The formula was simple: big motor + little car = performance.
It's not surprising that the formula worked. It's just surprising that the formula took so long to be recognized, at least by the major automobile manufacturers. Out in California, the formula had been discovered about two decades earlier, when the original hot rodders had lowered big American V-8s into tiny Ford chassis. The result, a quick infusion of cheap performance.
At General Motors, they started to get the message in the late Forties with the introduction of Oldsmobile's Rocket V-8. By 1955 the message was getting louder, when both Chevrolet and Pontiac debuted new V-8 engines, and the newfound power began to transform the images of those two brands. As Semon E. "Bunkie" Knudsen once said, "You can sell a young man's car to an old man, but you'll never sell an old man's car to a young man."
When Knudsen came to the helm of Pontiac in 1956, it represented a strong direction change for the General Motors division. Founded in 1926 to replace Oakland as the bridge between low-priced Chevrolet and middle-of-the-road Oldsmobile, Pontiac developed a rather mundane image. By the early Fifties, it had settled into a comfortable rut as a safe choice for the middle-aged.
Knudsen turned out to change that dreary image by bringing some new blood into the division. Elliot "Pete" Estes was named chief engineer, and John DeLorean came over from Packard to direct advanced engineering. In short order, Pontiacs were winning on the racetrack, while the "silver streaks" that were to Pontiac what portholes were to Buick vanished from their hoods.
Even though the Automobile Manufacturers Association banned factory-backed racing programs in 1957, Knudsen and his minions slid around the rules with a backdoor operation it called the "Super Duty" program. Under the guise of "Super Duty," Pontiac developed and sold racing parts to a favored few, who then went on to capture many a checkered flag. Not coincidentally, Pontiac began to adopt famous motor sport names for its models, while dropping its Native American nomenclature.
Also in 1957 Pontiac introduced a concept that would eventually become a mainstay of the GTO program. Called Tri-Power, it was a three-carburetor set-up inspired by a project Estes had been involved in before he left Oldsmobile to join Pontiac. Perched atop a 347 cubic inch Pontiac big block V-8, the original Tri-Power delivered a stout 317 horsepower.
The first of the famous "Wide-Track" Pontiacs was introduced in 1959, and by 1960 Fireball Roberts was turning a 155-miles-per-hour lap at Daytona Motor Speedway with the strength of his "Super Duty" Pontiac V-8. Pontiac continued its domination of NASCAR in 1961, and it also set the drag racing world on fire as the fabled Jim Wangers captured victory after victory.
By the time Estes succeeded Knudsen as division head in 1961, Pontiac had ditched its "old man's car" image for good. Pontiac ran rampant through NASCAR in 1962 as well, but, up to that point Pontiac's performance success wasn't based on the big engine/small car theory. Instead, it was riding on the big car/bigger engine premise.
That changed in January 1963 when the spoilsports at General Motors decided that too much performance was a bad thing, even if Pontiac sales were charging forward as never before. GM corporate brass issued a memo that abruptly canceled the "Super Duty" 389 and 421 cubic inch engines. Luckily, Estes and DeLorean had another plan waiting in the wings.
In 1961 Pontiac had joined the small car revolution that had been started by Rambler with the introduction of the Pontiac Tempest, one of the oddest cars ever created by General Motors. Externally, it looked like just another compact in the same vein as the Ford Falcon or Plymouth Valiant, but underneath was a very unconventional drivetrain. From its front-mounted standard in-line four cylinder engine a flexible driveshaft extended to a rear transaxle. It wasn't a car that lent itself to performance, but for the 1964 model year, a completely re-done version was being readied, and it became the object of Estes and DeLorean's newest performance plan.
Their idea was to drop the 389 cubic inch Pontiac V-8 into the engine compartment of the new-for-1964 Tempest. The marriage of big engine to small car seemed made in heaven, because the new Tempest had eschewed its transaxle, rope transmission and semi-unit body to become, essentially, a smaller version of a standard-sized car. It had a separate body sitting on a full perimeter frame, and its live rear axle had the capability of working with a wide variety of powerplants.
But Estes and DeLorean had a problem. GM executives, fearful of where performance was taking them, establishing a edict banning big-blocks from the engine bay of the Tempest (and from the Buick Special, Olds F-85 and Chevrolet Chevelle.) Clearly, installing the 389 cubic inch engine in the Tempest was contrary to company policy. But Estes and DeLorean did it anyway.
They used the expedient of positioning the car they created as an option package rather than a new model. Since divisions were allowed to approve their own option packages, this apparently met the letter, if not the spirit, of GM policy.
In any case, when the 1964 model debuted in October 1963, among the choices available for the Pontiac Tempest LeMans was the GTO option group. (DeLorean, with a characteristic bit of chutzpah, named the package after the legendary Ferrari 250 GTO of 1962.) As with the original, "GTO" stood for Grand Turismo Omologato, and this author can still remember the stirring original radio commercials for the car repeating those words, but in the Pontiac's case they meant nothing, because the Pontiac GTO wasn't being homologated for anything besides the sales race.
Some of the automotive press severely chided Pontiac for the blatant rip-off, while David E. Davis Jr., then editor of Car and Driver magazine decided to square the two vehicles off in a memorable head-to-head test. In the hands of the C/D test drivers, the Pontiac GTO did far better than most would have expected.
The brouhaha didn't seem to matter too much to the public. They just liked the stuff they got in the GTO package. And why not? It was like getting a hot rod straight from the factory. Included in the package was a 325-horsepower hydraulic lifter version of the 389 topped with a Carter four-barrel carburetor, stiffer "performance" suspension, and a three-speed manual transmission with Hurst shifter. The subtle "appearance items" included GTO badging, blacked-out grille and a revised hood with "power scoop." Those who checked the right boxes could get a Tri-Power version of the 389 that pumped out 348 horsepower, four-speed transmission and limited-slip differential and go drag racing that same day.
Of course, straight-line acceleration was the GTO's forte. Its performance tuned shocks and springs made it handle better than the typical mid-Sixties intermediate, but on a road course, most sports cars would embarrass the GTO. The public didn't care, however. They just knew that the GTO was fast, fun and affordable. The Pontiac out-sold its namesake in the first week of its existence and never looked back. Finally, about a decade and a quarter of a million cars later, the GTO ground to a halt, strangled by smog regulations. It was an unfortunate end to a proud American warrior.