The 1964-1965 Pontiac GTO was one of those great ideas that was bound to happen. That it happened at Pontiac speaks volumes about the division's marketing savvy in the '60s, as well as its ability to satisfy the public.
Pontiac's new-for-'61 Tempest compact had satisfied enthusiasts seeking technical sophistication, but not the vast majority of buyers who valued smooth, effortless performance and reliable simplicity. That began changing for 1963, when Tempest offered a new 260-horsepower 326 V-8 option, a debored version of Pontiac's then-legendary 389. But adman Jim Wangers wanted even more, and fate played right into his hands with a Tempest bulked up to mid-size proportions for 1964.
It appeared with taut, geometric lines on a new corporate A-body platform shared with Chevrolet's new Chevelle, Oldsmobile's F-85/Cutlass, and Buick's Special/Skylark. Unit construction was abandoned for body-on-frame, a conventional driveline ousted the radical "rope drive" and rear transaxle, wheelbase was stretched three inches to 115, rear swing axles gave way to a solid axle with full-coil suspension, and there were bigger new bodies with extra underhood space for bigger engines.
With help from division chief engineer John DeLorean and Pontiac general manager "Pete" Estes, Wangers got his "muscle car." But a General Motors policy prohibited such antics, so they had to package it as an option (at just under $300) for the '64 Tempest LeMans coupe, convertible, and two-door hardtop.
Wangers liked to race cars, so he knew his hot rod had to have more than just a big engine. He thus specified three-speed manual transmission with floorshift, quick steering, heavy-duty suspension, upgraded tires, dual exhausts, and racy touches like a simulated engine-turned metal dash applique. To top it off, Wangers brazenly borrowed "GTO" from a recent Ferrari. The initials denoted Gran Turismo Omologato, Italian for a racing-approved production grand touring car.
The 1964-1965 Pontiac GTO had the heart of a hot rod. Learn more about this car's powerful performance features on the next page.
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The 1964-1965 Pontiac GTO proved worthy of its name in decisive fashion. For one thing, performance was red hot. Special camshaft and lifters, cylinder heads from the potent 421 "H.O." engine, and a big four-barrel Carter carb delivered 325 standard horses; optional Tri-Power carburetion boosted that to 348. With the latter, a GTO could do 0-60 mph in as little as 6.5 seconds, over 130 mph all out, and standing quarter-miles of less than 15 seconds at nearly 100 mph.
Pontiac's GTO was no less a road machine than Ferrari's GTO. In a bold comparison test, Car and Driver said a "good" Pontiac would trim the Ferrari in a drag race and lose on a road course. But "with the addition of NASCAR road racing suspension, the Pontiac will take the measure of any Ferrari other than prototype racing cars. . . The Ferrari costs $20,000. With every conceivable option on a GTO, it would be difficult to spend more than $3,800. That's a bargain."
On that subject, most GTOs ended up being "built" from the sales catalog, partly because Pontiac offered so many goodies. To the basic package one could add heavy-duty three-speed manual or a four-speed gearbox (also with floorshift and Hurst linkage), two-speed Hydra-Matic, metallic brake linings, heavy-duty radiator, limited-slip differential, vinyl top, center console, radio, air conditioning, power steering/brakes/windows, whitewall or red-stripe tires, even side-exit exhaust splitters. Then all you needed was a lead foot and lots of gas.
Pontiac may have been the only one surprised by GTO sales, which proved as hot as the car itself. Against only 5,000 initially projected, the division moved over 32,000 for '64 -- a tremendous success.
With American youth fully overcome by "muscle-car mania," the GTO stood basically pat for '65. Even so, it shared in that year's sharp Tempest facelift, announced by a wider-appearing front end with newly stacked quad headlamps. Options were mostly as before, but standard power was uprated to 335 via revised cylinder heads, and the Tri-Power option (still a bargain at $116) was boosted to 360 via a wilder camshaft.
Sales increased, too -- by over 100 percent -- despite the advent of the Olds 4-4-2 and Chevy's Chevelle SS396. Even more competition was imminent, but the GTO would see still higher volume in later years.
For many enthusiasts, the 1964-65 GTO remains the only muscle car that matters: the first, if not the best ever built. All GTOs have since become collector's items, but none more than these; indeed, there have never been enough to go around. But that's the way it is with great ideas -- and "instant legends."
Read about the 1964-1965 Pontiac GTO's engine specifications on the next page.
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1964-1965 Pontiac GTO Specifications
At the core of the 1964-1965 Pontiac GTO was a powerful engine capable of achieving 0-60 mph in as little as 6.5 seconds.
Engines: all ohv V-8; 389 cid (4.06 × 3.75), 325/348 bhp (1964), 335/360 bhp (1965)
Transmissions: 3/4-speed manual, 2-speed Hydra-Matic
Suspension front: upper and lower A-arms, coil springs
Suspension rear: 4-link live axle, coil springs
Brakes: front/rear drums
Wheelbase (in.): 115.0
Weight (lbs.): 3,000-3,565
Top speed (mph): 130+
0-60 mph (sec): 6.5-7.7
Production: 1964 spt cpe 7,384; htp cpe 18,422; cvt 6,644; 1965 spt cpe 8,319; htp cpe 55,722; cvt 11,311