Retro-review: 1974 Pontiac GTO

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The original muscle car era lasted about a decade, from 1964 to 1974 – just before the industry-wide adoption of catalytic converters. After ’74, power plummeted for a decade and even when things began to pick up again in the mid ’80s, it just wasn’t the same. Performance made a comeback, but muscle cars – simple, brutal, big-engined American coupes – never did.

Book-ending the class muscle car era of 1964-1974 were two very different Pontiacs, both of them wearing the same legendary three-letter badge: GTO.

The 1974 – and final – true GTO was not especially well-received at the time of its introduction. By then, the GTO had been on a downward slide that began in 1972, when GM cut compression ratios across the board and began to throttle back the wild-child engines that had made the early GTO’s rep on the street – and track. It was clear the peak had passed; each new model year seemed to bring more bad news for GTO fans. The 455 got dropped; awkward-looking heavy chrome bumpers replaced the slick Enduro nosepiece that had graced previous Goats. The hood scoops no longer scooped… .

But when the calendar flipped over to 1974, the GTO had been radically transformed.

It was a much smaller car, for starters. Instead of being based on the mid-sized LeMans coupe, the all-new ’74 GTO was now based on the compact-sized Ventura – the Pontiac version of the Chevy Nova – in the buyer’s choice of hatchback or standard coupe bodystyles.

This was the only year buyers could order a hatchback GTO.

It was also the first – and only – GTO to offer Pontiac’s small-displacement 350 cubic inch V-8 as the standard (and only available) engine. The Ram Air and HO 400 and 455 V-8s of past years were gone for good. Even the low-performance (low compression) 400 that used to be the base engine in the GTO was gone.

Even worse, 1974 would be the final year for a new GTO with a Pontiac-built engine of any kind at all.

The 5.7 liter 350 V-8 had no special camshaft, high-flow cylinder heads or any internal upgrades that differed significantly from the 350s used in non-GTO Venturas and other Pontiac models. It had no chrome valve covers or other dress-up items. Other than being equipped with true dual exhausts – which would disappear after ’74, when catalytic converters became standard equipment on all GM passenger cars and with them, single exhaust – it was just your basic small-displacement, four-barrel V-8. But it was still a Pontiac-built V-8 and its compression ratio of 7.6:1 assured that detonation from burning the recently introduced low-lead unleaded gas would never be a problem.

Pontiac rated this engine at 200 horsepower, net, at 4,000 RPM. The buyer had his choice of manual three or four-speed, or three-speed automatic transmissions (except in California, where the automatic was mandatory ) with either a 2.73 or somewhat more aggressive 3.08 ratio rear axle with limited slip differential. That’s about as hot as it got.

Base price for the ’74 coupe was $3,173. The hatchback was slightly pricier, with an MSRP of $3,313. No convertible version was ever offered – but you could order a vinyl roof.

A multitude of colors were available, though – including Buccaneer Red, Admiralty Blue, Sunstorm Yellow and Carmel Beige. Buyers could select contrasting interior colors, too. Still, by GTO standards, the ’74 was plain-looking. No billboard graphics packages; just a few discretely placed “GTO” emblems and a pair of chrome-plated exhaust splitters clued you in to the car’s other-than-Ventura status.

Oh yes, there was one other thing:

The ’74 GTO had a Trans-Am style “shaker” hood scoop. And while the Trans-Am’s scoop had been boarded up and rendered purely decorative since 1972 (some say to comply with federal drive-by noise regulations) the ’74 GTO’s scoop was fully operational. As inthe early Trans-Am, it used a vacuum-actuated flapper door to admit cooler outside air to the single Rochester 4-barrel carburetor when the driver floored it. This was the only year a shaker scoop was used on a GTO – and the scoop is actually slightly different from the TA’s and the air cleaner parts and other pieces do not directly interchange.

During its brief production run – which barely lasted a full calendar year – ’74 GTOs were assembled at either GM’s Van Nuys, CA plant (alongside the Camaro/Firebird) or Willow Run in Michigan. Though there are rumors Pontiac at least entertained the idea of continuing the GTO into 1975 (photos exist of allegedly prototype ’75s), the market for performance cars seemed to be tanking at this time and Pontiac management just wasn’t much interested in pursuing the project. Among other potential obstacles, a 1975 GTO would have had to have had a catalytic converter and therefore – given budget constraints – a single exhaust system. That would probably have lopped another 10-20 hp off the top and – along with further “emissions tuning” – would probably have fatally undermined the car’s claim to being anything other than a decal package disco machine.

And so, just as Chevrolet decided to let the Camaro Z28 die with some dignity, the decision was made to retire the GTO rather than drag a great name through the mud.

Despite all this, the perception that the last real-deal Goat (“real,” because it was the last one to be equipped with a Pontiac-built engine) was a sore-gummed dog unworthy of the GTO crest is an unfair slam if you check out the car’s none-too-sore-gummed performance. Its 0-60 time of 7.7 seconds was actually only slightly behind than the original ’64 389 GTO’s 0-60 clocking of 7.5 seconds. And the ’74’s quarter-mile time of 15.7 seconds was almost exactly the same as the ’64s.

Even compared with the high water mark 1970 Ram Air III 400-equipped GTO, the ’74 was not an embarrassment – being only about a second and a half slower to 60 mph and needing another second to make it through the quarter-mile.

How was this possible with only 200 hp – vs. the original’s 325-hp 389 V-8 or the ’70 model’s 366-hp Ram Air III 400?

One reason was simply the ’74 GTO’s much-reduced curb weight – which had dropped by several hundred pounds. The trimmed-down ’74 compensated for lower output by having less stamped steel to lug around. Also, the way advertised horsepower was measured had changed since the GTO’s inception in 1964. The original Goat’s 325 “gross” advertised hp was arrived at by what would be considered cheating today – with the engine on a stand and free of most engine-driven accessories and breathing through a much less restrictive exhaust system.

The SAE “net” standards that replaced SAE “gross” ratings (beginning with the 1972 model year) were a much more realistic gauge of the actual power output of a given engine, installed in the car, at the rear wheels. The ’74 GTO 350’s 200-hp “net” would probably have been “gross” rated 225-250-hp under the same standard used to measure and rate the original GTO’s 325-hp V-8.

The rest of the difference was mostly dead weight; the cars were nearly even in terms of their actual on-the-road performance.

But the ’74 was a much better-balanced car than the early GTOs – literally.

While the GTOs of the mid-’60s were stunning cars to look at and often formidable performers in a straight line, their handling and braking were typical mid-’60s muscle car – which is to say, not exactly SCCA material. Since Pontiac engineers had less and less leeway to develop high-horsepower engines (as a result of the new emissions regulations and pressure to build at least semi-economical cars), they spent more and more time on other aspects of performance for the last GTO. Lighter on its feet to begin with, the ’74 featured Pontiac’s innovative Radial Tuned Suspension (RTS) system, which took advantage of the latest developments in tire technology and focused on decreasing body roll via beefy front and rear anti-swaybars instead of going with ultra-stiff leaf and coil springs. The result was a car with a very compliant ride – again, relative to previous GTOs – that could take a turn at speed with much more confidence than the older, heavier Goats. The ’74s power disc/drum brakes and 15-inch Rally II wheels (vs. the 14s that were standard n some early GTOs) complemented the rest of the chassis and gave the driver a car that was more a GT coupe than an all-out muscle car.

Almost 40 years have ticked by since the last GTO came – and went. Considered an Ugly Betty when it was new, in hindsight, the car looks better and better all the time. Pontiac came up with a pretty decent package, considering the times and what it had to work with. And with a few fairly easy and cheap modifications, a ’74 GTO could easily be pumped-up enough to compete with its better-respected forebears. A hotter cam, some HO manifolds and maybe wick up the ignition timing a bit would get you into the high 13s, no problemo.

The ’74s are also the last of the classic-era GTOs that are still relatively affordable to buy, too.

That is, if you can find one. The one-year-only production run (just 7,058 were produced in all – the lowest production run of the GTO’s history. 1,723 of these were hatchbacks, making a ’74 GTO hatchback among the rarest classic-era Goats ever made) combined with years – no, decades – of disinterest has left few survivors intact and operational. The semi- unibody (like the same-era Camaro and Firebird) body is prone to rust – but unlike the hugely popular same-era Camaro/Firebird – parts (used or NOS) are much harder to come by.

But if you’re up to the challenge – and are interested in owning a neat (and rare) example of classic American muscle – a ’74 GTO is hard to beat.

 

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25 COMMENTS

  1. I own a 1974 GTO and i love it. It handles great, stops great and the 4 speed makes it fun to drive. The prices are going up and people seem to think you can just buy an original in good shape for $5000…well I have news the prices are climbing. For a strong #2 car your looking at $20k plus. That’s if you can find one. I think people look at old data when they come up with low figures on there cars. Its like looking at older pricing on a 1968 GTO thinking there still cheap…A #2 GTO original car is $35k to $50k now. If you ever come across an “original” 1974 GTO at a good price consider grabbing it because the prices are climbing fast.

  2. I love this car. Pontiac was the only car maker with balls during this time frame. Although the 74 GTO was based on the Nova….that’s about where the comparison should stop.

    Functioning Trans Am shaker hood, limited slip rear, Radial Tuned Suspension, and a 200hp 350 which saw it’s power peak at 4400rpm and 296lb/ft of torque at 2800rpm. Even though the stoutest gear was a 3.08:1 these cars would really move for the day. Bone stock with no mods a 3spd 1974 GTO could run mid to high 15’s…..this is on crap gas with a detuned engine. The baddest Nova could only be had with a tepid Chevy 350 of around 160hp (depending on who you listen to).

    Road tests of the day revealed this little road car to be just as quick as the 389 equipped 1964 version which is legendary to this day. Not only could the 74 hold it’s own in a straight line run, it would flat out smoke a 64 on the road course. I especially liked Pontiac’s treatment of the front and rear ends of the car. While the front hearkened back to the original cars with the grill mounted driving lights, the rear end had split taillights indicative of what would be found on the 65. Cool little car that deserves more respect than it gets. I would like to add however that the prices on this particular model has risin to a very large degree over the last 5 years or so. Maybe they will end up getting the respect they deserve.

    • I’ve come to appreciate the ’74 GTO too, for all the reasons you’ve laid out.

      It may not have had the engine that earlier GTOs had – but it was much lighter. With just a little work – such as adding RA III cast factory headers and a proper dual exhaust, putting in a more aggressive 3.23-3.42 ratio rear-end… you had a real runner that was also a very good handler. Most people don’t realize that the Ventura-based GTO (like the Chevy Nova) shared most of its suspension system with the same-era Camaro/Firebird, which were amomng the best-handling new cars of the period. The same upgrades that work so well on a Camaro or TA work equally well on the ’74 GTO – and unlike a ’74 Trans-Am or Camaro, a hatchback GTO has a lot of interior room, too!

        • Hi Shane,

          Yes. Some Pontiac heads had one or two fewer studs – making sealing a bit more of a challenge – but the manifolds themselves will fit any D-port head.

          I have them on my ’76 TA, with 6X heads.

          Great car, by the way!

        • Shane shoot me an email sometime, I have a 74GTO that I have had since I was 15 that I have just started to restore also.

          • Scott,

            Hold onto that GTO! The ’74 – much mocked “back in the day” – are rare as hell today. And rapidly upticking in esteem. And price.

            Same thing happened – is happening – to mid-late ’70s Trans-Ams. For a long while (’80s and into the ’90s) you could pick up one of these “disco” Trans-Ams (even ones with the 400/4-speed) for not much coin. Now, excellent condition ones are going for $30k or more. It won’t be too many more years before they, like the early (’67-’74) cars become rich men’s toys.

            So, treasure your Goat – and that it’s yours!

    • The more time goes by, the more I agree. Back in the day, the last GTO got very little respect. It was small and subdued compared with its recent ancestors – and I think that’s they key to understanding the lack of respect. Stacked up next to a ’70 Judge, sure, a ’74 GTO looks watered down. But park one next to a first-year ’64 GTO. That first GTO was pretty mild-looking, too. And it wasn’t a huge car, either. And under the hood? A 389. Not much larger than the ’74’s 350. And they both performed about the same, too – mid-low 15 second quarter-miles.

      The ’74 had a lot of potential – ad arguably, was closer to the original GTO in concept. It was light and no-frills and inexpensive. The GTOs of the late ’60s had grown heavy, laden with equipment – and gotten pretty expensive, too.

      I like all GTOs – but I think it’s time to defend the last one as much as we cheer the middle year ones!

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