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Pontiac GTO: The First Supercar?

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Did Pontiac begin the supercar movement way back in 1964?

Here's a news flash for all those who believe the word ‘supercar’ was invented to describe the Lamborghini Miura. The term was already in wide use when that landmark Lambo made its debut at Geneva in March 1966. You see, the first supercar was a GTO – and not one from Maranello, but Pontiac’s tire-smokin’ 389-cubic inch, three-deuce-carbed, four-on-the-floor GTO.

Undoubtedly this proclamation will have Lamborghini, mid-engined GT and LJK Setright fans thinking I’ve lost my marbles, so I’ll kindly direct their attention to the May 1965 issue of Car Life magazine. When its cover story on ‘The supercars: a new breed of car for the automotive enthusiast’ hit the stands, the P400 chassis was at best a partially assembled work-in progress by engineer Gianpaolo Dallara and crew.

So what constituted the true original supercar?

‘One of the big unsung stories for car enthusiasts in the past two or three years has been the swift rise of special-purpose optional equipment on Detroit production line models,’ Car Life noted. ‘The ultimate expression of this trend toward the personally-specified vehicle is what we call the “Supercar”. It has a big engine with great gobs of horsepower and torque. It has a modest sized chassis, of reasonably light weight. It has an axle ratio that lets the engine perform, and it has a transmission… that can provide optimum engine operating conditions. Many of the Supercars… are packages of options which supplant and complement the original options.’

That last sentence is key, for that’s how Pontiac outwitted its toughest foe: the all-powerful (and somewhat isolated from reality) upper management team on GM’s 14th Floor.

The flashpoint happened in early 1963 when ‘GM withdrew from factory racing support’, says Jim Wangers, who was then Pontiac’s brilliant marketing maven. Over the previous five years Wangers had worked closely with Pontiac division general manager Bunkie Knudsen, his successor Pete Estes, and engineer John DeLorean (yes, that DeLorean) to completely reinvent Pontiac’s image and ignite sales by emphasising performance through championship-winning forays into NASCAR and drag racing. ‘That edict hit [us] right between the eyes, so we had to find another way to keep our performance image alive.’

For the 1964 model year, GM would be replacing all the divisions’ intermediate sized cars; Pontiac’s model was the Tempest. The new platform was a robust box-section frame with a 115in wheelbase, for a curb weight around 3400lb (1540kg), which created another problem: GM had a policy of capping engine size at one cubic inch for every ten pounds of weight. This meant the new Tempest would be limited to an engine of 340 cubic inches, a serious handicap in the dawning age of big-blocks.

But DeLorean and his men were constantly tinkering, and one of their favored methods was what Wangers calls the ‘What If’ sessions at the GM Proving Grounds. One Saturday morning while the team poked around under a prototype Tempest coupe, engineer Bill Collins noted they could easily slip a 389 in the engine bay because all of Pontiac’s V8s (326, 389 and 421) used the same block. One week later the car was transformed, complete with heavy-duty clutch and suspension. DeLorean drove the wheels off the development mule, and loved it. He suggested they call it a GTO, as he was a huge admirer of European sports cars and racing.

‘DeLorean was a hell of a good engineer,’ Wangers told me. ‘More important, he was a marketing engineer. He grasped that something wouldn’t just be better, but that it would sell. When the GTO project came together, he was its biggest supporter.’

Division manager Pete Estes also recognised the car’s appeal, so they circumvented GM’s product review board by making the GTO an option for 1964, rather than a distinct model. A cantankerous give-and-take session with Pontiac’s old-school sales manager Frank Bridge saw an initial order made for 5,000 GTOs. The dealers snapped them up within days.

The game-changing Pontiac created a firestorm of controversy when it hit the street. Road & Track, perhaps the sports car purists’ leading voice, was apoplectic. ‘First of all,’ its March 1964 test began, ‘let it be understood we disapprove of name stealing… There is an unforgivable dishonesty in such a practice… and [with the GTO] the insult should be sufficient to prevent any intelligent person from regarding it with anything but derision.’

With that complaint cast aside, they admitted to liking the car. The test Pontiac had a base 325bhp 389 hooked up to a four-speed with 3.23 gears, and it hit 60mph in 6.9sec, the standing quarter in 15, and had a top speed of 122. They also drove a 348hp Tri-Power version (three two-barrel Rochester carburettors) with a slightly advanced timing curve that dispatched 60mph in 5.7sec, the quarter in 14.1. ‘The Ferrari GTO is an out and out racing machine,’ the test concluded. ‘The Pontiac GTO, on the other hand, is quiet, smooth, docile, relatively inexpensive, and definitely a touring car, not a racing car. We think that if the Pontiac name-calling committee had chosen something more fitting… there would be no argument, for it is a good machine. ‘

Car & Driver had no reservations about the name, and played it to the hilt. In one of the most polemic articles ever, the issue’s cover featured an artist’s rendering of a Pontiac GTO and Series I Ferrari GTO mixing it up on the track. Their testers wrote that they drove two 250GTOs, but the story’s punchline was that only the boys from Pontiac showed up at Daytona International Raceway for the actual comparison.

Today Wangers admits that car was fitted with a pumped 421 dolled up to resemble a Tri-Power 389, so when the C&D staff recorded amazing numbers using a hand-held stopwatch (60mph in 4.6sec, the quarter in 13.1), he simply bit his lip and smiled. All of which led the magazine to declare that ‘…our test car, with stock suspension, metallic brakes and as-tested 348bhp engine, will lap any US road course faster than any Ferrari street machine, including the 400 Superamerica. Not bad for an actual delivered price of 00.’

That article, a sensational advertising campaign and a base sticker around 30% less than an Austin-Healey 3000’s and 50% less than an E-type’s, caused sales to explode. GTO production in 1964 topped 32,000, and was held back from many more by a lack of 389 engines. Sales cleared 75,000 the following year, and all of Detroit piled into the supercar arena. The craze lasted the better part of a decade – until 1973’s oil crisis.

So how does the original supercar stand the test of time? In a word, fabulously. The GTO has what so many cars back then and today lack – a youthful personality that screams ‘Let’s have fun!’ Think of two Labrador puppies running together with a towel clenched in their muzzles, their tails wagging furiously, and you start to get the idea.

The appeal begins with the looks: a ’64 GTO is clean and understated, with no unnecessary fins or excess chrome. It’s beautifully proportioned in an almost Pininfarina-esque way with a relatively thin A-pillar and roofline, so it appears compact and aggressive. But it never shouts.

Until you pin the throttle, that is. Our 49,000-mile, well-optioned example (Tri-Power, four-speed, center console, bucket seats, Positraction rear, etc) was provided by Brighton Motorsports in Scottsdale, Arizona, and, with multiple awards attesting to its meticulous restoration, I never abused it by popping the clutch from a dead stop.

But push that pedal to the metal when you’re rolling and you’ll feel an infinitesimal delay as the front and rear carbs clear their throats. Then a deep growl overwhelms the cabin and the rear tires spin, flinging you forwards in one continuous rush when they catch. Grab that great white cue-ball sitting atop the Hurst shifter and whack it into second while flooring it and you’ll get a chirp out of the tires before the Redlines start spinning and catching all over again. Hit third and it is exactly the same.

No matter how judiciously you sink your foot on the accelerator, the Tri-Power 389 V8 is infectiously charismatic, pulling like a proverbial freight train that just had a huge helping of coal. Under hard acceleration in the lower three gears you stay in each a maximum of two to three seconds before you have to shift, so keeping a close eye on the tachometer is essential or the free-revving engine will rip right through the redline more easily than in just about any car I can remember. All the while you’re grinning ear-to-ear, wanting to do it again and again.

Which, in the heyday of the 1960s, is exactly what thousands upon thousands of owners did. Pontiac’s GTO, like numerous Ferraris, was a true dual-purpose car – though their corresponding racetracks and competitors existed in entirely different worlds. In the Pontiac’s case the right ‘tracks’ were found in a quiet part of town or on the outskirts, and cruising the main drag or hanging out at the local drive-in restaurant was how you courted your competition. In today’s politically correct environment it’s almost impossible to think such action went down almost every night. But it did, non-stop, for years. All across America.

For daily duties this throbbing, burbling bolide delivers a ride that is cushy but never floaty, absorbing bumps but never waffling. Brighton Motorsports’ Shane Mustoe showed me a couple of his favorite test routes, and when we went through an unexpected, large dip at speed the suspension rebounded once and settled in most impressive fashion. The car never really felt out of sorts, its capabilities absorbing anything we threw at it.

While the GTO never pretends to be a sports car, we pitched it into several tight turns and the body leaned heavily, communicating its speed nicely. The lovely dished steering wheel required too many cranks for my tastes (the optional power steering solved this with a 17.5:1 ratio), so you adjust by starting the set-up early – the period-correct tires howled in protest as we powered through the apex. At higher speeds it was an entirely different story, the Pontiac feeling composed, more in its element, the bucket seats’ lack of ‘bucket’ probably inhibiting your pace more than anything else.

The car’s weak point is its brakes. The drums are simply not up to its impressive speed potential (Car Life ’s 348hp, 3.23-geared GTO cleared the quarter in 14.9sec and saw 135mph), though metallic linings were optional and would undoubtedly help. Couple such continent-crushing capability with a cavernous trunk, airy greenhouse, reasonably comfortable seats, and a fabulous squared-off, muscular hood to gaze out over, and you could easily cover several hundred miles with three companions aboard. And while the GTO is commodious inside, it never feels like you are sitting in a rolling concert hall.

It’s been a loooong time since a car bit me like this. On our drive back to Brighton Motorsports I found myself mentally calculating my maximum purchase price, how I would negotiate the deal to get it there, and peppering Mustoe with questions on how to tighten up the steering, lessen body roll, and beef up the brakes and rubber while keeping the appearance stock (all easy and relatively affordable to do). Then common sense kicked in and I pulled back.

But if all goes according to plan over the next year or two, I hope to have the original supercar sitting in my garage at a fraction of a Miura’s price.

And that may be the most super thing of all.

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