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Pontiac GTO – Muscle Car 2020 Review

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Written by Elise

25th September 2020

Pontiac GTO – Muscle Car 2020 Review
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Pontiac GTO – Muscle Car 2020 Review

Widely recognised as the first American muscle car and general iconic hot rod, the Pontiac GTO was unparalleled in its trendsetting.

As one of the OG’s of the muscle car era – if not the OG – it earned a high spot in our list of muscle cars we wish were still around.

Unfortunately, some loves burn so bright that they end up fully consuming everything in its path. Once outshone by the likes of Ford and Chevrolet, Pontiac never recovered the status and glory that the GTO brought them.

Background and History of Pontiac GTO 

Released by Pontiac as part of the Tempest line in 1964, the Pontiac GTO model years continued until 1974. The name GTO was deliberately chosen the echo the Ferrari 250 GTO (pictured below), a famously successful race car. 

One of four automakers constantly competing for the best models and performance,  Pontiac started out on top by bringing out the GTO package on any intermediate-sized Pontiac Tempest LeMans, becoming a separate model from 1966 to 1971.

Due to General Motors’ ban on factory involvement in street racing, the Pontiac’s advertisement heavily emphasised street performance (which, while crucial to drag racing, was not covered by GM’s 1957 voluntary ban on automobile racing). The GTO package was at first only an option for a large engine to be installed, exploiting a loophole in the legislation that banned engines larger than 330 cu in cars of that size.

From the very start, then, Pontiac associated the GTO package with high performance, danger, and the excitement of the barely-legal.

The famous engineer John DeLorean, Bill Collins, and Russ Gee were responsible for the creation of the Pontiac GTO, choosing to transform the second generation of the Pontiac Tempest into a sportier car with a full-sized 389 cu in Pontiac V8 engine, taken from the Catalina and Bonneville models. The GTO (below) is sometimes remembered as one of DeLorean’s best creations.


Promoting big engines in moderate-sized cars successfully appealed to the speed-loving youth of the era, who were hungry for affordable cars that would win drag races. Pontiac’s competitors at the time, such as Ford, had not yet recognised the potential in this marketing approach, focusing instead on revamping earlier models for the same market as before.

Even the Pontiac manager at the time was unsure what success the Pontiac GTO package would meet, limiting the production at 5,000 cars only.


Pontiac GTO Specs

There were four generations of Pontiac GTOs during the original model years.

First generation (1964, 1965, 1966 & 1967):

Originally only an option package available for coupe, hardtop and convertible body styles.

Included were a 389 cu in (6.4 L) V8 rated at 325 hp at 4,800 rpm with a single Carter AFB four-barrel carburetor and dual exhaust pipes, three-speed manual transmission with a Hurst shifter, wider wheels, hood scoops, and GTO badges for the interior and exterior. A tachometer was optional.

Without power steering, drivers tended to find the steering slow – a major disadvantage in drag racing, which the advertising implied was the car’s main purpose.

In 1965, the entire Tempest line (the GTO’s successor) was restyled, notably changing to new simulated hood scoops, which allowed for louder engine sound. 

In 1966, the Pontiac GTO became a separate Pontiac model in its own right, receiving several cosmetic changes and various interior options available, but the overall weight remaining about the same.

1967 Pontiac GTO saw a couple more styling and mechanical changes to reflect changing security regulations. Already, however, sales were starting to decline, going from nearly 100,000 in 1966 to under 82,000 in 1967. 

1964 Pontiac GTO

Second generation (1968, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972):

The second generation of Pontiac GTO saw many mechanical changes, including engines of various sizes and power.

General Motors redesigned the A-Body line to be more curvaceous, and a new option of concealed headlights proved popular.

The result was a car that was exciting for short bursts of time, but lacking in practicality or durability due to undue stress on hard-working engine components.

The 1969 Pontiac GTO saw the introduction of the Pontiac Judge (below), meant to be a feature-less, low-cost GTO and direct competitor to the Plymouth Road Runner. Despite the many options and colours available, the advertised advantages of this model were of little use at legal speeds, and so sales of the Chevrolet Chevelle and Plymouth Road Runner far surpassed the 6,883 Judge models sold that year. 

1970 saw another facelift for the Tempest line, including improvements to the handling and suspension to rival the Buick Gran Sport and Oldsmobile 442 (both of which nabbed a spot in our wishlist of discontinued American muscle cars). Again, the improved styling did little to save the declining sales, which were being hit by a sagging interest in all muscle cars because of punitive insurance policies at the time.

Take this 1972 Pontiac GTO 455 HO (above). According to its consignor, it has a 455ci V8 paired with a 4-speed Muncie M-22 “rock crusher” transmission. As a car, it has a great stance and even a tachometer in the hood. Loud, showy, and completely over the top. But then… that is what owning a muscle car should all be about.

Third generation (1973):

1973 Pontiac GTOs saw more styling and cosmetic upgrades, but lack of promotion meant that the Cutlass, by Pontiac’s sister division Oldsmobile, was much better received despite similar body styles. 

Fourth generation (1974):

This time, the GTO model was styled on the more compact Pontiac Ventura, which helped to improve sales again, though not enough to save the model. Also clashing with the muscle and performance car industry at this point were emission laws demanding the use of catalytic converters in automobiles.


Pontiac GTO in Pop Culture 

A regular and popular appearance in Hot Wheels collections, the Pontiac GTO has also featured in Hollywood, including The Last Ride (2004). 

A matte black 1969 GTO Judge also played a role in the action movie The Punisher (2004).


Pontiac GTO Today

For such a legendary car, it seems the Pontiac GTO’s legacy must remain confined to trendsetting. Very quickly, the Pontiac brand was outshone by the giants of the muscle car world, including Ford, Chevrolet, Buick, and Dodge. 

After a 30-year hiatus, the GTO line was brought out again by the Australian GM subsidiary Holden between 2004 and 2006. Sadly, the early 2000s Pontiac GTOs were disappointing and almost shockingly so. Unable to rival the performance of average Mustangs or Chevrolet Camaros of the same era, the half-arsed resurrectes 2006 Pontiac GTO was a flop.

What the modern Pontiac GTOs lacked wasn’t potential, however: the line was once more resurrected in 2020, giving way to many more GTO variations: we’re talking 2020 Pontiac GTO Judge (below), 2021 Pontiac GTO, limited editions of each model… the whole shebang!


Final Thoughts on the Pontiac GTO

Despite being overshadowed by its competitors for most of its model years, the Pontiac GTO remains the third most successful intermediate-sized muscle car, behind the Chevy Chevelle and Plymouth Road Runner. And every bit as iconic, we think. 

A 1970 Pontiac GTO convertible is the stuff of many dreams, but finding a good GTO for sale in the UK may be tricky, although there are plenty of listings online. Just be careful on the upkeep, which doesn’t come cheap, although financing is usually available.

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