The Pontiac Synonymous with ’60s Performance is Still a Perennial Favourite
For some Baby Boomers, Pontiac’s GTO is the automotive equivalent of Jimi Hendrix’s Star Spangled Banner guitar shred at Woodstock: powerful, iconic and emblematic of an extraordinary era in American history. Pontiac offered a GTO until 1974, then dusted off the badge again for its last hoorah 30 years later on the 2004- ’06 edition. A few versions of the model were significant, at least one was legendary (we’re looking at you, The Judge), but it was the pure-and-simple ’64 that lit the fire. The GTO’s origin story is almost as legendary as the car’s performance reputation. In the late 1950s, Pontiac General Manager Semon E. “Bunkie” Knudsen resuscitated the brand with an infusion of electrifying styling and performance. The division also firmly established itself in motorsports and became America’s third best-selling automaker. All of this attention neatly coincided with many Baby Boomers reaching driving age. When Knudsen left for Chevrolet in the early 1960s, Pontiac was flush with talent, and the young engineers he’d hired to aid in the division’s turnaround were promoted. E.M. “Pete” Estes became Pontiac’s general manager and John DeLorean became its chief engineer.
These young execs recognized the need for a fast, agile, affordable car that could further expand Pontiac’s performance image. The perfect candidate arrived in ’64: the mid-size A-body that replaced the compact Y-body. The new car eschewed the earlier model’s advanced unit-body platform, swing-axle rear suspension and transaxle, in favor of more traditional architecture: a full-frame, a solid axle with four-link rear suspension and a conventional drivetrain layout. As a result, the 389 V-8 engine from the full-size line, and three- or four-speed manual transmissions could easily fit in the A-body. Paired with heavy-duty suspension, the car’s handling qualities could be elevated to equal the big engine’s performance.
As the story goes, during tests of a ’64 Tempest at the Milford Proving Grounds, Pontiac chassis engineer Bill Collins noted that the 389 would fit in the new chassis, engineer and engine specialist Russ Gee proposed the swap and DeLorean agreed. Soon after, a running prototype was completed.
The name “GTO” was chosen for this performance edition; it’s an acronym for “Gran Turismo Omologato.” When used on a Ferrari, it meant it was homologated by the Fédération Internationale D’Automobile for racing. Pontiac’s GTO wasn’t, but the name implied exotic performance, and that was good enough.
At the time, GM had limited its intermediate cars to a 330-cu.in. V-8 ceiling, so to get around that, the GTO was offered as an option instead of a model. Thus, for $295.90, code 382 turned a Le Mans into a GTO with all of the performance bona fides, plus emblems, blacked-out grilles, and hood scoops to make it stand out. Just $2,776 ($27,000 in 2022) bought you the base pillared GTO sports coupe.
Many road testers were enthusiastic about the GTO’s style and acceleration. Others panned it for its name and other short-comings, like its brakes. Nevertheless, the overall impression was positive. A masterful marketing campaign for the GTO by Jim Wangers and his team at Pontiac’s ad agency MacManus, John & Adams, did more than a little to create that same impression among buyers. With 32,450 GTOs sold that first year, the formula for success was established.
What is a First Generation GTO Worth?
First generation GTOs have been a mainstay of the collector car hobby for decades due to their popularity among Boomers. According to multiple value guides, 1964-’67 GTO prices have remained fairly steady over the last five years averaging in the $50,000- $60,000 range, overall. The ’64—which we’re singling out for analysis here—has followed a similar trend. One of the more notable, recent sales of a ’64 GTO occurred back in July 2022, at a GAA Classic Cars auction in Greensboro, North Carolina. The car was a nicely restored black coupe and it changed hands for $88,000. At Mecum’s Chicago auction in October, a good-looking black ’64 convertible sold for $64,000; at the company’s Kissimmee sale in January, a stunning black convertible sold for an impressive $107,250. Meanwhile, on the more affordable end of the market, a very presentable, driver-quality ’64 coupe was sold by its second owner on Hemmings Auctions in September for $24,460.
The GTO’s traditional fanbase is still a driving force in the collector car hobby, but it’s gradually turning the market over to Generation X and Millennials, who may be less interested in cars of the early 1960s. Still, the original GTO isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. It’s probably safe to say that expertly restored examples and cars with professional-grade restomod treatments will continue to command lofty prices, but the overall value trend will remain steady into the foreseeable future. If you’re in the market for one of these pioneering American performance machines, here are some points to keep in mind.
First Generation GTO Engine Options