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History of the Pontiac GTO | Pontiac GTO Evolution

Posted on 2020-12-16

The Pontiac GTO took the world by storm in 1964 and quickly cemented itself in muscle car history. As the GTO lasted five generations in total, it went through many different changes, responding to new challenges and attempting to give buyers an upgraded driving experience. Though relatively short-lived, the Pontiac GTO is still a favorite of many muscle car enthusiasts who love its striking style and roaring horsepower. 

If you're interested in the Pontiac GTO, you may want to know more about its history and the answers to some of the most common questions people have about the car. Keep reading to learn more.

Generations of the Pontiac GTO

The idea of the Pontiac GTO began in 1963 when General Motors (GM) instituted a ban on producing cars fit for racing. Up until this point, Pontiac was devoted to creating cars that could succeed on the race track against other Detroit automakers. Suddenly, Pontiac had to find a new way to differentiate itself. 

An engineering team led by the engineer John DeLorean, the famed creator of the later DeLorean, still wanted to produce a powerful and fun-to-drive car. While DeLorean looked at a prototype of the 1964 LeMans Coupe, one young engineer on the team, Bill Collins, suggested they add a 389-cubic-engine to it. This would replace the standard engine that had much less displacement. This addition took the LeMans to another level in terms of power and handling. As a result, it became the first GTO.

Despite this revelation, DeLorean and his team still had to get around a GM internal policy that vehicles must have 10 pounds of vehicle weight per cubic inch of engine displacement. Their GTO violated GM's mandate, but the engineering team prevailed. They found the edict had a loophole. The displacement limit referred to base engines only. As long as they offered the GTO as a package for the LeMans, they wouldn't be going against the company's policy.

As a result of this team's ingenuity and cunning, the Pontiac GTO was unveiled to the public in 1963 as an option to the LeMans. In 1964, buyers could purchase it, launching the vehicle into muscle car history. The Pontiac GTO is commonly regarded as the first muscle car in automobile history

To understand the rich history of the GTO and its eventual decline, take a moment to learn more about all five generations of the vehicle below.

First Generation Pontiac GTO (1964 to 1967)

The original Pontiac GTO started as an optional package for the Pontiac LeMans in 1964. This package offered increased power, with the GTO providing an upgraded 6.4-liter, 389-cubic-inch V-8 engine, which put out an impressive 325 horsepower. With the engine backing it, the Pontiac GTO could go from zero to 100 kilometers an hour in 6.9 seconds, and it reached a top speed of 122 miles per hour. With an optional tri-power setup, the 1964 Pontiac upped its horsepower to 348.

Some features on the first GTO included:

  • A seven-blade clutch fan.
  • Stiffler springs.
  • Wider wheels than the vehicle it was based on.
  • Hood scoops.
  • A three-speed manual transmission.
  • Dual exhaust pipes.
  • A four-barrel carburetor.
  • GTO badges.

Some drawbacks to this model were poor performing drum brakes and the lack of power steering. Customers who didn't like the standard three-speed manual transmission could also choose between a two-speed automatic or four-speed manual.

Starting in 1964 and lasting throughout the first generation, the Pontiac GTO could be purchased as a two-door convertible, hardtop or coupe. In 1965, Pontiac made a few tweaks to the GTO. Regarding styling, Pontiac added a new hood scoop and rear fascia. The car also came with stacked headlamps, replacing the original horizontal lights. Alongside the styling changes, Pontiac improved the engine's performance. The base model now offered 335 horsepower, and the Tri-Power engine increased to 360 horsepower.

In 1966, Pontiac offered the GTO as its own model, rather than just serving it up as a package. This decision to sell it as a stand-alone model was a success, as GM sold 96,946 GTOs that year — the highest-selling year ever for the GTO. 

The new stand-alone model also saw new styling to up its visual appeal. This improved styling gave the entire body a curved look. It also added a tunneled backlight and raised fender lines. The new model also replaced the previous aluminum and metal grilles with plastic ones.

GM released the final first generation offering in 1967. Pontiac only made minor changes to the car's exterior. Eight new taillights replaced the louver-covered versions. Additionally, the split grille changed to one with chrome on it, and the GTO emblems moved to the chrome rocker panels rather than their original place at the rear of the fender. 

More notably, the 1967 Pontiac GTO increased the vehicle's engine power. Pontiac upgraded the GTO's 389-cubic-inch engine to a 400-cubic-inch engine. Due to a new GM policy banning multiple carburetors, the Pontiac GTO no longer offered a tri-power option, but buyers could still decide between three different single carburetor options. The base engine offered the standard 335 horsepower, but customers could upgrade to a high output option, which featured 360 horsepower

Second Generation Pontiac GTO (1968 to 1972)

To kick off the second generation, Pontiac gave the GTO a total makeover. The vehicle was now constructed on an A-body platform. The semi-fastback styling made this version of the GTO even more curvaceous. Pontiac also shortened the wheelbase and the total vehicle length while the weight increased.

Chrome was largely dropped from the second generation GTO. One of the most notable differences was the change to a new rubber bumper, dubbed the Endura, from an older chrome one. This rubber bumper gave the vehicle's front a much cleaner, sleeker appearance and is one of the most identifiable features of a second generation Pontiac. An optional hidden headlight feature was also quite popular among buyers.

Along with the design changes, the standard 400-cubic-inch V-8 engine reached 350 horsepower, 15 more horsepower than the standard option offered the previous year. An alternate engine package came with 360 horsepower. In the middle of 1968, the Pontiac GTO also offered a Ram Air II package, which came with an 041 cam, round port exhaust and freer-breathing cylinder heads. 

There weren't many major changes to the standard 1969 model. Some minor modifications included revisions to the grille and taillights, as well as the removal of the vent windows. Additionally, this model kept the standard engine from 1968 but added two new optional ones: a Ram Air III, rated at 366 horsepower, and a Ram Air IV, rated at 370 horsepower.

Though there weren't any huge changes to the standard model, Pontiac released an optional package, a Pontiac GTO Judge, which was a major advancement in the car's history. Pontiac created the Judge to enable buyers to receive the very best in street performance. The car featured a Hurst shifter, a rear spoiler, attractive decals and wider tires to provide it with a more performance-driven look. It also ran on the Ram Air III, still offering 366 horsepower to drivers. 

In 1970, the Pontiac GTO received more aggressive body lines and quad headlamps. Pontiac also upgraded the car's suspension by lowering the amount of body lean while turning and reducing understeer. The base engine didn't change for this model, with the Ram Air III and Ram Air IV still the optional engines offered. One big addition to the vehicle's performance options was the inclusion of an optional 455 HO engine. This engine was rated at 360 horsepower, with 500 pounds-feet of torque.

The Judge returned as an option, with the Ram III engine standard and the Ram IV an upgrade. Later in the model year, buyers could select the 455 HO engine. Besides the engines offered, the Judge also featured slightly new styling, with striping moving to the upper wheel well brows. 

In 1971, the Pontiac GTO went through some styling changes. This GTO featured horizontal bumper bars, wire mesh grilles, a hood with dual scoops placed on the leading edge and headlamps placed more closely together. Due to the growing demand for more vehicle regulations, GM instituted new policies that attempted to prepare their cars for no-lead gasoline. As a result, the GTO had to reduce its compression ratios.

These changes made it so the GTO no longer offered Ram Air engines. The standard 400-cubic-inch V-8 engine remained, but the horsepower dropped, with the GTO only offering 255 horsepower. Buyers could still upgrade to two different 455 engines, with one offering 260 horsepower and the other 310 horsepower.

1971 also saw the last year the Judge was offered as an option for the GTO. The GTO's overall sales continued to drop, with only 10,532 total sold that year. The Judge's production numbers were also quite paltry, with Pontiac only producing 17 convertibles and 357 hardtops.

Due to slowing sales, the 1972 Pontiac GTO was pulled from the lineup as a stand-alone model. Again, Pontiac only offered it as an option package for the Pontiac LeMans and the LeMans Sport. This vehicle didn't provide any notable changes, quietly ending the second generation of GTOs. This relegation back to an option package and the lack of any major changes was a further signal that the muscle car was losing its appeal to customers.

Third Generation Pontiac GTO (1973)

The third generation Pontiac GTO would only last for a single year in 1973. Like the 1972 model, the GTO was only offered as an option to the LeMans or LeMans Sport Coupe.

This generation was marked by a redesign to the A-body and fresh styling. Unlike previous models offering multiple body styles, Pontiac only sold the 1973 GTO as a two-door hardtop coupe. This hardtop featured "Colonnade" styling, which added a roof pillar and kept the frameless door windows. The rear side windows came in a triangular shape and couldn't be opened.

The 1973 GTO also had changes to the hood, with the new National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics ducts placed in its center. Another design change came from 1973 federal laws that stated cars must have bumpers that could withstand impacts of 5 miles per hour without any damage to the body. As a result of these government safety regulations, Pontiac had to remove the Endura bumper from the GTO. In its place, they installed heavy chrome bumpers on the front and rear. 

Other changes were made to the car to assist with emissions control. For example, Pontiac lowered the rear axle ratios to control the number of pollutants the car released from its exhausts. Additionally, they removed the HO exhaust manifolds, chrome air-cleaner lids, chrome rocker-arm covers and aluminum intake. In place of these parts, the team at Pontiac added an air-intake hose attached to a black air cleaner. Overall, these design changes weren't well-received by the automotive public.

Performance-wise, the GTO drove exceptionally well — partially a result of the revised suspension geometry. The suspension upgrades improved handling and gave the car more grip. Pontiac also increased the springs' stiffness and the anti-roll bars' thickness. 

The horsepower continued to drop, however, with the standard 400-cubic-inch V-8 engine only offering 230 horsepower. This GTO still came with a three- and four-speed manual and a three-speed automatic. For those who wanted more horsepower, they could go to the 455 V-8 engine, which offered 250 horsepower. Unfortunately, the 455 HO engine wouldn't make an appearance in this generation. 

Overall, the GTO didn't generate the sales Pontiac was hoping for. They would end up only selling 4,262 standard GTOs and 544 models of the 455 engine GTO. 

Fourth Generation Pontiac GTO (1974)

Like the third generation Pontiac GTO, the fourth generation was short-lived, lasting only for one year in 1974. Instead of using an A-body platform, Pontiac shifted to GM's X-body platform for a more compact body style. This GTO wasn't offered as an option for the LeMans — it was an option for the Pontiac Venture instead. The GTO could be found in two body styles — a two-door coupe and a two-door hatchback coupe. 

This more compact GTO was outfitted with a 350-cubic-inch V-8 engine, which pumped out 200 horsepower. The engine had burbling dual exhausts and a four-barrel carburetor. There were no other engine options available for buyers to select from. Despite the lowered horsepower, the vehicle was lighter than previous models, allowing it to go relatively fast. This automobile could go from zero to 60 miles per hour in 9.3 seconds

Some notable additions to this GTO were the inclusion of a blackout grille, dual sport mirrors and Rally II wheels. Pontiac also added a shaker hood to it, which was a functional feature and added a bit of noise to the car. When the driver accelerated particularly hard, a flap would open up on the shaker's back, allowing the carburetor to take in cooler air. The vehicle also received an upgraded F41 Special Performance Suspension, which helped it have even better handling than its predecessors.

The fourth generation would sell more than the 1973 GTO, with 7,058 buyers. However, this uptick in sales wouldn't save the GTO, with Pontiac choosing to shelve it for 30 years after 1974.

Fifth Generation Pontiac GTO (2004 to 2006)

After a 30-year break in production of the GTO, Pontiac tried to make a comeback with their fifth generation of the vehicle. The final generation of Pontiac GTOs was born out of GM's decision to end the Pontiac Firebird and Chevy Camaro after 2002, causing Pontiac to no longer offer a high-performance vehicle. To get Pontiac back into producing performance-driven cars, GM revived the GTO.

Instead of working from scratch, Pontiac converted the Holden Monaro, an Australian-built muscle car, into a fresh new GTO. Pontiac designers worked to rebrand the Monaro as a GTO by adding GTO badges to the exterior and a split grille front fascia. They also attempted to make the 2004 GTO mimic the 1964 GTO's exhaust sound. 

While these branding efforts were a far cry from the GTO's original look, the 2004 model brought back the power of early GTOs. This reimagined vehicle featured a 5.7-liter LS1 engine, which put out an impressive 350 horsepower and could go from zero to 60 miles per hour in just 5.5 seconds. Despite this added power, the vehicle still failed to perform up to expectations, with Pontiac selling 13,600 of them in 2004. This number was under their projection of 18,000 in sales. 

The 2005 GTO would have minimal improvements to its body, with brake upgrades, split rear tailpipes and standard hood scoops included. This model would up its performance, however, as it swapped out the LS1 with an LS2. This new engine put out 400 horsepower, adding even more power to the vehicle. The 2006 GTO would see only minor changes. Pontiac decided to end the GTO after total sales of the fifth generation only reached close to 41,000.

Pontiac GTO FAQs

The above guide provides an extensive overview of this once-popular car. If you have any more questions about the GTO, however, you can review some of the most commonly asked questions below.

What Did Pontiac GTO Stand For?

GTO stands for Gran Turismo Omologato, which originated from Italian. Loosely translated, the phrase means homologated — recognized for competition — grand-touring car.

Who Invented the Pontiac GTO?

John DeLorean, Russ Gee and Bill Collins are widely credited with inventing the GTO.

Why Did Pontiac Stop Making the GTO?

Pontiac stopped making GTOs due to the lack of interest in the vehicle from the general public. With less than 41,000 fifth generation GTOs sold, GM likely couldn't see the value in continuing to produce the car. Since GM shut down the Pontiac brand in 2009, it's unlikely the car will return.

What Is the Difference Between a GTO and a GTO Judge?

The Pontiac GTO was originally designed to be a cheaper GTO without all the bells and whistles. As development continued, the GTO Judge would separate itself from the standard GTO in almost the opposite direction. What made the GTO a Judge was its higher price, extra features and more powerful engine offerings.

How Fast Is the Pontiac GTO?

The fastest GTO was the 2006 Pontiac GTO, which could reach a top speed of 175 miles per hour.

What Is the Best Pontiac GTO?

Wondering what year is the best Pontiac GTO? You might get different answers. If you go by sales figures, the best Pontiac GTO is the 1966 Pontiac, as GM sold the most Pontiacs ever that year, coming close to 100,000. However, others have ranked the 1969 model as the best due to its embodiment of the top features of the A-generation.

How Much Is a 1969 GTO Worth?

In perfect condition, a 1969 GTO is valued between $64,000 and $682,000.

Find Your Dream Car at Volo

At Volo Museum Auto Sales, we're proud to provide automotive enthusiasts with collector cars. We regularly carry Pontiac GTOs from the 1960s and 1970s, allowing buyers to experience this historic car themselves. Browse our inventory of classic cars to find the perfect GTO or another classic automobile for you. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact us.