensive than the standard GTO. Though the Judge was famous and known to drivers all around, Chevy’s Chevelle and the Plymouth Roadrunner surpassed the GTO sales in 1969. The Judge would see its final year of production in 1971.
Between 1970 and 1972, the GTO design saw many changes inside and out. There were more options for engines, transmissions, and packages. The overall body shape slowly transformed from a straight-edged to a beveled front grille that gave it a unique look compared to other muscle cars during this time. Pontiac offered LeMans and LeMans Sport coupes packages instead of offering a separate GTO convertible model. GTO sales declined by 45% by the end of the third generation’s production run, but Pontiac still held on strong for a third generation despite the setback.
The third generation of the GTO was produced in 1974 and, unfortunately, did not arrive to much fanfare. Between several less-than-ideal features, rear windows that were fixed and could not open, lack of a true hardtop, and reduced engine performance, the car itself though attractive on the exterior was not a great sell to drivers. By the end of the year, the oil crisis left muscle cars like the GTO in the dust as drivers favored more fuel-efficient cars.
The year of 1974 wasn’t much better for the GTO as Pontiac moved the GTO to a compact version called the Ventura. Engine performance suffered even more than the ‘73 GTO which left those loyal to their GTOs heartbroken. Tests done by Motor Trend and Cars Magazine didn’t help the GTO either. With a 7-9 second 0-60 and 16-second quarter-mile, the ‘74 GTO would be the last of its kind even though sales were up over the previous year.
Like most of the GTOs production models, the fifth-generation GTO leaned on other models to make it work. In 2004, the first iteration of the fifth gen GTO was really a rebadged Holden Monaro, an imported car that saw success in countries like Australia and the U.K. General Motors, the over-arching owner of Pontiac, had every Holden rebuilt to meet American driving standards in Australia before having them shipped to the U.S. The goal was to make the Holden, later rebranded GTO, sound like the previous GTO models while meeting the noise threshold required in the U.S. After much tinkering, the new fifth gen GTO was released and performed much better than its most recent predecessors with a 5.3 second 0-60 and a 13.8 second quarter mile.
The car was mildly accepted, but many thought the new design wasn’t cutting edge enough to overpower other muscle cars that were making a comeback during this time. Hood scoops, which were originally set to be on the 2005 model, were rushed into production to help bring the car a little more personality and would follow the GTO throughout every model in the fifth generation. Throughout 2005 and 2006, not much would change inside the new Monaro-based GTO other than blacked-out taillights, increased engine performance, and the small add-ons that were luxuries of the early 2000s. The last year of the GTO was powerful but didn’t make a name for itself other than its speed. The last car would roll off the production line in Australia in 2006 and a GTO-concept hasn’t been seen since.
It’s obvious that many people fell off the GTO bandwagon when GM and Pontiac tamped down the performance of their muscle car. After loyalists left the GTO behind, it was an entirely different, yet difficult hurdle to overcome when the GTO was redesigned in its last years to mimic the market when its true selling point in the ‘60s and ‘70s was its unique body-style. We tend to agree with those who decided to opt for something else after the GTO design took a turn, but that doesn’t mean that the last generation of GTOs didn’t perform on the road.
With that said, if you’re looking for a GTO, you can still find one. If you’re not picky about how you get your power and speed, the fifth-generation Pontiac GTO runs a little over $11,000 on average. But if you’re interested in class, speed, and an engine throttle that makes the hair on your arms stand up like us, you’ll continue to daydream for a $50,000+ classic GTO.
What do you think about the GTO? Love it or leave it? Let us know in the comments below.
I love the first generation GTO’s, and I still have a 66 GTO from my youth. It is sitting in my garage but sadly needs restoration. I have kept it as rust free as possible and mostly original. My dilemma is that I am afraid to trust anyone to restore it because I have had some work on it who want to steal parts i.e gear shift knob the last time. How do I find someone I can trust?I live in the southwest ,U.S.A.