To celebrate the premiere of xXx: Return of Xander Cage, in theaters today, take a stroll down memory lane with the Pontiac GTO, the granddaddy of American muscle cars.
The official start of the golden age of the American muscle car is debatable, but many point to the moment the 1964 Pontiac GTO went on sale. Originally just a trim package available on the Pontiac Tempest, the GTO offered a 389 ci V8, firmer suspension, limited slip differential, and a four-in-the-floor manual transmission as an optional upgrade. Initial production was limited to 5,000 units because Pontiac’s sales manager was unsure about the market for such a vehicle, but by the end of the year they had sold 32,450 GTO packages.
By 1966 the muscle car wars were raging. The GTO was designated as its own model separate from the Tempest, and sported the iconic, vertically arranged quad headlight design. Fierce competition sprung up, from other GM divisions and outside companies, but sales of the GTO stayed strong, with just shy of 100,000 ‘66 models hitting the streets. In marketing efforts Pontiac referred to the car as the “GTO Tiger,” but its youthful buyers had already developed their own affectionate nickname: The Goat.
1968 brought the GTO a major styling update. The car shrank in length and height, also losing most of its chrome in the process. The quad headlights were shifted back to a horizontal setup, and the body featured a generally more streamlined design, almost a fastback.
1969 saw the addition of “The Judge” trim package. Named for a popular comedy routine at the time, tongue-in-cheek ads for the car assured “The Judge can be bought.” Featuring the 366 hp Ram Air III engine, Hurst T-handle shifter, wider tires and a special decal package, “The Judge” quickly cemented itself as a muscle car icon.
1970 hammered the first nail into the GTO’s coffin when the insurance companies finally caught onto the muscle car craze and began applying punitive surcharges to their owners, sometimes resulting in higher insurance payments than the actual car payments. In ‘72, the GTO was discontinued as a standalone model and was reverted to a trim package for the Pontiac Le Mans. The oil crisis at the end of 1973 effectively killed what remained of the muscle car market. Consumers had entirely lost interest in a large, high performance coupe that could only manage single digit fuel economy, and buyers were turning to economical imports as their salvation from long gas lines.
In a desperate attempt to preserve the GTO name, the option was moved to the Pontiac Ventura in 1974, which shared its basic components with the Chevy Nova. The 350 ci V8 produced a tepid 200 hp, yet could only manage around 15 mpg when driven gently. Sales of ‘74 models ticked up slightly over the ‘73, but it was too little, too late. When Pontiac announced its 1975 model year lineup, there was no GTO among them.
A phoenix arises
For 30 years the GTO was gone, but not forgotten. Every few years Pontiac would tease one concept or another at an auto show that invoked the iconic name, but it wasn’t until the early 2000s that GM began serious work toward reintroducing the GTO to the American market. GM’s Australian division, Holden, had developed a rear-wheel-drive, 2-door coupe that could fill the role of GTO with very few tweaks.
Launched in 2004, initially offering a 5.7L “LS1” V8 mated to a 6-speed manual transmission or 4-speed automatic, the new GTO received a lukewarm reception because of its conservative contemporary styling, whereas the more evocative styling of the new Chrysler 300, Dodge Charger, and Ford Mustang seemed to resonate with buyers.
Discontinued in 2006, the new GTO never managed to capture the hearts and minds of gearheads like the 1960s models, but it still fills a unique niche in the modern muscle car landscape. While the Mustang, Challenger, and Camaro offer extremely aggressive retro styling, the rather plainly styled GTO is quite a sleeper. A negative trait to some, but invaluable for those who want to drive a powerful car and don’t necessarily want to advertise it.