When General Motors shut down Pontiac in 2010, it pulled the plug on a brand with a direct link to the origins of the “muscle car.” The success of the LeMans-based GTO spawned numerous competitors, and fuels a major chunk of the collector car market even now.
Over its five generations and 14 model years (with a 30-year hiatus in the middle), the GTO became a performance icon. And even though not all “Goats” are GOATs, as seen below, they all have a spacious parking spot in modern automotive history.
The big news for GTO in ’73 was the arrival of the new “colonnade” hardtop body, which retained the previous generation’s 112-inch wheelbase but added four inches of overall length. New federal standards for low-speed impact gave the GTO giant chrome front bumpers which looked ungainly, especially compared with the Endura bumpers on previous models.
The GTO could be ordered with 6.6-liter (400 ci) and 7.5-liter (455 ci) V8s, but the Firebird Trans Am was becoming Pontiac’s performance flagship ... and other potential buyers were choosing the formal-roofed Grand Prix and Euro-influenced Grand Am. Goat sales totaled under 5,000 for the year — the low-water mark for the model.
The one-year-only Ventura-based GTO got very little love from Pontiac fans, but it represented a return to its roots: a big engine (in this case a 5.7-liter V8) in a smaller car (Pontiac’s version of the X-body compact). As such, it was a muscle car for a post-OPEC world, with dimensions only a tiny bit smaller than the ’64 original and comparable performance.
Outward modifications to the Ventura (coupe or hatchback) were limited to a functional Trans Am-style shaker hood scoop, dual exhausts and tricolor GTO callouts. Sales jumped by almost 50% over ’73, but Pontiac performance buyers were buying Trans Ams. The GTO went into hibernation at the end of 1974.
Stricter federal emissions standards, higher insurance costs for “muscle cars" and a crippling strike by the United Auto Workers Union in 1971 all took their toll on GM by the time the ‘72s came out. The GTO was demoted from its own model line to an option package on the LeMans. What’s more, buyers could equip any LeMans with the GTO’s Endura front end and twin hood scoops.
The 400 and 455 were still available, but Pontiac also offered the big engines across the entire LeMans line, meaning buyers didn’t have to spring for the GTO package to get its performance. And sales figures suggested they figured it out.
This was the first full year that the GTO's “origin” engine, the 6.5-liter (389 ci) V8, was unavailable. That also meant the end of the vaunted Tri-Power setup of three two-barrel carburetors. Instead, the GTO got a bored-out version of the 389, displacing 400 cubic inches and available in three different tunes, including an “economy” setup with a two-barrel carburetor.
This was also the first full model year of the available Ram Air setup with functional hood-mounted air extractors. And on the outside, changes were limited to grille and tail lights in the last year before the new-look ‘68s broke cover.
GM’s A-body mid-size cars from 1968 through 1972 might be some of the best-looking American cars of the “modern” era. The GTO amped up the looks even more, with extra-cost hidden headlamps and a body-color Endura front bumper. Under the hood, engineers found another 15 horsepower for the standard 400 V8, and refined the Ram Air package for even greater performance.
Inside, the interior was in transition, with new upholstery for the Strato bucket seats sitting across from a lightly-padded dash with its ignition switch still in the instrument panel.
Just as the launch of the original GTO can be traced to the efforts of then-Pontiac general manager John DeLorean, the reboot of the GTO was largely the work of GM’s product chief at the time, veteran “car guy” Bob Lutz. He spearheaded the effort to get the two-door Holden Monaro (itself an Australian performance legend) certified for sale in the U.S.
And it showed up with the right credentials: the Corvette’s 5.7-liter LS1 V8, great handling chops and a well-appointed interior. But the GTO “purists” — the ones who hated on the ’74 because it was a Ventura — griped about the lack of hood vents, the exterior that made it look like a Monte Carlo (not a compliment), and a high base price in the mid-$30K range.
This model year saw a refreshed front end and larger hood extractors that gave the Goat a more attractive and aggressive face. But in preparation for unleaded fuel, GM lowered compression rates for engines across the board. That meant the GTO’s standard 400 V8 dropped from 350 to 300 horsepower, with the optional 455 seeing a similar decline.
In addition, Pontiac discontinued the Ram Air performance option on the GTO, and while the addition of a “high output” 455 helped soothe the blow, it was clear that the “muscle car” landscape was starting to shift.
GM says it always intended the fifth-generation GTO to be a limited edition offering. The Holden Commodore/Monaro on which it was based was nearing the end of its life cycle, and the cost of exporting the car to the U.S. was proving to be a major obstacle to sales. The ’06 GTO was largely a carryover from ’05, with the 6.0-liter (368 ci) LS2 V8 still under the twin-nostrilled hood.
The result was the fastest GTO ever sold, with a pavement-wrinkling 400 (net) hp available to send the coupe hurtling through the quarter-mile in around 13 seconds.
The middle child in the fifth GTO generation got a lot of attention from GM. On the outside, the purists’ demands for hood “nostrils” were answered. Under that hood, Pontiac replaced the 5.7-liter LS1 from the ’04 model year with the larger LS2 motor and its additional 50 horsepower.
The addition of larger brakes and a stronger driveline meant that the local Pontiac dealer was basically selling a four-seater Corvette, with a useable trunk and an appearance still generic enough to escape attention from most other drivers. Unfortunately, its price was well over what GM had benchmarked, and its sales were limited.
This may be one of the most handsome GTOs ever sold, instantly recognizable for its vertically stacked headlamps and wrap-around taillights with horizontal chrome ribs. Inside, a reworked instrument cluster brought important gauges closer to the driver’s line of sight, and engineers found another ten horsepower in the standard 389 V8.
This is also the year the GTO started to get traction in popular culture. Ronny And The Daytonas’ “G.T.O.” hit Number Four on the Billboard Hot 100, and Pontiac was pumping out GTO-branded merchandise. Sales doubled over the debut year, and competitors started to roll out. The arms race was on.
For the first time, Pontiac sold the ’66 GTO as a stand-alone model, and not as a trim package on the Tempest/LeMans. Stylists gave the '66 more of a classic “Coke-bottle” shape, with a slightly tunneled back window and more contoured fenders. The interior featured GM's new “Strato” buckets with optional head rests … the better for the driver to bang his/her head against when smoking the Goat’s tires.
Under the hood, Pontiac didn’t mess with much, offering the same 389 V8 and transmission options. The company didn't need to: more GTOs were sold in the 1966 model year than any other.
Every GM division took advantage of the automaker’s decision this year to drop its ban on big-block engines in mid-size cars. At Pontiac, the GTO offered the division’s 455 V8 as a beefy optional engine. Pontiac also discontinued its “economy”-tuned 400/2-barrel carb motor this year.
Outside, the Goat lost its sleek hidden headlight option in favor of four individual headlamp nacelles, still surrounded by a distinctive Endura nose. But the public’s interest in muscle cars was starting to wane, and while the GTO sold well, the numbers were starting to slip.
When John DeLorean called on GM’s upper management to approve the 389 in the first GTO, executives predicted it would only sell a few thousand units. They were off by a factor of six, as the added verve in the newly-redesigned Tempest/LeMans series made for an exciting and appealing sports coupe.
The division’s advertising message — “the GTO is not everyone’s cup of tea” — also created intrigue, and some well-placed (and secretly massaged) magazine road tests created buzz. And when prospective buyers caught a glimpse of those three gleaming two-barrel Tri-Power carbs on top of the 389, DeLorean knew they’d be sold. And a legend was born.
For generations of car fans, this is the image people have in their head when someone mentions a GTO. The ’69 marks the cleanest expression of this A-body generation (hidden headlights and Endura nose, no front vent windows), with the available (and potent) Ram Air III and IV setup and, most significantly, the legendary “Judge” performance and appearance package that turned heads at every stoplight in America.
The ’69 wasn’t the most popular Goat, nor was it the fastest or most powerful, but it’s one of the most highly-prized today, especially the Judge series … and it may be the most fully realized version of John DeLorean’s vision.