Happy Birthday! The Pontiac GTO also turns 50 image

While in the space of just a few months two iconic cars of the 1960s were born, the story today centers around an ill fated muscle car, Pontiac’s GTO – or the “goat” as it was fondly named by fans.

Back then, although Ford just launched the original 1964 pony car – the Mustang, rival Detroit automaker General Motors was both “mother” and “father” to American motorists – a long way from such public scandals as the one that surrounds it today over the recall of cars equipped with defective ignition switches.

Back then, GM built cars that people desired and craved for, with a good example being the inception in the same 1964 year of the head turning, street tearing, icon in the making Pontiac GTO. Today, while the fact that GM’s “goat” no longer exists is nothing out of the ordinary, it’s a good example to the days we’re living in that not even the Pontiac brand exists anymore.

“Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s there was a new group of buyers coming into the market. Kids wanted personal mobility and some high performance mobility. Young people were the driving force,” said Jim Wangers, former PR and advertising executive for Pontiac. “That was the group we now call the Baby Boomers.”

Wangers recalls how John DeLorean and his boss, Semon “Bunkie” Knudsen worked to attract young buyers to the Pontiac brand and while GM – who was having a 55% market share in the day and was close to the 60% threshold that would prompt the feds to dismantle the automaker like they did with Standard Oil – told them to “stop attracting young people,” the dynamic duo was relentless and with the help of the engineers came up with a new idea.

“Essentially, take the biggest engine and stuff it into the smallest chassis. Which is a trick the hot rod community had been doing for years. Well, Pontiac decided to do it as a manufacturer,” said Wangers.

And DeLorean wanted the car into production – and circumvented the top brass through the don’t tell, beg for forgiveness later policy – through a loophole that allowed a car that was not a new model, just a new version, make it into production without the approval of the Engineering Policy Group (EPG).

They were eventually able to produce 5,000 units without upper management taking notice – as the car was actually officially a LeMans model with the famous GTO as an option. The moniker stands for the Italian words “gran turismo omologato” – which was used in Europe to designate high performance road cars that had parts made by the same automaker but not designed for the model.

“The car was at the right place at the right time – the GTO. And of course, when it hit the marketplace it was an overnight smash,” said Wangers. “These were cars that you could plant your foot in and get thrust back in the seat and have some fun,” he adds.

The GTO consistently fought the other muscle cars of the era, namely the higher performance Mustangs and the Dodge Challenger, but fell victim in 1974 to the first oil crisis.

GM resurrected the nameplate three decades later, but the execution was done rather poorly – they just stuffed a hulking V8 under the hood of an Australian import – the left-hand-drive version of the Holden Commodore. It just lasted until 2006 and three years later Pontiac also “died”.