The origin of the GTO, the vehicle that became an icon for the muscle car set, is really a story of one man’s battle against the corporate establishment. That man, John Z. DeLorean, was at the time, chief engineer of Pontiac. What he wanted was to build a normally mild-mannered mid-sized sedan powered by a big powerful V-8.
The GTO concept developed in early 1963 when DeLorean, along with members of his engineering staff were experimenting with the Tempest, an economy Pontiac introduced the previous year. The cars four-cylinder engine was inherently rough-running and vibration prone. As a compensation for the car’s power deficiency, it was suggested that since the Tempest’s four cylinder shared the same engine mounts as the V8 it would be easy to install the big motor into the little car.
A prototype was constructed using a Tempest Lemans coupe as a test bed. It contained a 389 cube V8 borrowed from Pontiac’s full size Bonneville as well as a four-barrel carburetor and heavy duty four speed manual transmission. The resulting transplant not only made the car quick but was also a blast to drive.
The success of the prototype ended up with the name GTO which was meant to credit the muscle car’s “Frankenstein” construction of parts that didn’t normally coexist. The customizability of customer options, its maniacal nature, and its affordable price point made it a huge unexpected success for Pontiac. It wasn’t until 1966 that the GTO was actually marketed as a separate model all to it’s own, but by then it had already created a madness that attracted the enthusiast crowd and inspired other manufactures to try their hand at the blueprint.
Of course Pontiac came a long way from the original test bed and over the years this classic has aged gracefully. At the end of the day, picking the best year for the classic Pontiac GTO really boils down to personal preference. The Pontiac Motor Division of General Motors built the first generation cars from 1964 through 1967, and each year made major improvements in body style, reliability, safety, and performance however, what you got with the base model was the single four-barrel 325 horsepower version of the 389. The standard transmission featured a Hurst shifter, but only had three forward speeds. Upgrading to a Tri-power 389 Trophy Motor and a four-speed were additional charges.
In fact, you could keep on adding options until the price tag reached over $4,500 – or about $36,711 today. They built a grand total of 32,450 Tempest Lemans GTO cars in 1964. When you come across a 1964 example that the owner claims to be all original, you’ll have to do some research into what the car came with from the factory.
Fortunately enough, organizations like the Pontiac Historical Society can provide complete factory information packages for under $100. This detailed report is a must for serious car collectors. It can also come in handy when reselling the automobile down the road.
In 1964 and 1965 they called the GTO a fast and fancy Tempest Lemans. In 1966, Pontiac gave the nameplate the respect it deserved and spun the vehicle off as its own separate model. This year would be a big year in many ways for the midsize Pontiac muscle car. First of all, Pontiac would sell nearly 100,000 total units in 1966, the best-selling year in the history of the GTO model and despite dropping the tri-power option, you could get a 389 V8 pushing out 360 horsepower. In 1967, Pontiac dropped the 389 motor in favor of the larger displacement 360 horsepower, 400 cubic inch V8.
The legendary Pontiac 400 would remain a staple for the division for more than a decade and soon it would be offered in the Ram Air I through IV high performance versions. There’s also a big difference in the automatic transmissions offered in 1966 and 1967. Two of the best General Motors transmissions of all time, the Turbo Hydra-Matic 350 and the Turbo Hydra-Matic 400, were available starting in 1967. Gone forever were the two-speed slush boxes, better known as the Pontiac version of the Powerglide.
Even the interior went through numerous changes in the 1966 redesign. It was more thoughtful and also more comfortable. General Motors designers finally moved the ignition key to the right side of the steering column, made all interior knobs and handles from a more durable plastic rather than the traditional brittle pot metal, and installed new Strato bucket seats with contoured cushions and adjustable headrests.
Some classic car collectors will assert that there is little difference between the last two years of the first generation GTO but if you take a closer look, you’ll see there is, in fact, quite a long lists of items that distinguish the two cars.
Before we start talking about the interior, exterior, and safety differences, let’s not forget that the 1966 cars came with a 389 and the 1967 models came with a 400 cubic inch V8. That’s a major difference right there.
As are the taillights. In 1966, they used a unique louvered cover over the 12 bars, six on each side, on the rear taillights. For the 1967 model year, they did away with the louver cover and changed the taillight design into eight—four on each side—bar-style taillights.
Another big difference between the two years is the front grille. Although both cars utilized a vertically stacked quad headlamp set up with integrated fog lights, they looked very different. The 1966 model had a square egg-crate-style inset surrounded by a two-inch plastic molding painted in a contrasting silver color. In 1967, the grille changed to a diamond pattern mesh inset with a black border.
It’s also easy to tell the years apart by looking at the chrome rocker trim. On the 1966 model, the trim is about an inch thick and the GTO emblem is located separately in between the door and the wheel opening on the front fender. In 1967, the rocker trim is much wider and the GTO emblem is integrated into the rocker trim located behind the front wheel.
Then there are the safety features, most of which were implemented in 1967 for the first time—the padded dash and collapsible steering column, for instance, which were designed to protect drivers in the event of a front-end collision. The 1967 GTO is also the first to include a dual chamber brake master cylinder as standard equipment. This provides a level of redundancy in case of catastrophic brake failure. Finally, the front drum brakes were replaced with disc assemblies as standard equipment. This improvement reduced stopping distances considerably.
Picking the Best Year for the Pontiac GTO is not an easy task. The grille, chrome trim, and rear taillight louvers on the 1966 model are exceptional looking however, given all the safety features on the 1967 model, as well as the 400 cubic inch V8 engine, the 1967 is likely your best bet if you’re looking to buy one of these classic cars. Plus, while goodies for the older 389 are not readily available, they are easy and inexpensive to obtain for the popular Pontiac 400.