Pontiac GTO History

Article by Mark Trotta

Pontiac wasn't the first car company to drop a big motor in a mid-sized car, but they were the first to market a big motor in a mid-sized car. Rivaling anything on the road in straight-line acceleration, the 1964 Tempest-based GTO was wildly successful, prompting others to use the same basic formula. Every U.S. automotive manufacturer began packaging a factory hot rod with youth-oriented advertising, bringing about the muscle car craze of the sixties.

Pontiac GTO history

1961-1963 Pontiac Tempest

GTO history starts with the Pontiac Tempest, first appearing in 1961 as an entry-level compact car. A unique drivetrain arrangement had the front-mounted motor coupled to a rear-mounted transaxle through a torque shaft, eliminating the floor hump and giving the car a near-perfect front/rear weight distribution. Equally unique was the engine, a 195ci straight-four cylinder derived from the right cylinder-bank of Pontiac's 389ci V8.

For 1962, an optional Tempest LeMans package gave customers a more deluxe coupe or convertible with front bucket seats and console. A Buick-built 215-cubic inch V8 was available, but was not a popular option. The following year, Pontiac's 326-cubic inch V8 became available. Boasting an output of 260 horsepower and 352 ft/lb of torque, the new engine option proved to be very popular, and was ordered on more than half of all Tempest models. The LeMans became it's own series in 1963, and accounted for nearly 50 percent of Tempest sales.

1964 Pontiac Tempest

Along with the Buick Special and Oldsmobile Starfire, the Pontiac Tempest was enlarged from unibody compact to full-frame intermediate-sized car for 1964. The new platform, called the A-body, used a conventional front-engine, front transmission, rear-wheel drive configuration. The Tempest wheelbase grew to 115 inches and an overall length of 203 inches. Standard engine was a 215 cubic-inch inline six-cylinder. Capitalizing on last year's successful V-8 option, two versions of the 326ci V8 were offered.

Pontiac GTO history

Pontiac, looking to compete with Chevy Chevelle, Olds 4-4-2, Dodge Polara 500, and Plymouth Sport Fury, needed to make the new LeMans more appealing. Executives quickly realized that their 389 motor, found in full-sized Catalinas and Bonnevilles, would easily fit under the hood.

GM Corporate Loophole

There was, however, an obstacle in offering the larger V8. General Motors had set a corporate policy on all A-body series cars, stating engines were to be no larger than 330 cubic inches. The corporate ban did not seem to apply on options, so promoting a 389-equipped Tempest as a special model, Pontiac got around the rules. The new performance package would be a low-volume option on the LeMans series, named GTO.

GTO Name

The GTO name was the idea of Pontiac chief engineer John Delorean. It was inspired by the Ferrari 250 GTO, and since Ferrari had not patented the name in North America, it was free to use. Although many believe that GTO stands for Gran Turismo Omologato ("grand tourer homologated"), Pontiac enthusiasts contend it stands for "Grand Tempest Option".

1964 Pontiac LeMans GTO

Available with the two-door coupe, hardtop coupe, or convertible LeMans models, the GTO package featured front bucket seats, floor shifter, and a well-planned performance image. Standard engine was a 325 horsepower 389 V8, topped with chrome valve covers, chrome air cleaner, and one Carter AFB four-barrel carburetor. A floor-shifted three-speed manual with Hurst shifter was standard, with a four-speed manual or two-speed automatic transmission optional.

Standard features on the 1964 GTO included dual exhaust, seven-blade clutch-fan, stiffer springs, and larger diameter front sway bar. The exterior was set off by 14"x6" wheels, 7.50"14" redline tires, non-functional hood scoops, and GTO badges.

Performance options included quick-ratio steering, metallic brake linings, and limited-slip differential in several choices of gear ratios.

GTO Tri-Power

Topping off the option list was the 389 Tri-Power Engine, featuring an induction system Pontiac had used on full-size models since 1957. Three two-barrel Rochester carburetors sat on top of a cast-iron intake manifold, each with it's own small, chrome air filter. The engine ran off the center carburetor at idle and low speeds. When the gas pedal was stomped on, all three carbs opened together.

Pontiac GTO history

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With the Tri-Power option, engine output was boosted to 348 horsepower, which gave the 3,500 pound car a power-to-weight ratio of nearly ten-to-one. No car in its price range could match it's performance.

By the end of the 1964 model year, the Pontiac GTO had proven itself at the track, as well as on the street. Road and Track magazine had clocked a Tri-power-equipped GTO in the standing quarter-mile, resulting in 14.1 seconds with a top speed of 104.2 miles per hour. A 375-horsepower fuel-injected Corvette, tested by MotorTrend magazine that same year, clocked 14.2 seconds at 100.0 mph.

Originally intending to build only 5,000 for the first year, a total of 32,450 GTO-optioned Tempests were produced in 1964. Model breakdown is 7,384 coupes, 18,422 hardtops, and 6,644 convertibles ordered with the GTO package.

Read: Muscle Car History

1965 Pontiac GTO

The Tempest line, including the LeMans and GTO, was restyled for the 1965 model year. A new split grille had vertical headlights similar to the larger Pontiacs, with revised taillights that wrapped around the sides of the car. Although the new hood's simulated scoop was non-functional, an optional dealer-installed ram-air kit included a metal underhood pan, scoop, and gasket, allowing cooler, denser air to enter the motor.

When talking about muscle cars, few can argue that the GTO was daddy of 'em all

Beginning with the 1965 model year, cylinder heads were revised and no longer had stud oiling passages. Intake manifolds were also different, and do not interchange with earlier motors.

Horsepower increased to 335 for the standard 4-barrel engine, Tri-power motor output jumped to 360 horsepower. Because of the longer duration cam profile, the Tri-power engine had slightly less torque (424 lb/ft at 3,600 rpm) than the base engine (431 lb/ft at 3,200 rpm).

Pontiac GTO sales more than doubled in it's second year, with 8,319 sport coupes, 55,722 hardtop coupes, and 11,311 convertibles sold, a combined total of 75,342. Many people consider the GTO the first muscle car.

GTO VIN Information

First and second-year GTO models were an only an option on the Pontiac Tempest model, so they can be easily forged. Check the VIN of the car with PHS (Pontiac Historical Services) before buying one!

Early model GTO's (1964-1967) had the VIN number stamped on a metal plate on the driver's-side door pillar. For 1964 models, it is an eight-digit number. From 1965-1971, the VIN number was 13 characters. Pontiac also stamped the last eight digits of the VIN on a metal pad on the right-hand front of the engine block. Unfortunately, it is fairly easy to re-stamp this number, making original engine blocks hard to authenticate.


The song "Little GTO" by Ronnie and the Daytonas was a Top-Ten hit in 1964, and remains one of the all time greatest classic car songs. It reached #4 on the Billboard Pop Singles chart and sold over one million copies.

Pontiac GTO History