The original 1964 Pontiac GTO was a huge success. Pontiac’s attempt to bring the GTO back in 2003 was a massive fail.
Why? How could the same car not succeed, again?
More to the point, it wasn’t really a Pontiac, either. Those stopped being made decades before the decision was made to put a “Pontiac” badge on an Australian-market Holden Monaro coupe powered by a Chevy V8 and call it a “GTO.”
And that’s what it was – and that’s why it failed.
Even though in many ways the last “GTO” was a better performance car than any of its namesake ancestors. It was quicker through the quarter-mile (13.8 seconds vs. 14.8 for the original 1964 model) and boasted a supercar’s top speed – 160 MPH – which it could reach due to its more favorable gearing and much more favorable aerodynamics.
But it wasn’t a GTO.
The original 1964 GTO did not have a Chevy engine. It was powered by a Pontiac 389 V8, which gave people a reason to favor it over a Chevy. Not that there’s anything wrong with Chevy V8s. Far from it. In many ways, they are admittedly superior – as for example being more compact and lighter, the latter benefitting both straight-line performance and handling. But those attributes are objectives and – sometimes – subjectives trump objectives.
Especially when emotions are involved.
Pontiac V8s were, first of all, Pontiac V8s. They were different than Chevy V8s. People liked them for that reason, the same reason some men prefer blondes and others, brunettes. Neither is necessarily “better” but they are different.
And that’s important.
The Pontiac V8 was also bigger – physically – than the Chevy, which came in both small and big block iterations. Even the “small” Pontiac V8s – the 326s and 350s – were dimensionally as large as the biggest 421, 428 and 455 Pontiacs. They looked more impressive when you popped the hood – a subjective that matters to people who are emotional about cars.
The 1964 GTO’s standard 389 cubic inch V8 – 6.5 liters in the androgynous engine terminology of the modern era – was bigger than most engines of its time and much bigger than the 2003 GTO’s 350 cubic inch – 5.7 liter – V8. Even though the two offered roughly the same advertised horsepower – 348 for the ’64 389 vs. 350 for the ’03 350 – and even though the ’03’s 350 horsepower was more real (rear-wheel) horsepower than the ’64’s optimistically rated SAE “gross” horsepower – a fact made clear by the modern GTO’s better numbers, 0-60 and through the quarter mile.
Nevertheless, the ’64 GTO remains beloved to this day and highly collectible – while the ’03 GTO is largely forgotten.
Three-eighty-nine has a certain ring to it that 5.7 liters doesn’t. The Beach Boys wrote a song about it. We’ve lost something important, arguably, via the adoption by American car companies of the metric system. Something different. Something American – vs. European and the rest of them. Not – again – that there’s anything necessarily wrong with the rest of them or the metic system.
The point is that – once upon a time – American cars weren’t the same as the rest of them.
You could also get the original GTO with three deuces to go with that three eighty-nine. That’s affectionate slang for three Rochester two barrel carbs, which was a very Pontiac thing. The ’03 GTO’s 5.7 350 had the same port fuel injection system that the same 5.7 V8 was fed by in the Corvette, which was powered by the same 5.7 V8.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that, objectively speaking. But that’s just the point. Or rather, the point missed. A Pontiac without a Pontiac engine is like Van Halen without David Lee Roth. Not that there’s anything wrong with Sammy Hagar, either.
Of course, it was about more than just what was under the hood. The early GTOs looked like GTOs. They were more than just good-looking cars – almost everyone agrees with this. They looked like Pontiacs. Anyone could tell, at a glance, that what they were looking at was just that.
The last GTO had “GTO” badges.
It wasn’t an unattractive car. But it wasn’t a magnetic car, as all of the early GTOs were. When one of the latter pulls into a parking lot, everyone notices.It can’t be helped. These cars make you look at them. When a 2003-2006 GTO pulls into the parking lot, no one notices.
Because what’s to notice?
The final fatal flaw that doomed the attempt to bring back the GTO and – so, it was hoped – keep Pontiac going – was the last GTO’s price, which was $34,000 in 2003 dollars. That works out to $56,675 in “inflation adjusted” 2023 dollars. As compared with the 1964s GTO’s $3,371 base price, which works out to $19,858 in 2003 dollars.
Granted, that didn’t buy you (in 1964) a GTO with AC, power windows and – all of which the 2003-2006 GTOs came standard with.
But it did buy you a GTO.
And – equally important – the people most interested in cars like that (young guys) could afford to buy one, back in 1964. It was mostly only older guys who could afford a 2003-2006 GTO – and by the time you got old enough to afford a car like that, you’d lost interest in cars like that.
Especially if it wasn’t an interesting car.
And that’s why “Pontiac” only sold about 10,000 more “GTOs” (40,757 total) over three years of production than Pontiac sold GTOs (32,450 of them) in 1964 alone.
John DeLorean knew why.
The people who thought they could sell a “GTO” that wasn’t even a Pontiac, didn’t.
. . .
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